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How one Austin city councilmember plans to unlock affordable housing

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Texas’s tech hub doesn’t have a prosperity problem, it has a shared prosperity problem, says Greg Casar

“In many ways, I worry that the Austin of the future may not have a district like mine, one that’s largely working class and rich in diversity and opportunity.” Austin city councilmember Gregorio Casar.
Courtesy Gregorio Casar

As Austin’s evolution as a tech hub moves it further and further away from its mythical past as a city of hippies, musicians, and slackers, there’s a real fear that it is becoming too expensive to support the culture and citizens that made it what it is.

It’s a riddle confounding city leaders across the country: How to attract and encourage development while making sure the new economy works for everyone, not just those making six-figure incomes. For Austin city councilmember Gregorio Casar, a progressive millennial politician who has made housing his central issue, an acceleration of affordable housing production is not only central to making cities more accessible, but also maintaining social justice.

“In many ways, I worry that the Austin of the future may not have a district like mine, one that’s largely working class and rich in diversity and opportunity,” Casar told Curbed.

“No longer accepting inaction as an excuse”

Casar’s current legislative priorities, Affordability Unlocked, which seeks to accelerate affordable housing construction in Austin by cutting through regulations and zoning restrictions, highlights his approach.

The plan would allow for taller, denser construction and relaxed parking requirements. By legalizing six-unit three-story apartments citywide, so long as half the units are affordable, this housing bonus program would help the city stretch its housing dollars further, and let developers “build affordable housing in places that would only allow for McMansions.” Introduced in February as a resolution supported by the council and currently cosponsored by three other members, Affordability Unlocked will be subject to a final vote in May.

Similar to Minneapolis’s rezoning plan and proposals advocated by local YIMBY politicians across the country, Affordability Unlocked aims to push aside rules restricting what can be built. With these kinds of rule changes, Casar says, last year’s record-breaking $250 million affordable housing bond—which he also campaigned for—can do more good for more working class Austinites.

It’s all part of a large, interconnected web of new legislation, rule changes, and new funding proposed by Casar to help tackle inequality and increase opportunity. An Austin Monthly writer said the councilmember was “challenging the city to back up its claims of being an oasis of progressive ideals in the heart of Texas.”

Bringing a progressive lens to housing policy

Casar’s platform may be grounded in his experiences in Austin and Houston, where he grew up. But the themes that underline his work—environmental and immigration justice, collective action to tackle our country’s big problems, and the interconnected nature of housing, transportation, and opportunity—ring true for many other rising star politicians of his generation.

“We are getting to a point in so many of our cities where young people just graduating from school with tons of debt and can’t imagine the idea of ever owning a home,” he says. “We can’t afford not to act on big issues like housing and climate change. There are a lot of young people who are no longer accepting inaction as an excuse.”

The son of Mexican immigrants and a former workers’ and civil rights advocate with the Workers Defense Project, Casar first ran for city council in 2014, becoming the city’s youngest council member at age 25.

Twice re-elected, he’s promoted and helped pass numerous laws aimed at helping the working class, especially in his North Austin district, including the first paid sick day ordinance in the South (members of the Texas legislature currently seek to void that law). But housing has been his focus, from helping organize a tenants association at mobile home parks to supporting more than a dozen initiatives.

“When I talk to immigrant moms and dads in my district, the issues they always bring up are, first of all, how can we not be deported by this federal government needlessly, and second, there aren’t any other options for my family than living in an old apartment where we’re being charged too much rent,” he says. “Housing is part of people’s everyday experience. We can’t just ignore that.”

Casar’s brashness and impatience—he was arrested during a sit-in at the State Legislature in 2017 while protesting an anti-sanctuary city bill, and has been accused of bullying a colleague on the council—has earned him enemies, and he’s occasionally been labeled a communist.

“If the worst thing people can say about me is that me and my colleagues are passionate about our work and trying to do it fast, we can handle that criticism,” he says. “We’re in a housing crisis and an environmental crisis, and our constituents are struggling to pay the bills.”

Fixing a shared prosperity problem

Casar has ambitions to pass a web of transit and housing bills, including new zoning code rules by the end of the year, as well as getting a multibillion-dollar mass transit plan on the ballot for the 2020 elections.

“People need to earn better wages, but if those wages are eaten up by rent increases, how does that help?” he says.

Casar’s embrace of more collective action and housing legislation has led him, and other progressive politicians, to run into the wall of state legislative preemption. As a blue island in a red Republican sea, Austin has always struggled to pass the kinds of housing regulation, like rent control or mandatory inclusionary zoning, that often forms the policy toolkit used in other big cities.

“In so many ways, the state tries to limit our ability to redistribute the gains of our booming economy to everyone,” he says.

But inaction isn’t an option, and like many Democratically-led cities trying to push progressive policies, it’s about getting creative. Austin is preempted from passing mandatory inclusionary zoning, but Casar and others want to expand a volunteer version of that policy. Ideally, the program can be tweaked so 30 percent of new housing is missing middle housing that helps provide space for the middle class while relieving pressure on the working class.

As Casar sees it, Austin doesn’t have a prosperity problem, it has a shared prosperity problem. One of the wealthiest cities in America should be able to tackle affordable housing and inequality.

“I believe there’s no such thing as a self-made person or a self-made company,” he says. “The only reason the economy is able to expand in Austin is that everyday people in places like District Four take care of the kids, build the roads, run the schools, and clean the buildings. For a long time, the country has been losing that sentiment. But it’s coming back.”