Austin at Large: The Bold Eye of the Beholder

Watson releases his first housing proposals, puts his “get it done” brand to the test

Kirk Watson in 2019 (Photo by John Anderson)

When Kirk Watson was mayor in the late 1990s, he acquired a reputation as a dude who gets sh*t done, which he still enjoys more than 25 years (and a few intervening terms in the Texas Senate) later. One of the things that got done, after a typically Austin 30-year cycle of not getting it done, was the opening of the long-awaited and long-needed new airport. That freed up the old airport to become something else, and it ended up being the neighborhoods around Mueller, more than anyone else, who got that done.

At the time, "urban infill" was a novelty and most of Austin's big real estate money could not begin to wrap its head around the public-private partnership model that has in the years since allowed Mueller to deliver, among other community benefits, a large share of Central Austin's new affordable housing. In fact, it was difficult for many developers and business leaders to understand why Mueller needed any subsidized housing; wouldn't a "glut" of new homes east of I-35 be "affordable" by definition?

The degree to which that was not true – and the enormous price gaps now seen between income-restricted and market-rate homes at Mueller that are functionally rather identical – was, to be fair, also not anticipated by the neighborhood visionaries and altruists who defined a lot of what "Mueller" means today. The example of Mueller – how it happened, what it meant, and whether it could be repeated – has clearly been on Watson's mind as he's done his listening tour and raised nearly $1 million to become the probable front-runner in his improbable comeback bid. His main rival, state Rep. Celia Israel, came out about a month ago with her "bold" plan to do what are actually fairly simple things to ameliorate Austin's housing crisis but that are nonetheless highly controversial among affluent single-family neighborhoods and thus require political courage. Now it's Watson's turn, and is his plan bold? And can he get it done?

From Crisis to Emergency

"For generations," Watson writes, "artists, musicians, students, entrepreneurs, and risk takers of every stripe – along many others simply seeking to be themselves ... found not only a spiritual home in Austin, but also an actual home, thanks to a wealth of affordable housing options and a low cost of living." Then that all went to hell, as you know. "I worry that if we fail to act with urgency to control the factors we can, we risk watching our beloved city transform from a diverse and inclusive place of opportunity into a homogeneous playground for only the very wealthy. ... If housing costs in Austin put home ownership out of reach for our children and grandchildren, we'll be undermining our city's promise, [and] our progressive rallying cry must be that we will prevent this" (emphasis his).

Is that bold? Watson gets props for defining housing not as an endless crisis through which we must suffer in penance for Austin's success, but an emergency that we can resolve in short order if we lean in. "The good news is that the fight is not lost," he writes, "if we come together around a positive, progressive vision, and quickly take steps to turn that vision into a reality." Rawr! Sic 'em. Note that Watson is not pretending to speak to or as someone facing actual precarity; Israel is a much more plausible working-­class hero. Rather, he locates his appeal in the emotions of Austin's professional and managerial class, who can afford to live in the new Austin, and who may even object to allowing some of the innovations at Mueller (where the development rules include several hundred variances from the city's Land Development Code) in their own neighborhoods, but who remain deeply uncomfortable with Austin's growing inequality even if they're not themselves among the have-nots.

But What Does He Propose?

Watson's first commitment is to "scrub Austin's development review process [to] support the immediate delivery of more housing options – and then to act on it" within nine months of (re)taking office. (The problems with that process are legion and well-documented; it's the sunset-review-style fixes he says would be new.) He also wants to "temporarily cut targeted development fees in half," which reflects a recent report from the local Realtors and homebuilders that Austin's development fees are way, way higher than those in either our neighboring Central Texas cities or the state's other major metros. Those fees are supposedly set on a cost-of-service model, so he says the city's budget reserves may need to close the gap.

As for the benighted LDC, Watson's one-two punch, which could be bold, is to let each of the 10 districts pursue its own reforms of the code, and then reward those neighborhoods that create more chances for housing with bonus city funding for their parks, libraries, rental assistance, and other community services. This is, practically speaking, how the much-feared "ward politics" in places like Chicago work, which is what Austinites were told for decades would happen here if we switched to a district council, so to see the avatar of Austin's at-large council consensus calling the bluff and empowering his future colleagues is notable.

Further up the boldness scale are launching a permanent coalition of local governments (and UT-Austin) to form a Central Texas Housing Partnership that could work sorta like the Austin Transit Partnership building out Project Connect – a thing that Watson failed to get done in 2000 – and turning Lake Walter E. Long into another Mueller (or several) instead of the $800 million superpark the city planned, and had zero money to build, in 2019. That's all on top of "using every tool in the toolbox," within which Watson includes most of the things Israel also endorsed. It's probably not likely that all these ideas will bear fruit just as Watson thinks they could and enjoy sufficient support among a council with a lot of new and newish members. But now that Steve Adler's taken mobility off the table as a crisis that Austin will never solve, Watson is bold – and canny – enough to know that he can only succeed as mayor if he directs sufficient energy and scrounges up enough money to implement a meaningful pro-housing agenda all across Austin.

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