I attended Tuesday’s City Hall press conference hosted by Council Members Leslie Pool and Chito Vela, featuring a lineup of Pool’s HOME (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) initiative supporters. I have to say that what they were promising sounded pretty good. I mean, I want people to be able to build an adjoining house for Grandma if they want. I want young people to be able to afford homes of their own. I want more EMS personnel to be able to afford homes in Austin. I would love to end or slow down sprawl. And, I want the new rail system to work, even in its scaled down fashion that became necessary due to cost overruns and faulty, or dishonest, cost estimates by the then Council and Capital Metro leadership. 

At the Pool-Vela “press conference” a series of speakers maintained that HOME will do all of the above. The only problem, in my view, is that the speakers just assumed HOME will do these things and did not bother to explain how that will happen. The only real argument they made is that smaller lot sizes result in lower priced homes, a claim that opponents dispute and claim is oversimplified at best. 

Over my years as a journalist, public official and just as a human being, I have learned to be skeptical when people pushing a cause or product talk in platitudes, rather than specifics. I get even more suspicous when they try to avoid questions or refuse to answer them when asked.

So my suspicions were raised when Council Member Pool told the assembled media that no questions would be taken there, in the City Hall media room. Instead that would happen on an individual basis “in the foyer.” This struck me as an obvious attempt to avoid having to answer any tough questions – or even be asked any tough questions — in front of the bank of television cameras packed into the City Hall media room. (Yes, the media turned out on this one and, in my view, did a pretty balanced job of reporting.) The “press conference” was also being broadcast live on Channel 6 and thus would be available for viewing later on the City website; maybe even for people to make clips to show at the Council meeting on Thursday.

Rather than the traditional format of speakers giving statements and the media asking questions at the end, the television crews would have to take down their cameras and set back up again in another room to do individual interviews. As I said above, this would eliminate the possibility that anyone would ask a tough question with the ensuing discussion available to all the represented television stations.

By the time the press conference ended, the media were asked to adjourn to the Executive Session room to set up for their individual interviews — rather than the “foyer.” As the title implies, the Executive Session room is in a secured entry area of City Hall. The change in plans was clearly because around 20 opponents of HOME stood outside the whole time holding signs; and gave no indication of leaving. By the way these were not a group of old, white people as New Urbanists like to portray HOME opponents. Instead these were mostly young people of color.

Protestors outside Leslie Pool-Chito Vela HOME press conference, December 5, 2023 at City Hall.

The Executive Session plan didn’t sound very promising to me. So I instead asked Council Member Vela a question as he headed back there. I asked what he would say to people in the currently most affordable neighborhoods — like in Southeast and far South central neighborhoods — who fear HOME will hit their neighborhoods unevenly, with investors descending on them rapidly.

Vela quickly responded, “Do you want to keep the status quo?”

I paused for a second to process his response. Rather than answer my question, he had asked me a question, and an accusatory one. I replied, “I asked you a question, why are you asking me a question.” 

He answered by repeating his question, ““Do you want to keep the status quo?”

I reiterated, “I asked you a question. Why don’t you answer it instead of asking me a question.” 

Council Member Chito Vela

I think we did that one more time before I realized this wasn’t going anywhere and he headed off to the back room. I decided to stay out front where the protesters were giving interviews to the media — sort of a press conference of their own.

It turns out that back in the Executive Session room Vela had to reply to a tough question from Fred Cantu, a veteran local reporter with CBS Austin. Cantu prefaced his Vela interview by explaining, “Critics of the plan crowded last week’s Council meeting with concerns that tripling the number of homes on a property could have home owners in a bidding war with investors.”

Then Vela popped up on the screen as Cantu said, “They are worried that, yes, it’s going to bring down prices, but the homes will just end up flipped and the prices will start rising again. Are there any kind of safeguards here?”

Vela let out an exasperated sigh, then answered, “The safeguards would be in the limits we are putting on the size of the houses.”

Good for Cantu, but it would have been a lot braver for Vela to have taken that question at the press conference with all the cameras and media present. 

It also seems worth pointing out that Vela’s approach in answering my question, with a question, was entirely different than that of his colleague Ryan Alter when I sent Alter a list of much tougher questions over the weekend — for the story published before this one. Alter answered every question plus follow-ups. 

By the way I came to City Hall Tuesday prepared with the question that I asked Vela, but it so happened that some of the protestors were expressing very similar concerns. The protest was organized by a coalition group named Community Powered ATX. They had a detailed alternative proposal based on deeper affordability and said they were willing to negotiate. As one of the young leaders said, shown on KXAN, “We are not against having more housing and more density. We need that for our community. But, it needs to be done in a way that won’t displace folks.”    

Well, folks, that about ends our HOME coverage, at least prior to the December 7 hearing and scheduled vote. There is a lot of other information, some of it sent by readers, that I just didn’t have time to work in before the clock ran out. So sorry about that.

Now, for Some Questions

In closing, and in keeping with our theme here today, I am going to pose some questions that it seems legitimate and prudent that the Mayor and Council should address before passing such a sweeping measure; one that affects every single family home and neighborhood in Austin. I don’t presume to believe that the Mayor and Council will go down the list and address each one. I do believe, however, that they have a responsibility to address the issues contained in these questions and to explain to the citizenry — in something other than platitudes — just how the HOME proposal will succeed and match their lofty rhetoric.

I’ll begin by answering a question myself, the one posed by Council Member Vela. He asked, “Do you want to keep the status quo?”

My short answer to that is no. That no pretty much applies to the status quo in general at City Hall, but I will just answer it on housing. 

I do not favor the status quo on housing. 

One problem with Vela’s question is that it sets up a binary choice. In his simplistic formulation, one is either for HOME or for the status quo. I find this sort of shallow thinking, and framing, troubling in an elected official making decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

I have repeatedly advocated, in this publication, for negotiations aimed at reaching a compromise approach. That’s because I am skeptical that HOME could work and I think, if it is approved, it should be tried out on a smaller scale first. That could perhaps be done in something along the lines of a District plan somewhat similar to what Mayor Kirk Watson campaigned on. From what I understood about that short-lived plan, it would have let each District decide how much density they want. I don’t recommend that, but how about each District, through their Council Member, agreeing on certain areas (roughly equally sized areas in each District) to try out Missing Middle Housing like that intended by HOME. That’s just one idea. 

If Watson — once famed as a peacemaker who could bring warring factions together to forge solutions — would convene negotiations there are countless possibilities of what could happen. Yes, some people would never agree to a compromise, but I believe many would.

As I have mentioned previously, I also believe the Land Development Code needs to be updated, but I don’t think every single family zoned lot in town needs to be upzoned in the process. OK, enough on that. Let’s move on to questions for the Council.

Questions Council Probably Won’t Answer 

1. Many skeptics of the HOME initiative believe that the first places where investors and developers will try to take advantage of the HOME initiative will be in areas that are currently the most affordable remaining areas of Austin. That’s because those lots will be less expensive. Such neighborhoods include older parts of Southeast Austin, South Austin beyond Ben White between IH 35 and Westgate, and some areas of East Austin where there are still some longtime residents. These are all places where many current residents have lived for decades and where many plan to age in place as long as they can. What would you say to homeowners in these neighborhoods who are concerned about an uneven impact of HOME on their neighborhoods and their quality of life? 

2. Longtime South Austin neighborhood and parks advocate Larry Akers asked a similar question in an email to Council: (Why are you) soft-peddling the proposal as a way for grannies to stay in their homes, when the proposal will give vast incentive for national and international redevelopment companies to mine core neighborhoods for redevelopment land cheaper than that which can be found along our thoroughfares and transit corridors, where density is desired?

3. Why does providing more housing have to mean disrupting the housed?

4. Here’s a question from Ana Aguirre, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, who stressed that this is only one of several questions she has: Since the Austin EMS (employees) Association supports the HOME initiative on the grounds that it will help provide housing for EMS employees, what are the measurable outcome goals of the HOME Initiative in regard to providing housing for EMS employees? What are the current numbers of staff housed in Austin? What will be the expected number of additional staff that will be housed in Austin within the next 3 to 5 years? What is the goal so it can be measured?

5. Now, here are three questions from Ed Wendler, a veteran developer. There is no requirement that any of the additional units be affordable for any income group. If all of the development standards that limit house size are removed in Phase 2, why do you believe builders will build smaller, more affordable units? Just because they could does not mean they would. Today, builders are maxing out the size of ADUs and selling them for well over $600,000. They could have built a smaller unit but didn’t. What will be different?

6. If the theory is to promote smaller, and therefore less expensive units, why not limit the size of the 2nd and 3rd units? The results of the 1,100 foot limit on ADUs has not produced affordable units. Builders are building the largest 2nd unit that setbacks, impervious cover, height, FAR (Floor-to-Area ratio) allow. Why won’t that continue? Why not use an 800 foot maximum size like Portland?

7. Define the size, price, and number of bedrooms and baths that you consider affordable housing for a middle-income family. Why do you believe the results will match that ideal? Could is not the same as will or probably will.

8. Here’s another one from Larry Akers: “How about that the City just convinced voters to pony up many billions of dollars and a forever tax increase to fund mass transit, when a necessary condition for that endeavor to work is to concentrate population along the transit corridors, and that your single-family proposal runs in exactly the opposite direction, dispersing density across the core neighborhoods with only remote access to transit?”

9. Akers also offered an alternative, which we have taken the liberty of altering slightly to put it in the form of a question: “The one complaint I hear from the public is the difficulty in placing a tiny home in the back yard.  That difficulty is from the code requirement for duplexes to have common walls and roof lines, which are outdated and unnecessary requirements.  So (why not) just fix that and leave our neighborhoods alone.  We’re having a hard enough time as it is.”

10. Now, a final question from the author, a two-parter:  A number of speakers have talked confidently about how the HOME initiative will reduce or slow sprawl. Have you considered that the HOME initiative might actually increase sprawl? Here’s one way that could happen. Whether the City Council and New Urbanists like it or not, many families will continue to want to live in single family homes — with enough room for their families and with yards and parking. In Austin, however, they will never be able to be assured that lots on their street won’t be bought up, the houses on them torn down, and multiple units erected in their place — changing the character of the neighborhood they chose. People who realize that could happen might very well decide to instead look outside Austin. That would increase sprawl rather than reduce it. Have you considered that? If you don’t think that will happen then please explain why not?

Wendler and Akers both made some parting comments that weren’t in the form of questions. For example, Wendler added: Architects are drawing what could be built, and developers could care less. During the 3 year period 2020 thru 2022 there were 48,000 additional households in Austin. Crazy, but 91% of those make over $150,000. That is the demand builders will meet. It is high income demand.

Akers’ parting shot was: “You are subjecting the entire city to an unproven land development strategy THAT CANNOT BE UNDONE.”

The Council convenes tomorrow. Thursday December 7, at 10 AM. The public hearing on HOME, with a potential vote to follow, is the only item on the agenda.


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