She just wanted to know if Austin could make housing cheaper. The Yeahbutters wanted to talk about trees.
The city council can still make progress on housing, but they're running out of time.
The reason you’re getting this a little late this week is that I’m sitting in LAX after a weekend of seeing Holland Taylor wrap up a dozen years of portraying my old boss, Ann Richards, cheering as the Orioles beat the Angels despite two home runs from Mike Trout, spending some quality time with D.Q. and his family, and having breakfast with my dad. A good time was had by all, or at least by me. I’m looking forward to coming home, though, and seeing you all.
But first, did I ever tell you about the time Natasha Harper-Madison tried to use logic in city hall?
Harper-Madison represents an east Austin district on the city council. She’s seen her neighborhoods run over by waves of gentrification, and lives here just like you and I do. The monthly mortgage check she writes seems a little big for the house her family fits into, and serving on the city council doesn’t make the property tax assessment hurt any less. She’s in the middle of this demand-side typhoon right alongside us — rents are up, sale prices keep escalating, even the price of lumber is playing chicken with our pain thresholds.
That’s when Harper-Madison made her mistake: She used logic. There’s the city, and there’s the City. The small “c” city is governed by market forces, with high demand to live and work here, and a housing supply that is ramping up late. If you’ve been house hunting or been priced out of the rental market or worse, then you know you are the shrapnel of this economic boom. There is not much a city council member can do when the invisible hand is giving your constituents the finger.
But the big “C” City of Austin is another matter, entirely. The City imposes fees. Following regulations costs time and money. Maybe, she thought, the City could look at all the fees, regulations, red tape, hurdles, and whatnot that make construction more expensive. And since construction costs are passed onto renters and homeowners, maybe the City could lower those costs, and those savings could be passed onto renters and homeowners.
Harper-Madison made her mistake: She used logic.
The problem—other than its winsome reliance on logic—was that the City had no such list of costs it imposed on the housing market. So she wrote up a resolution that would tell the City to “perform an analysis of the cost of producing housing in Austin and to identify potential options for reducing this cost,” and the Mayor signed onto the idea along with council members Paige Ellis and Greg Casar.
Allow me to digress: As many of you know, I used to work for Mayor Adler. More on that later. I worked there when Casar was still there, and we’re political friends, by which I mean I’d refer to him as a friend but really we’re friendly. Ellis, however, is a real friend. So I claim no objectivity when it comes to my friend Paige. She rules.
Anyway, as with all things involving fixing the housing problem in Austin, there were delays. The anti-growth contingent of the city council has presided over the sharpest rise in growth since the first white dude moved to town in the 1800s and thought he’d discovered the place. And, by opposing almost every measure to do anything to better manage growth, they contributed to it as well. When he wrote for The Austin Chronicle, Michael King called this faction the “land-use conservatives,” a term they dislike because they are all socially liberal, so I call them the Yeahbutters.
Michael King called this faction the “land-use conservatives.”
The Yeahbutters managed to delay Harper-Madison’s resolution, but not forever, and on December 9, the city council met. When her resolution came up on the agenda, the Mayor passed the mic to Harper-Madison, who promptly dropped it.
“We have an affordability crisis in Austin,” she began. “We all keep talking about it. It’s supposed to be one of our most pressing challenges, but I just don’t know that we’re doing all we can.”
I mean, damn. People aren’t supposed to speak this directly on the dais. It is, in a word, impolitic.
She listed all the things that were beyond their purview: supply, demand, people moving to town, stagnant wages, and state law, which limits a city’s ability to do much.
“My colleagues do a good job of talking about the limitations imposed by the state, but the one thing we do have direct control over is how much our local rule and practices add to the cost of homebuilding.”
Natasha! You’re supposed to hide the pill in a spoonful of peanut butter!
Then she talked about the fun house mirror of housing policy in Austin. The Yeahbutters like to point to the ravages of growth — sprawl, displacement, loss of neighborhood character, demolitions of cute existing housing — as reasons to oppose measures to better manage future growth. Don’t do that thing in the future, they argue, because of the out-of-control growth we have right now. But that’s due to “the rules that we follow right now, the status quo that we have right now,” as Harper-Madison put it.
You’re supposed to hide the pill in a spoonful of peanut butter!
And lest you wonder, Harper-Madison is not a Yeahbutter. She’s a Yesander. And having cooked the meal and set the table, it was time for the Yeahbutters to criticize the menu.
Alison Alter, who’s a genuinely smart city council member and the current Mayor Pro Tem, started by worrying over the possible costs of this resolution, though she was referring to the costs bourn by the City of Austin and not by the small-c city called Austin. Of course, she said, we all have the same goal, but is this the right way to ask this question? Maybe the thing to do would be to pause and let the City staff recommend how to do this resolution the best way. Because, she said, they shouldn’t negatively impact city staff.
“I think this could get really expensive and could detour us in a lot of different ways,” said Alter. And by “this,” she wasn’t talking about housing costs, but asking the city staff to come up with a list of possible ways to reduce housing costs.
In her response, Harper-Madison brought up the last budget negotiations when she was told to take half a loaf to deliver some bread to her district.
“So I have to say, I am disappointed in the level of inconsistency that some of my colleagues bring to this dais. We all have to compromise something in order to get the things done,” she said.
“I am disappointed in the level of inconsistency that some of my colleagues bring to this dais.”
Ellis weighed in on the pro side, saying “The clock is ticking on housing,” before Council Member Ann Kitchen, whom I’ve written about before, entered the chat by misaddressing Harper-Madison as Council Member and not, as she was at the time, Mayor Pro Tem. Kitchen’s idea was to do Harper-Madison’s idea and Alter’s idea concurrently. If I’m understanding this correctly, she was saying that the City should be directed to identify contributing factors that increase housing costs and at the same time direct the City to tell them how best to direct them to identify those contributing factors to housing costs or even whether such direction is advisable. I’m sure I’m misunderstanding that, because it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.
Then it was the Mayor’s turn.
“I don’t think we have any more existential charge in front of us other than housing and affordability,” he said. I’ve spent a lot of time translating for the Mayor, who can be mild-mannered to a fault in search of consensus. And because he doesn’t like to dress his words in bright colors, it can be hard to tell his meaning. Here’s what he meant: Folks, housing prices are killing Austin. Not just us as residents, but us as a city.
Then he pointed out that the City Manager could always come back midway through the research and say there’s a problem with the direction they were given and ask for further direction. In other words: Fuck it, let’s try this.
“The clock is ticking on housing.”
The Mayor told his colleagues — the Yeahbutters — that what worried him was “the thought that we could end up here today not past this because we can’t wordsmith all the kinds of considerations we would want the manager to take into account.”
In other words: Get in loser, we’re going affordability shopping.
Then the Mayor had to boogie to catch a plane to Washington to join a presidential council on cyber security, which meant the Mayor Pro Tem — Natasha Harper-Madison her own self — was running the meeting. She was, officially. In reality, the Yeahbutters tried to take over.
Round the dais they went to Council Member Kathy Tovo, who perhaps might be running for Mayor, and who unofficially chairs the Yeahbutters. Sure, she was in theory for this, but how much will this cost, both in money and staff hours, and all those associated hours. And besides, some of the fees they were talking about were paid by builders. “Before launching into the work,” she said, we need to be “extremely mindful about how we use these fees.” In other words, she didn’t seem as worried about charging builders fees that would then be passed onto residents than whether the City would be using these fees responsibly.
Get in loser, we’re going affordability shopping.
Then came Council Member Leslie Pool, who offered an amendment that she hoped “would be viewed as friendly.” Onto Harper-Madison’s amendment she would add direction that the City Manager would analyze the “value of … open space and parkland dedication, transportation and right of way dedication, water quality and stormwater requirements, heritage and protected tree preservation and mitigation regulations, and other safety and quality of life regulations that pertain to housing production.”
In other words, she wanted the other side of the ledger filled out. If Harper-Madison wanted to quantify how much regulations, some of which conserved our natural environment, cost in real dollar terms, Pool wanted to know whether the City Manager shall ever see a regulation as lovely as a tree.
And if that wasn’t clear, Pool listed specific references for the City analysts, including Austin's Urban Forest Report by the U.S. Department ofAgriculture with data compiled by Texas A&M University and 2021 ParkScore Index published by the Trust for Public Land. In particular, she wanted the analysts to look at “lack of tree canopy or parkland deficiency.”
In other words, she wanted to turn Harper-Madison’s resolution into a book report on trees.
“The reason why this is such a livable city is because you look out these doors and you can see we’ve got greenspace, we’ve got trees, and we care about them,” said Pool. It’s an interesting perspective to take in a housing crisis, namely that of a homeowner who opens the front door to greenspace and trees.
“This is such a livable city is because you look out these doors and you can see we’ve got trees, and we care about them.”
But lest she get hung up on prioritizing what people could see when they looked out their homes, Pool continued, claiming that a study of housing costs, which include permitting delays, could cause permitting delays. She worried, she said, about the “impact on staff and capacity.” So it’s not all about being able to look at trees.
At this point, Tovo, sensing momentum, suggested they hold a public hearing to gather public input and witness a “sharing of experiences.” Alter offered another amendment she hoped would be friendly about creating a public process of engagement to hear all about these experiences, particularly in permitting where some homeowners experienced bottlenecks. These amendments were so friendly, in fact, that the resolution looked like it could get caught in a completely different bottleneck.
Harper-Madison was not having it.
“I’d really, really like to just move forward. We’re just asking for information. We’re not doing anything other than asking for information today.”
Then Council Member Pio Renteria spoke. Folks, I need to write about Pio some day. He’s nails. He just sits in the meetings quietly, and you wonder if he’s even paying attention, and then he says something like he did that day:
“I don’t know why people are freaking out about being transparent about the fees and how it’s affecting housing here in Austin,” said Pio. “I don’t know what we’re trying to hide from the public. It’s just amazing to me there’s resistance to getting this information.”
“I don’t know what we’re trying to hide from the public.”
Alter jumped in with a comment I can safely summarize as, “Hey, not cool man.”
Then Kitchen, in a tone that expressed zero deference to the woman who was actually running the meeting now, thanked Harper-Madison for accepting all the friendly amendments, which the Mayor Pro Tem said, and I’m paraphrasing, nope, never happened.
She liked Pool’s amendment, she said in a smart bit of politics, but it was “outside the scope.”
Pool, not quite getting it, said she checked with the lawyers who told her that her amendment was germane, which only means that it was legally allowable to include.
To which Harper-Madison responded, and again I paraphrase here, nope.
Pool: But it is permitted.
Harper-Madison explained what she meant, taking undo care to explain the matter circuitously so as to not break the string holding this whole thing together. I cannot speak for Harper-Madison’s inner thoughts, but from the cheap seats it looked like she was saying they wanted two different things: Harper-Madison wanted to bring down housing construction costs within a tiny window of opportunity, and Pool wanted to look out that window and see a tree.
“What I want is not appropriate?” asks Pool.
“What I want is not appropriate?”
Sure, said Harper-Madison, but in a separate resolution.
But that would be too late, said Pool. By the time she did her own resolution, they would never get the answers about the intrinsic value of trees before they voted on the next budget. Take my amendment, threatened Pool, or I vote no.
/curtain comes down/
Let’s take an intermission, you and me, and let Pool and Harper-Madison have a sit while we talk. Don’t get me wrong. I like a good tree. Shade? Big fan. Using public tax dollars and public debt to conserve parkland and places like Barton Springs Pool (no relation)? Yes, yes, and yes. But Austin doesn’t have a parks crisis. Austin has a lot of rules that make it hard to cut down trees.
Austin has plenty of trees. It lacks housing. When the City Council, including the Mayor, Kitchen, Pool, Renteria, and Tovo (but not yet Alter, Ellis or Harper-Madison) approved the Strategic Housing Blueprint in 2017, they admitted that Austin needed to add 135,000 housing units over a range of price points to keep pace over the next decade. Halfway through that decade, Austin, thanks largely to the Yeahbutters who always say they share the goal of more housing but never seem happy about doing anything about it, are a big reason why we’re falling so far behind.
OK, let’s go back to the dais to see if things have calmed down.
Let me check.
/Looks behind curtain/
They have not. OK, I’m going to raise the curtain, so let’s all try to remember that everybody is doing their best, and no one is intentionally trying to bend public policy to disadvantage younger people, a disproportionate number of whom are of color, at the expense of older, whiter, wealthier land owners. It can sometimes look exactly like that is what is happening, as clear as a tree outside your window.
Sorry, I’ll try harder. Let’s get back to it.
Pool asked again to have her friendly amendment accepted under threat of a no vote.
Harper-Madison pointed out that she had already twice refused.
Pool moved to amend, and Kitchen seconded. In other words, You want war? Then let there be war.
But they couldn’t look mean-spirited, so Kitchen started covering the moment with a practiced tone of reason, explaining that Pool’s amendment simply “goes to the spirit of the resolution which is to gather information” and is merely “pointing out some additional aspects of the analysis,” which included a green word salad of parkland, stormwater, water quality, transportation, health and equity disparities, and, of course, tree preservation. “To me, it’s a plus.”
Ellis jumped in here with something she didn’t get nearly enough credit for. She pointed out that Pool’s amendment was “duplicative,” which is a very polite way of asking whether Pool bothered to read the latest version of Harper-Madison’s resolution. After the City analysis identified ways to save housing construction costs, they were then “to provide information on the public benefits provided by any associated regulations and fees under consideration for changes. The City Manager should include detailed information on potential impacts to public infrastructure and the environment.” In other words, no one was making it easier to cut down trees without Austin first putting a price tag on the tree. In other words, exactly what Pool wanted.
Well, not exactly, said Pool. Try to follow along here. She makes a few jumps, and the first few times I tried to follow her she lost me, because her path goes sideways in places.
“We are comprehensive on looking at regulations that do have impacts on housing prices. Quality of life is a really big one.”
Quality of life is a really big one.”
Did you see that? The quality of life for those who have housing is one of the factors we need to consider in reducing costs for those seeking housing. And that quality of life, she argued, is due in part to regulations on environmental, water, parkland, open space, safe routes to schools, even how the traffic lights automatically time themselves every three years to keep traffic moving smoothly.
“If we’re looking at our regulations we can influence and that have direct impacts on the costs of housing in our city, we really do have to throw the net really, really wide,” she said. “And so this is an attempt to make sure that we are looking at all things to quantify the value and state of Austin’s natural resources.”
Good manners prevents the full expression of my reaction to her argument that yes, the costs to the environment may be captured in Harper-Madison’s language, but what Pool wants are the benefits to preserving the natural environment, even at the expense of the lived environment. Cheaper housing is nice, argues Pool, but have you ever seen the shady lanes in my district?
Harper-Madison’s tone hardened, and she measured her words. “What I’m asking for,” said the Mayor Pro Tem, “are specifically cost-related items.”
“I’ve got the votes,” said Pool, but “in an effort to be conciliatory” she asked the City Manager whether the resolution as written would take the environmental costs of reducing fees into account. The Assistant City Manager was summoned and the question was posed to him, to which he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Duh, of course.
“What I’m asking for, are specifically cost-related items.”
Then Kitchen, again appearing as if she were running the meeting, asked the actual Mayor Pro Tem whether the language in her resolution about “potential impacts to public infrastructure and the environment” was an attempt to capture Pool’s amendment, which you should note came after the resolution was written, to which Harper-Madison responded in much the same manner as the Assistant City Manager.
Then Kitchen essentially declared peace, and Tovo and Alter talked about working together to hold that public hearing so people could share their experiences. Finally Pool pulled down her amendment, which by now was clear would have accomplished nothing, and the city council unanimously approved the resolution.
There’s a lot we could say about this. Some might say that it’s unfair to assign a racial aspect to a power dynamic that left the council’s only Black woman on her back foot. I’m sure no one thinks they were being disrespectful, or worse, but in my experience it’s a lot easier to assume best intentions if the best intentions you’re assuming are your own, and it’s a lot easier to absolve everyone if you’re not the only Black woman in the room.
You could also say that I’m making too much of this and am wildly off base. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time anyone had said this, and it wouldn’t be the last time anyone would be right about this. I’m not interested in arguing this point. If you come back with an accusation that I’m wrong, just go ahead and fill in my response ahead of time: OK, sorry. Also this: I’m as guilty of unconscious bias as anyone.
What’s also at play here is whether or not the leaders this city elects will do anything real about housing and affordability, which are the polite names we give to the Edvard Munch terror pressing down on our bodies. Some of us will never be able to afford to buy a place of our own. Some of us can’t afford to sell our places because we would have to leave town to afford to buy a new place. Some of us are already leaving, because the rent, as the man said, is too damn high.
There’s hope because there’s time. This council serves together a few months more. Surely this council, which put Project Connect on the ballot, can decide to put housing where they put trains and bus lines. Surely this council, which deserves credit for recently agreeing on how to expand accessory dwelling units (or ADUs), can agree that a busy transportation corridor is not a neighborhood to be preserved but an opportunity to be realized.
Perhaps. But don’t call me Shirley.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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