Thoughts on Prop J

RECEIVED Thu., Nov. 1, 2018

Dear Editor,
    Austin residents who plan on voting for both Beto and Proposition J should reflect on their priorities. Hyde Park has 1-2 houses per block with yard signs supporting liberal or progressive candidates placed alongside anti-CodeNEXT signs for “Yes on J.”
    Proposition J would limit the city of Austin’s ability to pass comprehensive zoning code rewrites in the future without subjecting them to a popular vote. [See "Chronicle Endorsements: City Propositions," Oct. 19.] It would make it much more difficult for Council to do the work needed to fairly and affordably accommodate future population growth in the city.
    Despite the heated rhetoric on all sides of the CodeNEXT debate, the proposal sought to stop regulating what land can be used for and to start regulating the look and feel of structures so that the street supports a vibrant walking and bicycling culture. Additionally, CodeNEXT would have increased allowable densities in certain Austin neighborhoods (notably not Hyde Park). Increasing density allows developers to build more units on a site for the same fixed land cost. It’s one easy way to build affordable units.
    Despite no proposed changes to zoning in their neighborhoods, wealthy homeowners in neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Tarrytown were some of CodeNEXT’s most vocal opponents, arguing that it would affect “neighborhood character” or “charm.” Lurking beneath this sentiment is the fear that the presence of affordable housing would affect their property values. Academic research has repeatedly debunked this notion. A more sinister motive is related to fears about precisely who lives in affordable units. Wealthy liberals support progressive candidates like Beto and pro-poor policies until those policies put them in closer proximity to those who are less wealthy.  
    That conservative homeowners would want to protect their property values above all else is not surprising. But Beto supporters should have a heavier conscience. Measures like CodeNEXT would allow low-income families to improve their quality of life by shortening their commutes and giving them easier access to quality schools and other urban amenities, while allowing Austin to retain some of its diversity. Without measures in place to increase housing affordability, Austin’s rich cultural heritage could be lost.
    For examples of what can happen without aggressive measures to increase housing affordability, Austin need only look to San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. Timid or nonexistent affordability policies have driven up housing prices in those cities to such an extent that only the very wealthy can afford to own property there.
    We acknowledge that CodeNEXT wasn’t perfect, but city staff and elected officials have learned much from that failed effort. Tying Austin’s hands so that future attempts to increase density are stifled is not the way forward. Liberal and progressive Austinites should vote “No” on Proposition J.
Alex Karner
Assistant Professor at UT
Fellow of Hampton K. and Margaret Frye Snell Endowed Chair in Transportation
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