Public Notice: Through the Looking Glass
The strange logic of “new urban” housing policy
By Nick Barbaro, Fri., Sept. 18, 2020
Last week's guest "Opinion" column, David Whitworth's "Time to Look in the Mirror on Housing," accused three City Council members of parroting the GOP party line by opposing affordable housing in their districts. Except that,
a) none of that is true, and
b) in this election season, as two of those CMs face challenges by opponents heavily supported by the development industry, this column was written by a member of that industry, demanding less government regulation of his business. In any other context, that would be derided as the fox demanding the keys to the henhouse. In the upside-down rhetoric of the Austin "new urbanist" libertarians, this – like Donald Trump himself – passes itself off as populism.
If the issue is affordability – as I noted a couple of weeks ago ("Public Notice," Sept. 4), those three CMs (along with Ann Kitchen, who is oddly spared Whitworth's wrath) have been the ones consistently arguing for more affordability components in zoning cases and in the Land Development Code rewrite, while the "new urbanists" have stuck to their deregulation mantra. If the issue is the defense of single-family zoning (which is where Whitworth claimed the three CMs "oppose more affordable housing options in traditional single-family zoned neighborhoods") – that's not in itself been a lead issue for any of the three, and in fact CM Kathie Tovo's zoning commissioner, Betsy Greenberg, is on record as far back as 2017 saying she'd like to see at least two units per lot allowed everywhere in the city. (Notably, the only time any such proposal was raised at Council, it was Mayor Steve Adler and urbanist darling Greg Casar who quietly scotched it, when they cut a deal in 2015 to exempt SF-2 lots – the overwhelming majority of the city's single-family zoning – from the ADU ordinance.)
Whitworth says the three CMs "are clearly opposed to that fourplex that might serve as a relief valve in areas becoming strictly affluent." But in fact, when four-plexes were up for consideration during the LDC rewrite, a Tovo amendment that would've required an affordability contribution for developers of such new four-plexes, was voted down by the council majority, which favored no affordability requirements – even though everyone involved was aware that this was the only way there's ever likely to be low-income housing in Tovo's district, ands even though she and neighbors were asking for it to be part of the plan.
Which brings us to Mr. Whitworth himself, who self-describes as building infill housing, and strongly implies that this is in service of the affordability that these heinous CMs are thwarting. In fact, his core business is building $400-500K, 1,200 sq. ft. condos – that is, market-rate housing (certainly nothing wrong with that), that would be directly impacted by the kind of affordability requirements that Tovo and the others have argued for. Seems to me there is something wrong with that kind of dishonest self-interest, especially during election season. Whitworth wants the freedom to build ever-more-lucrative projects for an ever-more-affluent clientele, and he doesn't want to have to contribute to affordable housing. Well, of course he doesn't, but that's where responsible civic leaders should step in, for the common good.
Election Forums: Council & AISD
There are many of these cropping up as we head toward the Nov. 3 election; here are a couple of key series, already underway:
• The city's Ethics Review Commission and the League of Women Voters Austin Area are hosting forums for each of the five City Council seats on the ballot – shown live on ATXN-TV, and simulcast on KAZI-FM 88.7. See more info at AustinTexas.gov/CandidateForums. To suggest a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 512/451-6710 before 5pm on the day of the forum; forums start at 6pm. (D2 took place yesterday)
D4: Wed., Sept. 23 (Greg Casar, Louis C. Herrin III, Ramesses II Setepenre)
D10: Tue., Sept. 29 (Alison Alter, Robert Thomas, Belinda Greene, Bennett Easton, Noel Tristan, Pooja Sethi, Jennifer Virden)
D6: Wed., Sept. 30 (Jimmy Flannigan, Mackenzie Kelly, Jennifer Mushtaler, Dee Harrison)
D7: Wed., Oct. 7 (Leslie Pool, Morgan Witt)
• AISD for All, "a new community coalition focused on public education and social justice," is hosting a series of forums for Austin ISD trustee candidates, with the three contested races coming up the next three Thursdays, all at 7-8:30pm at www.fb.com/AISDforALL.
D5: Sept. 17 (Lynn Boswell, Jennifer Littlefield, Piper Stege Nelson)
D2: Sept. 24 (Andy Anderson, John McKiernan-Gonzales, Ofelia Zapata)
Pos. 8 At-Large: (Jared Breckenridge, Leticia Caballero, Mike Herschenfeld, Noelita Lugo)
Monday, Sept. 21 is the deadline to apply for grants from the city's $10 million Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) 2.0 program; apply at fund.uptogether.org/rise2, or call 512/714-6950 from 7am-7pm.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.