The Mayor’s Race Offers Clear Choices on How Austin Should Grow

Election marks a critical juncture on the way to Austin's future

(l-r) Celia Israel, Kirk Watson, Jennifer Virden (Photos by Jana Birchum (Israel) and John Anderson (Watson) / Jennifer Virden photo courtesy of the candidate)

Austin's next mayor will only serve two years before facing voters again in the presidential election year of 2024 (as per a charter amendment approved in May 2021). But the three most serious candidates (of six on the Nov. 8 ballot) are campaigning – and spending money – as if they were contending for a full four years and then some.

Maybe that's because this election feels like such a critical juncture on the way to Austin's future, one where the outcome may influence generations to come. The city remains in a dire housing crisis. Since the city was dealt a legal defeat two years ago (later upheld by a state appellate court) that effectively killed efforts to rewrite Austin's land use rules in ways that would allow for more housing, little progress has been made on meaningfully addressing that crisis. To be fair, those two years also included a global pandemic and a major rupture in police-community relations, during which Council members understandably paid less attention to housing policy for months at a time, except as it related to visible homelessness.

Over the past year, as the real estate market in Austin exploded and then began cooling slightly with rising interest rates, City Hall began to retrain its focus onto solutions to the housing crisis. That shift is reflected in the campaigns of the two leading progressives in the race – state Rep. Celia Israel and former mayor and state Sen. Kirk Watson – which have focused almost entirely on housing and affordability. How little the two have said about COVID-19 and policing, which in the last Council election cycle in 2020 were every politician's top topics, can be a little jarring.

But fear of the pandemic has generally waned for most Americans – to the detriment of public health generally and medically vulnerable people specifically. And most Austinites don't feel vulnerable to police violence in the way that BIPOC Americans have; the solidarity that emerged when George Floyd's killing was caught on a cellphone camera has also waned.

Everybody has to pay rent, though. Or a mortgage, if you were lucky enough to buy a home pre-2020 or are financially secure enough to do so in the current market. So the focus of most candidates running in Austin is on housing.

The Campaign Dynamics

Interestingly, until Oct. 12, Jennifer Virden – who pushed incumbent Alison Alter into a run-off in the 2020 District 10 Council race and who will likely finish third in the 2022 mayoral race – was the only one of the legit candidates to have published a policy position on policing. (Israel released a public safety plan Wednesday; we'll have more on that next week). She is a staunch supporter of law enforcement and has been deeply critical of Council's 2020 moves to reduce Austin Police Department funding and cancel cadet classes at the police academy, and her policy proposals have as their goal increasing the number of APD patrol officers.

Since most Austin voters don't really want that, or any other part of the conservative agenda, and have said so more than once at the ballot box, they will have to decide between Israel and Watson. Israel, who's represented Northeast Travis County in the Texas House since 2014, would become both the city's first Latina mayor and its first in the LGBTQ community, two milestones of progress that Israel's campaign is leaning into. But she's also positioning herself as charting a new path forward for Austin politics – the candidate with the boldest vision for solving the city's most pressing challenges and the fiercest commitment to its working-class and lower-income residents.

Israel demurs at suggestions she is "positioning" herself in any way – "I'm just Celia," she told the Chronicle in an interview, "I'm just this way because people are hurting" – it's clear that her campaign would like voters to know how Israel is not like that other guy in the race – Kirk Watson, an undeniably cis-het white man, a member of the Austin elite after nearly 30 years of high-profile public service, and in all probability more familiar to Austin voters (who tend to be older) than Israel.

Watson's campaign may grate at that description of their candidate, and it's also undeniable that Watson – mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001, when he resigned for an unsuccessful statewide run for attorney general, and then Austin and Bastrop's man in the Texas Senate from 2007 to 2020 – has earned a reputation as someone who can solve problems. Those solutions may have left a trail of people frustrated by how Watson arrived at them, and may have exacerbated the problems the city is struggling through now, but he undoubtedly did bring two warring political factions (environmentalists and developers) together at the turn of the century to agree on solutions to issues that seemed, at the time, intractable.

“I’m just Celia. I’m just this way because people are hurting.”  – Celia Israel

Many voters will be attracted to a deal­making, bridge-building consensus­-builder with a proven track record. "As a general rule," Watson told us, "I still believe that breaking through the 'all or nothing approach' that we have seen for the last decade is critical to Austin's future." But others will compare Watson – a living embodiment of good ol' boy political culture even though his policy positions are more progressive than most – to Israel and decide that they'd rather bet on her promise to shake up the status quo and break through the gridlock Watson describes with bold vision rather than accommodate it with pragmatic dealmaking.

Meanwhile, of the remaining five candidates, Phil Campero Brual, Anthony Brad­shaw, and Gary Spellman are barely running credible campaigns, and Erica Nix has already dropped out and endorsed Israel. But Virden, on the other hand, is running a serious campaign with plenty of cash to support it. Her website contains thorough and thoughtful policy positions (truthfully, with her 30 years of experience in the Austin real estate business, she has a depth of knowledge on housing that neither Watson nor Israel can claim) that will appeal to Austin's conservative voters.

But that is also Virden's weakness; as a Republican, she's looking at a hard ceiling of about 25% of the vote in the city of Austin, and may not get close to that in this nominally nonpartisan race. (Is there a hard floor, though, that she can count on just by being the Republican? Maybe around 15%.) Virden donated to a political action committee supporting Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020, which is practically a death sentence among Austin's liberal voters, who may be moved to the polls by negative partisanship.

So if Virden and the other four are spoilers on Nov. 8, what will they be spoiling? Most likely, Watson's attempt to use his enormous fundraising advantage over Israel and Virden (who loaned herself $300,000) to get to 50.1% on election night and avoid a low-turnout, unpredictable Decem­ber run-off. Watson's already aired one TV ad and we're told another is coming, preparing the way for a late-campaign messaging and voter-contact blitz. But Israel is no fundraising slouch and appears to be raising enough money to run her grassroots campaign filled with a torrent of public appearances.

(l-r) Israel, Watson, and Virden at the 2022 Mayoral Forum on Oct. 5 (Photos by John Anderson)

Just Build More Housing!

Both Watson and Israel agree that solving Austin's housing crisis requires building more housing – that is to say, the answer that City Council has been staring in the face, without blinking, for the past decade. Further, Watson, Israel, and Virden agree that the way to do that is to finish the 10-year effort to rewrite the Land Develop­ment Code, as called for by the city's Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan way back in 2012. (This was also once a goal for Mayor Watson 1.0; the best he could do was to get a "plain-English" version of the code, which itself was contested by neighborhood activists.) They also agree it's time for significant reform of the city's development review process.

“Over the decades, there has been kind of a training process going on that you can only think about things in an all-or-nothing manner. We’ve got to break through that.”  – Kirk Watson

Beyond that, each candidate's policy proposals diverge widely. Virden, flexing her experience in Austin's building industry, offers the most prescriptive set of policy ideas on housing. She advocates for adopting the LDC text changes independently from the zoning map (basically, the LDC text sets out the regulations for various types of buildings, and the map dictates where property owners are allowed to build those types of buildings). This idea was once shunned at City Hall because rather than updating the LDC citywide in one vote to allow greater density by right in more places, it would require property owners to seek that density through the sluggish and expensive rezoning process. As the housing crisis has dragged on and meaningful solutions have proved elusive, though, the unmapped text approach has gained increasing favor.

Virden also gets into the weeds on site standards: She wants to reduce minimum single-family lot sizes to 5,000 square feet, limit compatibility standards to within 300 feet of single-family homes, remove floor-to-area ratio limits entirely throughout Downtown, reduce minimum parking to one space per housing unit, and eliminate parking minimums entirely within one-eighth of a mile of Imagine Austin and Project Connect transit corridors. (For their part, Watson and Israel both agree that Council's recent progress on mild reforms to compatibility should continue – specifically, outside the confines of transit corridors.)

The housing plans from Watson and Israel are much less specific, since as elected officials they've learned that the fewer specific commitments you make on the campaign trail, the more you'll be able to work with diverse stakeholders who may have goals that conflict. Navigating those dynamics is how Watson made his name in Texas politics, and he insists solutions can and will be found through the kind of dealmaking and bridge-building that defined his mayoralty in the late 1990s. "Over the decades, there has been kind of a training process going on that you can only think about things in an all-or-nothing manner," Watson said. "We've got to break through that."

It's true that Watson has broken through such thinking before, brokering agreements between progressive environmentalists and conservative business and real estate interests that dictated where development could occur while protecting Austin's prized environmental features. Known as Smart Growth, Watson's initiative sought to redirect development – ideally, at the regional level – to the places where the city wanted it, mostly to the east, in what became known as the Desired Development Zone. (The boundaries are determined by watersheds, with those that supply Central Texans with drinking water having stricter development standards and environmental controls.)

Since Watson departed City Hall midterm in 2001 to run for attorney general and lose to Greg Abbott, most of Austin's housing growth has indeed occurred in East Austin. Of course, that growth was not managed in a way that allowed the Black and Latinx Austinites who had made those neighborhoods their own to continue living there. Cynics might say that was the goal of Smart Growth all along: Protect the central city and west side, where wealthier and more politically powerful people live, by directing development to parts of town where less political power resides.

The forces that have gentrified East Austin and displaced its prior residents are much larger than Watson's dalliance with Smart Growth, which this paper declared dead in its Austin incarnation in 2003. There have been four mayors and a score of Council members since then, each of whom deserves some responsibility for our current housing crisis (some more than others, to be sure).

Looking back on that legacy, Watson sees another reflection of Austin's current "all-or-nothing" approach to policy. "Implicit in [that framing] is that we can't have environmental protection and housing," he told us. "It's a legacy that we're going to want to build upon … And I don't think that we should apologize for environmental protection. Even if I assume that there were consequences that we should have been watching out for over a 20-year period … now we are watching and let's address them."

Smashing the Status Quo

The Watson housing proposal that has garnered the most attention would have great potential to break the land use stalemate at City Hall, but also the greatest potential to make what's bad about Austin's housing situation worse. He's proposed allowing individual Council districts to adopt LDC reforms specific to their district. He sees this as an incentive for innovators: If one Council member wants to introduce a new zoning designation or bonus program and another feels their constituents wouldn't go for it, Watson wants to create an environment where the CM supporting change isn't held back.

It doesn't take a degree in city planning to see how this could lead to inequitable growth – CMs whose districts have historically opposed land use reform might be content with letting other districts pick up the slack. To prevent this outcome, Watson's proposal would establish clear baselines for housing production citywide and use both carrots and sticks to ensure every district is meeting or exceeding its numbers.

“It is astonishing to me that we take the position that we only care about people until they go over the city limit line.”  – Kirk Watson

The carrots are easy to envision. As the city's tax base grows from population growth aided by an increase in housing supply, Watson would direct that new revenue to projects in districts that produced more housing. But a more punitive approach might be needed to encourage CMs representing more affluent districts, where private dollars could help fill gaps left by an absence of public funding, to do their part to hit the citywide baseline. Watson isn't sure what those sticks would look like, but he notes that how resources are allocated throughout the city could come into play. "These are big questions that need to be answered in a big way," he said.

Israel hasn't put forth a housing policy proposal as divisive as this. Most of her ideas seem pretty milquetoast in isolation: Allow for smaller-scale multifamily housing by, in part, amending the city's expensive and cumbersome site plan process; expand construction of accessory dwelling units; make better use of publicly owned land to create housing. The distinction Israel is making is in how she would lead the city through the current housing supply crisis.

"I'm aware that we can't ADU our way out of this crisis," she said, referencing her campaign's promise to enact more ambitious solutions to Austin's most pressing problems. "I am worried that if I'm not elected, our next mayor will remain committed to the status quo. That's the urgency I'm trying to lead with – we can't, we can't can't halfass it. We have to go big. We have to be bold, because we've lost time already."

She remembers an Austin that once allowed someone like herself – "a little baby Latina lesbian" – to move here and afford rent on wages earned from delivering pizzas. She moved to Austin in 1982, worked at Pizza Hut, and lived in a mobile home park on Lake Austin Boulevard that was owned by UT. Those relaxed Austin days are long gone, Israel acknowledges, but she points to "the sins of our past" as a reason why. She traces that history from the city's first master plan in 1928, which made racial segregation the city's official policy, up to the more recent inaction and slow, incremental progress on land use reform.

This sign from late 2019 is what Kirk Watson displayed in his yard (Courtesy of Jack Craver)

Israel said she's open to all solutions, big and small, when it comes to housing; that includes something resembling a comprehensive rewrite of the LDC and more ambitious reform of compatibility standards. "Look at California, where they just ended all parking requirements near transit stations," Israel said. "Let's just fucking do it already. My plea, and my mission, is for urgent change."

When asked how she would achieve these goals – ones that Mayor Steve Adler and the pro-housing coalition on Council have long desired but have been unable to enact – Israel pointed to the advocacy that overcame neighborhood opposition to a supportive housing project in the Hancock neighborhood, near the Chronicle offices. Known as Cady Lofts, its proposed 100 deeply affordable apartments for people at risk of homelessness were originally opposed by the Hancock neighbors, but the Austin Justice Coalition corralled a range of organizations to support the project, propelling it to Council approval in June.

"We will always be a city that values our neighborhood engagement," Israel said. "But we're in a different time now. We'll need a range of people to come together and help others on the fence about new housing realize that more neighbors is good for everyone."

Israel is banking on the hope that today's community advocates, with AJC at the forefront on a broad array of issues, would be more willing to work with Mayor Israel than Mayor Watson. (As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, AJC cannot issue formal endorsements.) That may be true, but Watson is certainly leading in endorsements generally, including from some groups who have helped secure progressive victories since Adler's 10-1 Council took office in 2015, such as the Workers Defense Action Fund (who went for Watson along with the major local labor groups). That's surely partly reflective of Watson's long career in Central Texas politics and his willingness to call in favors he's accrued.

Nobody Has Clean Hands

Watson and Israel both have their own recent baggage that may give some pro-­housing voters pause. For Watson, it's a yard sign; for Israel, it's a letter of support that went unsent. Neither candidate is exactly thrilled to be asked about either controversy.

"The fact we're talking about a yard sign is some evidence of why we hadn't gotten anything done," Watson said after I asked him about why he had a "CodeNEXT is BACK; Let's Save Our City" sign in his yard, the fact of which was first reported by Jack Craver in the Austin Politics Newsletter. "People have characterized that as me being completely against every idea in CodeNEXT, but that's not the case." Watson said his issue with CodeNEXT was more about the process – the process that resulted in a successful lawsuit against the city that derailed comprehensive LDC Revision efforts. "CodeNEXT was all-or-nothing … but the Austin that I think we need is one that does not fear [criticism of] its policies so much that it says, 'I don't need to give you notice'" of zoning changes, as required by state law.

As trivial as Watson may think the yard sign issue is, it's symbolic of how some voters fear he would approach housing reforms – that is, publicly supporting reform while privately working to undermine those efforts. When asked about another aspect of the LDC Revision lawsuit brought against the city – whether property owners have the right to protest citywide zoning changes, thus requiring a supermajority of Council to approve the changes – Watson said he would honor protest rights while working to find alternative paths to achieve the same goals. "I believe Austin embraces the ability to protest a governmental action that can do damage to you," he said. "My approach would be to recognize the right and then try to create programs that achieve both protection of the right and get us to the result we want – more housing."

Israel's baggage, meanwhile, comes from an affordable housing community proposed in North Austin, within her Texas House district. In 2016, the developers behind the project, known as Elysium Park, sought state-approved competitive tax credits to help make it financially viable; Texas law scores projects higher if they have a letter of support from their state rep. In the case of Elysium Park, Israel declined to write that letter.

“I know what it’s like to call 911 and feel the crisis of that moment. I want people to know that if they call 911, someone’s going to be there to help and not cause further harm.” – Celia Israel

At the time, she said she could not support the development because it lacked sufficient pedestrian access. The Chronicle's Michael King pointed out how this kind of complaint is a tried-and-true favorite of the people who support affordable housing "everywhere … but not here." Today, Israel notes that she likely issued dozens of similar letters of support for other affordable developments. She also adds that she herself has evolved on the issue of affordable housing and where to put it, and that had she had more time to review the Elysium Park development and suggest changes to the plan, she likely would have supported it. (The developer behind the project was able to adjust the proposal and secured state funding, which allowed the project to move forward and open in 2020.)

"When I talk about us being in a different political space, that includes me," Israel said, reflecting on the Elysium Park episode. "The crisis is real, the crisis is hurting, and the crisis calls for strong leadership and action. I still don't think it was the optimal project built out there, but given time to evaluate developments – which I will have more of as mayor than I did as state representative – I can help make projects like these better."

The Cops on the Highway

Another issue the next mayor will confront is how to work with the Texas Dept. of Transportation on plans to expand I-35, which will have a profound impact on future generations of Austin residents. When asked about her thoughts on I-35 expansion, Virden offered a succinct reply via email: "The primary goals of the I-35 expansion should be to maximally improve traffic congestion and safety along the corridor."

Israel and Watson both acknowledge the highway's role in segregating the city but have different views on the path forward. Israel, who once led Austin's Alliance for Public Transportation, is much quicker to criticize the TxDOT plan ("TxDOT and other state agencies have become a place where politics rules the day … but we have to accept what the good old boys are telling us is good for the city, especially with this project," she said).

Her position is to "demand a better deal from TxDOT," but she doesn't have a very nuanced view of what the city's alternative approach with TxDOT should look like. She would like to bury as much of the highway as possible to allow for more transit and pedestrian usage on top of it, especially in ways that would connect East Austin to Downtown. She points to the expansion of I-10 in Katy west of Houston to 14 lanes in each direction that are now just as congested as before as a result Austin must avoid. (TxDOT's own engineers admit that expanding I-35 won't "build our way out of congestion.")

Celia Israel supports reforms to Austin’s police academy, which she says should teach a “guardian” rather than “warrior” mindset (Photo by John Anderson)

Watson has a more pragmatic view of the project – partly because he played a central role in making it happen. He begins by pointing out that it's a federal highway that the state controls, and the city of Austin has little power to change that. "We have to be willing to put forward the ideas we support and see how much of them we can get," he said, "even though it may not end up being my concept of perfection or your concept of perfection."

He points to the state's abandonment of expanding the highway's upper deck between UT and Airport Boulevard – an idea TxDOT favored as recently as 2017 – as signs that the city has made progress and can continue to shape the vision of I-35 expansion to address its priorities. But he also views the I-35 rebuild as a way of helping people displaced from Austin – people who still may work here and could benefit from an improved highway. "It is astonishing to me that we take the position that we only care about people until they go over the city limit line," Watson said.

Policing and homelessness have mostly fallen to the wayside in the 2022 mayoral campaign – hard to believe given how thoroughly those issues have dominated Austin politics since 2018. Virden hasn't moved on from either issue, though, and remains highly critical of Council actions on both. In an email, she offered thoughts on how to modify the city's current approach to housing people off the street. "We should work to increase both the level and quality of supportive services, particularly mental health services," she wrote. "To the fullest extent of the law, supportive mental health and substance abuse services should be required as a condition for housing, for the health and safety of both [permanent supportive housing] clients as well as the community at large." Most advocates for the unhoused will cringe at the latter portion of Virden's answer – they often favor a trauma-­informed approach to service provision and a "housing first" model.

Both Watson and Israel insist they are having plenty of conversations about policing on the campaign trail – they're just not being very public about them. (Israel's brand new public safety plan covers police staffing, oversight, and gun violence reduction, but it landed fairly late in the election cycle.) The reason for each candidate's relative silence on policing is clear: Progressive stances on criminal justice reform are typically not winning issues for mayors. Appealing to a citywide electorate means balancing a complex set of views on policing; Israel and Watson are both trying to delicately navigate that path.

Israel served on the Citizen Review Panel of the former Office of the Police Monitor, predecessor to today's Office of Police Oversight. There, she witnessed firsthand the disparities in the treatment law enforcement gave to white people compared to people of color. She wants APD to be at the forefront of erasing those inequities, and she's encouraged by reforms that Council has sought to make at Austin's police academy. She pointed to the stated purpose of these reforms – to encourage officers to operate with a "guardian" rather than a "warrior" mindset as they police our streets – and said she would follow police training closely to ensure it is realized.

But she also opened up about her own history with law enforcement. Growing up, Israel said, her father suffered from alcoholism and would sometimes physically harm her mother. "Although my mom and dad loved me growing up," Israel told us, "there were several times when I was a little kid that I had to call the police on my dad because he was beating up my mom. I know what it's like to call 911 and feel the crisis of that moment. I want people to know that if they call 911, someone's going to be there to help and not cause further harm."

For Watson, who enjoyed support from law enforcement groups in previous campaigns, the divisiveness over policing is yet more evidence of the "all-or-nothing" dynamic that he feels dominates Austin politics. "Some people see local policing and criminal justice reform as either pro- or anti-public safety, pro- or anti-crime prevention, pro- or anti-civil rights, but in my opinion, it doesn't have to be a binary."

Watson, too, encourages Council efforts to reform the police academy. He and Israel alike want to improve APD's recruiting efforts to help attract cadets who are attracted to the new guardian model the city is working to implement. Mostly, though, Watson sees policing as another area where his reputation for bridge-building can be deployed. (Notably, he has not been endorsed by the Austin Police Association in this mayoral run; if the police union does endorse, they'll probably go with Virden.)

"We know that statistics show that people of color have significantly more negative interactions with our police," Watson told us. "But we don't have to choose between [who] in this town [is] feeling safe. That includes somebody who thinks their home is being broken into in the middle of the night, and a person of color sitting in their car for a routine traffic stop as a police officer approaches."

During Watson's first term as mayor, he helped negotiate the very first meet-and-confer agreement between the city and the APA. This labor contract, which governs police officer wages and benefits as well as department accountability and oversight, has become the central arena for local policing reform for justice advocates.

What Does It All Mean?

With just two years in their term and at least three new Council members joining the dais, it's hard to say how much either Watson or Israel could accomplish, especially on an issue like housing, which has proved so hard to tackle over the last decade. The winner of the 2022 mayoral race, then, will perhaps symbolize a direction Austin voters want the city to follow, rather than a commitment to specific policy outcomes.

The city is sometimes portrayed as faux progressive, a place where most voters and elected leaders talk about goals like equity and inclusion without doing the necessary work. Many times, this is a fair portrayal. But in the past four years, Austin's elected leaders have more than once staked positions on the front lines of progressive values. Council's decision to decriminalize homelessness was both an act of compassion and a civil rights victory. Voting to decrease police funding in 2020 – something few American cities actually did, even if the amount Council ultimately moved out of APD was fairly minimal – repudiated decades of unquestioned growth in the police budget. Of course, both decisions were effectively rolled back. In May 2021, Austin voters once again made public camping illegal, and the Texas Legislature adopted House Bill 1900, which makes it illegal for Texas cities to cut police spending.

Israel, with her generally younger supporters who are less entrenched in the Austin political establishment, and Watson, with his older, deeply established political organization, represent a fairly clear choice here. Some will look at Israel, less accustomed to the muck of City Hall politics but more optimistic for it, and see hope for a new way of governance, a way to continue down the progressive path of the 10-1 Council. Others will look at Watson, who knows the terrain at City Hall well, and find security in an experienced leader who hearkens back to an era of Austin's political history that many voters remember as less divisive and more productive.

But again, the winner only has two years to get things done. How much damage could either of them do in that short amount of time?

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