Should you and I, as residents of Austin, have a say on CodeNext, the first major rewrite of Austin’s land development code in 30 years? Yes.
Should you and I, as registered voters of Austin, get to vote on CodeNext, the most important policy question facing our city in at least five years? No.
Proponents of a CodeNext referendum claim that it would be more democratic and would lead to a more robust debate. But, as Austin’s own dark history with the Fair Housing ordinance of 1968 shows, a CodeNext referendum, far from guaranteeing democracy or debate, will subvert our representative democracy and disenfranchise the most of vulnerable of our citizens.
Let’s start with the claim that the proposed CodeNext referendum is “about democracy.”
In 1968, the Austin City Council courageously passed Austin’s own Fair Housing ordinance to prohibit all forms of discrimination in housing. But a group of Austin property owners, who said they wanted to “give democracy a chance”, petitioned to put the ordinance to a vote. The referendum that followed rejected Fair Housing with 57 percent voting against and 43 percent voting in favor.
Only 27 percent of registered voters and 10 percent of the total population voted in the election. That’s hardly representative of the will of the people. Worse still, the overwhelming 59 percent of East Austin residents who voted for Fair Housing were crushed by the 61 percent of West and South Austin residents who voted against.
Some things have changed since 1968. Austin no longer has legal segregation and is now seen as a progressive haven in an otherwise conservative state. But some things have not changed. We still face the same turnout challenges: Less than 17 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the last referendum. Worse still, while 30 percent of Austinites live east of Interstate 35, they only make up 24 percent of the registered voters.
Under the 10-1 council system, East Austin residents have a fair say in CodeNext through their democratically elected representatives. In a referendum, they do not.
Next, let us consider the petition circulated by Indy Austin, which wants not only a referendum but also a waiting period “to ensure voters can learn about the proposed comprehensive revisions.”
Here is what the property owners of 1968 provided as “information”:
• “Sign a petition to bring ‘Forced Housing’ to a Vote.”
• “This ordinance can make criminals out of God-fearing, law-abiding, tax-paying homeowners.”
• “The communists know that the existing order …. is based on the sanctity of ownership of property.”
We should not expect a more informative debate on CodeNext. The fact is most people don’t have the time to brush up on land-use regulation in their spare time.
When the people voted for their representatives to sit on the City Council dais under the 10-1 system, they placed their faith in those representatives. We should not lose our faith in those representatives or the 10-1 system.
Because of the property owner’s referendum in 1968, minorities of Austin had to wait decades for another fair housing ordinance. Half a century later, we cannot afford to make the same mistake.
We absolutely should have a say on CodeNext. And we do — by talking to our council members who we elected and encouraging them to develop the best CodeNext they can. We count on our representatives to pass a code that helps erase the vestiges of our city’s dark past and create an Austin open to everyone. If they don’t, it is our duty to hold them accountable at the ballot box.
McLaughlin is a member of AURA and Friends of Austin Neighborhoods.