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Casar counts his victories for 2015

Tuesday, December 29, 2015 by Jo Clifton

District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar came to his job as a workers’ rights advocate. So it is unsurprising that he chose as his favorite accomplishment of this first year in office helping his constituents at a North Lamar mobile home park form their own neighborhood association and successfully negotiate against their landlords, who were illegally raising rents and utilities.

Casar told the Austin Monitor that the property owners have now offered to sell the park back to the tenants if they can raise the money to buy it. That is a direct result of Casar helping those tenants and bringing in Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid to file suit, he said. Those tenants are working actively with foundations and with Casar “to see if they can become their own cooperatively run community, which would be really exciting,” he said.

Al Jazeera America, which reported on Casar’s work with the mobile home owners, noted that one of the property owners, Frank Rolfe, “once told Bloomberg News that owning a mobile home park is like owning ‘a Waffle House where everyone is chained to the booths.’ As Rolfe pointed out, mobile homes can be very expensive to move, costing as much as $5,000 per trailer.

The sequence of events “wasn’t surprising to me at all,” Casar said. “It’s the effects of an urbanizing city and landlords who put together business practices potentially just ripping apart a community that had established itself and was doing really well in a city that it’s really hard to do well in when you’re a working-class person.”

Additionally, in December residents of two other mobile home parks came together to flex their muscles. Casar said that although the action at Council looked easy, it was actually quite difficult. “They were inspired by what we were doing at North Lamar and at Stonegate,” he said.

“Though this is one zoning case, they were able to win protections for future tenants in the growing District 2 community, but also they got protections for the existing tenants, who were feeling a lot of pressure. And as far as I can tell, that’s unprecedented in Austin history for tenants,” he noted.

Casar said, “For me, coming from the labor world, it’s almost like winning a union contract.” For him, it’s “a very exciting way to think about land use. How do we use our discretionary zoning authority for the common good – not just the built environment but to support tenants when they’ve got concerns about their landlord that’s developing more property? So that’s exciting, and I think it’s new.”

Casar is ready for more change, specifically changes to Council committee meetings, an innovation sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Ann Kitchen.

“I really wanted to have the conversation” about how to change the system with its 11 committees “at the six-month mark,” he said. But because that didn’t happen, Casar hopes Council will decide on what changes are necessary before the first meeting in January. “No meeting until Jan. 28 means we really have to make some decisions about what parts of it work and what parts don’t,” Casar said.

Casar said he thinks there is a lot of disagreement about which issues should go to committee and which should not. “As time has gone by, each Council member has formed an opinion about what works and what doesn’t work” in terms of the committees, “but we also have changed our opinions on what the purpose of them is.”

He recalled that at the beginning of last year, “I thought, well, maybe we can handle a decent number of items through a committee, and by the second month I came around to saying this should only be for items that need a lot of work by a small group because it would be laborious for all 11 of us to go through all the little pieces.” Examples of those types of issues include the taxicab franchises and accessory dwelling units, he said.

For those types of issues, Casar said the committees can shortcut the work for the entire Council, but it hasn’t worked that way overall, because different Council members have different ideas about what the committee should be doing.

“That’s what I think they are best for, but if the whole Council doesn’t think that, then there’s no point in me trying to do that. As you saw, for example, on the (accessory dwelling units), we had three public hearings, we broke up the items, we tried to be really public about how we were going to do that, and then by the time we got to Council, it was like nothing had been done. That is, I think, one, a testament to the fact that folks on Council don’t have time to go pay attention to what’s happening in each committee and then, two, have different expectations about what committee work is for.”

Also, the public may not be aware that the committees are meeting and taking testimony, and they may not have time to attend committee meetings, especially in the daytime, he said. He recalled one particularly contentious item with public hearings in committee, “but each side got only eight minutes to present testimony to the full Council.” But on the same day, he said, an annexation case that affected only about 12 people had a very long hearing.

Casar said he would like to see more testimony at Council meetings and less during committees.

Casar is looking forward to passing the fair chance ordinance, which he has sponsored, to help previously incarcerated people get jobs. He said he hopes to get that through Council early in 2016. “I think cities are stepping up to govern in new and innovative ways because what’s happening in the legislature and Congress isn’t working for everyone,” he said. “I’m excited about that.”

One surprise for Casar is that he has really become interested in land use and urban planning. He is, after all, the chair of the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee. “There are some real social equity issues,” he said, pointing to the city’s need to be more integrated both racially and economically. “That’s why I thought ADUs were an important first step. … Not having a good policy (on that issue) was among the impediments to fair housing. And it was a good place for us to start,” to try to get more rental housing in high opportunity areas.

Casar started off the year as a Council member fresh from a victory in the December runoff election over his opponent, Laura Pressley. Pressley sued Casar, claiming that Travis County used a faulty electronic voting system. The case went to trial, and Casar won. But Pressley has not given up. She has appealed the matter to the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals.

Since he drew a two-year term, Casar will start running for his District 4 seat again in May. It is likely that the lawsuit will not be over by then. But he is philosophical about it, noting that his attorneys have been kind enough not to bother him with the details.

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