Paver Interview – Details on Preserving Affordability, Livability

This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Jimmy Paver on his candidacy and the issues identified in the 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

The interview took place on May 17. Since then, Mr. Paver has met with numerous stakeholders and refined his positions. He asked to provide updates to his original responses where appropriate. These are in italics below.

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

Neighborhoods are walkable, a place that has a park, that’s safe. It’s a place where you have the opportunity to have a community and be around like-minded people. It is an area that is not dangerous to pedestrians. It has sidewalks, it has sewers, it has lawns.

9/2 – A neighborhood has a character that makes it distinguishable from others, something it values and that draws residents based on the identity of those key elements that make it unique.

Is Downtown a neighborhood?

I think a town center concept could be considered neighborhood-oriented. But when I think of the word ‘neighborhood’ – no. I don’t see [downtown] as a neighborhood. I see that as urban living. There’s a difference in that you have community gathering spaces, like rec centers and parks. You’ve got walking in your neighborhood. You know more of your neighbors. Families live in neighborhoods. The elderly live in neighborhoods.

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

I think that they’re special places. Everybody has a preference based on the feel of their neighborhood. I don’t think that one size fits all. Neighborhoods can be different, and people should have choice.

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?

I can understand not wanting to undercut tourism here. And I can understand wanting to get in on that revenue. But – we have one right next door to us. To the extent that they are empty for 260 days a year, only occupied on weekends – we haven’t had any trouble, but I don’t think that it is something that benefits a neighborhood. It certainly benefits business, but it invites some things that neighborhoods would not want. Possibly vandalism. I don’t like not having anybody who lives next door to me. It’s just a general sense that you get of emptiness when you look out the window.

I don’t know if the cap is sufficient – there is still going to be an underground market. People will take it off the books. That’s a code enforcement question for the city,that the city needs to look at not only to capture revenue, but to make sure people are following the letter of the law. I don’t know how you track all that down.

The owner-occupied question – they live on site and rent out a place – I don’t have a problem with that. But the homes that are empty, [is a problem].

9/2 – Part of living in a neighborhood such as those in District 7, is living in a tight-knit community where you know your neighbors, kids grow up and go to school together, etc. These CSTR’s undermine that concept and need to be regulated.

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 understand the objection from the neighborhood. There were some concessions made. There are bars in proximity – that’s a false flag. Billy’s is nearby, Little Longhorn’s is right across the street. You go farther down and you have bars all along Burnet Rd. And they all have neighborhoods behind them. I understand a big corporate bar like Little Woodrow’s coming in, and the expected fear of total redevelopment of the area. I don’t think it’s time to cry wolf about it.

But I do think things like that need to be controlled, in the sense that you don’t want the area to become defined as a bar area, or a bar investment area. There’s too much around it, and a lot of local business that already exists. To see new corporate business come in – I don’t think we should be alarmist about that, but we need to protect what is there.

Also, south of 2222, we only have four lanes. We don’t have turning lanes north of there. That’s a big consideration. And people leaving drunk at 1 am is something you want to avoid.

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?

That’s a difficult question to answer without the specifics on the type of trees that would be replaced. I do understand from a developer standpoint where they have a heritage tree that sits right in the middle of their site and would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep. I certainly don’t want 500-year-old oaks being torn down. But if it’s a hackberry…sitting in the middle of something, you see how this could be a case-by-case thing.

You can’t apply uniform rules to this stuff. Once you do something in government, it’s a blunt instrument. You have to figure out a way for government to be flexible, and people need to be flexible, too.

9/2 – I would revise the ordinance but wouldn’t scrap it. If a very high bar were set for the hardship of keeping a heritage tree, I would consider a proposal but other than that, I think it remains an important part of environmental preservation efforts.

You’ve named your brother as campaign treasurer.  Is he a real estate attorney, and if so – how should people view that?

He’s not a real estate attorney. He handles some real estate transactions, mostly for our business. He’s in transactional law, mostly for families. They do probate, estate planning. They’re all over the board. To specifically call him a real estate attorney is not accurate. He has no clients in that realm. He’s my brother and closest friend, who’s an attorney who can ensure compliance with campaign finance rules.

How would you make Austin affordable?

We have to consider how hard we’re hitting people with property taxes, and basically every form of local taxation is escalating. How do you avoid that and protect the people who have been here? I favor providing some relief.

One way to provide people some relief is a municipal homestead exemption at a percentage – three percent – that might save people three or four hundred dollars. Some people propose cutting the city’s proportion of property tax, which is 50 cents per $100 of value. To do that you’d have to have some off-setting expenditure reductions. There are other strategies like land-banking that can help people stay in their homes.

9/2- We need to rein in spending at the city, putting less demand on Austin Energy and Austin Water Utility to turn profits. And we need affordable housing for families within urban areas.

What about renters?

General affordability is driven by a lot of factors, and the city’s ability to temper it [short-term] is somewhat limited. We can try to bring down utility rates. And we need to stand by terms we stated and not change them later in the fine print, whether that be for small business, or another example is people who participated in solar – Austin Energy changed their kilowatt-hour-credit amount back. People who invested in a renewable form of energy aren’t getting what’s promised.

9/2- There are many different reasons Austinites rent. And one of them is a lack of affordability. For those who can’t afford to rent in our city, much less own a home, we need more affordable housing for single and multi-family occupants. I am in favor of incentivizing developers to promote this.

How about long-term affordability?

We need more places for people to live. I’m in favor of a town center concept in a well-developed, planned way. Something that looks a little bit like the Domain, that’s in an area that’s unto itself, that has transportation options, that doesn’t affect neigbhorhoods directly. I’m in favor of providing that kind of place to people who are coming here, who in large part are transient young professionals. But I also think that what we have in the mixed use building, especially along Burnet Rd, is housing that will be gone in 15 years. If we’re serious about and want to invest in people who will come here long-term, you need more solutions to provide housing to people that don’t affect neighborhoods.

They’re commercial spots that for better or worse we haven’t planned for very well. I’m not against mixed use – to have them be scattershot – that’s tough for neighborhoods. It does encroach on their interests. It’s not something that I think is going to kill the neighborhood either – it’s not a wrecking ball. A wrecking ball would be building the Domain at the corner of Lamar and North Loop. Having an apartment there with 200 units just means that you need better transportation options.

I think that long-term affordability means more housing for the people who need it, and finding a way to basically hold down the costs for the average consumer who’s been here. The median income is not rising by the city budget – it’s gone from $1.9 billion to $3.3 billion in ten years. And that’s an alarming amount of taxation levied on the backs of people who live here. I’d like to look at some form of property tax relief. I’d like to look at where all of those dollars are going, as I don’t see a corresponding increase in services. I’m a little baffled by that.

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?

It depends on the area. Just as you have on your website, you have an argument here between suburbanists and urbanists. The question is whether we should make room for people in the city by making it easier for development to come into neighborhoods. I think it’s a leading question. You have to be able to accommodate people who are coming in. If you take a neighborhood like Allandale or Crestview, would I be in favor of bulldozing four houses and putting up six duplexes? Probably not. But I do think where it’s consistent with the theme of the neighborhood, that some of that stuff is acceptable. Replacing one house with a duplex, like is happening in Crestview non-stop.

I know this will raise objections in Allandale, but what’s the alternative? I would prefer not to have that in Allandale. But I don’t see it as an all-or-nothing thing. I don’t think it’s going to ruin the neighborhood. If entire city blocks were bought up and redeveloped, that’s going to ruin the neighborhood. I’m not going to say, “Don’t bring any of that in here.” We need places for people to live.

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?

Whatever zoning that we choose, we should still be able to accommodate families.

I think families are one of the most important resources we have. I don’t like seeing them pushed out to the periphery. They live one of the toughest existences in this city. I think that finding a place for them here so that they can send their children to the schools that they want is an important part of what we should do.

It’s an affordability issue. An ability for families like that too to co-locate means that we have to allow them other places to live. If they can’t live in a dense one-bedroom community that is going up in a lot of places and that restricts their usage, then they’re pushed out of the school district. I think that should be available to them in some way. I think we should focus on it.