“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Rich Boy, 1926

I was reluctant to quote that F. Scott Fitzgerald line because I don’t like statements that attribute the same qualities to any group of individuals, or that lump any group of people together as having the same qualities. Plus, I know that there are very rich people who aren’t like what Fitzgerald went on to describe. Fitzgerald probably knew that too, but generalized a bit because he was writing a novel. Nonetheless, I couldn’t stop thinking about this famous line as I researched and wrote about a fairly new group of people who have become influential in Austin politics, governance and culture. 

I am talking about California transplant high-tech billionaires (CTHTB). So let’s instead say, California transplant high-tech billionaires are not like you and me. 

There has been an influx of them in recent years and they are having varying degrees of cultural, political and economic influence on Austin. Our story today though is about a very specific area. That is the involvement of CTHTBs in local housing issues and specifically Council Member Leslie Pool’s HOME (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) initiative.

I cannot tell this story without sometimes spilling beyond the confines of the HOME struggle and into other aspects of the activities of these newcomers. When that has to happen, I will wind as quickly as possible back to the core subject.

For anyone not familiar with Pool’s proposal, here are some links to previous stories. The short version is that Pool proposes to change the definition of single family zoning categories to allow three units per current single family lot citywide; and six or more per current lot in the second phase of her proposal. The second proposal would allow subdivision of individual lots. A final hearing and Council vote on the measure is scheduled for December 7.

In a bit of what we could perhaps call irony, the primary vehicle for the involvement of California transplant high-tech billionaires in Austin development politics is a group called Texans for Reasonable Solutions (TfRS). The group came to prominence during the 2023 Texas legislative session for pushing new urbanist, or YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard), and developer policies. TfRS particularly focuses on reducing lot size. Reducing lot size is also the core component of Pool’s second phase, but it is really a core part of Phase 1 as well. That’s because allowing more units on a lot de facto reduces lot size.

The chair of Texans for Reasonable Solutions is Nicole Nabulsi Nosek, formerly of the Bay Area. Nosek (City screenshot at top speaking at October 26 Council-Planning Commission meeting) told the Austin Independent, through email, that she and her family have lived in Austin since the beginning of 2019 and spent considerable time exploring Austin in 2018. Despite her relatively short time here, Nosek was more than ready for the 2023 session of the Texas Legislature.

Nosek and TfRS backed a rather radical bill from State Senator Paul Bettencourt of Western Harris County that would have prohibited cities with populations over 300,000 from limiting lot sizes to “wider than 20 feet” or “deeper than 60 feet,” about a fourth of Austin’s current standard lot size — although some zoning categories allow smaller lots, but not as small as in Bettencourt’s bill.

Nicole Nosek is married to Luke Nosek. Luke Nosek was a co-founder of PayPal and his net worth is estimated to be $1.5 billion, according to Networthist. Luke Nosek served on the TfRS board, along with his wife during the Texas legislative session, but was dropped from the group’s online list of board members at some point after that.

Nicole Nosek built significant support for her cause at the Legislature — and definitely caused a stir. One podcast host described her advocacy efforts at the Capitol as akin to a “heat seeking missile.” Nonetheless, her efforts ultimately fell short. Undeterred she pivoted almost seamlessly to Austin City Hall, showing up at the July 20 meeting to support Pool’s HOME ordinance; which, as already noted, bore a lot of resemblance to Nosek’s core theme of smaller lot sizes.

Nosek may have anticipated eventually moving her efforts to Austin City Hall even before the 2023 legislative session. At least that’s one conclusion that could be drawn from the $25,000 contribution she made on August 4, 2022 to Stand Together Austin, a Political Action Committee (PAC) backing then Austin mayoral candidate Kirk Watson. According to Texas Ethics Commission records, Nosek’s contribution to the Watson supporting PAC was by far the largest political contribution she made in Texas during 2022. The second biggest was to the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC for $10,000. The Texas Ethics Commission lists around 35 other contributions from Nicole Nosek, mainly to Texas legislators and to Texas officials. All but one of those were contributions between $1,000 and $1,500, with the single exception being for $2,260.

When it comes to the Pool initiative, the Noseks appear to be the primary CTHTBs directly involved, although they have numerous connections with other high-tech billionaires, local and not local. For instance Luke Nosek has been connected to another prominent California transplant high-tech billionaire since his PayPal days. That is Elon Musk. Musk maintains that he lives in Texas, and spends a lot of time in Austin, although he is cagey on exactly where in Texas he lives. According to media reports Musk sometimes crashes at the Nosek’s house. There is no evidence linking Musk to Pool’s HOME initiative, but he has at least once expressed an interest in Austin housing issues, tweeting on April 4, 2021, “Urgent need to build more housing in greater Austin area.” That tweet came as the Musk-led company Tesla was in the process of hiring some 10,000 workers for its then under construction electric automobile manufacturing plant in eastern Travis County.

While Luke Nosek is a friend and business associate of Elon Musk, Nosek garners nowhere near the media attention that Musk does; nor does he appear to seek it, as Musk does. Publicity or not, Nosek seems to be a complicated and somewhat mysterious figure. He is known as a yoga and meditation enthusiast. He once gave a a keynote speech in what appear to be pajama pants, although he also wore a sport coat. He contributed $40,000 to the successful effort in Colorado to legalize the supervised therapeutic use of psilocybin mushrooms.

Luke Nosek, used with permission from TfRS

Nosek is also something of a lofty thinker, who dwells on the future of humanity. For example, according to a rather expensive article in The Information (it’s expensive just to research these folks), Luke Nosek told the Effective Altruism Global conference in 2016. “I used to believe that clearly the best way to positively impact the world was directly through creating a technology. But there are so many other levers that may even be upstream of this one. It may be creating a new philosophy that changes how entrepreneurs are developing technology; it may be a new political system  and changing that world; it may be a new understanding of humanity, a new understanding of psychology or sociology.” 

That article also maintained that,  “In addition to imagining a new social order, Nosek has spoken often about his dream of building a city  from scratch.” While he hasn’t achieved that, the article continued, “he appears to have decided that Austin—with its separatist roots and strong libertarian scene—has good enough foundations to build upon.”

To Airbnb or To Not Airbnb

Now, let’s divert for a moment to entertain a question. If someone wanted to find an Austinite to try to knock a billionaire off such a lofty perch, who would that be? 

Well, it looks like we already have an experienced volunteer, Bill Bunch.

Bunch, longtime leader of the Save Our Springs Alliance, spoke roughly 50 minutes after Nicole Nosek spoke at the October 26 Council-Planning Commission hearing on the HOME initiative. Here’s part of what he said, “Ms. Nosek spoke to you because she cares about affordable housing. And I don’t doubt that. But her husband, Luke Nosek, is a billionaire, a tech billionaire, who’s one of the major owners of Airbnb. Who’s going to benefit from this? The short term rentals and the airbnb industry.”

To put that charge in context, although the Pool initiative is promoted as providing affordable housing, it does not ban using the additional units as short-term rentals. So a short-term rental corporation, like Airbnb, could potentially profit immensely from the multiple units that the Pool proposal would allow in current single family neighborhoods. They would make money if anyone utilized an extra unit as an Airbnb affiliated short-term rental; and they could potentially build, or buy, units themselves and profit from that. 

Bill Bunch from City of Austin screenshot.

Plus, if Austin did try to keep short-term rental companies from benefitting from the HOME initiative, it is well within the realm of possibility that the Texas Legislature would not like that and would step in; especially if urged to do so by billionaires who own parts of Airbnb.

That’s why it would be a potential conflict of interest if Luke Nosek, or either Nosek, owns large amounts of Airbnb stock. But, do they? 

The Independent contacted Texans for Reasonable Solutions about this claim. We repeated Bunch’s claim and asked, “Is Mr. Bunch’s statement correct?”

A spokesperson for TfRS responded, “That statement is false. Nicole and Luke Nosek do not own any stocks or have any ownership stake in Airbnb (italics theirs).”

The spokesperson added in response to similar questions:

“No, Luke does not own any stock or have any ownership stake in Airbnb.” and

“Nicole does not own any Airbnb stock.” 

In response to a question about previously owned shares the TfRS spokesperson replied, “A past fund that Luke is no longer with did invest in Airbnb over a decade ago. Luke himself has no airbnb stocks currently and any Airbnb stocks were sold prior to Nicole’s work at Texans for Reasonable Solutions.” Our questions about how many, what portion of the company, and when were those sold went unanswered.

TfRS later confirmed that the “past fund” was Founders Fund. Luke Nosek’s TfRS bio reports that, “Luke launched Founders Fund with Peter Thiel and Ken Howery. At Founders Fund, Luke led the first venture investment in Elon Musk’s SpaceX in 2008 and has served on the SpaceX board since then.”

Nosek, Howery and Thiel are all co-founders of PayPal. Thiel is also famous for being the most prominent Silicon Valley supporter of Donald Trump, and for being very enthusiastic about it.

I found a SEC document saying that Nosek was part of a group of investors in Airbnb that converted their shares of “Convertible Preferred Stocks” into Airbnb common stock on December 14, 2020. A related document reported “shares owned” of “26,556,110,” held by Luke Nosek and two other partners in Founders Fund and by two Founders Fund LLCs. The other two individuals were Peter Thiel of Founders Fund and the lesser known Brian Aaron Singerman.

To me that was something of a staggering number to read on a stock form; more than 26 million shares. Then I calculated the value based on the Airbnb share price.

I multiplied the 26,556,110 shares held by Nosek, his partners and their LLCs times the $130 per share that Airbnb (ABNB) closed at on December 14, 2020. Although I’m pretty good at doing math in my head or on paper (the old fashioned way), I used the calculator on this one. The computer calculator shows no commas and the answer read: 3452294300. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and then put in the commas working from right to left. It came out to a value of $3,452,294,300 shares, or $3.45 billion. 

So Nosek was at one time part of a group that owned a lot of Airbnb stock, but I needed to better understand the forms.  

This is where I ran into a wall. I am not a stock market reporter. I can read many financial forms and have been involved in both crafting, analyzing, and voting on multibillion dollar municipal budgets; and reporting on that at other times. I have not, however, reported on the stock market and I have not been much involved with the stock market during my life.

As a journalist I know to find expert professional advice on things I need to understand better in order to report on them. In this instance I was unable to find professionals that could, or would, help me better understand the forms. Perhaps if I had been willing or able to pay someone, then I could have found out more information. But, like a subscription to The Information that I mentioned earlier, that is not an expense the Independent can take on. As I said already, these California transplant high-tech billionaires are expensive to cover. 

Please don’t take this as a plea for funds (although I wouldn’t send it back). I bring it up to make the following observation about the current state of local media. I belive this is another instance of small local media outlets, like the Austin Independent, seeking to report on important topics which we cannot afford to fully pursue; while larger local media outlets — who might be able to afford to pursue such stories — aren’t interested. After all it’s been more than a month since Bunch made his claim at City Hall. And, I have seen no stories on the topic. I think this is indicative of the state of the local media and the national media.

The bottom line, however, is that I found documents saying that in 2020 a group including Nosek owned 26 million plus shares of Airbnb common stock. He and Founders Fund had to file those under “insider” requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission. I could find no form reporting whether he sold the shares, nor find the rules on whether he would have to do so. Although Texans for Reasonable Solutions was open and answered — at least in part — three rounds of questions from me, they did not answer several of the questions I submitted which could have shed more light on this. Close to press time they provided a document which they maintain shows that Luke Nosek no longer owns any Airbnb stock. To me, however, that document was not conclusive. A TfRS spokesperson agreed to continue discussion.

So I am not comfortable saying one way or another whether Nosek sold the stocks which the 2020 filing listed him as involved in the “ownership” of. I can say that TfRS has repeatedly said that neither Luke Nosek nor Nicole Nosek, or any entity with whom they are affiliated, own stock or have any ownership stake in Airbnb.   

We’ll just have to leave it at that for now and see if we can find out more in the days to come.

The Rest of the Texans for Reasonable Solutions Board

Well, enough on that for today. Let’s get back to our discussion of the Texans for Reasonable Solutions Board. There actually is a longtime Texan, a native Texan, on there. He is also a longtime Austinite And, the name will be recognizable to many Austinites. 

It’s John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods and the wildly successful company’s (frequented over the years by many locals including the author) CEO from its beginning in 1980 until 2022. As many people in Austin know, Mackey is — as his Texans for Reasonable Solutions’ bio notes — “a vocal member of the Libertarian Party” — and “a strong supporter of free market economics.” Although he is a TfRS board member, Mackey has been quiet on issues advanced by the group. The Austin Independent tried to reach Mackey through TfRS, asking if he supports Pool’s item. We received no reply to that question. 

John Mackey, from TfRS website used with permission

The board member who replaced Luke Nosek is Charles Blain, a New Jersey native who now lives in Houston. Blain appears to have little if any connection to Austin, but does seem to share at least libertarian tendencies with his fellow board member Mackey. For instance, according to his bio on the TfRS website Blain is “the Founder of Urban Reform, an organization promoting free market solutions to urban issues.”

Greg Anderson, from TfRS website used with permission

That’s the TfRS board, but their website also lists “Advisors to the Board.” Those include one longtime Austinite, Planning Commissioner Greg Anderson (appointed by Council Member Chito Vela). Anderson got his start in Austin politics as an aide to Council Member Sheryl Cole, who served from 2006 to 2015. Anderson has since become perhaps Austin’s most aggressive and intense new urbanist or YIMBY. He advocates for high density developments in all areas of the City, including existing single family neighborhoods.

He also frequently taunts opponents with social media posts like one where he posted a statement from people opposed to the Pool initiative and headlined it “the latest from boomers who bought their homes in ‘81 for 11 raspberries.”

Anderson is also chummy with several Council offices. That was apparent in a text acquired from a Public Information Request filed by the Austin Independent. Simultaneously with Watson gaveling the January 6 inaugural ceremony to a close (where Watson and half of the Council were sworn in), Anderson texted to a Mayoral aide:

“The Noseks are out in the lobby. They worked hard on your boss’ campaign.” 

There is at least one more very interesting member of the TfRS board, the singer Grimes aka Claire Boucher. We will have to save that, however, for our next installment.

Update: A sentence was removed from this story which said that Leslie Pool’s HOME initiative does not affect areas with Home Owners Associatioons. We will discuss that topic more in a future installment.


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