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A lot has changed since Kirk Watson served his first term as Austin’s mayor.
The capital city’s voters chose Watson, who served in that role from 1997 to 2001, to once again lead the city as it combats sky-high housing prices, grinding bumper-to-bumper traffic and a Republican-dominated state Legislature determined to hit the brakes on Austin’s more liberal-leaning tendencies.
Watson, a former Democratic state senator who took the mayor’s office on Jan. 6, sat down with Texas Tribune editor-in-chief Sewell Chan for a wide-ranging interview Tuesday that included what he plans to do about the city’s housing affordability crisis, transportation woes and persistent vacancies among the city’s police ranks.
Here are some highlights from the conversation.
Besides giving Watson a second term as mayor, voters elected three new Austin City Council members last year who made boosting the city’s housing supply the centerpiece of their campaigns, which he said reflects the greater urgency to tackle the city’s housing crisis. His aim, Watson said, will be to find consensus on ways to address the crisis and then execute them — instead of getting hung up on disagreements as past councils did.
“If you know you’ve got an emergency, address the emergency,” Watson said. “We know we have a housing emergency, we know it’s putting a burden on renters, that we’ve got a problem here. So why don’t we make that a priority?”
Austin saw housing costs skyrocket during the COVID-19 pandemic as demand for homes and apartments in the capital city surged. The city’s rampant unaffordability defined the close mayoral race last year between Watson and his opponent, former state Rep. Celia Israel.
Rents and home prices in the Austin region peaked last year and have since fallen, but housing costs remain much higher than before the pandemic. The typical rent in the Austin-Round Rock area sat at $1,869 in December, about 27% higher than in January 2020, according to figures from real estate site Zillow.
And home prices are still hovering around half a million dollars in the capital city. The median sale price fell nearly 17% from a peak of $550,000 in May to about $457,000 in December, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University — still 50% higher than before the pandemic hit.
A growing chorus of housing advocates has laid the blame for Austin’s housing crisis on the city’s development code, which hasn’t been updated since the 1980s and which critics say is too restrictive when it comes to building new housing. The Austin area needs tens of thousands of additional housing units than it has in order to meet demand, a shortage that contributed to the run-up in prices the past two years as prospective homebuyers and renters scrambled over a limited supply of homes and apartments.
Opposition from neighborhood groups who stiffly oppose the construction of new housing in their areas has effectively killed each attempt to allow for denser housing development in the capital city.
During the campaign, Watson pitched the idea of letting individual Austin City Council districts adopt their own code reforms and requirements to increase the supply of housing — a way to break the citywide gridlock on reforming the entire land development code. In exchange, districts that make those reforms would get more tax revenue to pay for services like parks, libraries and rental assistance.
Critics blasted the proposal as a way to let some council districts escape new development altogether and further entrench the city’s racial and economic segregation — a characterization that Watson vehemently contests. He said council districts could not, for example, exempt themselves from any citywide change to the development code. Such a system would give districts more flexibility on land use, which might make reform easier to swallow, he said.
“You would have less likelihood of there being some effort to block it, and you would get those changes,” Watson said.
Watson said he’s considering other ideas to boost the city’s housing production, including adopting housing production targets and streamlining the city’s permitting process for new housing construction.
Other affordability issues
But Austin has affordability problems beyond housing, Watson said. He said he plans to appoint a panel to study how the city can lower the cost of child care, among other related issues.
Child care costs rose dramatically during the pandemic. More than half of U.S. parents recently surveyed by Care.com said they spend more than 20% of their household income on child care.
Watson also noted the city has roughly 50,000 job vacancies. He floated the idea of asking local employers which jobs they needed to fill and creating partnerships to fill them with local workers.
Working with the Texas Legislature
The state’s Republican leadership has increasingly treated Austin as a punching bag over the past decade — a trend Watson said he hopes to blunt.
Republicans in the Texas Legislature have rebuked prominent moves by Austin city leaders to cut police spending and allow homeless encampments in public, passing laws that essentially reversed those moves. And lawmakers haven’t let up: One bill proposed this session would dissolve the city and transfer control of the area, including its police force, to the state.
A veteran of the Legislature, Watson touted himself as someone who can work effectively with state officials — or at least not further inflame tensions.
“I really do believe that being in the Legislature and being the mayor of the capital city of Texas requires relationships,” he said. “And they need to be positive relationships, even if I don’t agree with somebody on every issue.
“You will never see me tweet at an elected official because that’s not a good dialogue,” Watson said.
Watch the full interview above for more on Watson’s take on homelessness, transit and policing.
Disclosure: The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization, is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.