This is a guest post by Oscar Simms who is a housing activist, volunteer for the Coalition for More Homes, and was the Labour Party candidate for Auckland Central at the last election.

Casey Chapman Ross Photography

Austin feels like a city on the move. The skyline is filled with construction cranes topping out new highrise developments, the bars and restaurants are overflowing, and the city is full of young people, many of whom are working in Austin’s large high-tech sector or studying at its world-class university. I had the privilege of attending and speaking a month ago at ‘YIMBYtown’, the US’s largest pro-housing policy and politics conference, to share some of the lessons we’ve learned in New Zealand about housing politics. Despite the huge political differences between the two places and the international perception of Aotearoa as a leader on land use reform, I came away with the impression that perhaps New Zealand policymakers and thinkers haven’t been paying enough attention to the US political fights on these issues outside of California.

Most Kiwis I spoke to before going to Austin were extremely sceptical about an urbanist policy conference being held there. This seems to be based on the pop-culture perception of Texas as a land of conservative Republican politics, smoked meats, and large utes. To a certain extent, these perceptions are true: the ‘tough on crime’ political attack ads are totally unhinged, the brisket is extremely tasty, and the size of the utes and SUVs puts even Auckland to shame. But this belies the quiet revolution that has been going on in Austin: a political movement to change land-use and transport policy in the city that we could stand to learn from in New Zealand.

Austin has even-year elections for city council that largely resemble local elections in Auckland: 10 members from single-member districts (half every 4 years) and a mayor elected at-large. The council is formally nonpartisan, but is dominated by Democrats of various stripes: as Austin mayor Kirk Watson explained during his keynote speech at YIMBYTown with what has become an Austin cliche: “we are the blueberry in the tomato soup”. In the local elections of 2022, the top issue was housing affordability, and a well-organised campaign by local activists led to the election of a supermajority pro-housing council. The mayor himself was originally allied with anti-development groups, but has since flipped on the issue, and is poised to announce his re-election campaign this year on a pro-growth platform.

That council has been working to fix Austin’s affordability crisis and move housing policy in a more pro-abundance direction. In November, it passed a resolution removing parking minimums on almost all types of properties in the city. This makes obvious sense when you see the city: a building next to my hotel had seemingly more floors of multilevel parking podium than it did offices, and downtown Austin is full of half-empty surface parking lots that could easily be redeveloped into housing or offices. The only silver lining that I could see was that these parking lots had a lot of food trucks selling delicious tacos and kebabs – a state of affairs that we could look to make easier in NZ in the interim.

As best as I can tell, the local politics around housing differ somewhat from those in New Zealand. Objections are framed more sharply in terms of gentrification and displacement, and left-wing so-called ‘progressive’ Democrats are a significant part of the electoral opposition to market-based and larger-scale upzoning policy, in opposition to local ‘liberal’ centre-left Democrats. This is a contrast to the coalition of urban progressives and centrist market liberals that have supported planning reform in New Zealand, fighting against conservative environmentalists, preservationists, and suburban homeowners. If we can continue to make our arguments in a way that is palatable to a maximally broad cross-section of local political interests, we will have a much easier time turning our movement into lasting political change and avoid costly backdowns like the MDRS fiasco.

Despite city streets being filled with massive double-cab utes and SUVs, Austin has a decent network of cycle lanes downtown and a noticeable cycling culture. A candidate for city council that I spoke to said there were equity issues with the provision of cycling infrastructure (sounds familiar!) and it was clear that there was still a long way to go. Nevertheless, I frequently felt safer on an e-scooter in downtown Austin than I do in downtown Auckland, and it’s proof that it’s possible to start building this kind of infrastructure in a city with a similar culture of car-dependency. One of the places where this is most noticeable is in the Mueller redevelopment, a master-planned community that replaced the old municipal airport with new mixed-use and mixed income projects and ‘Dutch-inspired’ active transport infrastructure.

In general though, on transport policy, Auckland has a big head start over Austin. Even on a bad day, when 23° weather shuts down our dysfunctional train network, Auckland’s public transport provision is a league above Austin’s. Currently Austin has an incomplete and infrequent bus network and a single commuter rail line with 10 stations and 30-minute peak headways. There are efforts in the city to change this though: a ballot measure was approved by local Austin voters in 2020 to increase taxes in order to fund a major light rail and bus rapid transit project. Efforts by Republicans in the state legislature to stop the project appear to have foundered and planning and community consultation is now underway for the system. This is perhaps particularly impressive in a state that has a ban on income taxes: the project will be funded by a mix of increasing property taxes on city homeowners and federal money.

This division between local government and the state government on transport policy has a dimension that will be familiar to Aucklanders under the new government: the Texas Department of Transportation is about to widen a section of Interstate 35 through the centre of Austin, which will displace residents and businesses along the highway. There is significant local opposition to the plan which strikes me as better-organised than many national-level campaigns in Aotearoa.

YimbyTown happy hour Casey Chapman Ross Photography

This superior level of organisation in the US was my main takeaway from my visit to YIMBYTown. I attended policy discussions hosted by Californians and Canadians and activists from across the US, and came away with the impression that housing policy in New Zealand is a decade ahead of many of these places. (It was very gratifying to have analysts from massive well-funded think tanks ask me about Upper Hutt and West Auckland). Despite this, they are catching up quickly. The conference demonstrated the usefulness of having a big national movement to exchange ideas, celebrate wins, and provide an outlet for venting about setbacks (in both a planning and metaphorical sense). It was also a good reminder of what we already know in New Zealand from the fight over the 2016 Auckland Unitary Plan: demonstrating success at a local level can translate into bigger housing and transport wins at a state and national level. There are thousands of activists in the national ‘YIMBY Action’ slack channel, and they are constantly exchanging ideas about what has worked and what hasn’t across the US.

The conference provided a good call to action to turn enthusiasm about walkable neighbourhoods, improved transport options, affordable housing, and climate action into grassroots political action. As one local Austin organiser put it during a panel discussion: “If you can consistently get a dozen people to show up to support candidates in local elections at events, door knocks, and phonebanks, you can become the most powerful advocacy organisation in your city overnight”. New Zealand is currently at a crossroads: can we consolidate our existing wins into long term national improvements to infrastructure and land use? With a bit of effort, I think we have an opportunity to do exactly that – and if you’re keen to help out, The Coalition for More Homes and A City for People are starting to think right now about how we might get there.

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  1. Thanks for the update. Have never been to Austin or Texas but America certainly is a land of contrasts. We could use some more US style enthusiasm here in reserved NZ.

  2. Interesting seeing Auckland being used as an example in several overseas articles as a shining example of building more affordable homes, generally using the building consent data set against the current slight drop in price growth. But the reality that so many of these consents are in places on the periphery where long term infrastructure costs will be unsustainable and locking in car dependancy seems to be the priority. It’s not really affordable is it despite the one off purchase price?

    Seeing the new more densified buildings in my area of Onehunga has been great, so good things can happen. Just very frustrating watching the motorways extend out and greenfield development back on the table as the preferred option.

    1. Yes we are seeing the mixed impacts here in West Auckland- lots of intensification but nothing in terms of supporting infrastructure and planning ( how come so many 1 and 2 bedroom townhouses need 4 cars?)

      1. > ( how come so many 1 and 2 bedroom townhouses need 4 cars?)

        Because a two bedroom townhouse will probably have four working adults?

        1. Possibly, but surely the idea is that if we are getting intensification we should be also receiving the infrastructure so that alternative travel modes to the car are prioritised.

        2. I’d be interested what the Auckland development contributions look like for townhouses.

          In Christchurch I got the resoruce consent from the developer of the place we live in. 10(ish) townhouse development. Each house paid $1100 for road network improvements, $1000 for active travel improvements, $500 for PT. There is also of course a big uplift in yearly rates paid too but thats aside from my point.

          So 25-30k in transport improvements paid to council, for one development. There are 3 similar developments I can see just finishing from where I sit. There have been no improvements around us yet. Perhaps they will materialise later? hmmmm.

          $7500 for parks too.

          Point being that it’s likely that these West Auckland townhouses are paying for transport upgrades. And if there’s nothing happening, it’s probably being spent somewhere else.

        3. “So 25-30k in transport improvements paid to council, for one development. ”

          You are joking right? That amount of money will buy 1.5 spaces in the nearest park and ride.
          The most recent additions to the Northern Motorway around Albany cost around $600 million. That certainly was not paid for by the new residents of Milwater or Mildale. Far flung suburbs make the rest of us poorer while transferring huge wealth to the developers and owners in the new suburb owners. Unfortunately its all part of the “entitled to entitlement” philosophy of National.

        4. This is for a brownfields development 2kms from the city center. And I was talking about development contributions of infill development in the existing West Auckland area.

          My local bus stop has no bench or shelter. Nearby lights intersection is missing a ped leg. There is another road nearby that has a large unbroken stretch where there are no ped priority crossings, there are empty tree pits. There are hundreds of similar cheap examples that would make a large impact and I would expect some of the development contributions earmarked for these kinds of upgrades, from hundreds of new units in an area to spend on.

          I get it, Auckland prioritizes spend on hilariously inefficient infrastructure (P&R, motorway tier arterials). Which is a large part of the problem

      2. c’mon. when was the last them you saw a townhouse or an apartment development in Auckland built with 4 car spaces per unit?

  3. Spent a week in Austin during my 6 month backpacking around the states back in 2007, one of my fave cities I visited. It was pre construction boom but the number of gigs on and things to do were incredible and the people were awesome. Keen to go back and see how things have changed. I loved Texas in general, the states are a funny place, on the surface so fundamentally messed up and bizarre views but when you peel away layers you discover all sorts of strange things.

  4. There are quite a number of metro areas in the US that are demographically distinct from the surrounding states and Austin is definitely one. Another is Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill in North Carolina. They tend to be more educated and populated with incomers. But as for PT policy, the distances and desires for lifestyle still rule,sadly.

    1. Yes it’s sad people choose lifestyle over living in an inner city apartment past their single/youth partying years. What can we do to make families reduce their expectations?

      Also it’s odd that a university town like Raleigh-Durham has a population that is ‘more educated’ and ‘populated with incomers’ compared to the rest of North Carolina.

    2. Another interesting statistic in the US is that Republicans are on average more intelligent than Democrats. Both parties pander to and receive support from demographics with lower average intelligence, But on average people who vote Republican are smarter. That’s the opposite of what many might expect.

      Anyone aware of similar research or results for the New Zealand left vs right split?

  5. I is pleasing to hear that something sensible could be found from a trip to Texas. I would have assumed the main housing policies from that state would have been about requirements for every room to have a gun rack and a panic button to call in a SWAT team in case you suspected a pregnant person was considering exercising their revoked right to bodily autonomy.

    1. That’s as funny the impressions people have of other countries. A strangely large number of people in the US asked me if we all wore grass skirts and lived in mud huts.

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