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Rodriguez bill takes aim at gentrification

Wednesday, April 6, 2005 by

Urban land bank would mean more low and moderate-income housing

Many landowners in East Austin say the “gentrification” of their neighborhoods is driving up land values and pricing them out of their own homes. But a bill sponsored by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) would give Austin the option to create a “homestead preservation district” in East Austin aimed at maintaining affordable housing options in a neighborhood in transition.

Rodriguez sat down with affordable housing advocates, as well as representatives from Austin and Travis County, to draft House Bill 525. The goal is to preserve affordable housing options for low-income and moderate-income families in East Austin. The problem, Rodriguez said, is a limitation on funding to provide options to potential homeowners.

“It’s obvious that affordable housing is an important issue in our city right now,” Rodriguez said. “The big problem is that we’re trying to create these kinds of options but we don’t offer the tools to do something about it. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

Rodriguez laid out the bill in the Urban Affairs Committee Tuesday. The bill has three components: the creation of a homestead preservation district; a homestead preservation reinvestment zone that will raise funding for the proposal; and an urban land bank to hold land available for redevelopment.

HB 525 would create a homestead preservation district in East Austin. The boundaries are roughly equivalent to portions of Rodriguez’s District 51 near Fiesta Gardens and Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ (D-Austin) District 46 to the east of Rodriguez’s district.

The homestead reinvestment zone would use the taxes from incremental increases in property values to create a pool of money available for affordable housing. The urban land bank would foreclose on those pieces of property in the area that are in default for property taxes for at least five years when those taxes exceed the value of the property. Those pieces of property would then be available for redevelopment.

"With my bill, we're going to give the homeowner notice, and if the homeowner does not do anything after 60 days, we will foreclose on the property and give it to the homestead land trust,” he said. “That allows us to use that property for affordable housing and put that property back on the tax rolls."

Affordable housing remains affordable because the property itself is owned by the land bank. The owner would make payments and tax payments only on the value of the house on that property, providing some equity but more reasonable values, Rodriguez said.

The homestead preservation district would not prevent increases in property taxes, Rodriguez admitted. But it could provide more affordable housing stock in the same neighborhood, giving owners the chance to sell their own homes and then buy more affordable houses in the same neighborhood.

Rep. Helen Giddings(D-Dallas) filed a similar bill in Dallas. Rodriguez does not have an estimate of the number of properties that might be eligible for the urban land trust. An early estimate pegs the incremental taxes from the TIF at $2 million

Rodriguez’ bill could be passed out, with minor amendments, in a floor committee meeting this week.

Notes from the campaign trail

Solar forum brings out the green in Council candidates

Most City Council forums query the candidates on a wide range of issues, but Monday night’s Clean Energy Forum focused candidates’ attention on a single issue: the promotion and use of renewable energy in Austin. The forum, sponsored by Solar Austin, Texas Impact and Austin Interreligious Ministries probed candidates’ “ clean energy IQ” and pressed them to outline ways to make Austin a major user of renewable energy, employing more wind and solar power, and cutting the use of oil, gas and coal.

Tom “Smitty” Smith with Solar Austin set the tone in opening remarks by noting that while Austin Energy currently receives 5 percent of its energy from renewable sources, the city has set some ambitious goals for the future. “We have set a goal of 20 percent renewable energy in Austin by 2020,” he said, adding that the city hopes to generate 15 megawatts (MW) of solar energy by 2007 and 100MW of solar by 2020. “Austin has a chance to be the ‘ Clean Energy Capital of the World,’ but we must work together and utilize our resources to achieve that goal.”

The host for the forum was Susan Sloan, and two persons from the media, Michael May of KUT Radio and Daniel Mettola of the Austin Chronicle, asked questions of the panel. The groups did not issue any endorsements at the meeting.

Place 1 candidates attending included Andrew Bucknall, Lee Leffingwell, Scott Williams and James Paine. All four Place 3 candidates, Margot Clarke, Mandy Dealey, Jennifer Kim and Gregg Knaupe, were there, but only Wes Benedict was there from Place 4

A question put to Place 1 candidates was to identify the obstacles to reaching the city’s renewable energy goals and explain how they would overcome them. Bucknall focused on playing to Austin’s strengths. “We need to invest in and develop new technologies for renewable energy,” he said. “We also need to look at Austin Energy’s budget and find ways to make up its revenue loss from the increase in use of renewable energy. We must find creative ways to generate income.” Leffingwell thought that the city could reach its energy goals. “I think they are very doable,” he said. “The bar will be set continually higher as the price of oil escalates, and the price of renewable energy will come down, become competitive, and I think eventually, the most economic way to go.”

Williams said the city must overcome people’s natural resistance to change. “We need to do a better job of educating everyone about renewable energy sources,” he said. “We need to show that a slightly higher initial cost can pay off in both lower energy prices and cleaner air in the long run.” Paine said big oil interests could present major obstacles as long as there was still money to be made. “Our culture is too ingrained with money,” he said. “There almost has to be some kind of monetary incentive to get people to switch over to the new power sources. Incentives will allow them to see that (renewable energy) is in their best interest.”

Place 3 and 4 candidates were asked: Given that the city does not use Green Choice power in many of its own buildings, what would they do to make the city a larger user of renewable energy? Clarke said the city needs to lead by example. “The city should use Green Power wherever it is feasible and economical to do so,” she said. “The city should show the way with items like solar cell clusters and other things that would promote people to sign up.” Kim said the city needs to meet its own high standards. “If the city is going to promote the Green Choice program, then it should be the biggest user,” she said. “Austin Energy needs to promote programs that would help homes and businesses convert when they renovate, and then offer discounts on energy costs to those who meet the criteria.”

Knaupe agreed that Green Power should be in all city buildings. “The city needs to provide leadership in this area,” he said. “We need to use the new technology that is out there – like smart meters – and also begin a program to buy back any excess solar or wind power generated by homes as an incentive.” Austin Energy does have such a program but it has received little publicity. Benedict said the city seems to have its incentives reversed. “We need to raise the rates on non-renewable energy to begin promoting Green Energy,” he said. “When we set out goals, we need to focus on conservation of resources and better air quality.

All of the candidates were asked if Austin should strive to become the “Clean Energy Capital of the World,” and if so, how should they accomplish that. Knaupe said the city should. “We need to be committed to achieving that goal, and we need to lead by example,” he said. “We need to take advantage of the research at the University of Texas and Austin Energy needs to find the opportunities to develop the resources. Dealey said the city needs to get out front. “When it comes to clean energy, we need to be on the cutting edge,” she said. “It’s smart, it’s environmental, and it’s the right thing to do.” Kim said the city is the right size for the job. We are the 16th largest city in terms of per-capita spending,” she said. “We need to look at how we can leverage our high-tech sector to provide both the software and the mechanisms to accomplish that goal.”

Williams said it was a good slogan. “It makes a great bumper sticker,” he said. “But I’m more concerned about what’s right for Austin. We need to focus on lessening our dependence on fossil fuels and begin moving to renewable resources, and if we do that, we’ll accomplish our goals.” Leffingwell pointed overseas. “Europe is already doing a great job of being more energy efficient,” he said. They have a great deal of conservation built into their lifestyles. We need to move towards that as a goal.”

Activist, bar owner debate smoking referendum

Republicans hear pros and cons on May 7 ballot item

The Republican Club of Austin heard from both sides on Tuesday in the debate over the smoking ordinance facing Austin voters on the May 7 ballot. Rodney Ahart of the American Cancer Society, who led the petition drive for referendum, laid out the reasoning behind the proposal to ban smoking in bars and nightclubs, while Beerland owner Randall Stockton stepped in for 219 West owner Paul Silver to outline the possible impact to his business should the smoking ban be approved.

The punk rock club owner said he and his wife had surveyed their customers at the popular bar on Red River before reaching a position on the issue. “Eighty-seven percent of them are at least occasional smokers,” he said. “Ninety percent of the bands that we book include smokers. So we decided that we are obviously against this idea, because our customers are against it, and we just want to make our customers happy.” Stockton cited figures showing that while bar and restaurant receipts had gone up in California after that state’s voters passed a smoking ban, the small increase was significantly less than the double-digit growth encountered by the industry in the rest of the country.

Ahart countered that the claims of gloom and doom were not substantiated by reliable data. “If someone can find a survey that definitely proves a strong smoke-free ordinance is negative toward business, we’d like to see it,” he said. An often-cited study of the receipts of bars in Ireland after a nationwide smoking ban in that country, Ahart said, failed to take into account increased taxes on alcohol and a national campaign to curb drinking.

Bars and nightclubs should welcome the ban, Ahart said, since it would not affect their core business. “What makes Austin unique is the fantastic restaurants, the great bars….it’s not the cigarette smoke. When was the last time one of your friends called you up and said ‘Hey, let’s go downtown so we can smoke’? No one does that,” he said. “People go out to be with their friends, people go out to hear music. The people who are committed to live music are committed to the performers; they’re committed to the talent. That will not change because you’re taking smoking out of that venue.”

But Stockton said his first-hand experience was that his customers would stay away if smoking were not allowed. “I hear again and again that there’s this huge horde of non-smokers who just can’t wait to come down and listen to some punk rock at Beerland. Where the heck are they? According to the current ordinance, I have to have a non-smoking show…and they ain’t coming. If they were a huge success, I’d do more of them,” he said. “I would go completely non-smoking if I had proven success as a non-smoking venue. But we don’t have that.”

The question-and -answer format of the debate gave Ahart the opportunity to appeal to the fiscal conservatives in the room, as he told the crowd that workers in the hospitality industry exposed to second-hand smoke rarely carried health insurance. “So, when these employees have health problems, where do they go? They go to Brackenridge and the MAP (Medical Assistance Program), and we’re having to treat people who don’t have access to care,” he said. “That comes out of your tax dollars.”

Stockton countered that since most of his employees chose to smoke, they didn’t need protection from second-hand smoke. He cited the hundreds of other venues in Austin that prohibited smoking as ample opportunity for those who wanted to work in the hospitality field but still avoid smoke. And for those worried about paying for others’ health care costs, he suggested that the workers in the hospitality field likely would not be a burden on the system. “Most people who work in the hospitality industry do not stay in the hospitality industry,” he said. “The work there for a few years while they’re in college to make ends meet and they want to have a fun, cool job…and when they finish, they go on with their real lives, they get real jobs, and they get insurance.”

Tuesday’s debate marked the second time Stockton took the lead in representing bar and nightclub owners opposed to the ordinance. He also spoke out at last week’s South Austin Tejano Democrats meeting, and is clearly comfortable in front of a crowd. As the election grows closer, it’s likely that he will join Paul Silver and Elysium owner and City Council candidate John Wickham in making the rounds of various candidate forum and civic-group meetings to discuss the proposal.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Short ZAP meeting . . . The proposed rezoning for the Onion Creek RV Park on Bradshaw Road has been postponed at the applicant’s request. The item will be back on the agenda of the Zoning and Platting Commission on May 17. Last night, the commission made quick work of its agenda, passing most items on consent and postponing the rest. The consent items included the termination of a restrictive covenant at 602 Davis Street in the Rainey Street Neighborhood. . . One of the items postponed concerned proposed design standards for retail and commercial design standards. Council Member Brewster McCracken, who originated the proposal, said Tuesday that the hearing on the matter, which is on next week’s City Council agenda, would not be postponed again. He said it is important to push the item through the Council process before Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, another advocate for better aesthetics, leaves the Council . . . Independent business group asks for study. . . Perhaps the Austin Independent Business Alliance has just learned of the design proposal. McCracken and other Council Members received a letter yesterday from the group asking that the city do a study of the impact of the ordinance on small businesses. Council reaction? We’re guessing it will be “Fat chance.” McCracken and city staff members have been working with various stakeholders, including some from RECA, for weeks now, and they certainly don’t want to do a study . . . Benefits package moves toward vote . . . Members of the Austin Independent School District Board are expected to vote next Monday on whether to give construction workers “the prevailing wage with benefits” as requested by community leaders. Former Mayor Gus Garcia also has indicated that he would be sending a guest editorial to the downtown daily favoring the benefits . . . Meetings . . . West Austin Democrats will hold its endorsement meeting beginning at 7pm tonight at the Howson Branch of the Austin Public Library, 2500 Exposition Boulevard. Only Place 3 candidates will directly address the meeting . . . The Environmental Board will meet at 6pm in City Council chambers. Among the items they will discuss are variances for a shopping center at Southpark Meadows and for two different subdivisions . . . The Water and Wastewater Commission will meet at 6pm at the Waller Creek Center, Room 102. On the agenda is the approval of the Austin Drought Contingency Plan and Water Conservation Plan as required by the TCEQ, and discuss the annexation of property in the Del Valle area. . . X marks the spot . . . Some visitors to City Hall may be puzzled by the x marks on the first floor. The tiles covering the floor of the new building are cracking. Jill Manness of Building Services told In Fact Daily those cracks could have any number of causes but an engineering firm has checked them. Their advice is to install control joints to give the tile more flexibility. The X’s indicate where such devices will be installed this weekend.

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