Voters shift responsibility to elected officials with passage of $925 million bond, rejection of Prop J

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When Austin City Council agreed this summer to ask voters for a $925 million loan to fund crucial projects throughout the city, including a record-breaking $250 million request for affordable housing, District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar acknowledged the city was taking a bet on the community but maintained there was more to gain than lose.

“If the housing bond passes, it would be more than anything we’ve ever done as a City Council,” Casar said over a cup of coffee in August. “If it doesn’t pass then we will just try again and if people get tired of us trying that then they should elect someone other than me.”

As the voting totals trickled in on Nov. 6, it became clear the bet paid off. In a midterm election that turned out a record number of voters, the housing bond package passed with over 72 percent approval. The other six pieces of the nearly billion-dollar bond, which included investments in parks, city facilities, transportation and cultural centers, each passed with over 70 percent approval.

“People thought it wasn’t possible,” Casar said Wednesday. “But when Austinites had the choice in front of them, they said we’re going to keep doing the right thing. Austin doesn’t want to build walls, we want to build homes.”

Ted Siff ran the Austin Together PAC, a group that aimed to educate voters on the details of the bond, the projects it would include and how the city planned to spend the money. With a large voter turnout expected due to high-profile national and statewide races, Siff said informing voters was priority number one.

“I think Austin voters indicated they have a strong level of confidence in our current leadership,” Siff said. “They have given our leaders permission to spend this money on things the city really needs to make it as good as it can be.”

Paired with approving the bond and giving incumbent Mayor Steve Adler a second term as leader of the city’s lawmakers in landslide fashion, Austin voters made another key statement on Nov. 6 with their rejection of Proposition J—52 percent to 48 percent—effectively giving all power to City Council in approving a new land development code.

Proposition J, a citizen-initiated ordinance that would have given voters final say on comprehensive changes to land development code, landed on the ballot as the contention surrounding CodeNEXT—the city’s five-year attempt to rewrite the code—reached critical mass. As the city continues to grow and redevelop, the need to update land development code—authored in the 1980s—becomes immediate in order to address priority environmental and housing stock concerns.

CodeNEXT was cut short this summer and City Manager Spencer Cronk committed to laying out a path forward at the beginning of next year. If the proposition passed, however, a waiting period provision in the proposed ordinance would have meant no new code approval until at least November 2021.

After his victory speech in the mayor’s race, Adler said the rejection of Proposition J and the overwhelming support from the community on the bond package was a mandate from the community to its elected leaders.

“I think this is a community saying don’t get lost in the process…a community that is looking at the City Council and saying, ‘We’re giving you the authority to actually do big things,’” Adler said. “There is a real responsibility now to deliver on what it is the community wants.”

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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