Point Austin: Looking for a Magic Bullet
CodeNEXT arguments reflect the complexity of affordability
Elsewhere in this issue, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Greg Casar discuss the in-progress rewrite of Austin's land development code, aka CodeNEXT. By the time you read this, the second draft of the rewrite should have appeared – revised at least for clarity – no doubt re-triggering all the arguments over the first draft. Casar and Tovo take up some of those arguments ("Which Way to CodeNEXT?" Sept. 15), although they understandably balked at our attempts to delineate Austin's polarized political code positions, as roughly: 1) Given the political will, CodeNEXT can render Austin equitable and affordable at a stroke; 2) CodeNEXT is a developers' plot to drive up land values and start the bulldozers, and must be stopped at all costs. They insisted the discussion is more complicated, as it undoubtedly is.
Nevertheless, we had invited these particular two to exchange views for a reason, and their differing perspectives on the possibilities of the rewrite are instructive. Although they each emphasize that a land use code is not a magic affordability wand, Casar remains optimistic that it can be a tool to expand both market-rate and income-restricted housing; Tovo is much more cautious, suggesting that while CodeNEXT can't do much to improve affordability, it can make things worse, by driving up land values and incentivizing intensive redevelopment that displaces central city residents and creates a "domino effect" elsewhere.
I was thinking of these arguments as I read Juan González's new book Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America's Tale of Two Cities. González recounts the rise and tenure of New York Mayor de Blasio, while placing him in the context of attempts nationwide to reform city policies in a more progressive direction.
Growth vs. Use
Austin is among the book's featured cities (Seattle, Philadelphia, et al.), and CM Casar has a cameo, as one of the new wave of progressive city officials, noted specifically for his efforts to promote affordable housing. Writing initially of New York, González juxtaposes the "growth model" (or "growth machine") approach of business interests on land values to the "use model" he associates with most community or neighborhood perspectives. While allowing for differences in scale, he uses a similar lens to consider progressive movements in other cities, sketching a widespread progressive movement to value community "quality of life" over the "economic growth" generally dominant in official discussions – with the latter associated with "traditional liberalism" or even "neoliberalism."
Oddly, in Austin at the moment, the battle over CodeNEXT seems to have flipped those notions and alliances, at least rhetorically. Casar and his Council allies (notably Delia Garza, Pio Renteria, Jimmy Flannigan) have been arguing that the current land use code unnecessarily restricts redevelopment and especially multi-unit housing, thereby constricting affordability and reinforcing economic and racial segregation. Tovo and those in her camp (Ora Houston, Leslie Pool, Alison Alter) fear the code rewrite unduly threatens existing neighborhoods with unrestricted redevelopment and consequently spiking land values, and will only accelerate displacement without improving affordability.
So who's for "growth"? And who's for "use"? Who are the "progressives," and who the "liberals"?
Certainly that's an oversimplification of the spectrum, and the Council dais is as flummoxed as the rest of us ("urbanists" vs. "NAs") in trying to respond to Austin's rapid growth and transformation. González also notes that cities are operating in the context of federal and state abandonment of post-World War II (really, post-Sixties) programs to promote equality and expand public housing. (The latter project has essentially been replaced by utterly inadequate Section 8 vouchers).
On just housing policy, González told me earlier this week, "There's a legitimate debate on how to do it. No one's got the magic bullet." His book describes de Blasio attempting (insufficiently) to hold the line by incentivizing private development while incorporating affordability requirements – a broader version of Austin's endless zoning battles over planned unit developments.
Going forward, González suggested, "Cities have to become incubators of these new experiments, whether it's on living wages, on housing, on immigrants, or climate change. There's a lot of things cities can do." He acknowledged the obstacles presented by state governments (as well as the Trump administration). His book recounts the policy battles between Mayor de Blasio and "centrist Democrat" Gov. Andrew Cuomo, although he admitted Austin would be lucky to have a Cuomo-type as a state political foe.
"Cities have to develop things that work," he said, "but eventually they have to start capturing the state Legislatures." That prospect in Texas was made a little more difficult this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court rejected any change to the GOP-gerrymandered Congressional and state House redistricting maps. To borrow a bitter phrase from the Coen brothers' Blood Simple: "In Texas, you're on your own."
On Friday, Sept. 15, journalist and Rutgers University Prof. Juan González (of Democracy Now!) will speak at the Workers Defense Project, 5604 Manor Rd., 5:30pm.