How the camping ban won, and what political experts say it means for future Austin elections

Investigations
In-Depth Summary:

A majority of Austin voters decided to reinstate the city’s public camping ban, a shift in Austin’s response to its homelessness crisis. The Proposition B campaign was one of the most divisive elections in Austin’s history, with impassioned voters on both sides. Save Austin Now drove the campaign to pass Prop. B. Political experts say groups like Save Austin Now are mobilizing in ways never before seen in local races, and that the movement hints at similar activity in future local elections. Prior to the election, our team got an inside look at the campaign.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Otto Swingler is a native Austinite who works and lives downtown. It was less than three weeks before the May 1 election day when we walked by the homeless encampments along Lady Bird Lake that motivated Swingler to become politically involved – for the first time in his life.

Otto Swingler voted for Prop B and told us he considers the growing number of tent cities a safety issue (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson).
Otto Swingler voted for Prop B and told us he considers the growing number of tent cities a safety issue (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

“I don’t consider myself a strongly leaning Democrat or Republican either way. I don’t think this is a political issue, quite frankly,” he said.

Swingler voted for Proposition B, which Austinites passed to reinstate the city’s ban on public camping anywhere not designated by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. The proposition also creates criminal penalties for those sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near downtown and University of Texas areas. Additionally, solicitation, or requesting money at specific hours and spots or in an aggressive way, will also be criminalized.

Swingler says he’s not anti-homeless but considers the growing number of tent cities in Austin a public health and safety issue. He says his girlfriend won’t run the hike and bike trail alone.

“You pay to use these sidewalks, these running trails — you’ve got all this public infrastructure that has been completely taken over,” he said.

Voters passed Prop B, which reinstates a ban and criminal penalty for public camping in Austin. More than 150,000 voters cast ballots in the election.

City council lifted the ban in June 2019, largely decriminalizing the act of sitting, lying or camping in public places. It had previously been in effect for 23 years.

But, the city faced backlash after the council’s vote, including from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for the growing number of visible tents downtown, under overpasses and along popular trails and outdoor spaces.

“Almost any strategy is superior than allowing people to camp out on places like Congress Avenue,” Gov. Abbott said in 2019.

In addition, Austin’s Fire Department says it has been responding to several calls a day of either potential or actual homeless encampment fires.

During our interview with Swingler, a man experiencing homelessness approached us. He said he’d arrived in Austin eight months earlier. He said he didn’t know where he would go if public camping wasn’t allowed.

“They’re the ones [expletive] telling us we can’t live anywhere, and there’s nowhere else to live,” said the man, who identified himself as “Truth.”

A polarizing debate

The exchange is a microcosm of the public camping ban debate. It has impassioned Austinites on all sides, says Don Kettl, Professor at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

“It’s been hard to remember anything in recent Austin memory that has generated so much interest, so much support, so much debate,” he said.

Kettl said all Austin voters want to solve the city’s homeless problem, but there are big differences that have galvanized support.

Many Austinites have grown fed up with the growing number of visible tents in the city (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
Many Austinites have grown fed up with the growing number of visible tents in the city (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

He said some voters see the passage of Prop. B as a way to force the city to house the homeless. Others are appalled at the tent cities and the public health threat that comes with them, he noted.

“It’s a sign and a way that Austin is really becoming a big city with big city problems, and people in Austin, I think, are struggling to deal with that part of the reality,” Kettl said.

On the other side, opponents of the camping ban say Prop. B only hurts the homeless — saddling them with citations they can’t afford to pay. The ballot item was opposed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, which coordinates Austin’s homelessness response. The group said it believed reinstating the camping ban would hide unhoused people without addressing the root cause of their homelessness.

“I think we have to really center the values for the vast majority of Austinites,” Heidi Sloan told us before the election. Sloan is with Homes Not Handcuffs and also identifies with the Democratic Socialists of America.

The work of Save Austin Now

Before Prop. B landed on the May ballot, Save Austin Now identified itself as an educational nonprofit. It is led by Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Republican Party for Travis County, and Cleo Petricek, a Democrat who has been vocal about her opposition to the city’s recent policies related to homelessness.

Earlier this year, the group submitted a petition with enough signatures to get the camping ban on the ballot. It had tried last summer but the Office of the City Clerk ruled it did not have enough valid signatures.

Once Prop. B was on the ballot, Save Austin Now had to become a political action committee for campaigning activities. To understand what went into the group’s efforts, we went behind the scenes for weeks prior to the election, as volunteers knocked on doors, greeted at polls and spoke with residents.

  • Our team tagged along with Save Austin Now volunteers in the weeks leading up the election, as they went door-to-door to try and mobilize turnout. This photo was taken during one "doorknock" event in south Austin (KXAN Photo/Kevin Clark)
  • Save Austin Now volunteers greet voters during early voting. “It’s amazing the diversity of the people who are very nervous about this," one volunteer told us during the campaign (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
  • A Save Austin Now volunteer greets voters during early voting. Political experts tell us all Austin voters want to solve the city’s homeless problem, but there are big differences that have galvanized support (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

Volunteers we spoke with say Prop. B’s support comes from a broad swath of voters, including some Democrats.

“It’s amazing the diversity of the people who are very nervous about this,” said Laura Sanders, a Save Austin Now volunteer whom we spoke with while she poll-greeted during early voting.

Volunteer Berenice Lara of North Austin supported Prop. B because she doesn’t feel safe bringing her children to city parks anymore.

“The kids have no safe places,” she told us. “I have to drive them 30 minutes out to Pflugerville now.”

Mackowiak showed us a list of the names of more than 1,000 volunteers. He said many of them were involved in the initial signature collecting process.

The effort was as comprehensive as it was expensive. Mackowiak said the PAC had 2,700 donors.

“It is true the business community has stepped in in a number of industries,” he said in the weeks leading up to the election. “It is also true that average Austinites across the city have stepped in.”

One of several billboards in town during the campaign, paid for by Save Austin Now (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
One of several billboards in town during the campaign, paid for by Save Austin Now (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

According to campaign finance reports disclosed this year, the PAC raised more than $1.7 million. For perspective, the Mobility for All PAC, which supported Project Connect in last November’s election, raised $1.3 million.

According to those reports, Save Austin Now also spent more than $1.7 million, largely for billboards, online and TV advertising, mass text messaging, consulting, polling and voter data analysis.

Volunteers who were door-knocking during the campaign were using a paid phone app that showed likely voters. The app allowed volunteers to note what potential voters said at each stop.

“We know who we need to reach out to find that extra push to the polls or just make sure we have awareness of the issue,” said Brian Ruddle with Save Austin Now.

Heidi Sloan with Homes Not Handcuffs speaks with KXAN in April while canvassing in one Central Austin neighborhood (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
Heidi Sloan with Homes Not Handcuffs speaks with KXAN in April while canvassing in one Central Austin neighborhood (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

In comparison, there was not a lot of money on the other side of the Prop. B debate, but there was a similar urgency.

Homes Not Handcuffs, the PAC opposing Prop. B, received a couple of large contributions, including more than $10,000 from Austin Mayor Steve Adler. The PAC raised a total just shy of $200,000.

“This one really affects each of our neighborhoods and our vision for the city,” Sloan said.

In the weeks leading up to the election and in the days after, viewers have asked us to report on the largest donors for each campaign.

Starting with support for Prop B, the largest donations were from:

  • Danielle Royston, listed as Founder of IT company Telco DR, Inc: $148,000 (two separate donations)
  • Ariet Capital, an investment firm owned by Phil Canfield: $100,000
  • Luke Nosek, listed as Managing Partner of Venture Capital firm Gigafund: $50,000
  • Stephen Oskoui, listed as Managing Partner of Venture Capital firm Gigafund: $50,000
  • Andrew Price, listed as CFO of Venture Capital firm ESW Capital, Inc
  • TRT Holdings Inc., a Dallas-based private holdings company that owns Omni Hotels: $50,000

Save Austin Now also received 30 donations of $10,000 or more, according to campaign donation records.

The top donor to Homes Not Handcuffs was Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who donated $10,516. Adler opposed reinstating the ban. Other top donors to the PAC include:

  • Deborah Peel listed as Founder and President of Patient Privacy Rights: $10,000
  • Philip Berber listed as Chairman of the foundation A Glimmer of Hope, which aims to end poverty: $10,000
  • Austin real estate developer Perry Lorenz: $10,000
  • Tyson Tuttle, listed as CEO of Silicon Labs: $5,000
  • Philanthropist Lynn Meredith: $5,000

Campaign spending and donation information can be found on multiple reports for both PACs on the city of Austin’s website.

Investigator Kevin Clark and Professor Don Kettl of the LBJ School of Public Affairs joined KXAN Live Anchor Will DuPree to answer viewer questions about this story and the campaign to pass the camping ban.

A bigger movement?

Is Save Austin Now’s effort indicative of a bigger grassroots movement in Austin, or simply an indictment on the city’s response to homelessness and the lifting of the camping ban? 

We asked that question to Kettl, who believes this does hint at a greater movement. He said once these kinds of movements are ignited, they rarely go away completely.

“The concerns that brought people together are likely to be flashpoints or gathering points for further debate on other issues that come up,” Kettl said. “What are we going to do about the convention center? What are we going to do about issues of affordable housing?”

Mackowiak told KXAN he believes the group is building a silent majority, in response to the city’s more left-leaning policies. He said Save Austin Now would be involved in future issues related to affordability and public safety. He declined to provide any specifics on those plans.

Mackowiak did tell us before the election that the broader movement would have been all for nothing if Prop. B did not pass.

Prop B aftermath: Political experts say pro-camping ban group could impact other city elections

Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Chris Nelson and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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