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Tuesday, September 25, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council candidates offer different ideas on housing policy

The decision by Mayor Steve Adler and City Council last month to abandon CodeNEXT, a proposed rewrite of the Land Development Code, reflected the deep divisions in the community over the prospect of increased residential density in single-family neighborhoods.

However, in response to a questionnaire sent out by AURA, an urbanist advocacy group that supports dense development and public transit, even candidates for Council who were hostile or ambivalent about CodeNEXT spoke positively of increasing multifamily housing development.

Bobby Levinski, a candidate in Southwest Austin District 8, took an active role in the petition drive to subject CodeNEXT to a vote, in collaboration with Community Not Commodity, a group founded to oppose CodeNEXT. However, Levinksi’s responses to the AURA questionnaire largely aligned with New Urbanist thinking, emphasizing the importance of increasing housing supply.

In addition to bolstering city investment in public housing for low-income families, Levinski said he would focus on “making the development review process quicker and more predictable to minimize the time, costs and risks that developers take on – and hopefully increase production” of market-rate units.

In a text message, Levinski said that “not everything is either/or; the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can move forward.”

Two of his opponents in the District 8 race, Rich DePalma and Paige Ellis, similarly advocated for more housing.

Asked how the city should respond to rising rents, DePalma said, “The solution involves increasing supply, reducing costs for development and leveraging funding for affordable housing.”

Ellis said that the city “needs to support dense housing such as apartments, condos, and Accessory Dwelling Units” in addition to providing funding for income-restricted housing. She also noted that denser housing promotes more “spontaneous encounters” between neighbors, which can “increase our sense of community.”

AURA has endorsed DePalma.

Vincent Harding, a candidate to replace retiring Council Member Ora Houston in East Austin’s District 1, won the support from a number of community leaders who opposed CodeNEXT or have generally been against increased density, notably Houston herself. However, in his questionnaire Harding said that he supported increased by-right zoning entitlements and that “the next land development code should look at increasing the ability for multi-family to be built to help meet housing demands” and “increase density to encourage mass transit use.”

The three other District 1 candidates who replied to the questionnaire were even more vociferous in their support of density as a housing solution.

“We should be allowed to build multifamily apartment buildings everywhere,” said Mariana Salazar in response to a question about where in the city apartments should be built, and whether that includes Central Austin neighborhoods. “Different types of housing meets different needs, and our city should have opportunities to meet each of these needs across our different neighborhoods.”

Natasha Harper-Madison, who AURA has endorsed, was similarly adamant: “Multifamily apartment buildings should be built anywhere people need them! Yes, there should be more multifamily apartment buildings in central Austin, definitely.”

Reedy Spigner III said that he would defer to elected officials from Central Austin to talk about that area’s needs but added that increased multi-family housing “is my preference throughout all of Austin.” Spigner also emphasized that “the one person per vehicle model is broken” and that dense, mixed-use development was key to reducing reliance on cars.

Lewis Conway Jr., another candidate in the race for District 1, did not respond to the questionnaire.

Things were a little different in the mayor’s race. Laura Morrison, who has framed her campaign as a rejection of policies that she says favor developers and disregard the long-term character and residents of neighborhoods, did not wholeheartedly embrace density.

Morrison said that “multi-unit housing can be zoned in appropriate locations throughout the city, including in central Austin,” but argued that many existing neighborhood plans “contain plans to accommodate multi-unit growth in a way that does not cause rampant displacement.”

Unlike other Council candidates, Morrison did not argue that increasing housing supply was key to making housing more affordable.

“Experts have told us that it is virtually impossible to build our way to affordability in these
market conditions, noting that as soon rents or sales prices begin to fall, developers will simply stop building,” wrote Morrison.

Instead, Morrison emphasized the need for the city to increase funding for subsidized housing, negotiate the inclusion of income-restricted units in private developments, and prevent existing low-cost housing from being replaced by newer, more expensive units.

Mayor Steve Adler emphasized his “Austin bargain” idea that increased density can be placed on the corridors while “leaving the interiors of single-family neighborhoods largely untouched.”

However, in contrast to Morrison, Adler said that he supported boosting by-right zoning entitlements and he stressed the importance of increased market-rate housing. “Supply and Demand is real,” he said.

Candidates in District 9, which includes downtown and a number of other Central Austin neighborhoods, and District 3, which includes a number of Central East and Southeast Austin neighborhoods, were not provided the questionnaires because AURA made endorsements in those races early on.

In District 9, the group endorsed challenger Danielle Skidmore, who has made increased housing and public transit major planks of her campaign, over incumbent Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who is far more hesitant to embrace changes to the aesthetic character of single-family home neighborhoods.

Neither did AURA bother sending questionnaires to the candidates in the East-Central and Southeast District 3, where it endorsed incumbent Council Member Pio Renteria, who has been a reliable supporter of increased density. He has five challengers for his seat: James Valadez, Jessica Cohen, Susana Almanza, Justin Jacobson and Amit Motwani.

This story has been changed since publication to correct statements made about the District 3 race.

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

AURA: This organization started as an advocacy group organized around the City of Austin's November 2014 urban rail bond election. It's members have since announced their intention to broaden the focus of their work to include other issues. It's membership still holds a largely New Urbanist set of views.

November 2018 elections

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