English Interview – Details on Preserving Affordability, Livability

This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Ed English on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:

* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget

How do you define a neighborhood? What features make one successful?

A neighborhood at its core level has some type of physical boundaries. There’s usually a major artery, a natural barrier, like a creek. The variety of the housing stock, the general age ranges that are in that neighborhood, schools that might be adjacent to the families in that neighborhood, of children that go to a given school. You look at the general character of the given neighborhood – where the people work, the average income of the residents.

Having said that, I’m a big believer in diversity. That’s been a part of my background, certainly my experience with AGR [Austinites for Geographic Representation]. I don’t see a neighborhood so tightly defined, that those who don’t fit the averages, on either side of the bell curve if you will, are not part of the neighborhood. I believe that neighborhoods should be very inclusive.

I think to the extent that you can, you try to enhance those qualities. I am very neighborhood friendly. I’m not anti-growth, I’m more controlled and managed growth. And I think that long-established neighborhoods where families have lived for many generations, they need to have a sense of security, that someone on the city council as always got an eye to the impact of the decisions that they make on that neighborhood. I think that in and of itself offers some enhancement to livability. The risk of staying doesn’t include constant encroachment and constant challenges to the character of the neighborhood.

Is Downtown a Neighborhood?

It is now. With the big push towards redevelopment downtown, with a heavy emphasis on making it a residence, yeah, I would consider Downtown a neighborhood. Certainly unique in many many ways. But the people there share some of the commonalities I was mentioning earlier. They share lifestyle, age, education, their personal interests – tend to be your urbanites who like the density, like the entertainment, they like walkability, and they certainly have it there.

Should neighborhoods specialize, or should any neighborhood be a place that works for anybody?

There’s a practical answer to that. I don’t think a neighborhood realistically is going to appeal to everybody. People have very individualized preferences for what they want in a neighborhood. It might be out of reach for a neighborhood to be so diversified that it would appeal to anyone who drove through it and said “I want to live here.” Human nature just says that’s not likely. That said, you do what you can to make a neighborhood appeal to the majority.

One of the more controversial votes by the current Council involved a proposal to regulate how businesses can offer single-family homes for short-term lease – in effect micro-hotels in residential neighborhoods. Many Austin residents oppose Commercial Short-Term Rentals (CSTRs) for fear that they will undermine the strong sense of local community that helps to make Austin so livable. Tourism and real estate groups, some homeowners, and especially the Austin-based company HomeAway, countered that some regulation is better than no regulation, but that restrictions shouldn’t undermine the economy. Council approved an ordinance that defines CSTRs, regulates them, and restricts their number in a given census tract to 3% of single family residences. Did they get it right? How would you have voted?

As a homeowner, I may have a little bit of a particular bias here. My initial reaction to that is that I’m rather sympathetic towards homeowners as far as their concerns about short term rentals. You have people living for a week, two weeks, in the house next to you that you don’t know. They don’t understand the neighborhood, they may not understand parking restrictions. Their concerns for your well-being end at the day they leave. I am reluctant to want to do anything to promote that.

There’s a case to be made for some restrictions being better than none. There’s value in that. Without any restrictions, the door’s wide open for anything goes. And I certainly don’t think neighborhoods deserve that. So you sort of stair-step up or down from no restrictions to overly restrictive. No restrictions for me is out of the question. So where do you draw the line?

I think that very tight restrictions on the number of houses that can be used for short-term rentals, the number of people who can occupy it, the number of weeks in any given year that a house can be used, the number of vehicles that can be parked in front of it, the number of hours that they can make sound beyond a certain decibel level.

I understand there’s a need for short-term rentals. For some homeowners that may be a way for them to stay in their home. They can use that revenue while they’re visiting grandma to help pay these property taxes that are going up. I understand there’s a need for it, but I also understand the regulations have to be extremely well-defined, and fairly extensive on a lot of different points.

You know we are rectifying the problem with the shortage of hotel space. And as we get more hotel space, we might want to revisit the idea of short-term rentals. We might not completely abandon it, but there’s some logic behind why there’s a need for it.

My concern is that we have various business interests in the city, who put a high priority on profits. I’m not anti-business. I’ve run a small business, I’ve worked for businesses. If you don’t make profits, you’re in trouble. But at some point you have to put some constraints on profits – where do you get them, and at what cost to other people, to other businesses, to homeowners. There’s got to be a happy medium in there, and at the current time I’m in favor of tight restrictions.

Tighter than what was passed?

Probably. I see the allowance of these citywide being reviewed by City Council on a periodic basis i.e. a review of the increase in and availability of additional hotel space since the previous review.

Another controversial vote this last year involved approval of a local bar, Little Woodrow’s, on Burnet Rd. Rick Engel, the bar owner, said he was drawn to the changing demographics along Burnet, and that his bar would help to activate the corridor and still be family-friendly by sharing the site with a pizza restaurant. Opponents charged that the bar’s 2 AM weekend hours of operation, lack of sufficient parking, and proximity to an existing bar, would start to shape a SoCo-style bar district with serious livability impacts for adjacent residents. Council voted 4-3 to approve a conditional use permit, with restrictions including 1 AM weekend hours, noise restrictions, and a bigger parking requirement. How would you have voted?

I would have opposed it. In my opinion, the facts clearly lined up in favor of the neighborhoods. And a lot of it stems around the fact that a bar is a different kind of business establishment. You know, it’s not a shoe store, it’s not a barbershop. It’s an establishment that’s evening-oriented, where people come and drink and have a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is a unique business environment. It brings with it certain business-operating conditions you just don’t find in other businesses.

Also, the neighborhoods felt like there wasn’t sufficient interaction with the bar owner, that a lot of the facts were misrepresented, like the proximity of the parking that they were proposing – it was within 200 ft of residences. There just appeared to be a lot of miscommunication and misrepresentation on the part of the bar owner.

And I think there’s a point to be made that if you cluster bars too close together, you start to develop an air, an attitude in the community that this is a place to drink, and if you don’t like one, there’s another one down the street. And the example that was used of a good bar, Ginny’s, illustrated that the neighborhood was open-minded. They were not “we’re anti- every and any bar”. It was the relationship with the bar owner, his willingness to work with the neighborhood, that give and take – made it a success. They are a bar, but they’re accepted by the neighborhood because they have a mutual level of respect and understanding of what the operating conditions would be.

One of the proposals floated for the CodeNext zoning reform involves scrapping rules like the tree ordinance that protect mature trees on properties subject to redevelopment. Developers argue that rules like this hamstring their projects, hurt the economy and affordability. They want more flexible rules, in this case the option to replant trees of equivalent value at a different location. Many residents argue that large trees are priceless, and fear replacement trees will be somewhere other than where they are needed, in dense urban areas. Would you keep the tree ordinance or revise it?

I’d keep the tree ordinance. Not a lot of commentary on that one. That’s kind of a yes-no question. So I’ll give you a yes-no answer. I’m very in tune with those who place a high value on their physical environment. Trees are trees – they’ve been where they are in many cases for hundreds of years – some of the established oaks. Replanting trees somewhere else is just not the same thing.

How would you make Austin affordable?

Affordability is such a broad umbrella. It covers so many topics. And it means different things to different people based on income levels and what part of town they live in. So you have to tailor your definition of affordability based on the district. Our district is sort of a middle-of-the-road district. We’re not in the more affluent parts of town. We certainly fare far better than other areas of town.

We’re going to slay that affordability giant with a thousand cuts. There are no one or two silver bullets that are going to be “the answer.” It’s a series of 15 or 20 little things.

Property taxes are a part of it. I commend City Council as of mid-May for at least considering the challenge to the tax rolls next year. I don’t know where that’s going to go – it’s a legally complex case. The ultimate decision there rests with the state. The problems with the balance of the commercial vs. residential property taxes is a state-wide issue. But Houston is taking a look at the same thing at the current time. So we’re not an isolated case.

But I think we can do something that has a quick impact on affordability, and that’s a homestead exemption. As people who are actually going to read this know, Austin is the only taxing entity that does not offer a homestead exemption. They do offer a tax break for 65 and over and disabled, but not for those who don’t meet those qualifications.

It’s very doable. You start with a small set amount. We want to put two tools in the toolkit for City Council to use every year, and that’s a tax rate and a flat amount for a homestead exemption.

There may be some challenges with using a fixed dollar exemption with state law. But Austin’s a home-rule city. So we have the authority to make any change that we want to our city charter, provided that it doesn’t conflict with state law. And we have the ability to defend our decision regarding a conflict with state law, should the state legislature or some official decide to challenge it.

But I think we can put one on the books. And I think we start small. Obviously tax exemptions have a significant impact on the budget, and the revenue that you’re able to generate. So you start small – literally a thousand, two thousand off of appraised value. In reality that results in a very small decrease in property taxes, but what it does is puts another tool in the toolkit that Council can use on a year-by-year basis and make adjustments. They can adjust the rate, or they can adjust the flat dollar exemption.

Those have very different impacts. Rate changes benefit more those who live in expensive houses. The flat dollar exemption benefits more those who live in less expensive homes. I’m going to pick a number – $2,000 off the value of a $500,000 home is nothing. $2,000 off the value of a $140,000 home is a significantly bigger decrease in tax.

So will a thousand dollar decrease in the appraised value of a $200,000 home have much impact on livability?

It’s just a tool. It puts the tool in the toolkit that can be adjusted in future years as needed. I would not recommend putting such an exemption on the books that’s excessive. It would have too dramatic an impact on the City’s revenues. You don’t get up into the $10,000-15,000 range, because the impact on City revenues is too significant.

Another way to tackle affordability is to look at utility rates. Here again, utility rates represent a larger share of income for a lower income family than for a wealthier family. One way to bring down water bills is to look at the Austin Energy transfer to the city general fund. This year I believe it was $105 million. I’d like to see that amount gradually ratcheted down. Again, you don’t do it all at once because it has a significant impact on the City budget. You ratchet it down over a five-six-seven-year period. You use that amount to offset the effect of increasing rates. You have the potential for a fairly stable billing system. You could also use part of that money to invest in renewables, that has a sizeable upfront cost, but not nearly the operational cost and almost no fuel cost.

A third opportunity is to reduce the cost of housing by increasing the amount of housing. We really need to make more housing available. In District 7, we have that space. I live on the north end of the district, and the district does extend along the northern city limits east of 35, out Parmer Ln over to Dessau. There’s a lot of vacant land out there. There’s ample opportunity to build single family homes, fourplexes, eightplexes. Maybe you don’t want to go any bigger than that. I’d like to see single family homes, or smaller multi-family homes, I’d like to see an emphasis on that. Make those homes affordable. They’re near employers, they’re near major roadways. I think right now apartment occupancy is around 96%. It’s really that, coupled with the fact that we’re not building enough new housing stock that’s causing the existing prices to skyrocket.

One of the things that’s a real issue here is the permitting process. I’ve talked to home-builders. They are quite interested in getting back to the day – I remember when I moved here, you’d listen to the radio, pick up the paper, watch the TV, they used to advertise starter homes. When was the last time you saw a developer build a starter home – we’ll pick today’s value – $170k, $190k. They’re not building those. Because one, it’s such an incredibly complex, slow, bogged down by a broken permitting process – they don’t want to deal with it. If we streamline the permitting process, we could get affordable homes out faster.

That’s one of the top recommendations coming out of CodeNext. That makes sense to you.

It does. The issue that I might have depending upon the specifics of CodeNext is where do they go? Where do we put those? I do think there’s a place for that missing middle, which I’m sure we’ll probably get into. But one of the areas of concern is that families with children in the school district are leaving. And I hate to see that happen for a whole lot of reasons. Those kinds of families tend to favor single family homes, maybe a duplex or a four-plex. Because they’re more family-friendly. You have some green space. You’re not on the 15th floor of an apartment building. I want to see us establish an environment where single family homes, small multi-family, are affordable again. Builders want to build them. We streamline the permitting process. We put them in areas where they have access to major roadways. We try to geographically disperse them. That’s one of the areas where I might have a difference with CodeNext. I don’t think we have to pack everything into one space. Just like we have employment centers, I think we can have residential centers.

As employers come into town, I would like to see the City encourage them to really geographically disperse. So that we don’t have traffic going all one direction in the morning, and turning around and going all the other direction in the afternoon. We try to put employers in areas of the city where typically there are skillsets that live close by. I’d like to see the job base significantly diversified. We have areas where we can do that. I’ll take that northeast corner again – that area around Dell, Samsung out there. There’s a lot of space – we can bring employers in there, we can add housing out there so people don’t have to travel great distances.

One little idea I have that would help a young family get on their feet and help with buying a new single family home, is to offer them, remember this is on new construction – when you build a new house the city has a new source of revenue for property taxes – waive the property taxes on the ground underneath the home for the first year. And then gradually raise it up to full rate over a five to seven year period. People will say “That’s lost revenue.” No it’s not, because it’s a new home, new revenue.

The intent being to incentivize new construction and home ownership?

It’d incentivize new construction, and make the payment on the home much lighter on the front end. It would be an incentive to builders, because they’d have a bigger market. They’d have more customers who could afford those homes that otherwise couldn’t if they were taxed at full value. The city still gets new tax revenue that they didn’t have before. The home would be taxed at appraisal value.

While we’re on the subject, you mentioned distributing housing throughout the city. What’s your take on the Accessory Dwelling Unit proposal?

Granny flats? That’s what some people call it. That’s a tough question to answer.

As far as building say a garage apartment or a little separate dwelling in the backyard. I see some value in that. I understand that it could be overdone. There’s always somebody out there that’s going to try to take advantage of that, buy a property, put an accessory dwelling in the backyard with the sole purpose of making more money. And I’m not sure what restriction you could put in the code to keep people from taking advantage of that at the expense of a neighborhood.

But I do see that as an opportunity for a lot of families, a lot of stay-at-home kids – it’s harder to get a start, kids are dealing with student debt loads unlike anything I ever had to face. Elderly parents – it’s expensive for them – they want to be close to their children that are going to be able to take care of them. It also provides for those folks who want to stay in their home an opportunity to do that. There are a lot of retired people scattered across this district, particularly in these more mature neighborhoods, who have been here for a long long time, they’re not interested in leaving, and that’s an option that keeps them from being priced out of their homes by property taxes.

You know, I don’t mind a little apartment over my garage. It’s quiet, I can control who rents there. I want somebody who’s nice, who’s quiet, who meets the restrictions that I set for them as tenants. If they’re good tenants, they provide a source of revenue that might keep me in my home.

The way you’re describing it, it sounds like you’re imagining this where the primary resident would still be on site.

Yes. I would see that as something that might be involved in structuring some type of regulations on it. If the primary residence is occupied by the live-in owner, then I think you probably have some more wiggle room on your restrictions on building and who occupies.

How would you enforce that? I build it with every intention of living here until I die, and then something happens, I have to sell. And both units on my property…

Sure – one conveys with the other. You’re kind of in uncharted territory. You really have to think that through. I think you have to put some stipulations in there, that when the property is sold, that the new owner has to meet certain conditions. Again, it kind of gets back to like the short term rental conundrum. I can certainly see the potential for abuse. Maybe if the house is sold with an accessory dwelling, a parent, a sibling, a child can live in there, with some significant restrictions on what you could do to rent that out to someone who’s not a close relative.

I see neighborhoods having the option to opt in or opt out of allowing these. If by survey of the neighborhood the neighborhood opts in, then the very tight restrictions I mentioned would be applicable, including the conveyance of the restrictions on who can occupy an accessory dwelling unit when the property is sold.

So how do you achieve affordability over the long term?

This gets into one of my top three priorities, and that’s fiscal responsibility and transparency in government. A big factor of affordability here is based on what it costs to operate this city, as far as the fees that are collected, the utility rates, property taxes, transportation cost, transit time, even things as simple as that, because if it takes you longer to get from point A to point B, and you’re in your private vehicle, or even on a bus, the more fuel’s expended.

At the core of running our city is the City budget. We need to take a hard look at the budget, how we approach the budget, at the current levels of expenditure, projected levels of expenditure, the level of staffing that we have as opposed to management – the management-to-staff ratio. The number of people working for the city that have $100,000+ salaries. Historic home exemptions.

One of the things that we can do long-term which has a very diverse impact is to look where we want to spend our money, how much we think we can allow the city budget to grow. It has a direct impact. Ultimately it filters down to a lot of cost. If we do a lot of expensive things… and I’m going to put a little bit of the burden on the backs of the residents. It’s not all “The city all bad, the citizens all good.” I really think it’s imperative that the citizens of Austin as these bond packages come up – we’ve been pretty generous over the years. And I’d like to hope and think that the city, and those people who are stakeholders involved in the process of things that make it more expensive to live here do everything they can to be fair in their appraisals and estimates of what things are going to cost down the road. Bond packages are nice, and we want all these good things, we’d like to have all these improvements. But ultimately, we pay for those. And it has a direct impact on affordability.

And there’s a lot of things that have a direct impact on affordability, that the City has absolutely no control over. But as a City Council member, you do what you can to control those costs that the City incurs.

A prominent affordability goal of the CodeNext zoning rewrite is to expand middle-density zoning categories, like duplexes, four-plexes, eight-plexes. It has also been proposed to simplify building accessory housing on SF properties, like granny flats. Opponents argue that such housing tends to suffer maintenance problems, brings in short-duration residents uninvested in their communities, strains infrastructure, and adds more traffic to residential streets. Do you support or oppose such housing, and why?

I think the concerns are largely justified. But I think the concerns come, and rightly so, from established neighborhoods that see new types of housing as taking something away from their neighborhood. They don’t see them as add-ons, as much as they see them as replacements.

I do believe there’s a place for that missing middle. The objective is where do we put that, so that it has minimal impact on adjacent established neighborhoods. Because I do believe there has to be some kind of line in the sand. At some point, a neighborhood deserves a level of protection that will stand – that doesn’t change from year to year with the next corridor project, with the next rezoning idea. I know it’s difficult with a rapidly growing city to put something in place that’s not subject to change in five years. You have to adapt.

I would prefer to see areas that are in need of replacement housing, that are in need of additional housing stock. We have areas in the city where the housing stock is very old, it’s poorly maintained. There’s a lot of code enforcement problems. We also have certain areas that are just vacant. If you live in certain parts of this city, that might seem like a statement coming from Mars, because you don’t see any vacant space. But in the north end of the district, particularly the northeast corner of it, I can see a real opportunity out there, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, taking some of that underutilized space and turning it into residential centers, just like we do business hubs.

The key to getting people to live there, and to maintain the property, and to be good tenants, good owners, is to put them in a place where they would find it beneficial to stay for a while. How do you do that? You put the resources that they need, that are convenient, that are part of their daily life – close to them. You put places to eat, you put retail establishments, and first and foremost – where am I working? That’s a huge factor for most people in where they decide to live. They might have some nice amenities nearby, but if where they work is on the opposite end of town, that trumps an awful lot of things.

But we have an opportunity in the northeast corner of the district – Parmer between 35 and Dessau, to do some fantastic things out there, build out that area, and bring in employment, good living wage jobs. The types of folks who would want a starter home. Now there are apartments going up rapidly out there, some existing single family homes, neighborhoods out there – Harris Ridge, Copperfield – but there’s still a lot of space out there. At least within our district, that’s an area we could look to as a resident/employment hub, where fourplexes would be welcome. There’s some areas along the border we share with District 4, where we really could replace some of the existing housing stock, where it’s deteriorated and old. Maintenance and upgrades in some cases are cost prohibitive. It might be better in some of those neighborhoods to just start over and put some newer stock in there.

To get back to your central point, I do see the concerns of neighborhoods that see duplexes, fourplexes as a problem, where they’re not wanted and they’re not appropriate. Where they’re seen as an encroachment on the neighborhood. I think we can avoid that by putting missing middle housing in different places, next to employment centers.

Austin is losing families. We have a feedback loop where childless households with more money and desire shape market demand, the market builds mostly 1-BR units that exclude families, the retail and services become less family-friendly, school quality suffers, and so fewer families try to enter that market.

Should we be zoning in a way that adds more family-friendly housing in areas that want to remain family-friendly, or should we zone for housing that best meets market demand?

At the core of it is what do you place a value on as far as the character of the city as a whole. If you put a high level of value on having a good mix of single individuals, double-income-no-kid (DINKs), and families, if you see that as part of what makes a city balanced, what adds a good robust diversity to it, then I think you do what you need to do, within reasonable guidelines, to use zoning to encourage new single family or small multi-family housing. Or at least do what you can to protect those neighborhoods that already have that character, they’re already mostly single family.

Again, speaking in generalities here, I’m going to side with the neighborhoods. I would hate to see the city over the next 20 or 30 years become largely devoid of single family neighborhoods. At the rate that we’re growing, that’s not out of the question – that 20-30 years down the road, that single family homes be a rarity, unless you’re out on the extreme periphery. I know that a lot of people would view that differently, but I really think it does a disservice to the long-term prospects of the city to have the demographics become too narrowly focused. It’s a risk that we don’t need to run.

I think that the character of the city, any city, not just this one, should include a flavor, a structure, a code that protects existing family homes, and where at all possible, encourages additional neighborhoods that are family-oriented and single-family oriented.

See also:

District 7 Candidate Positions Relevant to the Burnet Rd Corridor Plan