Can Austin’s YIMBY Movement Go From Backyard to Ballot? – Next City

Natalie Gauldin 

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Can Austin’s YIMBY Movement Go From Backyard to Ballot?

After years of advocating for more housing development and increased urban density as residents, ATX activists are eyeing City Hall.

Story by Josh CohenTwitter

Photography by Scott Stephen Ball

Published on Aug 7, 2017

Human beings hate change. They hate it on a deep, psychological level. In the 1940s, Kurt Lewin, the founder of modern social psychology, ascribed the phenomenon to the pressures and norms of our social groups and institutions. Explaining Lewin’s theory, NYU psychologist John T. Jost writes, “Resistance to change stems from the fact that we value the groups to which we belong, and therefore changing our attitudes or behavior is tantamount to leaving the comfortable embrace of a social reality of which we are a part.” Once our attitudes form, Lewin wrote, they freeze in place and are very difficult to unfreeze.

Cities are as good a place as any to see this play out. Especially hip, rapidly growing cities such as Seattle, Portland and Austin, Texas, where a flood of people and money have left longtime residents worried that the city they love will be lost to new development built for newcomers.

A rendering of the Grove at Shoal Creek, the proposed development fought by neighbors 

In Austin, a city generally known for a heated music scene and laid-back everything else, the fear manifests loudly and often. Seemingly every new apartment building or commercial development inspires protest. Last spring, a group of North Austinites went so far as taking a developer to court in an attempt to block a dense infill development of homes, office buildings and shops from rising on one of the last large, mostly vacant parcels left in the city’s central core. They lost.

No one should have been surprised by the court’s decision. Like it or not, Austin is growing. From 2010 to 2015, the city gained nearly 123,000 residents, bringing the total to over 887,000. In that period, the city experienced the second-fastest growth among large U.S. cities. New development hasn’t kept pace. The result: Housing costs for both renters and buyers are rising fast. One 2017 study found home values rose 65 percent from 2006 to 2016.

The hot market is pushing middle-income residents into formerly lower-income neighborhoods, and pushing low-income residents farther to the margins of the city and into the suburbs, deepening economic segregation in a region that at least one study ranks as the nation’s most divided by income.

And while the overall city population expanded by 20.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, the number of black residents declined by 5.4 percent, a loss of 3,500 people, according to an Austin American Statesman analysis of census data.

“We don’t have enough places to live, and too many can’t afford the places that exist. And while things are getting more and more expensive, too many people are falling further and further behind. And without question, communities of color are feeling this impact the hardest,” said Mayor Steve Adler in his annual state of the city address in January.

These are problems city leaders know they must confront — and fast. In April, the City Council adopted Austin’s first strategic housing plan, setting a goal of building 60,000 rent-restricted and 75,000 market-rate units of housing over the next decade.

Now the city is rewriting the rules and regulations that determine how and where all these new homes (and everything else that comes with new residents) will be built. Named CodeNEXT, the draft development code has become a new front in the war over Austin’s future.

One faction worries CodeNEXT will not only transform the city they love, but accelerate gentrification and displacement and destroy the region’s complex natural ecosystems in the process. This group includes the Austin Neighborhoods Council, a long-standing, politically influential group of neighborhood representatives, along with environmental and public health groups, social justice advocates, and many more.

On the other side of the debate is a small coalition of pro-density, pro-transit urbanists who say the CodeNEXT draft doesn’t go far enough. This coalition of upwardly mobile millennials, more seasoned (and fed up) defectors from the city’s political class and others argue that if the city can’t meet the new housing demand with a significantly larger supply of dense, transit-accessible development, housing costs will continue to rise and suburban sprawl will continue to harm the environment.

New construction has popped up along East 11th Street and San Marcos Street.

The coalition is similar in many ways to the YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) groups popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Cambridge, Boulder and other cities where rising costs of living are making urban life inaccessible to those without wealth. Like their peers, Austin urbanists are working to build a grassroots movement that can shape policy that advances their vision of a dense, diverse, affordable, transit-rich, walkable and bikeable city. But their political vision goes far beyond lobbying officials and testifying at public meetings. They want to get their members elected to positions of power to shape Austin from within City Hall.

It’s a tough sell. They are volunteer activists, but some of their talking points sound a lot like those of profit-motivated developers, long a bogeyman in the sphere of progressive organizing.

“The general take is developers are bad, cars and residential character are the goal. Saying you want missing-middle housing types throughout the city isn’t Manhattanizing the whole city, but people don’t hear that,” says Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, co-founder of AURA, a group that has evolved to become the main organizational force in the pro-density movement.

For AURA and its partners, success will require out-organizing a far better established opposition, or convincing some of those opponents that their shared vision of a more affordable, more sustainable Austin might merit something like an alliance.

A Storied History of Urban Activism

Altamirano is a Texan raised in the Texas border city of McAllen who arrived in Austin by way of Yale and Stanford School of Business in 2006. The management consultant quickly made a name for himself blogging about Austin public policy matters on a website he named “Keep Austin Wonky.” He is a fitting ambassador for a movement that can trace its roots to the late ’90s tech boom that put Austin on the map for an ambitious guy fresh out of Stanford. Fueled by the success of Dell and other tech companies, Austin was in another period of growth. Without too many options for living in the city’s downtown core, tech workers were flocking to new subdivisions sprawling out along the periphery of increasingly clogged highway arteries. People were becoming concerned about the environmental cost of creeping into Hill Country and traffic was quickly metastasizing. Then-Mayor Kirk Watson united developers and environmentalists around smart growth-influenced policies designed to encourage more compact development and downtown revitalization.

For a while, Watson’s efforts seemed to be working. Large, corporate developers struck deals with the city to build new office and apartment buildings in the downtown core. Then the dotcom bubble burst, companies pulled out of deals, and support for Watson’s anti-sprawl agenda quickly dwindled.

“There wasn’t really an urbanist movement back then,” says Chris Riley, an Austin City Council member from 2009 to 2015. “Our politics were still dominated by traditional neighborhood groups. They were really anxious about what they saw going on downtown when we started getting high-rise projects. Austin has had a long-standing opposition to skyscrapers.”

It’s unsurprising that Austin’s politics then (and now) were anti-development. The city’s modern political consciousness was born of a grassroots fight to save the Barton Springs Pool. Barton Springs is a natural, creek-fed pool in Zilker Park, a beloved 351-acre public green space 2 miles southwest of downtown Austin. In 1990, a proposed private development along Barton Creek threatened to destroy the pool’s water quality (and in turn, the city’s natural aquifer, which is connected to the Spring).

A group of citizen activists formed Save Our Springs. Thanks to a massive grassroots organizing effort, the City Council passed an 11th-hour watershed ordinance to protect Barton Creek and Barton Springs. The ordinance was a compromise with developers, but SOS nonetheless succeeded in saving the spring and, in doing so, launched the prominent political careers of many of their members. Co-founder Bridget Shea was elected to City Council. Co-founder Ann Kitchen and active SOS member Leslie Pool are still City Council members. SOS Campaign Manager David Butts went on to become one of Austin’s most prominent political consultants with a nearly flawless record of getting his candidates elected.

Barton Springs, a natural, creek-fed pool a couple miles from downtown Austin, was saved from being polluted by development in the '90s. 

Riley cut his teeth in that movement as well. But by the time he was elected to City Council he had devoured the works of urban theorists like James Howard Kunstler, Jane Jacobs and David Owen, author of “Green Metropolis.” These writers reshaped his notion of what a healthy city could look like.

He used his position on the council to advocate for bike infrastructure, parking reform, and smaller housing options such as micro-apartments and backyard cottages. At the start of his first term, the city was still recovering from the recession and there still wasn’t a significant pro-density, pro-biking, pro-downtown-living grassroots movement to speak of. That started to change by the end of his time on the council.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Riley says. “Certainly the return to the cities has only accelerated. Now we actually have a pretty substantial population living downtown. More importantly we have a whole cadre of citizen activists who are excited about these issues. That is what’s really new. We didn’t have that until just the last few years.”

AURA was born near the end of Riley’s time on City Council. Formed as Austinites for Urban Rail Action, AURA began in 2013, when the city was in the midst of a major transit overhaul and in need of rail advocates to push public investments forward. By 2014, the all-volunteer group had recognized that good transit wouldn’t work without good land use and changed its name to AURA: an Austin for Everyone.

“As we were having that debate, we realized the only way to get to a highly productive transit system is to have good, [high-density] land use,” explains Altamirano.

Broadening their focus to include housing and land use was an eye-opening experience for AURA. Altamirano says, “You would say you’re working for more frequent buses or transit and people are excited about it. People understand that. But if you have a conversation about changing your community to allow greater residential density, that’s different. People are not excited about that. Especially the people who vote.”

Which is not to say that AURA is made up of libertarian purists who think the market will solve all of Austin’s housing woes. “It’s interesting to have our more conservative libertarian members support subsidization of housing because they know the market cannot produce housing for everyone and similarly have folks who would describe themselves as socialists defend the need to have a profit motive in housing,” says Altamirano, a self-described left-of-center Democrat interested in intersectional and distributive justice.

AURA’s first major success came in 2015 fighting for regulations that would allow people to build backyard cottages, “accessory dwelling units,” in planning jargon. Riley had introduced a resolution to study the issue — an important one for communities interested in creating more affordable housing options within low-rise residential neighborhoods. Even the idea of an ADU study drew opposition from neighborhood associations, but the resolution passed.

The public meetings drew plenty of Austinites who didn’t want to see small houses popping up in their neighbor’s yards. Those voices shaped the draft ordinance the city staff eventually produced.

“AURA felt like the draft had weak language,” says Susan Somers, a University of Texas academic adviser by day and AURA’s board president by night. “It didn’t go far enough on parking and some other elements. It was going to be a reform, but it wouldn’t lead to construction of a lot more ADUs.”

So, AURA rewrote the ordinance themselves with the reforms they wanted to see and got busy. They produced a report providing supporting evidence for their argument that the backyard dwellings could bolster the city’s strained affordable housing supply and partnered with other organizations including homeless advocates Caritas of Austin, Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, and Austin Music People, who were concerned about musicians being priced out of the city, and lobbied council members. They made T-shirts and held a rally.

AURA was engaged in political organizing 101. And it worked. Council Member Greg Casar — a young, progressive politician with a background in social activism (this spring he was arrested at a sanctuary cities protest) — introduced a substitute bill that drew from AURA’s ordinance rewrite.

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a lot of it,” says Somers. “We really were successful building the sense that the grassroots supported this, that this was something people wanted. Even the Neighborhood Council didn’t oppose ADU reform. They just wanted the more conservative staff language.”

Two years later, AURA and its partners are trying to pull off a similar push to change CodeNEXT.

The Future of Development in Austin

Austin’s population has more than doubled since the city’s last land use code overhaul in 1984. Though there have been hundreds of small updates in the intervening years, CodeNEXT — the draft was released in January — is the first attempt to rewrite zoning laws so they reflect the city’s new reality as one of the nation’s largest and fastest-growing urban centers. Part of its purpose is to streamline regulations but it also makes some changes to zoning, allowing for additional heights or mixed uses in certain areas.

“We’re trying to manage growth where it’s appropriate along growth corridors and in neighborhood centers,” says Jorge Rousselin, CodeNEXT project manager. “One of the main themes of Imagine Austin is that we want to preserve areas we love about Austin while changing the ones that need improvement. CodeNEXT takes [it further] and starts to evaluate areas where we can apply these new zones.”

AURA and others worry, however, that the code update does little to change the status quo and there are indications that their concerns are well-grounded. Responding to residents’ fears about what CodeNEXT would do to Austin, Mayor Adler says, “97 percent” of the city will maintain the same or similar zoning to what currently exists.

“Our current land use is good at allowing developers to build very expensive homes,” says Greg Anderson, director of operations at Austin Habitat for Humanity. “The idea of a new code is beautiful and wonderful.”

But the idea must be backed by substantive reform to the regulation and CodeNEXT, he says, doesn’t do that.

“You’re not getting enough housing, not getting redevelopment along corridors, not getting the transit you wanted,” Anderson says.

With CodeNEXT still just a draft, AURA is hoping that its members can reshape the document before City Council adopts a final version at the end of the year. They have been blogging about CodeNEXT’s flaws as they see them and lobbying the city. Much like Anderson, AURA members worry the new zoning doesn’t do enough to allow mid-size residential development, especially in Central and West Austin where they say more housing would reduce inequitable displacement pressure on gentrifying East Austin. Historically, East Austin was home to the city’s African-American and Latino populations, thanks mostly to racist local and federal housing policy that segregated the city.

But AURA’s opponents are also lobbying the city, in their case to ensure CodeNEXT does little to expand opportunities for density. The popular narratives about YIMBYs versus NIMBYs is that NIMBYs are little more than homeowners who got theirs and don’t care if blocking new development raises housing costs so long as their neighborhood doesn’t change. And certainly there’s some of that at play. Austin Neighborhoods Council has been working on CodeNEXT issue for years now and maintaining neighborhood character is a key priority. (ANC did not respond to request for interview.)

But, of course, it’s not so simple as pragmatic urbanists versus selfish homeowners. CodeNEXT opponents also include Save Our Springs and other environmental groups worried about impervious surfaces, storm runoff and flooding, and low-income neighborhood activists who’ve seen rising costs displace Austin’s communities of color. Those factions have allied as the Better Code Coalition.

Much as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, SOS’s primary concern is protecting the watersheds that feed Barton Springs by minimizing new development in that area. SOS fought hard to regulate the amount of impervious surface a new development could build. SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch says they’re worried that CodeNEXT will weaken those regulations and that, “pushing densification and transitioning from old development” will greatly increase the impervious cover. That will mean more stormwater runoff, more pollution in the aquifers, more flooding.

“Austin’s plan since 1976 is to steer the bulk of our growth towards the east, downstream of our Hill Country watersheds. Which is not to say go east and build anything you want. You still need quality growth, still need to be preserving historic east side neighborhoods and there should be substantial infill development along major corridors,” Bunch explains.

When nonprofit GO! Austin / ¡VAMOS! Austin (GAVA) joined the Better Code Coalition, it was a rare foray into land use for the group. The place-based public health initiative works with low-income Latino communities in south and southeast Austin to increase physical activity and access to healthy food by improving parks and walkability, getting corner stores to carry healthy foods, doing education campaigns, and more.

“The biggest threat to the sustainability of this work is increasing pressure on cost of living,” says Carmen Llanes Pulido, GAVA executive director and a longtime organizer in the city, which is about one-third Hispanic. “We want to ensure that residents have access to healthy living and don’t get displaced after all the hard work they’ve put in.”

GAVA’s priorities as coalition members is to ensure their communities have a voice in the process, to ensure that CodeNEXT doesn’t simply encourage new development in their neighborhoods, and that anti-displacement measures are central to the conversation.

Carmen Llanes Pulido of GAVA stands in Ponciana Park.

“The residents I work with, particularly in Dove Springs, they don’t want to see what happened in East Austin where huge multifamily condos and apartments went in and there was massive displacement of low-income families,” Llanes Pulido says.

Ultimately, she worries that without careful consideration of where high-density development is built, a supply and demand, market approach to housing is going to push yet another generation of low-income people of color out of the city.

“I am in favor of conversations that center on those people, the directly impacted, who live there now. Not just the people who want to live here. Are you talking about the demand of the people who live there already or are you talking about the demand of the entire market? Who are we increasing supply for?” Llanes Pulido asks.

AURA argues that preventing that displacement is central to their mission, that when they talk about an Austin for Everyone they mean an Austin that doesn’t push out its low-income communities of color.

Llanes Pulido says she would feel a lot better about that and be more willing to see AURA as an ally if they pushed for low-income housing policies such as linkage fees and inclusionary zoning along with upzoning.

As AURA pushes forward with their political agenda and their plan to get their people elected to office, that question of alliances will no doubt prove important.

From Urban Activist to Politician

AURA took their first crack at a City Council race last fall. Their candidate was Natalie Gauldin, a 32-year-old tech writer who grew up in Austin and attended UT. She ran against incumbent Council Member Leslie Pool in the District 7 race on a platform of affordability, better transportation, more housing and more representation for renters.

“A lot of people were urging me to run,” Gauldin explains. “They wanted someone with a similar voice and similar goals to represent people who are typically underrepresented such as renters and people under 35.”

She says she heard a lot of support from people in her neighborhood for more housing options. People with adult children liked the idea of their kids being able to afford a townhouse or condo in the neighborhood. Retirees who no longer needed a house, but wanted to stay in their neighborhood liked the idea of having an option for a smaller place.

Gauldin didn’t specifically campaign as an urbanist, but she supported urbanist issues and had endorsements from avowed urbanists such as AURA. Her opponents used it against her.

“The anti-growth NIMBYs want to make the word urbanist synonymous with evil and equate people who want to make urban change with corporate greed, developers, bullies that Austinites are afraid of,” Gauldin says. “They created mailers and a website saying I wanted to destroy all of Austin’s single-family homes and just build condo towers.”

That wasn’t the only reason Gauldin lost. She didn’t have much name recognition and didn’t get many endorsements from other establishment political groups. But it clearly didn’t help her get votes either.

She got crushed in the end, earning just 26.9 percent of the vote on November 8.

“I think it’s fair to say that the new activists have not yet figured out how to field viable candidates,” says Riley. “In part it’s because our constituency [of renters and younger people] tends not to vote in nearly the numbers you see with more traditional neighborhood crowds.”

AURA Board President Somers recognizes it’s going to be an uphill battle to become the political machine they envision for themselves.

“A lot of the best political consultants in town have a more NIMBY take on things. They have really powerful voter databases that are hard for us to compete with. My husband and I did a lot of voter canvassing in local apartment complexes. It showed me how far we have to go for messaging and building turnout in elections,” she says.

In one campaign postcard, Gauldin, a white candidate, is pictured addressing a mostly white audience. The header photo on her campaign Facebook page is also of an event attended mostly by white people. Two campaign photos alone aren’t evidence of anything, but they do reinforce a narrative that urbanism is for Austin’s whiter, more affluent newcomers — undoubtedly a problem for a candidate vying to represent a district in which two out of five residents identified as African-American, Asian, Hispanic-Latino or other, according to demographic data from 2010, the most recent data available on the city’s website.

Gauldin says in the future urbanist candidates need to be more strategic about the coalitions they build and the districts in which they choose to run. More urbanized districts with larger blocks of renters are a more natural starting place for council runs than districts on the city’s suburban fringe. She also recognizes the potential power of a YIMBY and anti-displacement activist coalition.

“I feel strongly that urbanists need to go and align with anti-gentrification residents, specifically in east Austin,” she says. “These people don’t want to see their neighbors being pushed out due to high housing costs. But if people in the wealthier parts of town, the western portions of Austin, stop change in their neighborhoods, all the change is going to be forced on [East Austin]. We need a broad coalition of people saying, ‘Things need to change in an equitable way. It’s not fair to force all the change in the city on economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.’”

But though some urbanists may see natural allies in anti-displacement activists, market-based solutions are a tough sell to communities who’ve seen high-priced apartments and businesses gentrify their neighbors and make life harder.

“I want to believe people when they say they want equitable development,” says Llanes Pulido. “We have that in common. But how we go about it, we need to get really specific. I don’t hear the same criticism of what some would call protectionist neighborhood groups from the people I work with. I hear those criticisms coming from urbanist groups.”

It is just one of several challenges AURA knows it faces as it pursues electoral politics. “The challenge for us is how do we translate our values into effective electoral action?” says Altamirano. “We have a sense of how to use the tools and our very, very limited resources to organize people, bring arguments to policymakers, make a coherent policy case. But ultimately the toughest nut to crack will be elections.”

If they can crack that nut, AURA may prove to be a model for YIMBYs elsewhere in the country. They are not alone in their electoral ambition. Sonja Trauss, founder of San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, was one of the first YIMBYs to rise to national prominence. In July, she filed as a candidate for San Francisco’s District 6 supervisor race.

“All over the country it’s important for YIMBY groups to get involved in politics,” she says. “At the end of the day if you want your policies you have to have elected officials who will do them and understand and believe in them.”

Unfreezing Austin

In Lewin’s study of human aversion to change and our tendency to trust group consensus, he talks about our frozen attitudes. NYU professor Jost explains, “the only way to create real change is to temporarily ‘unfreeze’ the individual’s attitudes, ideally in a social setting in which one’s friends’ attitudes are also ‘unfrozen’ at the same time, and the group as a whole is subjected to argumentation. If persuasion takes place in this social context, the new attitudes should be frozen in place and solidified by the same social relationships.”

Austin’s frozen paradigm for nearly 30 years has been a conflict between environmental advocates who grew up in a suburban Austin dominated by single-family neighborhoods whose political consciousness was forged in the Save Our Springs fight and the developers they see as a threat to their way of life.

Somers says that paradigm dominates every debate about land use. She wants AURA and its cohorts to be “taken seriously as the third position of urbanists who want fair housing, economic integration in our neighborhoods, and missing middle development for very valid politic and moral reasons. We’re not just in it for profit-driven development.”

There are some signs that AURA’s pro-housing supply approach should be taken seriously. In July, the Statesman reported that after five years of an average annual rental cost increase of 5.8 percent, apartment costs have only risen 1.4 percent this year as the number of available apartments has grown.

But it will take far more than a small rental market dip to combat decades of distrust in developers, growth and change. That is especially true of the very reasonable distrust among low-income communities and communities of color for whom outsider-led change has rarely been a good thing.

As with all YIMBY movements around the country, AURA faces an uphill battle to convince people that they’re more than a movement for monied newcomers looking for luxury apartments, that YIMBYism does help create an Austin for Everyone as their tagline suggests. Doing so could prove key to their long-term electoral ambitions.

Still, Altamirano is optimistic. “It was easy a couple years ago to dismiss people as single-issue groups or shills for developers or this or that. But there’s a growing realization that this is a real perspective that is coherent, organizing, interested in getting power and needs to be heard.”

Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.

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Scott Stephen Ball is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in San Antonio Texas. His work centers around the relationships humans have with religion, wildlife and the environment in which they live in. You can see more of his work at www.scottstephenball.com and on instagram @scottstephenball.