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This week, you'll see stories useful for someone new to Austin in anticipation of Austonia's "How to Austin" event. To attend, sign up here.
Although the pandemic rages on and many of Austin's most iconic attractions—live-music venues, honky tonks and long lines outside of barbecue joints—remain closed, people continue to flock to the city.
Based on 2018-19 population estimates outlined in an October report by the Austin Chamber, the metro is now growing by 168 net new residents each day, mostly thanks to people who relocate here. And there are already indicators that suggest Austin's growth has continued amid COVID-19.
Being new to town is something of a common experience among Austinites, with natives sometimes referred to as "unicorns" due to their rarity. Still, recent arrivals may find the city foreign in unexpected ways. Here are eight things to know while settling in.
1. Where are people moving from?
More than half of new Austin residents come from other parts of Texas, according to the Chamber report. Californians, who are sometimes blamed for Austin's growing pains, made up 8% of migration to the Austin metro between 2014 and 2018, followed by New Yorkers (3.3%), Floridians (3.1%) and Illinoisans (2.3%).
In more recent news, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Austin a magnet for new corporate jobs last month, thanks to its lower costs (and taxes) compared to San Francisco and New York City. Between April and October 2020, for every one person who left Austin for the Bay Area, almost three people moved in the opposite direction, and for every one person who left Austin for New York City, more than two New Yorkers came to Austin.
LinkedIn also reported that Austin gained the most newcomers of any city in the country in 2020, based on an analysis of its 174 million U.S. users.
2. Is it really a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup?
(Charlie L. Harper III)
(Charlie L. Harper III)
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once likened Austin to a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup because of its liberal politics in a red state.
Texas hasn't voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1976. In that time, Travis County—which includes most of the city of Austin—went blue in all but one race, in 2000, when then Texas Gov. George Bush was first elected.
Today, Austin is governed by an 11-person council, with 10 members who are self-described Democrats, and the county is governed by an all-Democrat Commissioners Court. Its elected officials have voted to support paid sick leave, police budget cuts, affordable housing investments and immigrant protections, often facing pushback from state officials and lawmakers.
But Austin is no longer the only blueberry in this unappetizing metaphor. Bexar, Dallas and Harris counties—home to Texas' three largest cities—also vote reliably Democratic, as do as an increasing number of suburban counties.
3. Where does Austin stand in terms of affordability?
Austin housing costs have risen dramatically since the late 1990s as an increasing number of affluent residents moved into urban core neighborhoods, displacing low-income residents, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
This trend has been most pronounced in the city's Eastern Crescent, where historically low housing costs drew in affluent residents. One reason these neighborhoods were relatively affordable is because of segregation codified by the city's 1928 master plan, which limited public services for Black residents to a "negro district" east of I-35.
Austin City Council has made significant investments in recent years in an attempt to address the affordability crisis, including approving a $250 million affordable housing bond, which voters approved in 2018, and earmarking $300 million in anti-displacement funding as part of Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit plan now in the works.
But housing—and especially affordable housing—remains limited in Austin. Council has spent nearly a decade on a land use code rewrite, which urbanists say could help address the dearth of so-called missing-middle type housing.
4. What is CodeNEXT and why do I keep seeing signs about it?
CodeNEXT refers to an attempt by the city of Austin to rewrite its land use code, which determines how land can be used throughout the city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built. The code was last rewritten in the mid-1980s.
The CodeNEXT process began in 2012 and aimed to streamline local zoning rules and allow for denser and more affordable housing in accordance with population growth. But in 2018 Austin Mayor Steve Adler scrapped the effort, which he wrote had become "divisive and poisoned," and asked the city manager to create a new process.
The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019 but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.
But signs declaring "CodeNEXT wrecks Austin" and "CodeNEXT is BACK" remain posted in many yards around town. Multiple community groups organized in opposition to the rewrite, which members claim is exclusive, panders to developers and will destroy neighborhoods. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that single-family zoning stands in the way of a more equitable, sustainable Austin, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
5. What are some of the other major policy issues I should know about?
In addition to housing, which ties in the related issues of affordability, gentrification and zoning, the city of Austin is also focused on:
- The pandemic, including an equitable vaccine rollout and preventing evictions
- Police reform, including revamping its training academy amid reports of racism and hazing
- Public transit and traffic congestion
6. How bad is the traffic situation here?
Austin is the 18th most congested city in the country, according to the latest traffic scorecard from analytics company INRIX in 2019, with the average driver spending 69 hours in congestion a year at a cost of $1,021.
Rapid population growth has led to longer commutes and more traffic. But local and state officials say that Project Connect and a forthcoming expansion of I-35 will help address the gridlock.
Austinites overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase last November that will help pay for Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion plan to overhaul public transit and bring light rail to town.
The Texas Department of Transportation similarly touts its $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to widen the highway up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard, as a salve for congestion. Critics, however, dispute this claim, arguing that similar expansion projects in other cities have led to induced demand.
7. There were some major Black Lives Matter protests in Austin last summer. Did anything change?
After mass protests against police violence and racial injustice last spring and summer, Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the Austin Police Department budget by around 5%, becoming the first city to do so amid activists' calls to "defund the police." The main impact of this decision was the cancellation of three planned cadet classes at the department's training academy, which has raised concerns in recent years due to its "paramilitary" culture.
Council members also approved moving 32.5% of the department's budget into transitional funds that will allow several of APD's traditional duties to continue while officials work out which to move from under police oversight.
Criminal justice reform activists also called for the resignation of APD Chief Brian Manley, who remains in his position.
8. Why do I keep hearing about homelessness?
As the city becomes increasingly unaffordable, homelessness grows more acute. It has also proven to be a political lightning rod, dividing city residents and incurring criticism from state Republican lawmakers.
The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population between 2019 and 2020, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.
But many disputed this explanation, blaming it on the City Council's controversial 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping.
9. Is it just me or are there a lot of elections here?
It can sometimes feel like there is an election every other month in Texas. Last year, there were five: a March primary to determine who would run in the November general election, May local elections, a July primary runoff for those March races, the November general election and a December runoff.
One reason for this is the runoff elections, which tend to have lower turnout. Texas, like some other former Confederate states, still holds primary and general runoff elections for those races in which no one candidate earns at least 50% of the vote.
The next election is on May 1. City officials are in the process of reviewing two citizen-led petitions. If validated, they will be placed on the upcoming ballot, where Austin voters will determine their fate. One, submitted by the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform, aims to increase voter turnout through a series of charter amendments. The other seeks to reinstate the camping ban.
More information on how to register to vote as a Travis County resident can be found here.
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Early voting begins Thursday and runs through Friday, Dec. 11 for the Dec. 15 runoff election.
Here's everything you need to know before you vote, including which races are on the ballot and where to cast yours.
In Texas, candidates must win at least 50% of the vote to be elected. In races where the top candidate only receives a plurality of votes, a runoff is held.
During the Nov. 3 election, four local races prompted runoffs: those for Austin City Council's Districts 6 and 10 and Austin ISD's District 5 and At-large Place 8.
Early voters can cast their ballots from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. A list of early polling places can be found here.
The two most closely followed local races are on Austin City Council, where two incumbents face conservative challengers. City council seats are nonpartisan, although all current members are affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Flannigan won more than 40% of the votes during the Nov. 3 election, compared to Kelly's 33%.
Flannigan's platform includes plans to address the pandemic, Austin's affordability crisis, traffic congestion and public safety reform. As a council member, he voted in favor of cutting the Austin Police Department's budget and other police reforms; overturning the city's camping ban; and Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit system overhaul.
Kelly is a client care manager who ran against Flannigan in 2014 and opposes recent cuts to the police department budget and council's decision to overturn the city's camping ban. Her endorsements include Travis County GOP Chairperson Matt Mackowiak and former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair.
Last month, Flannigan was accosted by members of the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders motorcycle group, of which at least one member had a "white power" symbol on their bike, according to his campaign.
This is the harassment my opponents think is ok... this is the attacks and intimidation my opponents think is ok.… https://t.co/MIpB7FdQck— Jimmy Flannigan (@Jimmy Flannigan)1605994585.0
Flannigan decried the harassment and his opponent's refusal to disavow the group. "This style of political intimidation will continue if it wins elections," he told Austonia, linking the incident to another one that occurred in early November, when Kelly was photographed with members of the Wind Therapy Freedom Riders, supporters of President Donald Trump, APD officers and protesters who displayed white supremacist hand signals.
The city of Austin and League of Women Voters Austin Area co-hosted a candidate forum on Nov. 30, which can be viewed here.
Alter faced six challengers during the Nov. 3 election and received the most votes, with 34% cast in her favor. She describes herself as a progressive Democrat and has spent her time on council advocating for preservationist land use policies and parks. She voted to cut APD's budget but opposed its decision to overturn the camping ban.
Virden, a real estate broker and general contractor, earned 25% of the vote last month. She opposes Project Connect, council's decision to overturn the camping ban and any effort to defund the police.
Alter's husband, University of Texas at Austin professor Jeremy Suri, appeared to call Virden unqualified and racist in a tweet on Tuesday, prompting the candidate to respond that he was "classless."
I guess, when backed into a corner, Alison Alter will have her husband claim I'm a racist instead of talking about… https://t.co/8Adc2zsrjj— Jennifer Virden for Austin City Council D10 (@Jennifer Virden for Austin City Council D10)1606872542.0
The Nov. 30 candidate forum can be viewed here.
Election Day is Tuesday, Dec. 15. A list of polling places can be found here; they will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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President Donald Trump and his supporters have recently adopted a stance on an issue critical to many Austinies: local land-use regulations, or zoning laws.
Zoning determines how land can be used throughout a city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built.
On Aug. 12, Trump tweeted: "The 'suburban housewife' will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood."
Less than two weeks later, Mark and Patricia McCloskey—a St. Louis couple facing charges for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion—gave a prerecorded speech that directly referenced zoning policy at the Republican National Convention.
"(Democrats) want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family zoning," Patricia said, claiming that doing so "would bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into thriving suburban neighborhoods."
Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, said this type of rhetoric is new—at least on the national level.
"It is absolutely a new thing for zoning to be mentioned in the context of a presidential campaign," he told Austonia. "But I guess my caution is that the politics of land use reform don't map neatly onto a left-versus-right political spectrum, in my view."
A local look
This plays out in Austin, where all 11 members of City Council are self-identified Democrats and yet typically vote 7-4 on land use items, with the majority supporting urbanist policies and the minority favoring preservationist ones.
Such a split has proven challenging as the city continues its nearly decade-long process to rewrite its land use code, which was last updated in the mid-1980s. Although it is currently on hold due to a lawsuit, the code rewrite—which has cost more than $10 million to date—is a critical issue, and one on which many of the 20 candidates for Austin City Council have an opinion.
Opponents say a rewrite would pander to developers, destroy neighborhood character and accelerate gentrification.
Fred Lewis is the president of Community Not Commodity, a local organization that sued the city over the current rewrite process and was a vocal critic of its previous effort, dubbed CodeNEXT.
"The marketplace is not going to build modest, middle-class housing," he told Austonia last month, adding that he feels the rewrite is instead about satiating "developer greed."
Supporters, on the other hand, argue that the city's current code stands in the way of more equitable, sustainable development, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
David and Courtney Whitworth co-own the Central Austin infill home building company Whitworth Homes. David believes the current code prevents the construction of denser, more affordable residences.
"What bothers me is we have a code that only allows Mercedes," he said. "If only our code would allow Kias, we wouldn't have to be subsidizing people into Mercedes."
Despite finding themselves on opposite sides of the land use debate, many candidates—and Austin residents—find themselves in the same political party.
This may be because zoning is a local issue that, until recently, was rarely discussed by national politicians.
Researchers at Stanford University wrote about the challenge of ascertaining the politics of zoning reform in a 2018 paper.
"Such policies tend to benefit the poor and working class—generally aligning with Democrats' concerns—but they also involve an embrace and a trust of private commercial interests (including real estate developers) who tend to be associated with the Republican party," they wrote.
Wegmann went further, mapping out a matrix in which the x-axis was the American political spectrum and the y-axis went from zoning reform at the top to the status quo at the bottom.
In the upper left quadrant, Democrats who support zoning reform may cite a desire to desegregate cities, while Democrats who oppose it would argue that increased density benefits private developers, Wegmann said.
In the upper right quadrant, Republicans who favor zoning reform may appeal to property rights, while opponents feel "single-family houses preserve a nurturing atmosphere for traditional, nuclear families," he added.
This dynamic presents the opportunity for an odd bedfellows coalition, Wegmann said, similar to the bipartisan support for criminal justice reform in recent years.
But it has also divided those who purport to share the same values.
A case study
District 10 City Council Member Alison Alter describes herself as a progressive Democrat and tends to vote with the preservationist minority on land use issues.
"What people want is to have a say in how the growth happens," she said of some Austinites' opposition to a new code. "They don't want us to just unleash it and rubber stamp it. They want us to guide it."
For Alter, such guidance means ensuring that new development prioritizes affordability and environmental friendliness and honors neighborhood character and property owners' rights.
"I think we need to require more than density," she said.
Alter presented a hypothetical scenario to make her point: Say council is presented with a zoning case that proposes redeveloping a 171-unit apartment building made up of mostly two-, three- and four-bedrooms with a 486-unit building with mostly studios and one-bedrooms. The replacement would increase housing stock, but it could also decrease the number of people living there and displace the working families who had found a home in the existing building.
Because of cases like this, Alter is skeptical that density is the panacea that some zoning reform proponents say it is.
"I don't think we should just be trusting when the developers say that when they're going to do things it will all work out well," she said.
Alter's colleague, District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, recently argued in favor of increased density for different reasons.
During an Oct. 13 meeting, council members discussed a rezoning application that would have upzoned a lot in the Montopolis neighborhood from a single-family designation to one that would have allowed townhomes and condos.
The rezoning application concerned the lot at 508 Kemp St. in the Montopolis neighborhood. (Google Maps)
Harper-Madison supported the change—and used the discussion to talk about zoning more broadly.
"It's a little known fact that the legacy of single-family zoning is absolutely rooted in racism," she said, pointing to racial covenants used by neighborhood developments in California during the early 20th century.
Although she acknowledged the concerns some Austinites have about increased density—especially those who feel their neighborhoods are "bearing the brunt of the load," while others are left largely unaffected—she argued that leaving the Montopolis lot as is would enable the construction of an even more expensive single-family home and eliminate the 17 affordable units proposed in its place.
"I often get asked, 'How can I be an effective anti-racist?'" Harper-Madison said. "One answer should be to ditch that not-in-my-backyard mentality (and) embrace more dense, missing-middle housing types to accommodate more residents with less land (and) more affordable housing right in your neighborhood."
Wegmann, the UT professor, said the recent Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated an existing reevaluation of zoning norms. But he anticipates it's still a long way off before America's "dominant (housing) practice" changes.
"It might take decades," he said. "But I guess what's different is that it's beginning to be seriously challenged in a few places. And I see some evidence that it could spread further."
This article has been updated to clarify Alter's hypothetical.
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Austin land use code rewrite stalls amid pandemic, lawsuit—but both sides say a solution is possible
Before the pandemic, it looked like the city of Austin was finally on track to approve a new land use code—after nearly a decade-long process that had cost more than $10 million and was mired in controversy.
The code would determine how land can be used throughout the city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built. The code was last rewritten in the mid-1980s.
"Modernizing it is important," said Annick Beaudet, assistant director of the city's Transportation Department and co-leader of the rewrite process. "If you drive around in a 1970s car, you're really polluting, right? … We know more now than we did in the '80s, and we should be using that knowledge to regulate the built environment."
The city first initiated a rewrite process—later dubbed CodeNEXT—in 2012, with the aim of streamlining the code and allowing for denser and more affordable housing given the city's population growth. Other fast-growing cities, such as Charlotte and Minneapolis, are attempting to do the same.
But in August 2018 Mayor Steve Adler scrapped the effort, which he wrote had become "divisive and poisoned," and asked the city manager to create a new process.
The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019, and in February of this year City Council voted 7-4, along urbanist vs. preservationist lines, to approve an updated draft, with aims to reach a consensus on a third and final version later in the spring.
The pandemic arrived in March, however, and that same month a Travis County judge ruled against the city in a lawsuit over its efforts to rewrite the code, further stalling the process. This November, 20 candidates will vie for five council seats, with many making their support for or opposition to the code rewrite a central plank of their campaign platform.
Despite the abandonment of CodeNEXT, divisiveness still surrounds the issue of rezoning. Multiple community groups organized in opposition to the rewrite, which their members claim is exclusive, panders to developers and will destroy neighborhoods. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that single-family zoning stands in the way of a more equitable, sustainable Austin, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
Still, those on both sides of the debate believe a compromise—in the form of a code that balances increased density with preserving single-family neighborhoods—is attainable.
Fred Lewis is president of Community Not Commodity, the group that brought the lawsuit against the city. "I think [a new code is] absolutely possible," he said.
Austin City Council voted 7-4 to approve a draft of the land use code rewrite on second reading on Feb. 13. (City of Austin)
Critics of CodeNEXT include CNC and other community organizations, such as the recently formed Voices of Austin, as well as residents with "CodeNEXT wrecks Austin" signs in their front yards. They say the process has been bungled.
"From day one, Austin has followed the wrong course in how they have done this, and it's really unfortunate," said Jim Duncan, vice chair of the city's zoning commission and a member of CNC's board of directors.
Their grievances are myriad.
The current draft is longer than the original code, even though a stated aim was to streamline zoning requirements. Duncan called it "the least user-friendly document I've ever seen in my life."
The process of arriving at this longer version has also been "subservient to special interests," Duncan argued, and would benefit developers, who he said stand to make more money on multi-family projects than on single-family homes.
Opponents also dispute council members and planners' claim that increased housing stock in denser formations will help relieve Austin's affordability crisis. This is akin to "trickle-down housing theory," Lewis said.
Peck Young, executive director of Voices of Austin and a long-time Democrat consultant, put it in starker terms: "Nobody in the real estate industry wants to build a goddamn affordable house," he said. "You can't make any money."
VoA was formed, in part, because its founders felt City Hall had left homeowners and neighborhood associations out of the rewrite process. "It says the average Austinite pays the bills but they don't have a right to an opinion," Young said.
This perceived dismissiveness toward homeowners is grating for the rewrite's opponents.
"Don't they understand that people's homes and neighborhoods matter to them?" Lewis asked. "They act like, 'So what?'"
#Austin City Law Department & #ATXcouncil (7 of the 11) like to spend 💲💲💲and time in courtrooms instead of doing Th… https://t.co/pdNwZMXZFL— CodeNO (@CodeNO)1599530653.0
Protecting these interests is at the core of CNC's lawsuit against the city, which accuses the city of denying homeowners' the right to receive notice of and appeal changes to the zoning of their property.
"Nobody should be told they have to live next to triplexes or tenements," Young said.
Proponents of the rewrite include the local urbanist organization AURA; industry groups such as the Austin Board of Realtors, Austin Chamber, Real Estate Council of Austin; and, arguably, a majority of local voters who, in the 2018 midterm elections, re-elected Austin Mayor Steve Adler over a preservationist opponent and narrowly defeated an anti-CodeNEXT proposition.
They argue that a new code is necessary to increase the city's limited housing stock, adapt to a rapidly growing population and prevent the continued development of extra-large single-family homes where multi-family properties could be built to serve more residents.
Jeni Williams, ABoR's deputy director of government affairs, said the current code has exacerbated the city's housing inventory crisis. "It has made development of new housing extremely difficult," she said.
Williams and ABoR advocate for a code that balances increased density with the preservation of Austin's single-family neighborhoods. The most recent draft, she said, "definitely made a lot of progress" toward this goal.
But not every supporter feels this way.
Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, said single-family zoning that excludes other forms of housing is outdated and "abhorrent."
"You'll hear the same thing over and over again," he told Austonia. "'When I bought my house, I was buying into a neighborhood, and I basically have the right to expect my neighborhood wouldn't change.'"
But Austin has changed. Since 1984, the city's population has more than doubled. In August, the median home price was $423,000, up more than 11% year-over-year despite the pandemic.
A “be afraid, CodeNEXT is Back” sign in Travis Heights. Any irony it stands in front of a $2,438,248* single famil… https://t.co/osYNNrSYQp— Greg Anderson (@Greg Anderson)1596302725.0
On top of that, Wegmann disputes opponents' claims that a rewrite would adversely affect the neighborhood character that some homeowners seek to protect or disproportionately benefit developers.
"How is it preserving neighborhood character to replace a small, old, rundown house with [a] very large, very expensive, brand-new house that no one earning under $200,000 can ever dream of affording?" he asked.
Opponents often identify as David against "the big bad developer" Goliath, Wegmann said, but in his eyes the reverse is true.
"I'm not going to say that developers don't have lots of influence at City Hall," he said. "But by and large in terms of defending single-family zoning specifically, the homeowners have been very successful in doing that."
Fayez Kazi recently resigned as vice-chair of the city's planning commission. In his announcement, he lamented the limitations of the current code and the "constant bad-faith attacks from the likes of Fred Lewis" directed at those in favor of a rewrite. "If we continue to poison the well of civic discourse in Austin, we'll pay a big price for it long-term," he said.
The city's planners have worked to balance the preservationist and urbanist viewpoints, Beaudet said. Before the lawsuit halted work on a third draft, her team was updating their proposal to implement transition zones—areas along corridors and in the urban core earmarked for increased density—based on concerns that they would encroach into residential neighborhoods.
"We did listen to the community," she said. "We did propose changes. But we never got that opportunity between second and third reading to discuss those and see how the mayor and council felt about them."
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