Top Austin Headlines of 2021: Voters Resurrect Camping Ban

May 1: Austin voters approve Proposition B, a citizen initiative from Save Austin Now to restore some criminal penalties for camping in public and panhandling


Clean up at an encampment in Downtown Austin in September (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Save Austin Now's 58%-42% victory in this May city election was not unexpected, despite the alignment of most Austin progressive advocates (including this newspaper) against Prop B's restoration of criminal consequences for the experience of homelessness. The GOP-backed political action committee co-founded by county party Chair Matt Mackowiak, and loudly endorsed by Central Austin resident Gov. Greg Abbott, spent more than a year gathering its signatures amidst pandemic conditions, including mailing its proposed ordinance to every Austin voter. That lengthy exposure, and the more than $1.5 million SAN raised and spent on its campaign, was enough to galvanize the highest turnout in a May election since 1994. An organized campaign against Prop B, by the same Homes not Handcuffs coalition who'd lobbied for the ban to be lifted in 2019, got started much too late and raised too little money to slow SAN's roll very much.

While this proved embarrassing to Austin liberals, which was the most important goal of this political exercise, in real life Prop B had almost no effect. The Texas Legislature rolled out its own statewide version of a camping ban that preempts SAN's ordinance; the city, with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal relief funds, has slowly made progress in getting unsheltered Austinites into supportive services and eventually housing; and hopes of a conservative resurgence in Travis County politics proved short-lived come November.

Ironically, the most lasting impact of Prop B came as collateral damage, as the hordes of atypically right-leaning Austin voters put a hard stop to the "pro-democracy" campaign of Austinites for Progressive Reform to amend the City Charter at the same May 1 election. The most significant of the APR measures, Proposition F's proposed conversion of City Hall from a council-manager to "strong mayor" form of government, was rejected spectacularly, 14%-86%.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Top 10s 2021, Proposition B, camping ban, Save Austin Now, homelessness, Homes Not Handcuffs, Austinites for Progressive Reform, strong mayor, Matt Mackowiak

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