The race to be Austin’s next mayor is about housing. Here’s where the candidates stand.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Austin mayoral candidate Celia Israel went door to door in North Austin trying to get out the vote. Every person at the door wanted to talk about housing.
One woman said she had already voted, but for Israel’s opponent, Kirk Watson. “You’re too lenient on housing,” the woman told Israel, standing in the doorway of her two-story home. She listed Israel’s stances that pushed her into voting for Watson: an interest in lowering parking requirements for builders and making it easier to build duplexes and triplexes.
“That worries you?” Israel asked. "It does,” the woman responded.
“I understand completely,” Israel said. She thanked the woman and walked to the next home where a man shushed his small, yapping dog, so he could listen to Israel’s spiel on — you guessed it — housing.
Both Israel and Watson have made housing and the cost of it central issues in their campaigns. Frankly, they’d be stupid not to.
Over the past several years, home prices in Austin have risen at unprecedented rates. Apartments now rent, on average, for 30% more a month than they did in 2020. In order to qualify to buy a home, a family would need to earn roughly $185,000 a year — in a city where a family of four typically earns much less than this.
So, how do the candidates plan to make housing more affordable? Where do they stand on solving homelessness in Austin? And what can past housing decisions they’ve made tell us about their future?
Both Israel and Watson say the city needs more housing to accommodate the people who want to live here. At the heart of making this happen is the city’s land development code.
Last overhauled in 1984, the current code makes it difficult to build anything other than a single-family home, meaning one house on one piece of land. But several attempts by the city to revise these rules have been opposed by residents, mainly white homeowners.
Watson told KUT: “I think there's going to need to be a comprehensive rewrite. But we're going to have to do it differently than what was tried here in the past.”
Watson has proposed getting around the “stalemate” of a contentious rewrite by letting each city district adopt its own changes to the land code, thereby deciding how and where to put new homes.
“I propose that the best way to make progress is to stop trying to force every Austin district to adopt the same type of code reforms, and instead allow each Council member to bring forward a set of district-specific reforms,” Watson wrote in a housing plan he introduced on the campaign trail this summer.
Districts that adopt changes to make it easier to build more housing would be entitled to tax revenue generated by these new homes, which it could use toward public amenities, like parks and pools.
Israel has called Watson’s plan “racist.” She compared it to the mid-century practice of redlining, where the federal government refused to back mortgages for would-be homebuyers in neighborhoods of color, cementing racial segregation in many parts of the country.
“It’s a throwback to decades past in Austin politics when the most politically active neighborhoods didn’t have to share power with their more marginalized neighbors,” Israel toldTheAustin Chronicle this summer.
Israel said while she supports a land code rewrite, she knows it may take some time. In the meantime, both Watson and Israel have said they want to make the city’s permitting process — a long-time thorn in the side of local builders — simpler and cheaper.
In a mailer, Watson’s campaign stated that Israel blocked an affordable housing complex called Elysium Grand from getting built. He’s not wrong, but there’s more to this story.
In 2016, developers applied for federal tax credits to finance the construction of 90 affordable apartments in Northwest Austin. As part of the application, state representatives can write letters of support or opposition to these projects, which affects whether or not they qualify for a tax break.
Two years into her term as a state representative, Israel decided to not support the project, stating that the apartments were too far from public transit. (The complex is a little less than two miles from a stop on the city’s Red Line.)
As a result, the project did not win tax credits. Although the apartments eventually were built under a different financing structure, the developer said it wasn’t an ideal outcome for the project.
In an interview with theTexas Observer in 2016, Israel said that developers were surprised at her decision not to support it: “I think what they’re used to is, you’re either hot or cold. You’re either gonna sign the letter [of support] because you’re a crazy liberal, or you’re gonna sign a negative letter and go out and say, ‘I stopped the riffraff from coming into our district.’”
(KUT asked Israel about her use of the word "riffraff" here. She said: “What I'm trying to suggest is that there are those who would say that a renter would be considered 'riffraff.' But that's not what I intended to say.”)
Israel told KUT she stands by the decision she made not to support Elysium Grand, and that she has thrown her support as a state representative behind numerous other affordable housing complexes. A review of state records shows that since 2018, she has supported at least three affordable housing applications for tax credits.
The redevelopment of East Austin
Before leaving his term early to run for attorney general, Watson served as Austin’s mayor from 1997 to 2001.
Prior to him taking office, the city had agreed to limit development in West Austin to protect the water flowing into Barton Springs Pool. In response, Watson and the rest of the council designated the rest of the central city as places to build new housing to accommodate incoming tech workers, including East Austin.
This marks the beginning of the redevelopment of the largely Hispanic neighborhoods in this part of Austin. One study found that the median price of a single-family home in East Austin doubled between 1999 and 2006. As a result, some have laid East Austin’s drastic change at Watson’s feet.
“That premise is pretty simplistic,” the former mayor told KUT, arguing that other factors were at work. He said East Austin’s proximity to downtown meant it was a place people would eventually move to, forcing new development, as more businesses set up shop downtown.
Israel did not explicitly place the blame for the change of East Austin on Watson, but she did acknowledge how environmental protections across town may have played into gentrification.
“We protected West Austin on the backs of East Austin,” she told KUT. “And that had an unintended consequence of pushing people farther out from their historic homes in Central East Austin.”
Austin's camping ban
In 2019, the Austin City Council voted to decriminalize homelessness, effectively allowing camping in public by eliminating criminal penalties. Council defended the decision, saying it brought people out of wooded encampments and encouraged people to get services. Opponents argued the decision lacked foresight on the housing front — that camps in public proliferated and city resources didn't meet demand.
In 2021, Austin voters overturned that decision with a citywide referendum, reinstating criminal penalties for sleeping outdoors. Shortly after that, lawmakers at the Texas Capitol approved a statewide ban as well.
Israel says she would have voted in favor of Proposition B last May but that she was at the time living just outside the city limits. She told KUT she had a family member who struggled with homelessness, and that she understands the need to balance compassion with enforcement.
"I would've supported it. Of course, the legislature then decided that for us as well," she said. "The voters spoke very loudly. But what wasn't coming through in that vote was that there's compassionate Austinites who want to make sure that our unhoused neighbors are dealt with in a dignified manner as well."
Watson says he supports enforcing the laws restricting public camping. During his first tenure as mayor, he pushed for a compromised approach. His administration helped found the court that diverts people out of jails, the Downtown Austin Community Court, but he also lobbied the state legislature to enhance penalties for people who've repeatedly been ticketed for sleeping outdoors.
"The public has told us that's what they want [and] there's a statewide camping ban passed by the legislature," he said. "So it's mandated. But what we're not doing well now at City Hall is how we enforce that camping ban so that we can be held accountable as a city in terms of providing the kinds of services that people living homeless need."
The city has leaned on what's called a Housing First policy for the last few years. It's a simple philosophy: Get people into housing, get them stabilized, and they'll be better equipped to transition out of homelessness. It's a strategy that's worked for Houston, which cut its homeless population in half over a 10-year period.
But Austin's strategy to do that has been scattershot. It's leaned on hotel-conversions, temporary campsites, traditional shelters and housing that's coupled with health and employment services.
Watson says he's not completely sold on the Housing First model. He argues that Austin shouldn't put so much stock in permanent supportive housing. Those are dedicated developments for people transitioning out of homelessness that either repurpose city-owned or leased land — or require a development that could take years to build.
He wants to focus more on rapid-rehousing, which relies on individual placements in apartment complexes.
"The Housing First model, in my view, too often excludes other things that you could do to help. Not everybody needs permanent supportive housing," Watson said. "I might be able to be convinced that that's a better way to go, but I have not been entirely convinced of it yet because I haven't seen the success."
Israel says she supports the "proven" Housing First model, but that delays in permitting have frustrated people she's talked to who work in Austin's homelessness response system.
"They point to the city and say, 'It shouldn't take me two years to get my site plan approved,'" Israel said. "So, the issue of red tape and bureaucracy at the city is not just an issue for those who are building a McMansion. It's for those who are trying to do something life-changing and significant."
It's worth noting, the city more often relies on rapid rehousing to get people off the street. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, 1,019 people were moved into rapid-rehousing last year, while 191 got off the street into permanent supportive housing.
Both candidates question the city's use of converting hotels into shelter or housing and wouldn't necessarily use it going forward. Watson said the city's push to do so didn't have a "coordinated plan," citing the city's reversal of its decision to open transitional housing at the Candlewood Suites hotel. The city instead partnered with the SAFE Alliance to open a shelter for people fleeing domestic violence. Israel said she would be "leery" of the hotel-conversion strategy going forward, citing the city's lack of communication with Williamson County on the Candlewood plan. Williamson County later took the city to court over that site.
Transparency and services
Both Watson and Israel believe there's a lack of transparency surrounding city efforts to get people off the street. They say there's been an erosion of credibility since the 2019 decision to decriminalize camping, hence voters' decision to reinstate the ban.
But, in that time, the city and Travis County have also marshaled a half-billion dollars in federal money to address homelessness — a plan dubbed Finding Home ATX. The $500 million plan uses federal, local and private money to build out thousands more housing units and invest more heavily in social services. It's similar to the strategy Houston used to get folks off the streets in the past decade and a half.
That money is spread between dozens of nonprofits and city and county departments. Either candidate would direct the city's Homeless Strategy Division, which runs point on Austin's funding and engagement efforts, and both say that office needs to be more visible in the decision-making process.
Israel says HSD needs to be empowered, but that there should be more transparency in funding — and in city efforts to clean up encampments.
"There are some very real frustrations out there with people who have layered needs, and those who are paying taxes towards this effort want to know that there's progress being made," she said. "[You] can't just go and say, we cleaned up a camp and then the camp comes back a month later."
Watson says the city needs to better coordinate with nonprofits providing the lion's share of services to Austinites experiencing homelessness.
"As a former mayor and a former senator and candidate for mayor, I have been frustrated with the inability to know what's going on with that office and in the whole process of addressing the needs of our homeless population," he said.
Both candidates agree social workers and other people doing the grueling work of getting people off the street should be paid more. Israel said "we've got to up our game on compensation and benefits" for social workers to reduce turnover and burnout. Watson said "we need to pay better" — especially as the city and county scale up their response to homelessness under the Finding Home ATX plan.