District 7 Agenda Crystallizes as Candidates Refine Policies

District 7 City Council candidates at back to back forums last week fine-tuned their messages, influenced both by voters and by each other. The result is an emerging consensus on several issues: a homestead exemption, more affordable and family-friendly housing, and diversity in transportation solutions.

Conversely, most candidates are lukewarm on this November’s urban rail bond. Candidates remain divided about the appropriate extent of new housing, especially along corridors.

All eight District 7 candidates attended Tuesday’s Upper District 7 Forum held in the Gracywoods neighborhood off Metric. Seven of the candidates also participated in the League of Women Voters – City of Austin Ethics Commission forum on Wednesday, available on the City’s Channel 6 web page. [link] Each forum drew over 100 people.

Affordability: Homeowner Exemptions, New Housing, Marching on the Lege

Fiscal hawks Ed English and Jimmy Paver both proposed homestead exemptions early in the campaign, and at this point all the candidates support some kind of exemption. English has proposed an exemption that reduces each homeowner’s appraisal by a fixed amount.

Urbanist Jeb Boyt at the Gracywoods forum suggested $5,000 off a home’s appraised value. Newcomer Zack Ingraham suggested a percentage rate between 5 and 20%.

Flat rates are seen as “progressive” because owners of less expensive homes save relatively more tax. But state rules may complicate implementing a flat rate exemption.

English also proposed an outside audit of the City budget. “The City of Austin has more employees earning over $100,000 than any other city in Texas – including San Antonio, Houston and Dallas,” he said.

Ingraham raised Austin Energy as low hanging fruit for cost savings and transparency, a position seconded by working class activist Pete Salazar. “We need to stop using the public utility as a tax grabber, Salazar said. “All these fees that have nothing to do with services.”

Travis County planner Melissa Zone said affordability matters to small businesses too. “We should invest [our incentives] in small locally owned businesses. Great example – Whole Foods started out as a small, locally owned business. Now they’re an international corporation. Their headquarters is here in Austin. We should be investing in our people.” Salazar seconded this approach, urging the City to shape local business incubator corridors along streets like Lamar.

Leslie Pool, an aide to Travis County Constable Carlos Lopez, made reform of the state’s commercial property appraisal rules her top affordability measure. “I would be part of an army of people, and probably a lot of people in this room,” Pool said, “to work with other elected officials and our delegation to make the changes at the state level that are going to be required.”

Newcomer and restauranteer Darryl Wittle countered that Council has limited control over the legislature. “That’s a strategy of hope – not a great strategy.” Wittle joined other candidates in calling for more scrutiny of the City budget.

Boyt throughout the campaign has differentiated himself by focusing on housing affordability. “A key driver is housing market pressure,” Boyt said at the League of Women Voters forum. “We’re 47,000 units behind – we’re at 97% apartment occupancy. Until we can begin to provide the housing that folks need, we’re not going to get the prices down.”

At the Gracywoods forum, Boyt pivoted to tax relief, endorsing the homestead exemption.

That left an opening for others to frame the housing issue. Unlike Boyt, English said new housing in the south of District 7 should be limited, and that the City should build affordable housing on its vacant land, incentivize developers to build starter homes, and use cheaper land in the north of the district. “Our district does include the northeast corner, east of I35 along Parmer Ln. There is land where we can add additional housing, and the City can promote that.”

Zone too has supported building urban centers on Parmer near I35, and at Howard Lane. At the forum, she proposed tying density bonuses to affordable housing. In addition, “there’s transportation impact fees that we could adopt,” whereby developers would pay for more of the cost of new infrastructure to support suburban growth.

Wittle and Ingraham both expressed support for simpler development rules to bring more housing onto the market. Wittle gave a thumbs up to the Imagine Austin plan, which proposes putting housing along commercial streets like Lamar or Burnet. “We’re growing so rapidly as a city,” Wittle said.

“There are services that people want. There are developments that people want to take advantage of. We’re just going to have to accept some of these changes for what they are.”

Pool countered: “We need to comprehensively address the concerns of the traffic along [the corridor], with the development compatible with the surrounding neighborhoods. We need strict attention to what the neighborhood associations, the residents, and the small business owners along both of those corridors [Lamar, Burnet] need.” Like Salazar, she said the City needs to follow neighborhood plans.

Boyt also proposed requiring buyers of commercial property to disclose the sale price, so that commercial taxes are appraised fairly. Paver seconded this. Zone claimed credit for proposing commercial sale disclosure months earlier.

Transportation: Rail Bond Derailment

The rage in traffic congestion discussions is “Transportation Demand Management,” representing a number of relatively inexpensive solutions (car-pooling, telecommuting, distributed work hours) that attempt to get people off the roads during rush hour. Zone, the urban planner, has popularized the term.  English and Paver have especially embraced the concepts.

“Everybody likes to poo-poo the idea of time demand management, but I think it’s a great idea,” Paver said. “There’s ways we need to look at this that don’t just go to providing more transportation options for more dollars.”

Paver, English and Pool at the forums spoke to another traffic reduction strategy – clustering of housing on corridors into hubs well-supported by transit and pedestrian amenities. Paver coined a term, ‘Scattershot VMU.’ “We have scattershot development – need to think about a way to direct development to particular areas, then build transit into those areas.” New park space, added English, “can be arranged along public transit routes so that they support walking from public transportation.”

Almost all the candidates spoke to the urgent need for sidewalks, especially near transit. Pool said her 2012 bond committee directed money to begin planning such changes and to add sidewalks on Burnet and Lamar.

English, Paver and most recently Ingraham have been the most pro-road. English was careful to list roads first in a list of options – “road improvements, additional bus service, cost-effective rail, Uber-Lyft and ride sharing.” Paver supported adding a flyover at 183, upgrading I35, fixing failed intersections and synchronizing traffic lights. Ingraham said he would support the transportation bond money designated for roads, and would add more lanes. Boyt observed that money for Parmer and I35 improvements had been pulled from the November bond package.

Zone said the City doesn’t have to invest in building entire new roads if it looks at intersections as the key choke points. “You can widen the intersection to let buses get through. Work with CapMetro to make sure there’s connectivity from one bus station to the next.” English made this point as well. “I’ve seen some studies for some very interesting intersection designs that would improve traffic flow through those intersections.”

Many candidates have expressed reservations about the November rail bond for fear that the Highland Mall route won’t get enough ridership. “We need to look at where ridership actually is,” Paver said. It was left to Boyt, when challenged on the high cost of the rail package, to defend it: “it nicely combines affordability and transportation.” He said the project’s tax burden would be end-loaded so that taxpayers pay more as the service starts to reduce congestion.

Salazar in particular has panned the urban rail package, arguing that the money would be better served expanding bus service throughout the city.

Family-friendly Housing, Schools, Amenities

All candidates acknowledge the need for more housing, but a sub-text is the need to retain housing and services that keep families in the urban core.

Paver in particular pushed this issue. “It’s more complicated than just bringing the [housing] stock up. We continue to suburbanize poverty in a way that’s unhealthy for children.”  Most “affordable” housing in the core, he said, is single occupancy units that families can’t use. The City’s affordability programs need to account for this.

Zone agreed. A lot of single occupancy housing, she said, puts pressure on a community’s demographics and can undermine urban schools. City Council “can work to make sure there’s enough family-friendly housing in our core.”

The City has done a good job of supplementing AISD with after school programs, Zone said. She warned that the state was preparing to cut such funding further, which will raise the burden on muncipalities. Boyt agreed, and likewise advocated for diverse housing that accommodates families. “Families have to move around, during the school year, in search of cheaper rents,” he said. That’s a major cause of instability in the schools, added English, whose wife is a counselor at Cook Elementary.

English said city-funded after-school programs help AISD avoid the Robin Hood ordinance’s recapture rule. According to Paver, “this year we’re going to give $130 million back to the state” in recapture money. He said that amount will escalate dramatically over the next five years. With AISD’s severe funding shortage, cuts in federal funding, and a rapidly growing population of children under six, the district can expect a crisis in the coming years. It’s on the City, he said, to help get children ready for kindergarten.

Pool, a former PTA and girl scout leader, said civic engagement starts young and proposed that the City sponsor a “civic academy” program that goes into schools to encourage student involvement in municipal matters.

Paver commended City Council members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole for restoring some funding to community amenities in the upcoming budget – libraries, parks and community centers. He said more is needed to revitalize traditional services, and the City will need to be open to charging for such services. Wittle took this argument further, arguing that the City should rethink its approach to corporate sponsorship and public private ventures in order to get more park funding. Boyt too has previously endorsed this approach. At Crestview Station, Zone noted, neighbors fighting for a park have offered several options to raise outside money, and are ready to step in with grants or hands-on maintenance.

North Austin – Your Time Has Come!

All the candidates have enthused on the opportunities for fairer representation that come with 10-1. Clearly this is a popular message with North Austin voters.

Zone, who as a planner has run several corridor plans, said 10-1 will offer a chance to fix City planning processes that lack credibility. “The way the City’s taking it now is they’re pushing it down our throat.” The City needs to abandon its “this is how you do it” approach, she said, and adopt true participatory planning where stakeholder feedback actually influences the result.

“Driving up here, coming up Burnet and Metric,” Pool told the audience at the Gracywoods forum, “I could see that there are clear gaps in services up here. Your sidewalks – there are no sidewalks. The creeks are neglected and there are concerns about pollution. The parks have been neglected – the Walnut Creek pool house needs to be painted.”

North Austin above 183 “lacks libraries, a community center, and parks,” Paver added. The libraries we do have run on curtailed hours.

Some neighborhoods, like Oak Ridge, were annexed from the county and have no infrastructure, English said. “There’s a lack of storm drains, there’s a lack of sidewalks. We need additional police staff, which can be largely paid for by reducing overtime.”

Even Boyt, who generally avoids divisive rhetoric and like Pool has invested years on Downtown issues, couldn’t resist dipping into the populist waters. “I’m particularly excited… at not having to go down to south Austin, and ask permission and ask for favors from people who think Austin ends at Anderson Ln. I’m interested in representing and serving North Austin.”

See also:

District 7 Candidate Page

Mark your calendars for the Lower District 7 Neighborhoods Forum – Friday, September 26, 6:30 to 8:30 PM at St Louis Church off Burnet Rd.