It’s been a few weeks since we published. A lot has been going on at City Hall during that period, but probably nothing more far reaching than Council Member Leslie Pool’s HOME (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) initiative. That’s the one which would allow at least three housing units on every property zoned single family. Pool’s ultimate intent is more than three units per current lot. That’s because a second part of her proposal — now scheduled for early next year — involves reducing minimum lot size and allowing subdividing of existing lots. That would mean six or more units would be allowed where currently there is one. (For more detail see some of our previous coverage.)

Here are a few of the events that have occurred or are scheduled to occur soon.

  • Notice to affected property owners went out in the form of purple postcards, something that previous Councils trying to pass similar initiatives refused to do.
  • The joint meeting of the Planning Commission and City Council was held October 26 to kick off three hearings on the matter.
  • A second hearing is scheduled before the Planning Commission on  November 14 at 6 PM, minus the Council.  
  • A final Council hearing and vote is scheduled for December 7.

As noted in an earlier article, Mayor Kirk Watson deserves credit for taking the initiative on notice and working it through the Council. In my view, he and the rest of the Council also deserve credit for sitting up there and listening to members of the public for seven hours. (That’s really pretty average by Austin standards.) Also deserving credit for sitting through the hearing are the Planning Commissioners, especially since they had to sit at City Hall’s version of the little kids table, down in front of the raised Council dais (screen shot at top).

Now, let’s move on to the hearing. Wanting to do my best on behalf of readers I watched the whole thing. I was unable to attend in person, however, due to previous plans to be out of town at that time. That means I missed some atmosphere and also parts of a few speeches — like when Bill Bunch’s microphone was cut off when he wouldn’t stop talking after his allotted time ran out. Nonetheless, I think I saw and heard enough to give a fair accounting of what went on; and to provide a little historical context after that.

As most folks probably already know, there were two core viewpoints at the hearing. There were those who believe, and/or maintain, that Pool’s HOME proposal is a breakthrough effort that will address Austin’s affordable housing crisis; or at least contribute significantly to addressing it. And then there are those opposed to it, none of whom expressed opposition to affordable housing, but who are concerned about the impact the HOME initiative would have on existing single family neighborhoods and who question whether Pool’s proposal will actually result in affordable housing. Backers of the HOME initiative outnumbered opponents at the October 26 hearing.

The Proponents

The pro-HOME initiative speakers included:

  • Real estate industry professionals, like real estate agents and architects; 
  • Ideological new urbanists; 
  • Representatives of Building Trades unions;
  • A scattering of apparently unaffiliated Austin residents who support the HOME proposal as a way to address Austin’s affordable housing crisis; 
  • People with specific criticisms of their experiences with the Land Development Code; 
  • One repentant former neighborhood activist who said he reevaluated his views after criticism from his kids; and
  • At least one billionaire, 2019 California transplant.

While a number of people in the above groups made relevant points, the people speaking in favor who moved me the most were a smattering of duplex and condo owners — seemingly unaffiliated with any particular group or with each other. These folks explained that a duplex or condo was all they could afford in Austin, and they would not have been able to find a home in Austin otherwise. So they came down to support the Pool ordinance because they want other people to have the same chances they did.

Many speakers in favor of HOME appeared to simply assume that it will work and urged the Council to approve it. Those who offered specific arguments why it will work mainly stressed that being able to build more housing units on a lot will result in lower prices. 

For instance Liza Wimberley said, “I come from a family of mathematicians. I love math. And so I have a hard time relating to this problem. . . A smaller house on a smaller lot will be a lot cheaper than a big house on a big lot. (Wimberley was referring to the second part of Pool’s plan, due to hit Council early next year, which will allow the subdivision of lots.) It’s just math.”

Heather Hubbs, a computational physics student, said the issue is not only about students like herself being able to find affordable housing, but also, “It’s about the teachers, the firefighters, the nurses and the EMTs (Emergency Medical Technicians).” 

Selena Xie, who represents EMS employees as head of the Austin EMS Association, also argued that HOME will make it possible for more EMTs to live in Austin rather than make lengthy commutes.

Also invoking “EMTs, teachers, and nurses” was Nicole Nosek. Nosek is the California transplant billionaire mentioned earlier. She is married to PayPal co-founder Luke Nosek. Nicole Nosek points out that she was active in housing policy, in California, before marrying Luke Nosek, which appears to be accurate.

Nosek also stressed that more units on a lot will result in lower prices. She added, “Anyone who supports having a community with EMTs, teachers and nurses within our community will support the HOME proposal.” Nosek ended her speech by saying, “A vote against HOME is a vote against the middle class.” 

The Opposition

Opposing this juggernaut were: veteran Austin neighborhood activists, mostly working through the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC); unaffiliated single family homeowners likely made aware of the situation by the notice; and some neighborhood group members not heard from as frequently as others, apparently spurred into action by Pool’s sweeping proposal.

Bruce Greiner, “a resident of Northwest Austin,” was an early speaker by phone who made points that were very similar to those made by others as the hearing moved along. Greiner said that he and his wife bought their home “over 30 years ago because it was our American Dream.”

“We purchased here to enjoy a neighborhood with lawns, trees, uncongested streets, safe areas for our kids to play and ride bikes, near public services, neighborhood schools, and houses of worship.” 

He continued, “If these zoning proposals are approved, it would destroy the character of neighborhoods across the city.”

Greiner added, “We live in a diverse neighborhood of middle income, dual working households. Why would any Mayor or Council Member want to destroy the kind of neighborhood we have today?” 

Another phone speaker, identified only as Rosa said, “I grew up all over Austin and my family was displaced by rising rents many times. I currently live in District 3 (traditional East Austin barrio precincts and some areas of South Austin) where I’ve seen my rent increase $350 over the past two years.” 

“I’m in a community with many people who are unhoused, undocumented, and low income BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) renters facing rising rent and displacement.”

At this point some listening may have assumed that Rosa was leading into announcing her support for the HOME initiative, but that was not the case. She instead drove home her opposition, “It unfortunately doesn’t surprise me that Council has gotten to this point (of considering the HOME initiative) because those who are most impacted by the housing crisis have the least time and energy to speak up and advocate, while those who promote false solutions like upzoning have a trillion dollar industry on their side.”  

Reiterating that point, she concluded, “Low and even middle income homeowners can’t afford to build even ADUs (Auxiliary Dwelling Units), let alone multiple units. So we know that this is investor driven.”

Debra Sistrunk, an in-person speaker, summarized what she sees at the likely impact of HOME on her East Austin neighborhood. “I live in the Coronado Hills Creekside Neighborhood,” began Sistrunk. “That’s 183, 290, Cameron Road. We have 265 single family homes, two condo complexes, two apartment complexes, a group of ADA homes. We have one senior housing community, one Housing Authority community, one high school, one Nelson Field, one Clifton Career Center. We have fourplexes and duplexes. We have it all. We have some of everything for everybody in that neighborhood. 

We don’t need no more.”

Debra Sistrunk at Austin City Council – Planning Commission meeting October 26

Sistrunk added that to have three homes on her property, “I would have to cut down my three trees that I planted for my grandchildren. Each of them have a name. I’d have to cut them down.”

The Generation Gap and Some Historical Perspective

While there were people of varying ages on both sides, there was nonetheless a clear age distinction among the speakers. Younger people tended to favor Pool’s proposal and the opposition had a much higher percentage of older people. Let’s try to take a look at the motivation of both sides, beginning with a quick look at the most oft-mentioned culprit in Austin’s affordable housing crisis, the Land Development Code — and the failure to update it. I would agree that Austin’s LDC does in many instances slow down development and drive up prices. I’ve just heard too many credible stories to believe otherwise. As I have said before, that could be addressed without the massive upzonings attempted by previous Councils and now by this one.

At the same time, many other cities around the country have affordable housing crises. None of them, however, have Austin’s Land Development Code. So there have to be other issues contributing to the crisis beyond the local Austin level. Here’s a look at a few of those, with a focus on the generational divide. 

In general younger people today face more hurdles in buying a home or finding an affordable place to rent than did most previous generations, at least generations since World War II. This is a national phenomena. It is particularly acute in Austin due fundamentally to the area’s massive growth in population over the last five decades, and especially in the first two decades of the 21st Century.

That adds to a number of other economic challenges faced by younger generations; all of them far beyond Austin’s local control.  There was the 2008 collapse of the national economy toward the end of the George W. Bush administration; brought on by reckless banking and stock market practices. Even prior to that, and continuing today, obstacles to home ownership are created by an economy based far too heavily on service sector jobs. These jobs are often so low paying that more than one of them is required to survive; and even that is unlikely to be enough to afford a home.

For those wanting to move beyond the service sector, college tuition prices have soared since people my age went to college. That has been accompanied by high student loan interest which Congress has refused to fix or ameliorate. 

Then there is the role of state and federal governments. State government in Texas has never put much effort, or money, into affordable housing. At one time, however, federal housing policy was successful at helping millions of Americans become first time homebuyers.

The most successful era in providing affordable housing were the years after World War II, lasting at least a quarter century after the war. The federal government provided federal guarantees for up to half the amount of loans for veterans. Earlier New Deal programs, like those of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), also made home buying easier in the postwar period. Both the GI Bill and the FHA increased the ability of the working class and emerging middle class to buy homes. Plus, developers and builders eagerly provided houses in those price ranges.

It should be noted that the postwar programs almost exclusively helped white Americans. While racial equality has advanced in the decades that followed, no presidential administration or Congress in the last 40 years has provided successful housing programs on anywhere near the scale of the postwar period. And no one even expects it anymore in our gridlocked times. 

(Most of the homeowners who would be affected by Pool’s ordinance purchased their homes in the ‘80s and later; the early decades of which could be characterized as a transition period of rising prices leading to the situation of today.)

Also, the new urbanists of today argue that the housing patterns of the postwar period were unwise because they sprawled out of the cities and created suburbia. Ironically, many Austin single family homeowners in the areas most heavily targeted by developers and the Pool initiative would make similar arguments. Opposition to sprawl was one of the reasons many of them bought in the central city.

Another directly related problem facing younger people today is the distribution of wealth; that is the redistribution of wealth upward beginning in 1979. This brings us back to the postwar years. The period after World War II was indisputably the most economically egalitarian period in American history. A key feature of that was the strength of American manufacturing and the strength of unions at the plants where most American goods were manufactured. 

Beginning in the 1970s, and accelerating afterward, much of American manufacturing was transferred overseas. Many Americans who worked in manufacturing — or who would have been able to work in manufacturing in previous decades — instead ended up working in the aforementioned service sector. As that happened the United States went from the most economically egalitarian period in the country’s history to the new Gilded Age that we’ve been in for some time now.

Service industry jobs — read nonunion jobs — do not pay near as much as jobs in the heyday of American industry did. That means not as many people qualify for home loans. Simultaneously, housing prices have soared. And the increase of wealth at the top has helped steer upward the price of what is built.

Since the 1990s, however, at least one industry with many big earners has emerged, the high tech sector. The flow of what is commonly called “tech bros” into Austin also contributes to developers building for the high end in Austin. This is particularly the case with California transplants. Even those with reasonably modest incomes can sell their houses in California for enough to buy much bigger homes in Austin or its surroundings. This is one of the factors driving developers to build high end homes.

So the warring factions of Austin can tear each other apart, as is the tradition here, but causes of the problem are much more complicated — and much less localized — than one could pick up from listening to the rhetoric of the Mayor and Council Members or watching the hearings at City Hall and the related discussion in the community.

If Only

Today, many young people, and people of all ages, yearn for a home of their own; and in Austin many believe that the HOME initiative will help make that possible. 

For opponents their opposition is based partly in trying to preserve simple pursuits and comforts that they have managed to carve out for themselves in their lifetimes. These are things that might harken back to another time. People might want to preserve the serenity of their backyards, of sitting on the porch, maybe listening to the birds sing in the morning or to the crickets and tree frogs at night — hoping perhaps to hear an owl. They want to protect and enjoy what they have attained as their little piece of the American Dream; and age in place there as long as possible. 

Clearly many of the pro HOME speakers, and most on the City Council, would not be sympathetic to someone having those desries and would consider it selfish. But, those types of things are part of the human experience too.

If only there was someone who could broker an historic compromise. Wouldn’t it be great if Austin had a powerful, talented leader who was legendary at negotiating compromises between warring factions; a leader who scorned winner take all outcomes, who could figure out a way to provide affordable housing to younger generations without damaging the investments, or the quality of life, of people who through hard work were able to obtain single family homes — at one time not so long ago a core part of the American Dream.

Oh wait, we do have somebody like that; Mayor Kirk Watson. For example when Watson was Mayor last time he brought warring factions together behind a bond election to: purchase Water Quality Protection Lands to protect Barton Springs; expand the Convention Center; and do a much needed flood control project in East Austin. Citizens of Austin are still reaping the benefits of that peace making effort today.

Many folks today doubt that Watson intends any similar sort of peace making effort on the affordable housing issue. For one thing the Mayor has already set up something of a binary choice. In his Watson Wire he  acknowledged “legitimate consternation from homeowners about how these changes (HOME) may affect their property and what their neighbors might be able to do next door.” 

Watson immediately added, “But the worries are very different when I’m talking to a crowd of folks who wonder how – and if – they’ll ever be able to make a home in Austin.”

While perhaps poignant, Watson may also be setting the stage to simply pick the latter and explain his decision as aimed at helping the younger generations. This also allows the Mayor to neatly ignore that he would be siding with the monied interest involved; investors and developers craving a green light to move in on Austin single family neighborhoods. So if there were betting odds on what Watson will ultimately do, the binary choice I just outlined would, I think, be the betting favorite.

On the other hand, there were people who doubted that Watson would keep his campaign promise to provide notice to affected homeowners. And, Watson only recently wrote in the Watson Wire, “I believe that Austinites want to expand the availability of a full range of housing options without damaging the essential character of our existing neighborhoods or putting our environment at risk.” Maybe, at the eleventh hour, he will put his famous negotiating and peace making skills to work and try to make what he describes happen. 

We’ll continue to explore this possibility leading up to December 7.


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