In Central Austin, a City Council race where the candidates diverge on housing
On a recent Saturday morning, two candidates vying for the same seat on the Austin City Council took to the streets. One donned a backwards cap, a navy blue sweatshirt and jeans; the other, purple leggings and a silk headscarf.
Each pitched themselves to anyone daring enough to answer the door.
“I’m Linda Guerrero,” the candidate in purple leggings said to the occupant of a cottage-style home just north of UT Austin. “I’m running for District 9 City Council.”
About a mile to the east, her challenger, Zohaib “Zo” Qadri, walked, knocked and spoke a similar opening spiel: “My name is Zo. I’m running for City Council in District 9.”
Guerrero and Qadri are competing to represent some of Austin’s oldest and priciest neighborhoods: Hyde Park, Travis Heights, downtown and the UT Austin campus, among others. Residents here pay some of the highest rents in the city, and homes sell for nearly $800,000.
In many ways then, District 9 is at the center of Austin's debate over how to make housing more affordable. Yet, the two candidates running to lead this part of Austin differ on how to solve the skyrocketing cost of housing — and what is to blame.
The root of Austin's affordability crisis
What Guerrero and Qadri do agree on is that housing in Austin is too expensive, and it's gotten markedly worse in the last few years. Homes in Austin sell for 35% more than they did just three years ago, and the average price of rent has risen at a similar rate.
Guerrero, 68, has owned her home just north of UT for three decades. She said she returned to work as a public school teacher after realizing she couldn’t afford her property taxes in retirement. (Guerrero owns a second home in the neighborhood, which she rents out.)
Thirty-two-year-old Qadri, who until recently worked on campaigns for various politicians including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, said the monthly rent on his downtown apartment rose by nearly $600 this year.
So, what is to blame?
“I definitely believe we have a housing shortage,” Qadri told KUT.
As in other cities across the country, experts say, the root of Austin’s unaffordability has to do with a lack of homes for the people who want to live in them.
In 2018, researchers with the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy wrote: “[T]he preponderance of evidence suggests that easing barriers to new construction will moderate price increases and therefore make housing more affordable to low and moderate income families.” A study published more recently looked at the effect of new housing supply on rents in New York City and found that with every 10% increase in new homes, rent on nearby apartments fell by 1%.
This can be hard to square for many who, like Guerrero, recall growing up in Hispanic neighborhoods on Austin’s Eastside. As new apartment buildings have replaced homes owned by longtime residents, housing costs in the area have risen.
In the ZIP code that includes the Govalle and Holly neighborhoods, homes sell for 79% more than they did seven years ago, according to data from the Austin Board of Realtors. (This is not far off from prices throughout the city, where the median sales price of a home rose 75% in the same period.)
“You don't see anyone that's been displaced saying, ‘Oh, this is great, there's 5,000 new apartments. I get to come back to Austin.’ That's not happening,” Guerrero said.
She is not convinced the city has a lack of housing.
“It's really controversial,” she told KUT. “There's a lot of people who say we don't have a shortage, that we have plenty of housing.” In a follow-up email, KUT asked Guerrero to provide evidence to back this idea, but she did not respond to this request.
In this case, both candidates were talking about market-rate housing — that is, housing not set aside for people earning low incomes, such as homes where rents are kept low because of government subsidies. Guerrero and Qadri both support building more of this kind of housing, also called income-restricted or affordable housing.
Guerrero said she would push for building affordable housing on city-owned land and cited Mueller, the 700-acre redevelopment of the city’s old airport, as an example of what could be done. It’s unclear how much land the city owns that could support a development like this; KUT asked the city for an estimate of the amount of vacant land that could be built on, but it said that information was not “readily available.”
A fraught fight over what you can build and where
Qadri said the city’s housing shortage has to do with its land development code.
This is a set of rules that says what can be built on a given piece of land in the city. These rules govern details like height, square footage and how far back from the road a house needs to sit; in short, Austin’s land development code explains why the city looks the way it does.
Last overhauled in 1984, Austin’s current code makes it difficult to build anything other than a single-family home — or, one home on one piece of land. But an attempt by the city to revise these rules to allow for more and different kinds of housing was blocked by a court after more than a dozen residents sued the city over the process, effectively killing the effort.
Qadri said despite this, he would push forward with a revision.
“I think it's important to realize the adverse effects of that land development code,” he told KUT.
Qadri said he'd like to make it easier to build more duplexes, fourplexes and small apartment complexes throughout District 9 neighborhoods.
When asked if she supports changing the land development code, Guerrero was much more hesitant.
“Will it make housing affordable?” she said. “We don't want to just do something for the sake of doing it because we're already doing a lot of apartments.”
Housing for people experiencing homelessness
Earlier this year, the candidates for District 9 found themselves on opposite sides of a debate over three plots of land.
Developers came before the City Council asking to build more in Austin’s Hancock neighborhood, just north of UT Austin. The project, dubbed Cady Lofts, would include about 100 apartments for people experiencing homelessness.
The neighborhood association initially opposed the project. Fearing this could threaten the project’s eventual go-ahead, advocates for affordable housing rallied support — including distributing a petition that Qadri signed.
A week before council approved the rezoning, the association rescinded its opposition. Developers expect to begin construction early next year.
In an email to city staff in May, Guerrero, who lives near the future development, opposed the rezoning for Cady Lofts. She wrote that the developer could still build on two of the three lots without the zoning change, ensuring that the third piece of land could act as “a buffer for the existing residents that will be the most impacted.”
In an interview with KUT, Guerrero stressed she didn’t oppose the project — just the rezoning. She said she imagined a buffer as some sort of “green infrastructure” between the apartment building and nearby one- and two-story homes.
“Let’s say you step outside of your yard, you have vines growing,” Guerrero said. “[Something] that looked more environmentally pleasing” than the side of a building.
Points of agreement
Although the city has made changes since a damning 2015 report about the department that yays or nays new development, those who build in Austin still complain about a laborious process to get permits to build.
“I think expediting the permitting process is something we should look at,” Qadri said.
“We need to revamp the permitting process,” she said. “I hear [woes] everywhere I go. From someone just trying to do an add-on to their house to someone doing 20-30 feet of building.”
Both candidates also say they supported the city’s most recent affordable housing bond; in November, voters allowed the city to borrow $350 million to spend on building and preserving homes that families earning low incomes can afford.
While Qadri received about 3,000 more votes than Guerrero in the November election, much of his support came from polling stations on the UT campus. Runoff elections draw few voters and those who do show up, election experts say, tend to be older.
Guerrero and Qadri both say they knock on doors to inform potential voters about their campaigns. But it's also to remind people that the election isn’t over and that they need residents' vote — a second time.