by Daryl Slusher

In our continuing coverage of Austin’s Land Development Code (LDC) saga, this episode recounts the adventures of City Demographer Ryan Robinson. For our opening episode see Austin LDC – Our Own Tragidrama Reality Show.)

City Demographer Robinson recently made a splash in the press when the Land Development Code (LDC) opposition group Community Not Commodity (CNC) discovered comments he made about the LDC in his fourth quarter Austin MultiFamily Report (see bottom of web page “4Q19 Report).” Most newsworthy, Robinson described as a “false narrative,” claims that “housing production within the City is somehow severely constrained by the City’s land development code.” These comments are newsworthy because they aim straight at a core belief of the pro-LDC City Council majority – that the current Land Development Code stymies housing development, in particular multifamily housing development. The Council majority consists of Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, and Council Members Greg Casar, Jimmy Flanagan, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Natasha Harper Madison, and Paige Ellis.

Robinson’s comments were initially covered in the Austin Chronicle. After CNC and the Chronicle discovered those comments — but before the Chronicle story appeared — Robinson’s superior Jerry Rusthoven ordered Robinson’s LDC comments removed from the Multifamily Report. The Austin American-Statesman shortly thereafter reported on the removal and the comments as well. Similar to what he told the Chronicle and Statesman, Rusthoven told the Independent, that the report was about “trends and permit numbers,” and not about Robinson’s opinion.

The comments were newsworthy both because of their substance and because Robinson is a highly respected demographer and City employee who has logged nearly 30 years with the City. The mere fact that he spoke out is newsworthy because City employees do not normally insert opinions aimed squarely at Council policies into dry sounding reports, or really anywhere. City staff do regularly provide professional opinions to Council, but this is usually done in an organized fashion in either public or private meetings — and in more of a chain of command manner. 

Thus, from a City management standpoint, it’s not necessarily bad or scandalous if Robinson’s boss took the attitude: you’re not supposed to insert opinions like that in your data reports and so we’re going to take it out. In this case, however, the proverbial horse was out of the barn.

Combined with the fact that Robinson has been ordered not to talk to the media about the subject, although once again not particularly unusual from a City management standpoint, the whole episode takes on something of a whistleblower quality. Adding to that perception is the clear fact that Robinson’s actions reflect a tenured, seasoned, City employee who evidently believes a far reaching City policy is so wrong-headed that he feels compelled to speak out. 

That perception is magnified considering that in April 2017 Robinson told the Council in open session: “I wish that this was an environment where we could share our professional opinions with a little bit more ease than what it seems like we are able to do now.”

That 2017 comment came during Council discussion of the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint (ASHB) – a foundation of the LDC rewrite, at least the critical rezoning portion of it. More on the context of those remarks shortly, but first let’s examine Robinson’s more recent remarks. 

An Orthogonal Collision

In his Austin MultiFamily Report Robinson wrote, in a section titled “Analysis:”

“Austin’s multifamily market just keeps building momentum as yet another extremely large raft of incoming product was submitted for site plan review with the City of Austin during the fourth quarter of 2019, roughly 5,700 new units proposed within 28 different projects.

But the true pig in the python this quarter is the number of units to initiate construction, 14 individual developments containing over 3,800 new units – with another 3,400 units clearing the site plan hurdle and now eligible to begin construction.”

Then Robinson sharpened his analysis: “The amount of multifamily housing under construction right now within the City of Austin is simply phenomenal – a phenomenon running orthogonal to the false narrative that housing production within the City is somehow severely constrained by the City’s land development code. And even if the code were to be dramatically opened up with vast increases in entitlements, I’m just not sure we would see levels of production much above what we’re currently seeing – the pipeline of production must be nearing a maximum threshold of sorts.” It was the last two sentences that Robinson’s superior removed from the City website. 

First, let’s just say that if Robinson got in trouble for anything he wrote above, it should have been for using the word “orthogonal.” We’ll define it in a minute. Robinson though makes several key points. First, he points out how rapidly apartments are being approved and constructed within Austin, adding that the apartment construction and approval rate within the City limits is “simply phenomenal.” Next he boldly states that this is “a phenomenon running orthogonal to the false narrative that housing production within the City is somehow severely constrained by the City’s land development code.”

Orthogonal by the way means either “of or involving right angles; at right angles” or “statistically independent.” Since Robinson is a demographer we’re going to go with the latter definition, “statistically independent.” 

So, Robinson is saying that the Council majority’s repeated claims that the current LDC hampers the construction of housing, particularly apartments, is “statistically independent” of the reality of an apartment market experiencing “phenomenal” growth. To be fair, urbanists and the Council majority are very focused on “missing middle” which is housing other than traditional large apartment complexes or single family housing. Missing middle, however, can also be done through existing zoning categories. It could also be accomplished through neighborhood by neighborhood analysis, and working with people in the neighborhoods, rather than the wholesale upzoning of the entire City proposed in the LDC rewrite. We will return to this topic in a future episode, but for now back to Austin’s City Demographer.

In making his point Robinson, whether intentionally or not, also hammers on a fundamental claim of Austin urbanists — that Austin in effect has an “apartment ban.” By that they are complaining that some areas are zoned single family. As discussed previously, the Council majority — hewing to the urbanist philosophy — proposes in the LDC that huge swaths of existing, largely thriving, single family neighborhoods be upzoned to apartment or multifamily zoning.

After labeling the contention that the current LDC stymies apartment construction a “false narrative,” Robinson adds, “even if the code were to be dramatically opened up with vast increases in entitlements, I’m just not sure we would see levels of production much above what we’re currently seeing – the pipeline of production must be nearing a maximum threshold of sorts.”

So here Robinson states his belief that even with all the new entitlements for developers packed into the LDC rewrite, he does not believe apartment construction would increase very much — once again hammering straight at a core tenet of the urbanist and Council majority philosophy. 

Graph from Robinson’s 2019 Fourth Quarter Report

When Mr. Robinson Went To Council

As briefly noted earlier, this was not the first time Robinson has expressed skepticism about the Council majority’s LDC approach. In April 2017 Council Member Alison Alter asked him to weigh in during Council deliberation on the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint (ASHB) — a cornerstone of the LDC rewrite. Among other things, the ASHB provides the basic housing unit goal used as a foundation of the LDC rewrite. 

Responding to Alter’s inquiry, Robinson produced a memo in which he challenged the methodology used to determine the ASHB unit goal for the next ten years — a critically important planning number. The soon to emerge LDC rewrite was then called CodeNext. 

In the then draft ASHB, Council was using a number of 135,000 housing units over ten years. Robinson maintained that number was too high as well as unrealistic. He specifically questioned the methodology of using a regional growth rate projection, rather than the somewhat less rapid growth rate forecast for the City of Austin itself. The Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) population was projected to increase by 34% over the next ten years, but within Austin city limits by only 20%.

In population terms, as opposed to housing units, Robinson wrote that using the regional growth projection, as the Council did, resulted in an estimated population increase of 300,000 over 10 years — within the City. Using the lower projection, that Robinson favored as the realistic number for the City limits, came in at a population increase of 180,000. That’s a difference of 120,000 people.

Robinson then explained his view of market forces, “The vibrant housing market that exists within Austin operates at the metropolitan-level and not at the municipal-level,” meaning within the City. Yet, he continued bluntly, the Council’s housing plan “seems to treat housing issues and challenges within the City of Austin as existing outside the regional context and scope that truly represent the dynamics of an extremely active housing market.”

The Council, led by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar, however, is determined to buck those trends. Their differing, and aspirational, philosophy was laid out in the ASHB itself: “Since more than 50% of the people who work in Austin live outside the city limits and many of them would like to live in Austin but cannot afford to do so it is estimated that there is a need for the construction of a minimum of 135,000 additional housing units in the City of Austin over the next decade.” In other words the 135,000 housing unit number is based on Council being able to reverse predicted market trends and absorb 120,000 more people into the City limits over the next ten years than Demographer Robinson predicts will happen.

Of that possibility, Robinson wrote, “given the strength of current regional demographic dynamics, it seems unrealistic to assume that the City of Austin could somehow reverse these macro trends and gain an increased share of future regional growth that will more than likely occur within the metropolitan area’s suburban realm. This is basically a level of population growth that would be demographically improbable to achieve.”

Robinson also wrote that such an approach “could lead to unintended consequences.” 

Robinson then appeared at April 13, 2017 Council meeting where the ASHB was considered. It was during discussion there that Robinson said he wished he felt more comfortable sharing his “professional opinion.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler discusses Strategic Housing Plan with Ryan Robinson at April 13, 2017 Council meeting

Mayor Adler said he respected Robinson’s professional opinion, just disagreed with it to an extent. Adler then framed Robinson’s approach as being unwilling to confront a challenge. “I guess for me I am not ready to admit defeat to gentrification. I am not ready to admit that Austin has a future which is inescapably one where we lose the middle class. . . I would much prefer to follow a course of action based on the premise that maybe we can do this, and then to devote everything we have, our attention and our energies, to preserving this community that way, than I would just to roll over and say it’s too big and we can’t.”

Stirring words, but if the Mayor wants to “preserve the middle class” in Austin, he might consider not intentionally destablizing thriving single family neighborhoods with upzonings. Oops, I went off on some analysis of my own there.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza followed Adler, saying she “wholeheartedly” agreed with his statement, and added, “I want to point everyone to Vision Zero that we adopted,” the City aspirational effort to reach zero traffic deaths. “This plan is very similar to that. It’s a big goal, but it’s important.” For the record, the results on Vision Zero are sadly moving in an unintended direction. Also, adoption of Vision Zero did not lead to the upzoning of thousands of homes. 

Council Member Kathie Tovo asked Robinson what he meant by “unintended consequences.” 

“My fear is we would accelerate the removal of our organic, older, affordable stock,” Robinson replied, adding, “I could be wrong about that.” (Perhaps incidentally this somewhat echoes a Leonard Cohen line from his song Tower of Song: “There’s a mighty judgment coming. But, I may be wrong.”)

The Council ultimately passed the ASHB with the 135,000 unit goal, but added a statement suggested by Council Member Casar that the 135,000 was “a minimum” and that “this may not be sufficient to address our overall share of housing.” 

It should be noted that the fact that the City Council did not go with the Demographer’s recommendation in this instance is not in and of itself automatically a bad thing or scandalous. Sometimes Councils disagree with staff recommendations or advice and decide to take a different course. In addition, Council worked with the Neighborhood Housing Department in developing the plan. In such situations it ultimately falls to citizens to assess whether Council is making an appropriate choice in rejecting such professional advice and pursuing another course. In making that assessment in this case, citizens should know that the higher number chosen by Council drives the citywide upzonings in the LDC rewrite — including transition zones in which four to six housing units, up to ten with affordable housing bonuses, could be built on existing single family lots. 

So can we tell who’s right on the numbers so far? It’s too early to tell, but in the years since the 2017 Council vote, the regional population growth rate has continued to outpace the rate inside the City of Austin, and by a ratio similar to what Robinson predicted.

Another way of looking at it is to instead examine the increases in the raw numbers inside the City limits since the Council vote. Here it makes a difference whether one includes the time period while Council was considering and approved the ASHB, or just the increases in the years since. That’s because the period from 2016 to 2017 saw a 2.5% increase in the City’s population as opposed to 1.9% from 2017 to 2018 and 1.85% from 2018 through 2019. (The numbers are available here.)

If one extrapolates for ten years applying the 1.9% then 1.85% in consecutive years, then the ten-year figure for population growth is 193,813. That is much, much closer to the 180,000 figure predicted by Robinson than the Council’s 300,000 aspirational goal. 

If one, however, uses the 2.5% growth rate from 2016 to 2017 in a reoccurring three-year cycle with the 1.9% and 1.85% then the ten-year figure rises to 238,434. That’s almost halfway between Robinson’s prediction and the Council’s goal, but still far short of the Council goal. The Council majority, however, would likely maintain they have not yet been able to apply the LDC. For his part, Robinson predicts lower percentage increases in the years ahead than in any of the three previous years.

So, bottom line, it’s too early to tell.

Tripling Down: How the Strategic Housing Plan Fed into the LDC rewrite

After passing the Austin Strategic Housing Plan, the Council dove into the LDC process, called CodeNext . That effort ran aground in August 2018 when the Mayor and Council supporters pulled it from consideration, citing, among other reasons, a wave of disinformation.

Then in the spring of last year they began consideration of the LDC again, this time dropping the name CodeNext. In their May 2, 2019 instructions to the City Manager the Council majority used as their base housing unit number the ASHB goal of 135,000 unit.

Then they literally tripled down on it and established a goal of 405,000 units. Once again this is the number guiding the dramatic upzoning of much of central Austin.

More on that will have to wait until our next episode, LDC Austin – The Numbers

In closing, since Robinson felt the need to speak out, let’s hear just a little bit more of what he has to say. Robinson ended his April 2017 memo with some recommendations on “development code and transportation system strategies” that he thinks “might work.”

  • “a flexible and nimble Land Development Code (LDC) that supports and enables the creation of a wide diversity of housing types and unit densities,
  • a LDC that promotes the preservation of core, anchor single family neighborhoods but gives home owners the chance to create infill stock like Accessary Dwelling Units thereby generating new revenue streams and interstitial housing stock.
  • a LDC that puts the importance of the preservation of organic, market-rate affordable housing over the creation of new housing stock,
  • development review fees and plan review time and review complexity all add costs that are within the realm of what the City can actually influence,
  • and finally, a truly high-capacity regional transit system that can move significant numbers of workers efficiently across metropolitan space.”

Paragraph 4 in the section titled “When Mr. Robinson Went To Council” updated on March 17, 2020 at 11:14 PM to clarify when the story referred to population numbers rather than housing units.

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