What will it take to elect an urbanist?

In District 9, or any of the wealthier close-in districts such as 5, 7, and 10? (Districts 1, 2, 3, and 4 are a different calculus).

Should you appeal to students? It’s hard to get them registered here in Austin, and the ones that make it through that gauntlet don’t seem to show up. Riley tried and lost. Skidmore tried and lost.

Students don’t reliably vote.

Should you appeal to renters? It’s hard to get them registered here in Austin, and the ones that make it through that gauntlet don’t seem to show up. Riley tried and lost. Gauldin tried and lost. Skidmore tried and lost.

Renters don’t reliably vote.

Should you appeal to the LGBTQIA community? Skidmore hit that drum very hard. But there’s no point in focusing your appeal to people who don’t get to vote in your district (yes, their money might be useful, but in the end you need votes). I suspect that many of those most loudly applauding her campaign don’t actually live in D9.

People who don’t live in your district can’t vote for you.

You know who votes? Who turns out reliably, whether you like it or not?

People who own houses RELIABLY VOTE.

So rhetoric talking about desegregation that implies that single-family zoning is racist is not gonna work. Neither is appealing to other forms of identity politics. I don’t care what you hear in your echo chamber; the fact is that your electorate (the one you have to win with) doesn’t care for it.

There IS one way that could work; that nobody has yet tried.

A couple years ago, a guy who the Skidmore campaign knows well ran a referendum in Hyde Park in which a large majority of respondents agreed to loosen the restrictions on development that were preventing the construction of ADUs. This referendum was run through the Hyde Park Neighborhood Contact Team, a group tilted dramatically in favor of NIMBYs, and the respondents were disproportionately homeowners in one of Austin’s most restrictive neighborhoods. Yet he WON. He got the group to agree to an urbanist outcome.

How did this guy make this magic feat happen?

By framing urbanism in terms of expanding freedom, not constricting it.

Wouldn’t it be neat if you could build an ADU? Would you like us to change the rules to allow you to build one?

Don’t talk about the things your neighbor could or couldn’t build, in other words. Talk about how restrictive the current regulatory scheme is TO THEM, the heroic property owner. Why is the city telling them what they can and can’t do with their property; the property they worked so hard to afford; the property they pay substantial taxes on every year. Why is the city stopping them from putting a second floor on their house? Why is the city requiring them to add a parking place they don’t want?

Appealing to the better natures of the landed gentry might work with a few people (it works with me). But it clearly doesn’t work with most people. So try appealing to their desire to have more control over what they can build. MOST people don’t like the idea of being told they can’t build on their lot. Doesn’t matter whether they have the money now or ever; it matters that they aspirationally might some day.

This may not work in a city council election, but hell, the other approaches haven’t worked and this approach at least isn’t toxic to the people who are turning out to vote in your election. Why not try it?

What would we call such an approach? The best (not good) name I’ve come up with so far is freedom urbanism, and you’re not going to find it at AURA. Join me here instead if you want to talk about it.