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Travis Commissioners debate merits of East Austin Homestead Bill

Wednesday, May 4, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

A rundown on state legislative matters at the Travis County Commissioners Court became a heated discussion last week, when Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis brought up Rep. Eddie Rodriguez’ Homestead Preservation District Bill, reinvigorating an ongoing debate.


In 2005, Rodriguez authored legislation to help create an East Austin Homestead Preservation District. The district would use the tax increment financing (TIF) to create a land bank, among other tools, in an attempt to preserve affordable housing in a rapidly changing area.


While the Austin City Council approved the district in 2007, the Travis County Commissioners Court has yet to do so.


Davis has resisted the formation of a TIF on the grounds that it gives more power to the city, but is largely bankrolled by the county. The proposed land bank, in which a percentage of tax revenue would be used to purchase land underneath private residences would reduce tax payments for owners, but there is some suspicion over the intent of the district in the historically disenfranchised community.


Rodriguez has introduced HB 990 this year to address some of the issues that were in the original 2005 bill that created the district. The House approved HB 990 last week.


Davis brought up the subject to his colleagues, saying that his constituents were against it and that he was concerned about the court being mandated to participate in the district.


“My concern is that this particular bill… has come up under the guise of providing property tax relief for long-time tax paying residents of East Austin who are predominantly black. This bill appears to facilitate a land grab by the City of Austin Community Development Corporation, which is the facilitator of gentrification,” said Davis. He went on to explain that while he had heard opposition to the bill from the community “over and over” again, he had yet to see any support.


Davis also argued that the inclusion of the word “shall” amounted to an obligation that the county participate in the district.


Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt disagreed. “I’m placed in the odd position of defending Representative Rodriguez. I am absolutely rock solid in my belief that Representative Rodriguez’s intent in this bill is to increase affordability in his precinct, which shares a constituency with yours,” said Eckhardt. “The bill, contrary to your representation and your statements has never, and doesn’t currently require the county’s participation. I just wanted to make that perfectly clear.”


Davis remained resolute.


“Commissioner Davis is the Commissioner of Precinct One, and I do represent a lot of this area, and again I am going to defend the persons that reside in Precinct One,” said Davis, who went on to emphasize the need for education in the area. Davis noted that many of the residents the bill could affect “don’t even know this is going on.”


At this, the court was able to reach a consensus. All parties who participated in the discussion agreed, once again, that community education and communication could only help.


“I agree there is a great deal of fear out there that’s well-founded, but I do not agree to adding fuel to fear with misrepresentations,” said Eckhardt.


Contacted later, Rodriguez told In Fact Daily, “I can’t express to you enough how frustrating this has been.”


“I cannot change Mr. Davis’ mind. I’ve tried to talk to him about it, and he just doesn’t understand what I am doing and I just can’t waste my time with Mr. Davis any more on this issue,” said Rodriguez. “He just doesn’t understand what I am trying to do here, apparently, and he just doesn’t like land trusts. And there is nothing I can do about that.”


“If he doesn’t agree with land trusts as a public policy, I’m okay with that,” said Rodriguez. “What I don’t understand is his objection to this bill, which does nothing but help the county in terms of representation on a TIF, which doesn’t exist right now because the city and the county need to come to an agreement before they even enter into a TIF.”

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