That 10 of the 11 elected leaders in the Austin City Council are at least nominally associated with the Democratic Party does not mean there is any shortage of divisions on the dais.
The Council’s all-too-frequent marathon sessions, often stretching into the wee hours of the morning, reveal the many differences of opinion that exist on budgets, economic development, environmental protection, workers’ rights — and perhaps above all else, growth and development. There are centrists and leftists, neighborhood preservationists and urbanists, transit enthusiasts, those who support many pools, and those who support tons of pools.
And then there is Ora Houston. No vote is harder to predict than hers.
Despite being endorsed by progressive organizations and representing the solidly Democratic east side, Houston, the Council’s Representative for District 1, was a firm vote against the city’s recent paid sick leave ordinance and last year’s city budget, which included paying city temporary workers a living wage. Back when tea party firebrand Don Zimmerman sat on the Council, he could often count on Houston to support his frequent attempts to cut funding for bike infrastructure.
Houston has also not joined the three other Council members who represent the predominantly non-white and lower-income districts east of I-35 in urging a dramatic increase in housing stock, or a more “compact and connected” land development code. To the eternal frustration of the city’s urbanists, the life-long eastsider often finds herself on the side of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, along with ANC-aligned Council members from West and Central Austin, on controversial developments — and she tends to describe the notion of “density” as a problem, not a solution.
She is particularly concerned about the rapid development in East Austin, which she blames for driving up housing prices and displacing many long-time residents.
“It is a fact that the intense growth caused unintended consequences which impacted historic communities and home owners who witnessed dramatic increases in their property taxes with no notice,” Houston recently told me via email.
“Homes/duplexes/triplexes which were built in the 50s, 60s and 70s are at risk every day of being demolished and replaced with modern homes that do not reflect the existing character of the neighborhood.”
— Council Member Ora Houston
Guided by her view that additional housing supply is driving the city’s affordability problem, rather than solving it, Houston has historically backed policies aimed at discouraging redevelopment or added density in her district. Among other things, she voted against a 2015 ordinance that gave more homeowners the right to add accessory dwelling units (or garage apartments) on their property.
Most recently, Houston has raised concerns that CodeNEXT, a long-planned overhaul of the city’s land development code, will accelerate gentrification and displacement in her district. At a recent Council work session, Houston claimed that 30 percent of the new housing capacity identified in the proposed rewritten code is inside her district. “The density’s still in District 1,” she complained, later saying that she wanted density to be “spread out more equitably” across the city.
Houston certainly isn’t the only person on Council who believes that East Austin has been unfairly burdened with providing housing to meet the ever-rising demands of the market. However, the others who share that view on the dais say that the city’s response should be to allow more multifamily development throughout the city, with particular emphasis on the affluent neighborhoods in central and west Austin.
The three other representatives of the city’s eastern districts — Council members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria — recently released a joint letter with far Northwest Council Member Jimmy Flannigan arguing for a “complete overhaul” of the city’s land development rules via CodeNEXT. Though they didn’t delve into specifics, the writers described the status quo as one in which “affluent segments of Austin were better positioned to protect their own interests and push development into someone else’s backyard” and went on to declare that the new code should not “ban those cheaper housing units” in “attractive parts of town.”
While Houston says she agrees with these sentiments “to a certain extent” that building more multi-family units in West and Central Austin “would increase the opportunity for families to live in that community,” she also points out that much of the new housing is too expensive for those of modest means.
“If an 850-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment costs $980 a month, it may not serve the growing need of housing for working and minority families when they have to include costs for childcare, transportation, and utilities, especially with such limited power to require income restrictions,” she says, referencing the state’s prohibition on a number of common affordability measures, such as inclusionary zoning or linkage fees.
Houston’s impulse, however, is not to encourage more supply throughout all of Austin. Instead, she’s pushing for East Austin to “protect” itself in a manner similar to what wealthier parts of town have done for generations, with tactics such as stricter compatibility standards, historic preservation zoning, or single-family zoning.
That view is common throughout the city, and is shared by a number of East Austin neighborhood activists who oppose CodeNEXT and argue that it will lead to additional displacement. The division between that view and the urbanist perspective on growth even splits families: the 2014 race for District 3’s Council seat pitted Sabino “Pio” Renteria, a staunch supporter of increased housing, against his sister, Susana Almanza, who is now at the forefront of the campaign against CodeNEXT.
The competing views were fully on display in the fight over the Plaza Saltillo project, a transit-oriented mixed-use collaboration between Capital Metro and developer Endeavor Real Estate Group on a major lot that is bordered by I-35 and Comal Street to the east and west, and East Fourth and Fifth Streets to the south and north.
The project includes 141 affordable units reserved for those at 60 percent MFI or less, a rare opportunity to provide housing for hundreds of working-class people in a downtown-adjacent area with great access to jobs and transit. Renteria, whose district the project lies within, was a big supporter — but Houston voted against it, delivering a stern rebuke to the city’s new urbanists.
“I don’t think that the majority of the people who bet everything on density and growth understand that the first time one of those [new] apartments is sold, or a condo is sold, that’s going to increase the [property] value of everybody around that area. And that’s what’s causing people to leave the community […] We’re selling our souls. That’s my opinion.”
— Council Member Ora Houston
Residents of Houston’s district have the opportunity to render judgment on her opinions when she runs for re-election this November. She currently faces three declared opponents, at least one of whom — Natasha Harper-Madison — is active in pushing an urbanist vision of the city through Evolve Austin, a coalition of groups pushing for major reforms of city land use through CodeNEXT.
Asked to comment on her opponents by the Austin-American Statesman, Houston expressed confidence that she would prevail.
“I think they’re all great folks,” she said. “They all live in District 1 and I’ve represented them for three years and I’ll continue to represent them next term.”