An Austin “Urban” Anthropologist Looks at Code NEXT

An impressive propaganda campaign has been orchestrated by pro-CodeNEXT boosters to confuse the public mind about the potential consequences these proposed changes to how Austin regulates land development will produce.  The time has come for some historically grounded critical thinking that can help cut through the misinformation, half-truths, distortions and lies that have been promulgated regarding this issue.  What follows is an analysis and interpretation of three key claims of pro-CodeNEXT boosters from an African-American progressive perspective.


CodeNEXT and Imagine Austin are best interpreted as neoliberal political projects by Austin’s ruling real estate oligarchs to cement their hegemony over Austin’s political economy.  The process began in the late nineties with the establishment of East Austin as a so-called “Desired Development Zone” and the stipulation that development of much of West Austin’s “fragile environment” would be off limits.  These provisos remain a cornerstone of the Imagine Austin Plan, which CodeNEXT supposedly implements.

Smart growth stuck the knife in East Austin’s back about three inches in the late nineties, New Urbanism and Creative Class dogma thrust it in about another three inches in the mid aughts; the last at large council rammed through Imagine Austin in 2012.  The purpose of CodeNEXT is to finish the job in 2018.

My main point is direct and it can be simply stated:  what remains of East Austin will cease to exist if CodeNEXT becomes law and the Imagine Austin Plan is not amended to reflect the needs and values of East Austin, which also possesses a fragile natural and cultural environment.


What is neoliberalism?  Basically it’s the belief that markets always know best.  It’s “conservative” economics plus social liberalism, especially identity politics.  George Monbiot explained what it means about a year ago here, and Robert Reich in the short video below explains how free marketism in states like Texas compares with more regulated states such as California.  For the purposes of this discussion, these are useful introductions to the concept.

The Claims

Local new urbanists at Evolve Austin and elsewhere have put before the public three primary arguments for why the Austin City Council — crucially NOT the voters of Austin — should enact CodeNEXT.  Once you cut through the flowery neoliberal language, these claims are, roughly, as follows:

1.  CodeNEXT is more sustainable than our existing code, and is thus better for the environment.  This is so because CodeNEXT minimizes sprawl and enacts the “compact and connected” provisions of the Imagine Austin plan.

2.  CodeNEXT will help tackle Austin’s affordability challenges and gentrification problem.  It does so by eliminating or reducing unnecessary real estate development regulations and by expanding, in some places dramatically, Austin’s density bonus program.

3.  By encouraging compact and connected development all over the city, enactment of CodeNEXT will dismantle much of Austin’s stubborn racial segregation problem. 

Underlying these assertions is a manufactured sense of urgency claiming that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.  “Doing nothing is not an option” has been proclaimed publicly by at least four of Austin’s eleven city councillors, whose proclamations about the flaws of Austin’s current land development code are mendacious and politically flawed. 

Let’s take a step back from the heated rhetoric and examine these contentions more cooly.  Are these claims in fact true?

Before doing so, allow me to quickly dispense with the first two claims.

CodeNEXT is Not Necessarily More “Sustainable” or Good for the Environment

Austin has become so thoroughly soaked by Smart Growth/New Urbanist anti-sprawl dogma that few have actually bothered to ask whether or how much this evangelical mumbo jumbo has any intellectual substance behind it.

Short answer:  it doesn’t.  At least not to the degree claimed by its proselytizers.

Former Texas A&M University urbanist Michael Neuman, in his seminal paper The Compact City Fallacy pointed out more than ten years ago that most of the evidence put forth by compact city advocates is far from definitive and is at best equivocal.

Not all density is created equal.  Totalizing “density at all cost” approaches are short-sighted in both empirical as well as cultural terms.  What matters most is process; in short, quality, not just quantity.  Most existing Austin neighborhood plans already contain provisions for neighborhood densification.  In fact many of them encourage the practice.  High quality design standards that are truly sustainable also matter; that’s why I have vigorously fought for implementation of the Passive House standard in Austin during my service on Austin’s Community Development Commission and the Joint Sustainability Committee.

What accounts, then, for the cult-like fervency of these people, especially in cities like Austin?  Short answer:  the implementation of neoliberal governance in the 1990’s.  Having neighborhoods control how they grow isn’t acceptable; it has to be smart people, especially liberals closely affiliated with the foundation or non-profit world, that make such decisions.  The job of politicians is to support this arrangement, or to become smart people themselves.  

As a matter of practice, most planners and “urbanists” who adhere to Compact City doctrine do not cite empirical evidence to support their contentions.  That’s because as Neuman and others have shown, the evidence isn’t there.  They instead cite the support of professional organizations, think tanks, or of academics who share their philosophical or political predispositions about the self-inherent virtue of markets, real estate markets in particular.  One noteworthy recent example:  the pro-CodeNEXT declaration released in late October 2017 by Environment Texas and the Texas Public Interest Research Group.  Such appeals to authority may work in the political arena, but they do not constitute scientific understanding, as anyone familiar with Carl Sagan’s famous Baloney Detection Kit knows. 

The lesson?  New Urbanism is best understood as a neoliberal political project, not as an interdisciplinary enterprise in Urban Studies.  Its claims about how people ought to live are not grounded in true scholarship but in neoliberal political advocacy.

CodeNEXT Will Not Solve Austin’s Affordability Problems

As a member of Austin’s Community Development Commission I had a hand in drafting the document now known as the Strategic Housing Blueprint.  The remaining provisions in the document concerning public housing construction, rent control, affordable housing preservation, and more realistic MFI (i.e. Median Family Income) qualifications bear as much my influence as anyone’s.  Nonetheless, I remain disappointed that the plan emphasizes expanding Austin’s density bonus programs to the extent that it does.

The blueprint’s neoliberal stench is palpable.  Framing the overall question of housing affordability in terms of a housing “shortage” is deceptive as well as foolish.  It is obvious whose interests such framing serves.  Why are we arguing for dramatic increases in new housing construction when we have not even taken proper stock of the  existing affordable housing in our community that could be recycled, usually for much less money?  But supply-side thinking has become an article of faith in Austin; precisely at a time when evidence for it is at an all time low.  This correlation is telling, and bears further analysis.

Austin’s density bonus program has been a miserable failure at producing affordable housing.  Please read this and this for further discussion.

As far as the ridiculous claim that further deregulation of real estate development would help produce the affordable housing we need–the fatuous claim that making it easier to construct ADU’s (i.e. Auxiliary Dwelling Units) would do something to help with affordability in particular–that trickle-down “filtering” nonsense has thankfully largely been abandoned as a line of reasoning by most pro-CodeNEXT bolsters.  It doesn’t merit further discussion.

The Federal Government and Real Estate

It is not commonly known that it was cities facing bankruptcy during the Great Depression who called on the federal government for loans to pay off existing debts and to pay for public services and who organized themselves into the U.S. Conference of Mayors to lobby for jobs programs.  That era marked the first serious intervention by the federal government in local real estate affairs and created modern conceptions of residential real estate in America. 

The New Deal produced a series of policies and laws that persist to this day, including major changes to housing finance (e.g. FHA loans and the creation of the thirty-year mortgage and the FDIC) and a pilot public housing program under the Public Works Administration.  The PWA (Public Works Administration), an early New Deal agency, was at the time the largest federal intervention into the economy ever undertaken.  The PWA Housing Program would later be replaced by a permanent federal public housing program operated by the United States Housing Authority (USHA).  Austin has the oldest such housing in America. 

It was the federal government’s program of public housing construction under the PWA, USHA and the Homestead program–whose purpose was to build sustainable farming communities–that most directly stood to benefit rapidly urbanizing Afro-America.  The program, which was run by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, also had a black advisor:  Robert Clifton Weaver, the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard.  Weaver would transfer over to the USHA when that program was established after passage of the 1937 U.S. Housing Act, and in 1966 became the first HUD Secretary.

W.E.B. DuBois on Segregation

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In January 1934 W.E.B. DuBois, editor of Crisis magazine, initiated a yearlong discussion about segregation.  DuBois, who at this point of his long life was transitioning from his late Talented Tenth period to a more Marxist position, advocated for what to today’s eye would seem inconceivable:  voluntary segregation.  Nearly 84 years later, it is worthwhile to re-examine the central points of DuBois’s analysis.

At the time that DuBois wrote, segregation was an established fact of life.  The problem, according to DuBois, wasn’t so much segregation, but the discrimination that too often came with it.  Few African-Americans objected to living or worshipping separately; the list of concerns for black America included basics such as jobs, quality public education, reasonably priced healthcare, and affordable housing, even if furnished on a segregated basis.  Interestingly, these are still leading concerns in black America, not “segregation” per se.

It is important to not misunderstand the point DuBois was making.  DuBois clearly recognized segregation was wrong, and supported political strategizing for its eventual elimination, but what he opposed was making “segregation” the reified focal point of basic civil rights advocacy.  The truth is that there were and are many African-Americans who would be satisfied living in a state of voluntary segregation if the segregated institutions were equal to those enjoyed by whites.  The establishment of numerous Freedmen’s communities–many of them quite self-sufficient and sustainable in their own right–in states such as Texas is a testament to this.  This raises the question:  has desegregation helped African-Americans at large?  DuBois’s prescient insights made at the height of the New Deal continue to offer provocative thinking regarding this question.

In any case, Walther White, Joel Springarn, Francis Grimke and other NAACP leaders disagreed with DuBois.  The NAACP, they argued, should strongly and consistently oppose segregation as an evil, even if it meant that black families in desperate need of food, clothing and shelter had to suffer further.

DuBois found such high-mindedness foolish.  “The thinking colored people of the United States must stop being stampeded by the word segregation,” he wrote, and should be willing to accept much needed federal help for mutual benefit even if it was delivered on a segregated basis.

Evidence shows that rank and file blacks sided more with Dr. DuBois than with the leadership of the NAACP.  For instance Austin’s initial public housing construction in 1938 was met with open arms by the city’s black community, despite being used by city officials to implement the segregationist tenets of the 1928 master plan.

The lesson?  In 2017 and 2018 non-profit advocacy against “segregation” — in partnership with and funded by the real estate industry — serves readily identifiable class interests.  Dr. DuBois was onto something.

The Truth About Segregation

The Austin Board of Realtors, the Real Estate Council of Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, and the Austin Apartment Association are some of the most noteworthy supporters of Evolve Austin, the pro-CodeNEXT political organization and Political Action Committee (you can view their PAC filings here).  Organizationally as well as individually, these groups, along with their national umbrella organizations such as the National Association of Real Estate Boards, have been the most abysmal and persistent supporters of twentieth century residential segregation in America. 

As Robert Clifton Weaver in his 1947 classic The Negro Ghetto documented at length, it was local real estate boards and financial institutions who conspired with government as well as racist politicians to deny African-Americans desegregated housing.  In fact, steering black homebuyers into white neighborhoods was a violation of the real estate board’s code of ethics and was grounds for dismissal.

The record isn’t pretty.  The National Association of Real Estate Boards fought public housing when it was first introduced as a pilot program under the PWA (Public Works Administration), opposed the creation of the USHA (United States Housing Authority) and successfully fought to water down the 1937 Housing Act to the point where it was certain to fail, and fought against Shelley v. Kraemer and Hurd v. Hodge which finally terminated racist restrictive covenants and set the stage for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that terminated segregated education.

For the sake of brevity, I shall skip the role of these organization during urban renewal in the 1950’s.

In the 1960’s these organizations red-baited Robert Clifton Weaver when President Kennedy nominated him to lead a proposed new cabinet department of housing and urban development, fought his nomination to become HUD secretary once President Johnson succeeded in creating the department, and perhaps worst of all, they bitterly opposed enactment of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. 

The Fair Housing Act, like the 1937 Housing Act, passed on its third try.  The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. heavily influenced its passage.  President Johnson considered it one of his greatest accomplishments.  As the act’s 50th anniversary nears, here is a good video to watch about its history and meaning.

At a local level, led by ABOR (Austin Board of Realtors), these organizations strenuously opposed the enactment of Austin’s local fair housing ordinance, which the Austin NAACP had been fighting for for years.  Racist realtors and their associates organized a referendum which overturned the ordinance; that referendum is still the most consequential plebiscite in the history of Austin.  It eventually led to the enactment of Austin’s racist “Gentleman’s Agreement” based at-large city council, the election of Roy Butler, and the institutionalization of anti-Great Society real estate practices that persist to the present. 

You can read about some of this in the public housing work I have done documenting the historical importance of Austin’s Santa Rita Courts and Rosewood Courts public housing projects, as well as in some of my other work.

How did these anti-desegregationists organize such a successful referendum?  According to former city councillor Emma Long, they would telephone white voters residing in deed restricted neighborhoods and ask “Do you want a Nigger living next to you?” or “Do you want forced public housing in your community?”  

Fast forward to 2007 and 2008.  What was the role of these organizations in perpetuating the mortgage meltdown and financial crisis of that time?  What was its impact on African-American homeownership?  Have any of these institutions been held accountable?  If you need me to answer these questions for you, you haven’t been paying proper attention. 

In case you need a primer on how mortgage finance has changed since the New Deal and how horrible the consequences of neoliberal worship of markets have become, here is a scene from the 2015 film The Big Short that helps to explain:

What is my point?  These organizations are in no moral position to offer advice, much less policy recommendations, concerning segregation.  On questions of residential segregation, they have no credibility whatsoever and anyone following their lead or taking their money is dancing with the devil.  That’s why it was ignorant as well as offensive for Austin Mayor Steve Adler to suggest at a RECA luncheon earlier in 2017 that enactment of CodeNEXT would constitute a step forward for civil rights in Austin, in the tradition of the 1964 and 1965 (but not 1968) civil rights laws.  The opposite is in fact the case.  

But one would expect such neoliberal codswallop, given the fact that the real estate industry is the largest contributor to all public officials in Austin.

CodeNEXT is Not a Desegregationist Document

CodeNEXT advocates who superciliously declare that “racist” West Austin is engaging in the mother of all NIMBY campaigns are being disingenuous.  Their claims could be taken more seriously if they supported the undoing of racist public policy targeting East Austin from the 1990’s onward; but they do not support this.

Moreover, will it be black people who move to neighborhoods such as Tarrytown, Pemberton Heights, Old Enfield, Allandale and Northwest Hills if CodeNEXT passes?  Of course not.  The people pushing the false “CodeNEXT equals desegregation” narrative are shilling for the one percent.  Pro racial justice or environmental organizations that have endorsed CodeNEXT such as the Austin Justice Coalition and Ecology Action should be ashamed of themselves.  Given the neoliberal sourcing of much of their funding, however, one should not be surprised.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously worried that in pursuing desegregation, African-Americans would end up integrating into a burning house.  Was this fear justified?  Let’s take a look.

Austin, like other cities, can learn a great deal about the persistence of segregation by closely examining its history of public school desegregation.  Consider, for instance, the desegregation of public schools in cities such as Austin and Boston.  What have been the black community consequences of the closure of Old Anderson High School?  Has Austin’s school district in fact desegregated at all?  Keep in mind, all of this has taken place in an era of identity politics.

It is ironic that as I write Austin voters are voting on an Austin ISD school bond that would move Johnston High School into the campus of Old Anderson High School, the educational heart of “formerly” segregated black East Austin.  Had we known in 1971 that this would be the sad state of affairs in late 2017, we could have kept Old Anderson open and spared ourselves a lot of trouble and torment.

We Need to Fix Inequality, Not Just Segregation

The claim that CodeNEXT will help to fix Austin’s segregation problem readily serves certain class interests.  That so many members of Austin’s non-profit industrial complex and supposed “advocacy” organizations support CodeNEXT is most revealing about how the politics of land and power actually operate in thoroughly neoliberalized cities such as Austin.

Austin’s main problem is inequality, not segregation.  Fixing the latter will not necessarily fix the former, whereas fixing the former will most definitely positively impact the latter. 

Fixing inequality will require us to get serious about institutional racism.  It will require politicians to pursue policies that produce wages that can support a family.  It will require city leaders who are willing to declare the affordability crisis the serious emergency that it is.  In practice it will require politicians with the courage to confront and regulate Austin’s powerful real estate interests.  Most importantly, it will require immediate action, not the appointment of more do-nothing task forces, fact-finding bodies, or other stalling tactics.

What we have instead is lickspittle leadership that has mentally twisted itself into thinking–just as planners did during the Vietnam War–that “in order to save this village, we had to destroy it.”  So what we get instead is more gentrification on steroids.  The eviction of the poor and pigmented from their historic communities, so that we can build mixed use development for highly profitable multinational corporations such as Oracle.  Or the weak-kneed kowtowing to a promise-breaking but well connected real estate consortium at Plaza Saltillo. 

(Incidentally, Plaza Saltillo was originally known as Masontown, a Reconstruction-era African-American Freedmen’s community.  Take a look at the map at the beginning of my September 20, 2017 blog post for the location of some of Austin’s original post Civil War free slave settlements.)

Hypocrisy abounds; at the Domain shopping mall a “deal was a deal” and stopping the taxpayer subsidy that was a crucial part of its financing was unthinkable.  By 2017, it has become acceptable for developers to lie in bid proposals, to fudge minority and woman owned business paperwork, to lowball bid estimates, and to misrepresent what they are prepared to offer in terms of community benefits.  As for planning and design at the Plaza Saltillo development itself?  It violates basic Transit Oriented Development principles by including hundreds of parking spaces for cars and trucks.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Sign the Petition, so that Austin voters can be a proper check and balance on the unrighteous CodeNEXT boondoggle.