Tuesday, August 13, 2002 by

Task force must first define question to be answered

All Ramon Maldonado wants is a place for his family to live in East Austin—a place where high property taxes won’t force his elderly parents to move from the area they’ve spent their entire lives.

Maldonado told the city’s newly formed Gentrification Task Force last night that his family has been in the Austin area since 1881. Now he worries that his parents, both retired school bus drivers, will be taxed out of their home and their neighborhood.

“The goal for you people should be to keep them there, to keep them where they were born, where they were born and raised,” Maldonado said. “What historic zoning does is raise taxes. It taxes the working poor.” Actually, homes zoned with the historic designation receive a tax abatement.

As objective as the goals for this gentrification task for may be—to discuss the impact of historic zoning on property values in Central East Austin —emotions quickly get tangled in the issue. Raise the subject on the East Side and words like “conspiracy,” “collusion” and “disenfranchisement” are frequently heard. One speaker told the task force that the city’s 1928 master plan was “designed by the masters” to remove “unsightly Negro shacks and Mexican huts” in an effort to revitalize downtown’s commercial areas.

And some, like Scottie Ivory, experienced first-hand being displaced during the city’s initial urban renewal almost 40 years ago. Ivory told the task force her house was bought for pennies on the dollar in the name of urban renewal and the land still sits vacant. Today, the Austin Redevelopment Authority is being perceived as proposing the same overtures in East Austin, again in the name of revitalization.

“The city is good about mowing down and destroying people’s neighborhoods,” Ivory told the commission. “When they do build and replace, nobody will be able to live in those houses. I’ve lived through history, and everybody wants to preserve a part of their history. Therefore, don’t move us all out.”

The Gentrification Task Force will address the area bounded by I-35, Manor Road, Highway 183 and Town Lake and is supposed to make a recommendation to the City Council by Sept. 26. Member Michael Casias said it was important to narrow the commission’s scope by first determining what effect historic zoning has had on property values in Central East Austin. Horace Carrington will chair the task force; Lydia Ortiz will serve as vice chair.

Task force member Julia Bunton sees a greater role for the committee. She says the task force needs to define the “pros” and “cons” of historic zoning. “It’s more than just a tax abatement,” Bunton said. “It’s part of looking at a diverse population and getting some dignity and respect and value for everyone in Austin.”

People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources (PODER)—represented by Silvia Herrera and Miguel Gomez—presented some of the group’s initial findings to the task force. Gomez said racism doesn’t have to be intentional. Sometimes the effect of a policy is discriminatory, regardless of the intentions of city planners and city leaders. Gomez presented graphs showing that values had quadrupled around historically-zoned houses in East Austin.

Lori Renteria, who has served on prior gentrification committees, asked the task force to check out what was allowed under state law. It would be pointless to talk about rent-controlled districts if they aren’t legal. And she pointed out that the term “involuntary displacement” often can be replaced by “voluntary displacement” if people find the price of homes in Pflugerville and Manor more attractive.

Payments would be made to homeowners, renters near plant

While members of the Gentrification Task Force were in East Austin talking about how Historic zoning impacts land values, members of the city’s Electric Utility Commission were at Austin Energy discussing a similar question—how the Holly Power Plant impacts its neighbors.

Members of the EUC are still trying to figure out how best to mitigate the effects of the plant on its closest neighbors, but acknowledged that direct payments to landowners and renters remains a complicated matter with unforeseeable economic and political consequences. The City Council recently promised to close two of four units at Holly by December 31, 2004. (See In Fact Daily, July 16, 2002 .)

Even though the City Council rejected a similar proposal from the commission this spring, some members of the EUC still seem interested in asking Austin Energy to pay mitigation funds directly to renters and homeowners who live within close proximity to the plant. The Council has approved used of mitigation funds for a variety of educational and cultural programs in East Austin. In addition, mitigation funds have been used for home weatherization, noise mitigation and safety improvements, as well as upgrading the Camacho Activity Center and Fiesta Gardens.

Commissioner Shudde Fath suggested that mitigation payments be paid in return for residents or property owners signing a “voluntary noise easement and agreeing not to sue over normal power plant operations.” In the case of rental property, the landlord would have to sign the easement, but the payment would go to the renter.

The proposal would subsidize rents or mortgage payments based on the most recent value assigned by the Travis County Appraisal District. Residents closest to the plant would receive one-half of one percent of the appraised property value per month, while those slightly farther from the plant would receive one-quarter of one percent per month.

Commission Chair Barry Sarma said, “I’m bothered that there will be a lot of problems in administering this.” He also said he was concerned that landlords would raise rents based on the subsidies being given to their tenants. But Fath said Austin Energy would take swift action if rents were raised above a certain level. Commissioner Neal Kocurek suggested one percent of the appraised tax value as a reasonable rent. Anything above that would trigger a loss of the subsidy.

Safeguards will thus be built into the agreement to terminate payments if landlords raise rents above the standard amount.

After working on the wording and then asking staff to come up with a final draft, the committee voted unanimously to send the proposa—without a recommendation—to the entire commission for consideration at next week’s regular meeting.

Fath, the senior member of the commission, brought another proposal to the committee, but made a motion to table it after learning of legal problems with the idea. She wanted Austin Energy to buy approximately 69 homes in the red zone—the area closest to the plant—for three times the 2002 appraisal and about 25 homes in the yellow zone for twice the appraisal. Staff and other commissioners pointed out to her that the city and other units of government are forbidden by state law from purchasing property for more than its appraised value.

Fath said if Austin Energy were investor-owned, rather than owned by the city, there would be no consideration of closing the plant. Other utilities have purchased entire towns in order to keep plants operating. However, Fath said that she believes at least some landowners in the Holly area are waiting for the plant to close so they can take advantage of the gentrification that will inevitably occur once Holly is removed.

AE Vice President Roger Duncan said, “Everyone at Austin Energy agrees that if this were an investor-owned utility, we wouldn’t close it. This is a community issue, not just an electric department issue.”

Wanted: Water & Wastewater Commissioners . . . Commissioner Kim McPherson has notified the City Clerk’s Office that she wants to step down from the commission as soon as her replacement is named. She was a consensus appointment and is one of four commissioners whose terms expire this month. The others are commission Chair Darwin McKee, Vice Chair Lanetta Cooper, Chien Lee and Dacio Marin. The clerk’s office has received new applications from Glen Coleman, secretary of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. He does sales and product support for Hoover’s Online. The other applicant is Rodney Madden, president of Madden Development Co., a real estate development and construction management company . . . City to cut ribbon on affordable housing for seniors . . . The AHFC will unveil Primrose of Shadow Creek at 10am Thursday. The development at 1206 Clayton Lane will provide 176 affordable apartment units for citizens over 55, with amenities including landscaped garden areas, community rooms and laundry rooms in each building. The developer is Southwest Housing . . . Daryl Slusher show today . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher will interview John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Capital Area Training Foundation and vice president for workforce development for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Fitzpatrick is also a member of the AISD Board of Trustees. The show will air live on Channel 6 at 1pm today and will be rerun at 10pm Wednesday and 11:30am Thursday . . . No Zoning and Platting Commission tonight . . . The Community Development Commission will meet at 6:30pm tonight at the Conley-Guererro Senior Activity Center at 808 Nile St. and the Parks and Recreation Board will meet at the department boardroom, 200 S. Lamar.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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