In election contests between a Democrat and a Republican it is usually a given that the Democrat has the stronger social justice position. It is very arguable, however, which candidate in the District 6 City Council runoff occupies the social justice high ground when it comes to that very persistent local issue, the Land Development Code (LDC). Democrat Jimmy Flannigan is an ardent and sometimes belligerent backer of the LDC. His Republican opponent Mackenzie Kelly opposes the LDC — on property rights grounds, among other reasons.
In the District 10 runoff both incumbent Alison Alter and challenger Jennifer Virden oppose the LDC, but Alter is the proven performer on the issue. Alter has not only voted against the LDC, but taken on Flannigan and other proponents on the issue when the going got tough. She also kept her constituents thoroughly informed on the LDC through newsletters and public meetings (back when those still occurred).
Virden expresses strong opposition against the LDC and seems well informed about it. To any voters deciding their vote on the LDC, the burden is on Virden to prove she can perform as well as Alter on the issue.
District 6, however, is where the election result could make a difference in which side has the majority on the LDC. The new Council Member in District 2, Vanessa Fuentes, expressed some reservations on the LDC, although she avoided coming down on one side or the other. So at the very least an upset of Flannigan in District 6 would open up avenues for a potential compromise on the LDC.
The Land Development Code and Social Justice
The LDC rewrite is often touted as a vehicle to bring affordable housing and racial equity, although specifics and examples of where such policies have achieved that remain hazy, often shrouded in rhetoric. Many of the would be intended recipients of that social justice, however, are saying no thanks, keep it to yourself.
For instance here’s what a broad coalition of groups and individuals bluntly wrote to the Council about the LDC on April 8: “Low-income renters, homeowners, and Austin’s most racially diverse and historic communities of color impacted by gentrification have never asked for an overhaul of the LDC or the removal of public review on so many critical issues.” The coalition also maintains that instead of helping low income communities, “There was evidence that the proposed upzoning could make things worse for many of us and our neighbors.”
According to the statement, it was written by “a coalition of renters and homeowners from Austin’s Eastern Crescent, as well as anti-racist organizers” Also listed were the neighborhoods from which coalition members were drawn: “Dove Springs and Montopolis in Southeast Austin; Quail Hollow and the North Austin Civic Association in North Austin; the East Martin Luther King and Windsor Park neighborhoods in Northeast Austin; and the Holly, Blackshear, Rosewood, and Govalle neighborhoods in Central East Austin.” Groups listed as endorsing the statement included: Go Austin Vamos Austin (GAVA), Communities of Color United for Racial Justice, Eastside Guardians, PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources), the local NAACP and the Johnston Govalle Neighborhood Contact Team.
Speaking specifically about the version of the LDC which the Council majority had approved on two readings (three are necessary) before a Judge voided those votes, the group told the Council, “It was a new and confusing code being written by and for real estate developers and focused on the demand of upper middle and high-income renters and owners, often at the expense of lower income people and historic communities of color.”
Many members of this Eastern Crescent coalition work in solidarity with people from other neighborhoods in central Austin where the “transition zones” included in the LDC threaten to transform huge parts of the neighborhoods lot by lot. The LDC passed by the Council majority on two readings (before the court ruling) features transition zones” in East Austin and throughout the central city. In these transition zones, blocks and blocks of single family homes would be “upzoned” to allow from four to six units per existing lot. Usually it is the entire first block into the neighborhood from a major street, as well as up to five houses down a single family street that intersects with a major City street.
In addition to most of the closer in neighborhoods listed in the Eastern Crescent statement, the LDC rewrite included establishment of transition zones in: Hyde Park and immediately north and south, Rosedale, Hancock, Heritage, Allandale, Brentwood, Bryker Woods, Bouldin, Travis Heights and others.
The LDC plan supported by Flannigan and the rest of the Council majority would not only establish transition zones against the will of tens of thousands of homeowners, but would do so without even having to notify the homeowners. Additionally, the Council majority sought to deny the petition rights given property owners under state law. With such petition rights the owner of a property proposed for zoning, or a percentage of nearby property owners, can force a super majority to approve the zoning change. The Council majority argued that the notice and petition laws did not apply in mass rezonings.
Judge Jan Soifer ruled that not providing notice and denying petition rights violated state law. She then threw out Council’s first and second reading votes in favor of the LDC. Flannigan and the Council majority voted to appeal and the appeal is pending.
The District 6 Candidates On the LDC
In his answer to The Austin Independent’s Council candidate questionnaire during the first round of Council elections, Flannigan acknowledged his support for transition zones, but downplayed their significance. “Transition zones – the concept that there should be a scaling of building types to better transition the edges of transportation and commercial corridors and the interior of neighborhoods – are not a controversial idea,” wrote Flannigan. He continued, “In fact, many D6 [District 6 which he represents] neighborhoods are already planned this way with denser housing, apartments, and duplexes closer to main roads.”
The changes in the LDC are a bit more intense than might be gathered from Flannigan’s explanation. For example Avenue H in the Hyde Park area would be a transition zone from south of 38th Street all the way to where Avenue H ends just short of Koenig Lane. Likewise residential streets a block off Lamar, South Congress, South First, Guadalupe, Burnet, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, 38th Street, 45th Street and more would become transition zones.
After downplaying transition zones, Flannigan continued in his soft tone, “While there were no new transition zones in any District 6 neighborhoods, I supported the concept that transition zones be context-sensitive to the level of infrastructure and amenities.” In other words Flannigan was voting for, and advocating strongly for, imposing transition zones on neighborhoods outside his district without a single one being added to his District.
Flannigan’s opponent Kelly told the Independent in her questionnaire, “I would have wholeheartedly voted against the Land Development Code. Laws need to be clear so property owners understand their rights.” Referring to petition and notice rights, Kelly said, “The Land Development Code should not be able to dramatically change zoning without property owners having a voice.”
Speaking more specifically to transition zones, Kelly continued, “When a person buys a single family home in a single family neighborhood, it would be reasonable to assume that a 10 unit apartment complex or a commercial business would not be able to be built next door. While I recognize that we do need an updated code it does not make sense to move forward with the current version.”
Kelly added, “I agree that the LDC needs to be changed, but it needs to be changed in a way that promotes quality of life. Neighborhoods are important. Families are important and so is quality of life. I do not believe that driving families out of Austin is good for our community. Single family home ownership is important because for working people, land and property ownership is typically the only path for generational wealth. We have to protect the property rights of homeowners.” Kelly said that included petition and notice rights.
So who has the most just position on the Land Development Code? It seems a fair question in the District 6 race. Let’s explore that a bit further beyond the statements of the candidates.
A home is usually the largest investment a person and/or family makes in a lifetime. That includes many people in the central city who are elderly or approaching their retirement years. Many of them have lived in their central city single family homes for decades and hope to age in place and live out the rest of their years there.
There are also numerous young homeowners in the central city who managed to purchase homes. Many of them stretched their budgets to buy in the central city because they like living close in and/or because they did not want to be part of sprawl. A huge portion of central city residents also support social justice causes (as evidenced by decades of voting patterns), but perhaps also wanted to have a yard for their kids to play in.
Young, old or in the middle most homeowners bought with the presumption that they would be living in a single family neighborhood. Yes, most realized that the central city is denser and a lot likely realized that in fast growing Austin, the neighborhood would likely get denser still, but on the edges of their neighborhood. A considerable amount even support that type of urbanization and densification.
What very, very few — if any — anticipated was that the City would come in and rezone entire streets of single family neighborhoods to allow four to six units per lot — totally transforming the nature of the street, potentially leading to large increases in property taxes, and putting intense pressure on people to sell.
That is what Flannigan and his colleagues in the Council LDC majority support.
Also, if these folks get driven out of their homes they will have to move somewhere else. Their primary choices would be sprawl or gentrify, two of the things the pro-LDC Council Members maintain that they want to prevent.
Plus, how just is it for Flannigan to vote to wreck people’s investments in their homes and their plans to age in place while reassuring his constituents — and anyone else who asks — that there are no “new” transition zones in his District?
Add to that the fact that Flannigan pulled in more developer money than any other candidate in any Council race and it seems fair to ask who has the most just position on the Land Development Code?
Just the fact that I raised the possibility that a Republican might have a stronger social justice position on an issue than a Democrat will likely anger some Democrats — and maybe some Republicans too. One response I would make is that this is not like the Senate runoffs in Georgia. This is a very local election and the LDC issue relates to an issue about as local as it gets, people’s homes. The whole voting balance on the Council does not hinge on who wins in District 6 — although the fate of the LDC might. If Mackenzie Kelly were to win she will be outnumbered on police funding issues and anything else she might try from a Republican direction.
Still, it would be a big leap in today’s climate for a Democrat to vote for a Republican, even in a local “nonpartisan” race. And, before anyone does, Kelly’s record and qualifications need to be very carefully examined — along with an assessment of whether Kelly could stick with her campaign promises once developers start to lobby her. We will continue to examine those topics here at the Independent.
In the meantime I still think it’s fair to ask which candidate in this race has the most socially just policy when it comes to the Land Development Code?
The Austin Independent is free to anyone who wants to read it. If you would like to sign up for email alerts — no spam — or contact us for any reason, please click here.
Journalism does, however, cost money. So we ask those who can afford to do so to subscribe or donate. You can do that here.
The Austin Independent, a publication of The Austin Independent, LLC
All Rights Reserved