Who Will Be the New Council Voice for District 9?
Eight candidates vie for Austin's most powerful YIMBYs and NIMBYs
Words like "urbanist" and "preservationist" or acronyms like NIMBY ("not in my backyard") and YIMBY ("yes in my backyard") are typically unhelpful when writing news stories on the housing crisis in Austin. They are trigger words; When readers see them, they automatically assume a point of view.
But like political party affiliation, these descriptors can be useful shorthand for readers, as journalists attempt to convey diverse perspectives on a complex policy issue in as concise a way as possible (and for us at the Chronicle, within the confines of a print newspaper that publishes once a week). While lacking the nuance either side may prefer, labels like NIMBY/YIMBY and preservationist/urbanist can summarize a person's general ideological approach to housing and land use policy in a city.
More than any other Council district, District 9 includes clearly divided urbanist and preservationist constituencies. It contains such neighborhoods, mostly consisting of single-family homes, as Hyde Park, Travis Heights, and Bouldin, but also West Campus and Mueller and Rainey and a bit of East Riverside, with their more dense and diverse housing options.
On housing, five candidates in the D9 contest to replace retiring Council Member Kathie Tovo – very much a preservationist – could be reasonably described as urbanists (Joah Spearman, Greg Smith, Ben Leffler, Tom Wald, and Zohaib "Zo" Qadri) and two could be described as neighborhood preservationists (Linda Guerrero, whom Tovo has endorsed, and Kym Olson; the eighth name on the ballot, Zena Mitchell, has somewhat unclear land use ideas). The urbanists would like builders to produce housing more rapidly in more parts of the city – both market-rate and income-restricted. While the preservationist candidates support more housing, they prefer a slower, more managed approach that protects existing neighborhoods.
A case study can be useful here. In June, City Council unanimously approved a rezoning for the Cady Lofts, a proposed 100-unit permanent supportive housing complex in the Hancock neighborhood – where Guerrero lives – which places people exiting homelessness into housing and pairs them with wraparound services.
The Ballad of Cady Lofts
Saigebrook, a developer that has helped build a dozen affordable housing properties in Central Texas, owns three tracts of land in Hancock, near the Chronicle offices. They sought to upzone one of those tracts to allow for a four-story building on all three lots; without the rezoning, Saigebrook would have built a six-story building on two of the lots, which would have been more expensive to construct and would be less compatible with nearby homes. While much of this part of Hancock is already developed with apartments and commercial uses, the Cady Lofts property adjoins a row of single-family homes on Wilbert Street.
Those homeowners and the Hancock Neighborhood Association were originally firmly opposed to Saigebrook's desired rezoning and raised a variety of objections, which shifted over time as the political temperature increased. A resolution opposing the rezoning, adopted by HNA and sent to the city in April, sought to "protect and maintain the single-family nature of one of Austin's most unique Central neighborhoods" and called for a more "planned approach" to redevelopment in the area. It also said the development was too dense and that its studio apartments (for single people exiting homelessness) were not compatible with the neighborhood.
To anyone who follows Austin's land use wars, this is all entirely predictable. What happened next was not.
In June, HNA adopted a second resolution, omitting all of that language and making clear that the neighborhood no longer opposed the rezoning case. What happened in between? A coalition of advocacy groups led by the Austin Justice Coalition organized in support of Cady Lofts. Volunteers canvassed the blocks around the site to answer questions about who would be living in the new apartments and what the building would look like. But organizers also corralled political support.
João Paulo Connolly, organizing director at AJC, started a petition drive to rally public support for the rezoning. Eight current CMs signed (Tovo did not); mayoral candidates Celia Israel and Kirk Watson signed; U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett signed. Spearman, Wald, Leffler, and Qadri also signed; more than that, Connolly says, they each showed passionate zeal in support of Cady Lofts, offering support from their Council campaigns to help get the rezoning approved. Connolly says this shows they understand the deep need for this kind of housing – even in the Central Austin neighborhoods one of them may soon represent.
Linda Guerrero adamantly opposed the rezoning request. In May, she emailed city staff outlining her objections. "The best option for the Hancock residents will be a vote for no zoning change so there is a buffer for the existing residents that will be most impacted," she wrote, referring to the lot behind the homes on Wilbert Street. She also said that the lower zoning would allow for less height and less impervious cover, which is a concern in North Central neighborhoods in the Waller Creek Watershed, which is prone to upstream flooding. (The Austin Justice Coalition did not send Guerrero its petition supporting Cady Lofts, because she had not yet announced her Council campaign and also because she had already made her position clear in public meetings and to the staff managing the zoning change.)
Over email, Guerrero explained that she never opposed the development itself – just the rezoning request. "Stating concerns is important and reasonable, especially when a zoning change will violate a neighborhood plan," Guerrero told the Chronicle. "Initial opposition can result in better outcomes and a more balanced community." She also noted that, due to scheduling conflicts, she was unable to participate in the June meeting where HNA rescinded its opposition to the rezoning.
When asked if the community conversation around Cady Lofts, and the arguments made by supporters of the rezoning request, had affected her position on the rezoning, Guerrero reiterated that her opposition was against the rezoning, not the development itself. "I did not oppose the development," the candidate wrote. "I support Permanent Supportive Housing and I will continue to support PSH when I'm on Council."
It's understandable that neighbors facing a proposal like Cady Lofts might want to fight to preserve what they like about their neighborhood, and it's true that Cady Lofts may bring a different character to its area – although, again, not that different, since there are plenty of apartment buildings within walking distance of the site, most of whose residents likely don't participate in the affairs of HNA. Opposition to new apartments among single-family homeowners isn't always driven by a desire to exclude the people who may live in them, but that's its effect in practice.
At six stories on two lots instead of four stories on three lots – the outcome had Saigebrook's rezoning request been denied – the unhoused people moving into the Cady Lofts would have been living in a building very different from, and indeed isolated from and perhaps alienated from, their new neighbors. Hancock's incumbent homeowners opposing the case would have had their neighborhood preserved in a way they wanted, but at what cost?
Tackling the Housing Crisis
Every candidate in the D9 race agrees that Austin needs more housing, but how each would approach the divisive issues involved varies. Greg Smith, a vice president of business development at a commercial insurance firm, emphasizes his business leadership experience and the pragmatic way in which he would address the housing crisis – a challenge he admits, in a surprising moment of candor from a candidate, may be unsolvable.
"I don't think the housing crisis is solvable," Smith told us. "We can put a big dent in it … by getting as many units on the ground as possible" through "reforming the culture" at the Development Services Department, which all candidates agree is badly broken. Smith says his value as a CM would not lie in intimate familiarity with the Land Development Code or the city's multitude of density bonus programs, but in gathering the experts who do understand those subjects and leading them to solutions. "I have access to experts on these issues and I know how to put them in a small room and say, 'We're in a crisis situation on housing. I need answers and I need them quickly.'"
Spearman offered the clearest approach to fixing the DSD situation: better management of the city manager. He pointed to a number of ways in which City Manager Spencer Cronk's office has been derelict in its duty to be transparent about city operations and to hold poorly performing department leaders accountable. The list includes the city's response to Winter Storm Uri, rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, and efforts to hold Austin police leaders accountable following their mishandling of the May 2020 protests at police headquarters. It also includes the ongoing crisis at DSD, which is leading to expensive and lengthy wait times to process housing permits or to review site plans.
"Half of the job of Council is to be a board member," Spearman said, referring to its oversight of Austin Energy, Austin Water, and the Austin Housing Finance Corporation, among other bodies. "That extends to the city manager. I have extensive board experience that would be of great value to D9 because it would allow me to bring more transparency and better function from the city manager role."
The majority of D9 candidates want to see a simplified LDC and streamlined review process that would allow the market to produce more housing at all price points – and all of the candidates, including Guerrero, stress the importance of producing income-restricted units through zoning negotiations and on city-owned land. Guerrero has decades of volunteer service on boards and commissions (Environmental Commission, Parks Board, the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board, and the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, just to name a few); she said she would set new goals for depth of affordability for income-restricted units.
"I'm really concerned about units set at the 80% [median family income] level," Guerrero told us, referring to the default restrictions on subsidized for-sale units. "I want to see that lowered through negotiations with developers, because it is essentially market rate." In her years on those many boards, commissions, and planning teams, she has regularly worked with stakeholders and city staff to achieve compromises – something she would do with land use reform as well. "We need to look everywhere for potential solutions," she added, including revisions to compatibility standards citywide – which dictate how large and tall buildings can be when located near single-family homes.
Organizing to Survive
Though Guerrero has the experience, Tom Wald has the best knowledge in the D9 field of the nitty-gritty of housing policy, including the complex set of regulations we call "compatibility standards." As the longtime director of Safe Streets Austin (formerly Bike Austin), founder of the Red Line Parkway Initiative (to build an urban trail along Cap Metro's commuter rail line), and co-founder of People United for Mobility Action, Wald has spent the better part of 15 years advocating for better transit and land use policies in Austin. That's real experience with the Council offices and city staff he'd be joining as the D9 CM that, he says, he can parlay into rapid and meaningful results.
"As a council member, when you pass a resolution, you kind of have to bird-dog it and follow up with staff to make sure progress is being made on your proposal," Wald said. "When you encounter staff, you need to have the tools to connect them with community leaders to solve problems, and I would be ready to do that on day one."
Wald said he's supportive of passing a revised Land Development Code to establish new zoning districts and density bonus programs, and then mapping out where they would be applied over time – which he acknowledges will be a complex and lengthy process. But once it's underway, Wald would then focus on "quick tools" that could be unlocked in the coming year, like more relaxed compatibility rules along transit corridors and improvements to the development review bureaucracy.
Zohaib "Zo" Qadri notes that District 9 has experienced tremendous demographic shifts since it elected Tovo – who had already served on the old at-large council – as its 10-1 district CM in 2014. (The district was modified slightly during 2021's redistricting.) Qadri represents a brand of leftist politics that has surged in popularity nationally since Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ran for president in 2016 and 2020; in fact, Qadri worked as a regional organizing director in South Carolina for the Warren campaign. He says that experience and his work on Beto O'Rourke's 2018 Senate run would help him build coalitions within D9 to unify the array of stakeholders within the district.
Qadri said he would not shy away from fighting against the Texas Legislature to protect voting rights and trans rights. Compared to the rest of the field, "I have been more outspoken on social issues affecting people in our community vulnerable to oppression," Qadri told us. "My experience as a first-generation immigrant, Muslim, and member of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community" – his family is from Pakistan – "has been that sometimes we have to organize to survive. We've had to fight for a seat at the table, and I would continue that fight."
Leffler also understands the importance of working with a variety of stakeholders to arrive at solutions on contentious issues. Specifically, on housing, he notes that many people in Austin's historically exclusive neighborhoods – like Cherrywood, where he lives now – recognize the need for more housing throughout the city, but "they just may not be the loudest voices in the room." Part of his approach to leading D9 would be to reach out to those people and others within the district who support more housing to incorporate their feedback into policy discussions.
"We have to respect reasonable objections to reforms," such as reducing the distances at which compatibility standards are triggered by single-family homes, Leffler said. "But we also have to acknowledge that we are in a housing crisis. We have to make change and change is hard. If we include everyone in the discussion, we are more likely to hear from people who want that change."
Leffler pointed to Cady Lofts as an example of how the city can improve on this process. "It's unfortunate that conversation centered on the Hancock NA, because it should also include tenants rights groups, advocates for the unhoused, social justice organizations, and other groups, so that we have a more diverse array of perspectives involved in housing discussion." He said those voices will be critical when it comes to building more permanent supportive housing, like what Cady Lofts will bring to Hancock, and even when it comes to more moderately priced workforce housing.
"Housing policy citywide has been driven by a small number of people who have the time and resources to go to City Hall and advocate for their interests," Leffler said. "My sense is there is broad agreement that Austin needs more housing-friendly policy throughout the city, and we are more likely to achieve that if we get as many voices involved in the process as possible."
More so than most of the council races, the campaigns to succeed Tovo offer the most distinct alternatives for how City Council might respond differently in the near future than it has in the recent past to a housing crisis whose roots date back at least 20 years. Most of the field is running on platforms that stand in sharp contrast to Tovo's ideologies and approach to governance, even if most know it makes political sense for that to not be too explicit.
But District 9's next CM will not have much time before needing to dive headfirst into Austin housing politics at their most fraught, with the most politically powerful aging single-family homeowners and the most powerful advocates for change to the status quo. And because so much of the city's slow-growth power has been concentrated in D9, the next CM will have a great impact on future housing policy for all of Austin, not just the city center.