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District 9 forum focuses on affordability

Friday, September 19, 2014 by Tyler Whitson

The three City Council candidates vying to represent Austin’s most central district focused on issues of affordability and housing during Thursday night’s forum. The City of Austin presented the event in partnership with the Ethics Review Commission and the League of Women Voters.

Aside from affordability and housing, moderator Frances McIntyre presented questions to District 9 candidates Erin McGann, Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo on a variety of topics that included transportation, growth, health care availability, education and family needs.

Affordable housing is a particularly important issue in District 9, a relatively dense area that includes portions of downtown, the University of Texas, Bouldin Creek, Travis Heights, Mueller, Cherrywood, Clarksville, and Hyde Park. (See Austin Monitor, July 22)

Riley, who has been a Council member since 2009 and lives downtown, said the area tends to have “very high land values and a lot of demand for people who want to live in a very limited supply of housing options.”

“One thing we need to do better is provide more options in the right places to meet the needs of many people,” Riley said.

Riley said that many residents want to live in walkable, urban places, and the current Land Development Code needs to be adjusted to better accommodate that.

Riley also said that the city should continue to pursue low-income housing options in the area.

McGann, who lives in Bouldin Creek and works for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the city needs to make the development review process “tighter,” calling it “onerous” and overly time-consuming.

McGann added that instating a maximum homestead tax exemption would reduce property taxes and increase affordability for those already living in the area.

In a broader comment, McGann criticized budget spending and utility rate increases, saying that they make the city unaffordable. “When we are looking at the things that we want to do as a city, we have to really make choices and say, ‘Are we going to have unicorns and glitter or are we going to have bricks and mortar?’”

Tovo, who has been a Council member since 2011 and lives in the West University area, said the city should be “very aggressive” in the ways that it creates affordable housing opportunities. “We need to look carefully at our public land,” she said. “We need to continue to invest.”

Tovo said that other opportunities in the district include housing preservation programs. “We do have some aging housing stock, some multifamily apartments that we can try to hang on to,” she said, rather than letting them “go on the market, get redone or demolished, and be replaced by newer housing.”

Tovo added that the city should re-examine its density bonus programs. “When we have an opportunity to ask developers to contribute to affordable housing through our density bonus programs, we need to hold them to it,” she said. Tovo also said that the city, when able, should require developers to provide affordable housing units on-site.

The candidates also focused on how affordability is pushing families and children out of District 9 and into nearby areas like Round Rock and Cedar Park, specifically in response to a question about under-enrollment in some area schools.

Riley said that the city must “make sure that the central city is a welcoming place for families” and that “it is very challenging for many families to live here.”

“The best thing we can do is provide more housing options at affordable levels,” Riley said, adding that the city needs to ensure that neighborhoods retain a “healthy balance of uses.”

McGann said that under-enrollment and school closures are a result of low attendance, which she asserted is a direct result of a lack of moderately priced housing. Among other suggestions, she said that the next Council can lower taxes and prioritize spending in order to address the problem.

Tovo said,“It is very critical that we work together at the city with our school district partners to look at ways to really plan our central city areas better so that we are encouraging families with children to stay.”

Tovo added that the city needs to address the high cost of housing, make sure that new construction appeals to families with children, partner with organizations on family resource centers and use under-enrolled schools for additional community purposes.

The last day to register to vote is Oct. 6, and early voting begins Oct. 20. The general election will take place on Nov. 4.

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