Point Austin: A Word About "Wards"
We don't live in Chicago, and inequality is real
In the decades-long fight to bring a district system to City Council, one persistent refrain from opponents was that districts would lead to dreaded "ward politics." Austinites from one area would pit their interests against those in the others, and Council members would be demanding their pieces of the pie instead of "considering the interests of the whole city." When the argument wasn't simply a polite cover for institutional racism – the unspoken threat was that under a district system, minority candidates were likelier to be elected – it was simply a defense of the status quo, where central city neighborhoods that dominated the voting refused to recognize that Austin had long since outgrown its small-town, citywide Council.
Now that districts have finally arrived – the seventh time was a charm – we're being treated to the return of the "ward politics" mantra, most recently in the debate over the property tax homestead exemption. It started at the Austin American-Statesman, responding to the argument that the exemption primarily favored the wealthiest homeowners and, therefore, the western districts where the majority of them reside, to the disadvantage of renters and the eastern districts. This wasn't a simple fact, countered the Statesman editors, it was special pleading: "But ward politics are best left behind on broader matters that reflect Austin's values."
It's revealing that the preferred term is always "ward" – to conjure evil Yankees in New York or Chicago who pursue the dark arts of "ward politics." Weren't "district politics" the point of the entire reorganization in the first place – nah, it doesn't sound sufficiently sinister.
The Statesman returned to the theme following the vote, congratulating the Council and the mayor for "rising above ward politics," while noting that Mayor Steve Adler himself, immediately prior to the vote on the 6% exemption, had returned the softball they'd thrown him: "I think that tonight the city of Austin is watching to see if we are serious about dealing with the affordability crisis in this city," Adler said. "I think they are watching to see if we can rise above ward politics and pitting one part of the city against another part of the city." (Indeed, it sounded as though they were using the same speechwriter.)
Sorry, but that's baloney. Pointing out that the homestead exemption primarily benefits the wealthiest homeowners, who live all over the city but disproportionately in the western districts (with the reverse proportions for working-class people), is not really "ward politics" at all. It's class politics, and moreover (in Austin as elsewhere), the wealthiest classes are winning. It's certainly true, as the mayor said, that the city needs to do whatever it can to address inequality and "affordability" (another misleading buzz word), but the homestead exemption is not just a feeble "tool," it's an inequitable one.
As was pointed out from the dais, the cumulative effect of a 6% exemption, accompanied by a rising tax rate to pay for it, will in fact be negative for median (or below) homeowners in at least a couple of the eastern districts. Rather than beat that well-worn drum, I'll just say Council has spent months working on a campaign priority that is, in the end, more symbolic than substantive – and the same would be true if the exemption were enacted at 20%. Worse than that, the symbolism is reactionary: It signifies our "affordability crisis" is a consequence of high taxes, so therefore the best thing we can do is sacrifice city services and community needs on the altar of tax cuts. To borrow the Statesman's phrase: Those have never been Austin city values.
The nadir of that symbolism occurred just after Council's Memorial Day ceremony, when a witness informed the dais that a vote in favor of the 20% exemption was a moral parallel, in courage and integrity, to the local Marine being honored that morning for "fighting and dying for freedom" in Iraq. When tax cuts become heroic, it's difficult for ordinary rationality to break through: that in prosperous times we need to invest in our community, services, and infrastructure, because in unprosperous ones it's difficult or impossible to do so.
That argument might be a little easier to make if the editors at the daily paper didn't subscribe to the pandering mantra that it's always a good time to cut taxes. The "popularity" of the homestead exemption is hardly a mystery; when you ask people if they'd like more money in their pockets, upwards of 90% are going to answer, "Sure, thanks." That doesn't mean it's always sound policy, or sound leadership.
I do hope, now that this argument is settled, Council can approach budget development with a better sense of citywide priorities and a clearer focus on substantive solutions. For example, the early, mostly nonideological consensus on the need for amplifying the housing supply – rather than finding ways to obstruct it – is an encouraging sign. And the insistence by the mayor and others that we won't have to cut services to pay for tax cuts – let's certainly hope he's right. That would be progress for all the wards.