Market Urbanism is proud to welcome Michael Nahas as a new writer who will bring an Austin perspective to the blog. Michael’s Twitter handle is @MichaelDNahas, and he also blogs at City Econ.
Here’s a short interview we did over email.
Emily: How did you become interested in cities?
Michael: A coincidence back in 2018 got me to look into cities. I had read a pop science article about how zoning policy in San Francisco was driving up the price of homes. The article stuck with me, because I’m fascinated by economics and it was so strange. I had always rented and didn’t know how regulated housing was. Then, at a party, I happened to mention this curious article in a conversation. The person I mentioned it to was Josiah Stevenson, an influential member in AURA, Austin’s YIMBY organization. He quickly recruited me into AURA and got me to look at cities.
And once I started looking into cities, I wondered why economists haven’t studied them more! Cities are where they gather. They’re where information and goods are gathered. In cities, the biggest economic decisions get made and the most goods trade hands. Fission reactors work by bringing refined uranium into a tight space, causing an energy-producing chain reaction. Likewise, when you bring people into a tight space (with the right conditions), it causes the bright glow of economic activity. I believe that making that economic glow brighter will improve my life and everyone else’s life too. That’s what made me so interested in cities.
Emily: What cities have you lived in?
Michael: Ordered by the time I’ve spent as an adult: New York, Austin, Charlottesville (Virginia), Minneapolis, London (UK), Berkeley, and Nijmegen (NL). I have a great love for Philadelphia, having grown up an hour away, but I never lived in the city.
Emily: Wow you have a knack for living in places with high-profile land-use debates. If you could spend a year in a city you’d never visited, where would it be?
Michael: Singapore! Roads are the dominant transportation technology and Singapore is the only city in the world that does roads right. It does (proper) congestion pricing. I’d love to see first-hand how that remedy improves the other transportation networks and the city as a whole.
On a more practical note, half the population speaks English and the city is at a shipping crossroads, which means all sorts of interesting people must show up. Its heat and humidity are awful?—a continuous Houston summer?—but we’re only talking a year, right?
Emily: Tell us about your work with AURA.
Michael: I’ve done it all for AURA: leadership, outreach, political organization and think-tanky analysis. The work I’m most proud of is an analysis of land prices. It showed prices doubling from 2014 to 2019 and that small (cheap) lots are in high demand.
Emily: What’s the current state of CodeNEXT?
Michael: That analysis explains why we need to change Austin’s zoning laws. CodeNEXT, for those unfamiliar, was a proposed rewrite of Austin’s zoning laws. It contained a number of reforms, including taller buildings within 3 blocks of major streets. CodeNEXT was defeated in 2018. A new version of the law was passed in 2020, but a lawsuit stopped it from going into effect. The courts said that state law requires 9 out of 11 votes on City Council to change zoning laws. Until we get those 9 votes, we’re stuck.
Emily: What other issues is AURA focusing on?
Michael: Recently, the big issue has been elections: we need those 9 votes on City Council! In 2022, we had a good year: AURA’s preferred candidates won 5 out of 5 races for City Council and our preferred candidate for Mayor lost by just 900 votes.
Until we get our 9th vote in 2024, we are working on a number of important projects. The new Mayor is a fan of expanding Interstate 35, which is not just a “major artery” but Austin’s aorta. AURA abhorred the initial plan and an offshoot group is suing to stop it. The public transit expansion had its budget upset by COVID’s economic waves. AURA will be monitoring the cutbacks. Lastly, the public transit expansion has opened a door for smaller-scale zoning reform. The land around train stations may be rezoned and we expect to get 9 votes for our policies there.
Emily: Finally, give us a little preview of what you plan to write about here at Market Urbanism.
Michael: Readers will see a variety of posts from me. Some brand-new ideas as well as some new-to-the-reader ideas unearthed from economics paper and books. Some colorful data and some new perspectives on old idea. And, maybe, a rant or two.