In yesterday’s post we partially reviewed the May 16 public hearing and Council vote on the HOME 2 initiative and related issues. We also examined the links from that initiative to the upcoming application for light rail funds from the federal government. Today we will look at issues of race and equity that arose during that hearing. 

A dynamic which became more and more apparent as the 15-hour public hearing wore on is that the majority of people from the Eastern Crescent who are actively participating in this debate are against HOME. That was fairly clear before, even though those who self-identify as YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard) have for years framed their support for HOME — and other Land Development Code (LDC) related issues — as a quest for racial justice in housing. 

YIMBYs are overwhelmingly white, as evidenced by who they turn out at public hearings and public meetings. Nonetheless they have been largely successful in seizing the racial upper hand on the LDC issue, with a majority of Council Members taking their side on the issue and sometimes embracing their rhetoric. That includes all the Council Members who represent the Eastern Crescent; all the Council Members who represent the Eastern Crescent are people of color.

For instance when the plan for Equitable Transit Oriented Districts (ETODs) was introduced last year Council Member Natasha Harper Madison kicked off the discussion by saying the ETOD process would be “a conversation around equity and around transit and around reconciliation of systems infrastructure that is historically racist, historically rooted in Jim Crow era redline racism.” She added that ETODs are “intended to address the wrongs of the past.”

Mayor Kirk Watson even recently tried to get into the fray arguing in his Watson Wire that reducing lot sizes through HOME 2 strikes a blow against the segregationist 1928 City plan. (This was in Watson’s May 13 Watson Wire email. We would post a link, but it does not appear to have been posted to the Watson Wire archive on the City website.) 

This has all occurred despite the fact that those opposed to HOME and CodeNext have throughout been much more racially diverse than the backers. Through the years of LDC battles, numerous residents of the Eastern Crescent — some affiliated with the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) or Community Not Commodity (CNC) and others not — have consistently come to the Council and argued that their neighborhoods are likely to be the hardest hit and most rapidly affected by initiatives like HOME. That is primarily because of lower costs to acquire land. These arguments have not only failed to sway the Council supermajority, but have not even drawn a reply from the Mayor or Council Members on why they don’t think that will be the case.

The YIMBY’s primary argument on this front is that smaller lots will yield lower housing prices and make it possible for more people of color to live where very few live currently. YIMBYs tend to make this point in a very aggressive rhetorical style. For instance here’s a 2022 excerpt from the Hyde Parker, the media organ of the Friends of Hyde Park (FHP); which is a YIMBY alternative to the more traditional, and older, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. 

“The city is fighting an uphill battle against powerful interests who find the status quo convenient and are terrified of opening up more of the city to people who might not look like, earn like, or think like they do.” This passage comes from the Hyde Parker endorsement of Zo Qadri in his 2022 Council runoff against Linda Guerrero, a longtime neighborhood advocate who served honorably on a series of City boards and commissions. Never mind that this statement was made during a Council runoff in a majority white district that had just elevated a Hispanic woman and a Pakistani-American Muslim man into the runoff, while sending several white candidates packing. 

When this sort of rhetoric is thrown around, however, the underlying facts are often ignored and/or people are afraid to bring them up.

On May 16 the tide seemed to turn. In addition to people from ANC and CNC, who had been involved all along, new participants flocked to the Council meeting — in many cases turned out by the relatively new group Community Powered ATX. Many argued for an “equity overlay” that would exempt areas most prone to gentrification from the HOME ordinance. 

Numerous speakers were harsh in their assessments of the Council and some referred to the Mayor and Council Members directly. For instance Misael Ramos began his remarks with, “I want to make a quick observation. Y’all got all these white folks (referring to YIMBYs who were speaking at the hearing) up here talking like robots on this HOME policy, all while our Black and Brown representatives sit here as unengaged puppets willing to do what their millionaire and billionaire masters tell them to do.” 

Misael Ramos addressing the Council on May 16, screenshot from City livestream

Yes, that’s harsh, but it also had an inevitable feel to it, after years of the predominately white YIMBYs claiming the racial justice banner and with the Council on the verge of passing measures that many Eastern Crescent residents fear will transform their neighborhoods to something they don’t recognize and potentially price them out of their homes. 

Y’all got all these white folks up here talking like robots on this HOME policy, all while our Black and Brown representatives sit here as unengaged puppets willing to do what their millionaire and billionaire masters tell them to do.”

Misael Ramos

Steven Brown (pictured in screenshot at the top), a fourth generation Austinite who said he has “lived through previous displacements and gentrification” called out Austin Justice Coalition leader Chas Moore for “selling us out.” Moore participated in a pro-HOME press conference a few days before the vote. 

Brown also singled out Mayor Kirk Watson, who he supported in the 2022 Mayor’s race. “Kirk Watson, you fancy yourself as a deal maker, but I’m here today to let you know that this is a deal breaker and the consequences of your actions will follow you to the polls in November.”

Brown continued, “And that goes for everyone on this dais. Y’all have shown me that y’all would rather cram something through to meet a deadline for a grant than to take the time to be in community with the people that elected y’all and do the right thing, and do this the right way. We could have had density, affordability, and social justice wrapped in one. Instead, we have more traumatized community members because the city council has decided to repeat history and put profit over people.”

Y’all have shown me that y’all would rather cram something through to meet a deadline for a grant than to take the time to be in community with the people that elected y’all and do the right thing, and do this the right way.

steven brown

And these were only two of the speeches hammering the Mayor and Council. The attacks must have been difficult for the Council supermajority to take, given that several of them clearly see themselves as storied heroes fighting for racial justice. Nonetheless, they did not budge. As already noted, HOME 2 and all the related items sailed through. 

The Fuentes and Velasquez Amendments

Some Council Members weakly tried to mollify the anger with amendments. For instance Council Member Vanessa Fuentes got an amendment passed which reads, “The City Manager is directed to conduct an analysis of HOME phase 2’s potential impact on displacement of communities of color and include this information in future annual impact reports required by HOME phase 1.” 

Council Members José Velasquez and Vanessa Fuentes, screenshots from City livestream

Council Member José Velasquez went an inch or two further, winning approval of an amendment reading: “The City Manager is directed to study the feasibility of an equity/antidisplacement overlay and the impacts that such an overlay could have on affordability and displacement should we modify the proposed standards by geographic area and lowest income census tracts. The focus is to mitigate speculation and displacement in areas most affected by gentrification.”

Activist Janis Bookout thanked Velasquez for proposing the amendment, but pointed out a rather obvious flaw.“When entitlements are given they cannot be taken back.” She then called for the Council to “delay implementation until an equity overlay can be written.” 

Bookout has a strong point. I wouldn’t go so far as to declare right now, without more scrutiny and legal knowledge, that the Council’s actions could never be reversed. Bookout’s core point stands, however. Overturning these actions would be very difficult with major legal hurdles. And, any Council Member who is seriously entertaining an equity overlay in this situation would be calling for postponement of a vote, or delayed implementation, until an equity overlay could be drawn up and its viability studied.

Just passing the amendment as the Council is rolling through all the changes and entitlements of HOME 2 is hard to take seriously as anything other than pandering.

Bookout also made clear that she opposed both HOME 1 and 2 overall and said “the (proposed) equity overlay is our last shot at any real mitigation of harm.” 

Implied in that statement is that, even with an equity overlay, HOME 1 & 2 would still apply everywhere in the City that wasn’t subject to the equity overlay. This would mean something of a break within the Citywide coalition that has been opposing HOME; with some neighborhoods subject to HOME and others not. It could, and would be, argued that neighborhoods considered the most vulnerable to gentrification should get special consideration. Chito Vela flipped that and pointed out that there would likely be resistance to some parts of town getting an entitlement and others not. 

This debate will likely continue to some extent. It might even be an issue in the mayoral race because candidate Carmen Llanes is a leading proponent of an equity overlay. None of the Council supermajority, however, show any signs of wanting to revisit HOME. And, as already noted, that would be very difficult. 

The Austin Independent will continue to follow the issue and we’ll watch for anything on the subject that the City Manager produces in response to Velasquez’s amendment. In the meantime Fuentes’ amendment will get the City keeping statistics on any damage that occurs.


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