As folks have probably heard, the Austin City Council passed the HOME (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) initiative on a 9-2 vote at the end of the December 7 eleven hour plus public hearing on the matter. Council Members Alison Alter and Mackenzie Kelly voted no.
This was a very decisive vote, both in the count and in the gravity of the action taken i.e. every single family home and lot in the City upzoned to allow 3 housing units per lot where previously one or two could be built. It was a major win for the group of people called “New Urbanists,” or as my friend and former colleague/former Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman prefers, “Neo Urbanists.” Whatever their title, this group has steadily built a Council supermajority.
In fact the central message coming from the HOME decision is that, as the saying goes, elections have consequences.
Whether or not individual voters realized it, most members of the nine-vote Council supermajority made no secret during their campaigns of what they planned to do. While the HOME initiative did not exist during the last few elections, most of the winning candidates nonetheless made it clear that they favored sweeping changes of that type. The only one of the nine yes votes on HOME that really changed her position is Leslie Pool, the sponsor of HOME. Some might maintain that Mayor Kirk Watson should be included in that category, but his case is a little trickier than that, or perhaps we should say he’s a little trickier than that; more on that further down.
Before going further I want to talk directly to readers and apologize for this being such a long article. I tried to whittle it down and did to some extent, but it’s still long. If you make it to the end, however, I think you will find an interesting, maybe even surprising, ending. And, I have made a New Years resolution to write shorter articles.
The Original Seven
To understand the nine votes for HOME we need to begin with the seven votes for the previous — and somewhat less sweeping — 2019-2020 Land Development Code (LDC) rewrite, and the accompanying Citywide rezoning. That’s the one that followed CodeNext. Mayor Steve Adler and his Council allies pulled down the very similar CodeNext right before Adler’s 2018 reelection campaign.
The seven members of that voting bloc were Adler and Council Members Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper Madison and Paige Ellis. The four no votes during that protracted battle were Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Alison Alter and Leslie Pool.
The seven member bloc was ramming through their LDC rewrite/zoning overhaul in early 2020 until that effort was struck down by a Travis County court in March of that year. That happened because the Council refused to follow state law on notification of property owners and on property owner petition rights. Let’s divert briefly to discuss the notification and petition issues because they are central to our vote count story; and to how HOME passed.
Notification and Petition Rights Under State Law
First of all, City governments are required to notify owners of property when a zoning change is proposed for their property and to notify property owners within 200 feet of the proposed zoning change. This notification right relates directly to petition, or protest, rights. Property owners within 200 feet can sign petitions against the rezoning of the nearby property. If owners of 20% or more of property within 200 feet sign protest petitions, that constitutes a “valid petition.” With a valid petition in place, zoning changes require a three-fourths supermajority of the governing body to be approved. For the Austin City Council, that means nine of 11 votes.
Property owners themselves have petition rights. That seldom comes into play because it is usually the property owner seeking the zoning change — frequently that is a developer or speculator. In cases like HOME, where the City is initiating the zoning change, a property owner signing a petition against rezoning of their own property generally counts as meeting the 20% threshold and forcing the three-fourths vote.
The Adler Council majority argued that they didn’t have to provide notification or honor petition rights because they were engaging in a comprehensive revision of the LDC.
Judge Jan Soifer rejected those arguments, said the City had broken the law on both notification and petition rights, and voided the two votes the Council had taken on the LDC rewrite/upzoning.
Early on in the HOME process it was uncertain if the new Mayor and Council were going to follow the Adler route or do notification. Then, Watson, who had expressed support for notification during his campaign, took the lead and won Council approval to notify property owners, albeit in an altered form apparently legal under state law.
That still left the question of petition rights, and the HOME initiative too could have been derailed without nine votes for all properties covered by valid petitions; although to my knowledge that didn’t get any public discussion. It was almost certainly discussed in executive session. There were at the very least 10,000 protests filed. And those could have led to even more properties requiring nine votes, if any combination of those protests constituted 20% of property owners within 200 feet of another property proposed for upzoning.
The Council could conceivably have changed zoning, with just a majority vote, on all the properties without a protest or valid petition. But this would have left a crazy quilt of zonings, when Council was trying to pass the initiative Citywide, and when they were trying to make regulations easier to understand and follow. So, the initiative needed nine votes both practically and, almost doubtlessly, legally as well.
The New Folks
Now let’s go back to how the nine votes were built for HOME.
The Adler Council’s seven member voting bloc of 2020 lost two members that same year. Jimmy Flannigan lost to Mackenzie Kelly in the November 2020 election. Flannigan’s stance on the LDC and citywide rezoning probably contributed to his defeat, but his loss had more to do with his giddy enthusiasm for defunding the police. Kelly’s position on the LDC, however, was a stark contrast to that of Flannigan. For example, in response to a campaign questionnaire from the Austin Independent, Kelly said she would have voted against the LDC version that Flannigan and his colleagues tried to pass. She also said property owners have a right to notification.
Flannigan was the only member of the seven member bloc to suffer at the ballot box. The other 2020 departing member of the voting bloc was Delia Garza who voters promoted to be Travis County Attorney, despite her lack of legal experience. Garza was replaced by Vanessa Fuentes.
Fuentes was evasive on the LDC rewrite/upzoning, and development issues in general, during her campaign. She never stated a clear position on either side, or in the middle. That included ignoring questions from the Austin Independent regarding her position on the LDC. This approach appeared to work for Fuentes politically, as she polled 56% of the vote and soundly defeated both LDC rewrite/upzoning enthusiast David Chincanchan and upzoning opponent Casey Ramos, without a runoff.
Vanessa Fuentes from one of her posts on X
After taking office Fuentes clearly tried to play both sides on development issues, but she ended up being a consistent developer vote; which was really a surprise to no one. On HOME Fuentes parted with her playing both sides approach and announced her position in advance, via video on social media.
The next to leave the upzoing voting bloc was Greg Casar. He left the Council in early 2022 and successfully won a promotion to Congress in a newly drawn, heavily Democratic, district that covers most of East Austin and stretches to San Antonio.
Chito Vela, a close Casar ally, won the special election to take Casar’s place. Vela’s campaign approach to the LDC was a clear contrast to Fuentes’ evasive approach. It would have been difficult for Vela to have made it more clear where he stood on the LDC and housing and development issues in general. Like Casar and Delia Garza, he had merged progressivism and advocacy for affordable housing with lockstep voting with developers.
Council Member Chito Vela from City webpage
To summarize, the pro-LDC/upzoning bloc had lost one vote. Then came the 2022 Mayor and Council elections. On the ballot was the Mayor’s race plus three seats held by the bloc and two held by those who voted no. On the yes side Mayor Adler and Council Member Renteria were term limited. Neither chose to try for a third term through the City Charter clause which allows the Mayor and Council Members to get on the ballot by gathering petition signatures.
Pro-LDC/upzoning bloc members Natasha Harper Madison and Paige Ellis had each only served one term and they both ran for reelection. These two might have been a little vague on LDC and zoning issues when they first ran in 2018, but by 2022 it was vividly clear to anyone paying attention where they stood. Both won without runoffs.
Natasha Harper Madison at a December 6 press conference promoting HOME
Photo by Daryl Slusher
Meanwhile Kathie Tovo and Ann Kitchen from the four member no on LDC/upzoning bloc were, like Adler and Renteria, term limited. Neither of them took the petition route either. All the open seats went to runoffs.
New Urbanists, however, had been so effective in the campaigns that in the runoff contests to replace both Renteria and Kitchen, all four candidates were aligned with New Urbanists. That meant that Neo Urbanists would hold on to Renteria’s seat and gain the seat held by Kitchen — in addition to Harper Madison and Ellis winning reelection.
In the December 13 runoff Jose Velasquez won Renteria’s seat and Ryan Alter won Kitchen’s seat. Both had been very clear in their support for New Urbanist ideology and proposals.
Council Members Jose Velasquez and Ryan Alter
That left the District 9 race to replace Tovo as the only chance for a non-Neo Urbanist to win one of the five Council seats on the ballot. That race featured a clear divide on development issues. Linda Guerrero, a solid, super-competent veteran of Austin boards and commissions and member of a legendary Austin family, was clearly backed by neighborhood advocates, including leading members of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. She narrowly lost, however, to political neophyte Zo Qadri, who clearly (to anyone paying attention) misled voters about how long he had lived in Austin, but won anyway.
For instance Qadri claimed in his campaign launch video that he had lived in Austin, and in his current Council District, for 13 years. That would be 2009 through 2022. His LinkedIn page, however, said he had attended Rice in Houston for two to three of those years (2017-2019). He acknowledged to another media outlet that he had had at least two jobs in Victoria in 2013 and 2014 — for then Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold and for the Texas Republican Party. And his own sworn ballot application said he had only resided in Austin for “two and a half years.” It’s not quite George Santos material, but competitive.
Screenshot from Zo Qadri campaign launch video. Note closed captioning where he says he has
lived in Austin “for the past 13 years.”
So Neo Urbanists swept all five Council races; holding three seats and gaining two others. That gave the Neo Urbanist wing seven seats, again.
Meanwhile, the Mayor’s race, with Watson versus New Urbanist favorite Celia Israel went down to the last boxes counted. Watson eked out a narrow win.
So, after the December runoffs there were seven clear votes in the New Urbanist camp (Harper Madison; Ellis; Vela; Fuentes, although sometimes she tried to pretend otherwise; Velasquez; Ryan Alter; and Qadri).
The likely no votes were down to Pool, Alison Alter, and Kelly with Watson as a sort a wild card who many people were trying to figure out.
Pool Introduces HOME
Then came July and Pool’s dramatic switching of sides and unveiling of her HOME proposal. As we’ve noted before, Pool’s new position was virtually the opposite of what she told voters in previous campaigns. Let’s take a look.
Pool had always campaigned on protecting single family neighborhoods. For instance, during her 2016 reelection campaign Pool sent a mailer attacking her opponent Natalie Gauldin for opposing single family zoning. The flyer stated directly that Pool would, “Protect single family zoning.”
Leslie Pool 2016 campaign mailer
Then, during her 2020 reelection campaign Pool told the Austin Chronicle, that the LDC rewrite effort was “unnecessarily divisive” and that the Council should not “approach zoning as a blanket over the city.” Plus, in a summary of her position the Chronicle wrote, “She says it would be better for Council to handle zoning changes in smaller chunks [emphasis added], so as to better capture the on-the-ground requests of specific property owners – an approach that would be slower than the broader rezoning Witt (Morgan Witt, her opponent) favors.”
Leslie Pool speaking at a December 6 press conference promoting HOME.
Behind her from the left are Council Members Paige Ellis, Zo Qadri and Chito Vela
Photo by Daryl Slusher
That’s about as opposite to the HOME initiative as is possible. Pool doesn’t deny that. Instead she claims that she had a change of heart and that her switch makes her proposal even stronger.
With Pool’s switch and her introduction of HOME there were eight clear votes for HOME, still one short of the supermajority needed to overcome petitions and zoning protests.
What Would Watson Do?
That brings us to Kirk Watson.
Kirk Watson as Council begins discussion of HOME on December 7 after the public hearing.
Screenshot from City Channel 6. Graphic at top is also a screenshot from December 7.
To those familiar with Watson’s legendary negotiating and peace making skills (from his time as Mayor 1997-2001), this seemed like an almost ideal situation for him to bring those powers into play. I know of no one who ever thought it was possible that Watson would simply vote no on HOME. For one thing he had also pledged during his campaign to deliver on increasing the housing supply.
Instead speculation centered around whether he would simply vote with the majority — and provide the crucial ninth vote — or whether he would lead the way in brokering a compromise, then provide the ninth vote. Being the potential ninth vote certainly gave Watson the potential to exercise a lot of sway over the final product.
Being the potential ninth vote certainly gave Watson the potential to exercise a lot of sway over the final product.
This also seemed like an opportunity for the Mayor to keep his campaign promise to restore “trust,” which he had warned would take a while.
That’s not what Watson did.
Instead he took another route that seems to have fulfilled a prophecy which at the time seemed more like a slick politician trying to work his way out of a tight spot; and not doing a particularly effective job of that. Let’s take a look.
During his campaign Watson came under attack from New Urbanists because he had once had an anti-CodeNext sign in his yard. The sign issue was first raised in the media by self described “urbanist blogger” Jack Craver in his blog, The Austin Politics Newsletter. Craver published a photo of the sign that he said was evidently from 2020. Craver also contacted Watson’s campaign for comment, but got no reply. Craver then pleaded for other media outlets to take up the issue. Ryan Autullo of the Austin American-Statesman did just that.
Watson responded to Autullo with a written statement. As quoted by Autullo the statement said, “Yes, we put the sign in our yard because I opposed the process that led to the proposed rewrite. I believed the city erred in failing to give Austinites proper notice and attempting to deny people’s protest rights, exactly as the court of appeals ruled in March. I believe we need to rewrite Austin’s land development code, in every part of the city, and I supported many things in the CodeNext plan. But I will never support stripping people of their right to protest a government action they believe damages them. I may disagree with people. I may vote against them. But I’ll always, always defend their basic rights.”
Autullo followed with his own analysis, “Between the yard sign and the housing policy, Watson might have killed his chances with pro-density voters. But appealing to those voters, who tend to be younger and more liberal than the typical Austin voter, was never the path to victory for the 64-year-old Watson. His best bet is with longtime residents, many of whom were against the city’s land use rewrite and, yes, displayed the same ‘CodeNext is Back’ yard sign as Watson.”
OK, first I think Autullo’s notice was pretty on target. At the same time it appeared to me that, with his statement to Autullo, Watson was hoping to have it both ways and perhaps hold on to a few Neo Urbanist voters. It also occurred to me that it was entirely possible Watson would go against a cause for which he had once put a sign in his yard. Adding to the mystery, who puts a sign in their yard for a cause on which they have such nuanced views as Watson laid out on CodeNext? So that led back to thinking his comments to Autullo were just him trying to play both sides and get out of a jam as well as he possibly could. I mean the sign appealed to CodeNext opponents, but that was now causing him some trouble. So he said he only put the sign up because he favored notification.
It seems pretty indisputable that Watson was trying to play both sides with that answer. The more amazing thing though is that he told us exactly what he was going to do, or in his words at the time, what he “may” do. He also seemed prescient in anticipating the HOME initiative.
This is truly professional politician stuff and very, very skillful if judged on those terms alone. I mean while Watson appeared to be clumsily straddling the metaphorical fence, he was actually telling us straight up what he was going to do once he became Mayor.
That’s very impressive and I’m at a loss for metaphors here. The only thing that comes to mind is a movie with Texas in the title (I won’t say the name now because it might not be in the Christmas spirit) where the movie Governor of Texas repeatedly performs a song and dance routine where he sings,
“Ooooh, I love to dance. . .
Do a little sidestep,
And lead the people on. . .”
Whatever the best analogy or metaphor, Watson provided the crucial ninth vote for a supermajority in favor of HOME. He didn’t keep his promise to slow down and restore trust, but he did do exactly what he described when defending himself for having the anti-CodeNext sign.
We would quote how Watson explained his vote for HOME, but he never bothered to do so, at least not from the Council dais. And, to review, while Watson fulfilled his own prophecy the other Council Members, save for Pool, and sort of Fuentes, were doing just what they promised voters they would do.
And that’s the way it is, in Austin, December 2023. There’s lots more I could talk about regarding HOME, including that Phase 2 is coming next year, and so is the return of ETODs (Equitable Transit Oriented Districts). There are also a number of other topics I haven’t had time to cover. But, for now it’s time to enjoy the holiday season. And, the Council isn’t meeting until January. That means they can’t do any more damage this year.
So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all you readers out there. Also, thanks for making it to the end of this article. Thank you also for sticking with us for another year, no matter what your position on HOME or anything else; and see you in 2024.
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