Austin At Large: Blinking in the Bright Light

Austinites stagger into the post(?)-pandemic streets, waving at the new neighbors

Austin At Large: Blinking in the Bright Light

I'm writing this column at my desk, at the Chronicle, underneath our old friend the I-35 upper deck, for the first time since (*checks notes*) the 02/20/2020 issue. What did I write about then? C'mon, guess! "We've been talking about the deficiencies of the current Title 25 [Land Development] code since at least the mid-Nineties; if we had been able since then to allow graceful incremental increases in density and more walkable mixed-use development in our urban nodes, centers, and corridors without making every such plan and project into a battle and a spectacle and a slippery slope, we'd be a lot better off now as a city." Yeah, that again. We had just gone through another mind-melting marathon of rewriting the code from the dais, and everyone was punchy, and many were annoyed at dragging out what seemed then to be the inevitable approval of the new LDC, after eight years of work, on a 7-4 vote.

Then everything went pear-shaped, not least of all here at Chron­icle HQ, with first the cancellation of South by Southwest 2020, then the shutdown of our offices after one of our colleagues became one of Travis County's first confirmed COVID-19 cases. We just came back this week, to a local news cycle dominated by ... c'mon, guess! "Now that some progress is being made on the other issues that have dominated [City Hall's] attention for two years – from criminal justice reform to investments in transit to getting through the COVID-19 pandemic – 2022 is shaping up to be a year focused on housing policy," Austin Sanders writes in this issue. Yeah, that again. Still.

Now More Than Ever, as Ever

I know I'm part of the problem here, as I've been demanding that we accept and embrace our duty as a city to create decent housing for all 1 million-ish Austinites, and our 1 million-plus suburban neighbors, where it's needed. I think we need to do that without saying it's impossible to achieve without a new LDC, or that it's impossible to achieve without a more robust mix of subsidies and price controls than we have now, to the degree Texas law even allows for such things. I am happy that even here on this page, where I and my work neighbor Nick Barbaro have often championed the two sides reflected in Council's 7-4 votes, two ideas that both Nick and I have written about here are getting traction at City Hall: allowing homes to be built in the office, commercial, and retail districts that dominate our mobility corridors, without rezoning, and making it easier for everyone to build a second unit – accessory dwelling unit, garage apartment, alley flat, call it whatever – on their property.

These morsels of low-hanging fruit will not be enough to address the city's chronic and systemic housing shortage. Just how systemic has been cast in starker relief by the lack of daily exposure to Austin's quotidian growth and change, as people put aside their plague robes and stagger into the bright sunshine of what is again, still, the nation's fastest-growing major metro, and wonder, "Where the hell did that building/those people come from? I don't recognize this place." (For me, this week, it was South Congress.) The generational trauma of the pandemic and its especially vicious impact on Austin's creative and cultural sectors, the convulsions over inequity and racism and the violence they beget upon our neighbors and our own bodies, the race to the bottom – perhaps the Ninth Circle of Hell – that Texas wants to make sure it wins in record time: None of these seem to have placed more than a speed bump in front of the fast and hungry newcomers who want a piece of Austin before it's all gone. If anything, these crises have made our city more attractive to the high-wage, high-status knowledge workers who've come to define Austin's brand and character, who now have more flexibility to leave the East and West Coasts and enough money to out-compete the locals for the housing they need. They, from Elon Musk down to that freshly graduated entry-level Facebook content moderator, are the new neighbors. Be nice.

That Means You, Weirdo

I predicted last year, in my first column after we went into lockdown (in April), that "having survived a deadly pandemic, we may not want to waste our time niggling over details in the Land Development Code, having seen that life really is too short." Sure hope so! I still stand by my call to decouple a commitment to create housing, which is a human right, from a desire to regulate our neighbors' choices, which on this score is too much, too little, too late. They're already here. The degree to which we, like most cities and especially those with which we share "progressive" creative-­class Keepin'-It-Weird values, view the provision of housing not as one of the ordinary tasks of a Busytown like Austin but as a morally suspect enterprise for "greedy developers" and "gentrifiers" and "speculators" doesn't get any less mind-blowing just because it's commonplace.

In older Austin times, many of my friends and neighbors and readers salved the inherent cognitive dissonance here by distinguishing between Austin, which was a special and magical place like Brigadoon, and its suburbs, which were just ordinary Texas towns that could pave every inch of their dirt for all we cared. That's not true anymore; we recognize that our moral calling here extends beyond the Austin city limits even if we have little idea of what to do with that knowledge. We see Samsung decide to site its next, newest, largest facility not in Austin, but next door in Taylor, with more affordable and manageable access to the same workforce and qualit­y of life. What do we do about it? More on that next week.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Austin at Large
Austin at Large: The Things That Slip Our Mind
Austin at Large: The Things That Slip Our Mind
One man, one gun, and the harrowing results of our leaders' moral and policy failures

Mike Clark-Madison, Feb. 11, 2022

Austin at Large: We Need to Talk About Apesh*t
Austin at Large: We Need to Talk About Apesh*t
Whether Trump is trivial or catastrophic, the rules of engagement have now changed

Mike Clark-Madison, Feb. 4, 2022

More Austin At Large
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
Austin at Large: Back (and Forth) to the Future
At some point Austin history will stop looping upon itself. Until next time …

Mike Clark-Madison, March 17, 2023

Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
Austin at Large: The Train Can’t Be Too Late
It’s going to be sad, so sad, when Mayor Pete’s money comes if Austin’s not ready

Mike Clark-Madison, March 10, 2023


Austin at Large, Land Development Code, housing, development, COVID-19

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle