A Primer on the Political Landscape in Central Texas

Get caught up on the big issues facing Austin and its neighbors

Enough said: Scenes from the Women's March back in 2021 (Photo by John Anderson)

Welcome to Austin! Or San Marcos, or George­town, or any other burg in the five-county metro area we call "Central Texas." We're the fastest-growing metro in the United States by a healthy margin, so you are not alone if you just moved here, for school or for other reasons. (That's why it's hard to find an apartment!)

Keep this fact in mind as you become familiar with the political landscape. We can help! Let's explain some of the things that shape that landscape, so you can navigate the news and politics of Austin and Texas without a road map.

Should I Pay Attention to Local Politics?

Yes! Again, that's why it's hard to find an apartment! Next week, we're going to be doing our local elections preview for the key contests in November – the Austin mayor and council races, Austin and Round Rock school boards, bond measures, and citizen initiatives. Here's why you should care.

Photo by John Anderson

If you reside in the city of Austin, your voice matters as City Council slowly, groaningly, tries to change the city's land use policies to allow for more housing to be built to keep up with the city's job growth. What's happened is that, with a few notable exceptions, most of the city's new housing is being built on the edges of town, or out of town. The city of Austin proper, which has just under 1 million residents, grew almost not at all over the last year, because most of the 40,000 or so people who move to Central Texas every year have no choice but to live in the suburbs.

So loosening up the city's land use policies is a no-brainer, right? Wrong! Central and Westside neighborhoods, and now even some in the gentrified parts of the Eastside, fight tooth and nail to keep new apartments out of their neighborhoods. (We talk a lot about "density," which is shorthand for "more apartments and maybe some row houses.") You know, NIMBYism, which in the city of Austin is almost all about housing, as opposed to factories or shopping centers or whatnot. It's different out in the burbs, where Samsung and Tesla and others are building their new megaplants and housing is springing up as fast as it can be built. (And it's different again in George­town and San Marcos, both of which have Austin's issues in miniature.)

So what are the exceptions? If you're a UT-Austin student, you may already be living in one: West Campus. Twenty years or so ago, the NIMBYhoods around UT made a grand bargain with the property owners in what was then mostly a one-story neighborhood, as part of their neighborhood planning process: You can go high-rise in West Campus if you leave the rest of us alone. So they did, through what's called the Univer­sity Neighborhood Overlay, one of Austin planning's big success stories. West Campus is the only neighborhood in Austin that really has big-city density, and it's actually a really great place to live now!

The other big exception is Mueller, which used to be Austin's airport (until 1999) and which is three-quarters of the way through a 20-year redevelopment plan. One in 4 of Muel­ler's houses and apartments is reserved for people with lower-than-average incomes, which could be as many as 2,000 units at full buildout. That's a lot for an infill project! It's more than any other incentive-based attempt to produce affordable housing in bulk. (In Texas, a city can't require developers to set aside below-market­-rate units; it's all carrots, no sticks.) But it's a drop in the bucket of Central Texas housing needs.

Now, if you're only expecting to be in Austin for a few years, maybe you don't want to get invested in the housing wars. What else is there? Public safety and criminal justice reform are ongoing battlegrounds. Austin continues to be pretty much the best in class among Texas cities when it comes to sustainability and environmental protections, which used to be the No. 1 political issue around here in the 1990s but is now a consensus goal of local leaders, even the Republicans. In between the Nineties and the 2020s, the big issue was transportation, but we're now in the early stages of a $10 billion investment in transit (Project Connect), an $8 billion reconstruction of I-35 through Central Austin, a $3 billion-ish expansion of the Austin airport, and more, so there's not much more to do to make traffic better. (The pandemic helped with this.)

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West Campus, UT-Austin, Austin City Council, November 2022 Elections, Project Connect, Back to School 2022

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