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County’s new PID policy touted as victory for both labor and developers

Monday, February 1, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

It may have a name only a wonk could love, but Travis County’s brand-new PID policy could have sweeping implications for a large swath of residents whose every thought isn’t consumed with local governance.

On Tuesday, the Commissioners Court approved a policy framework that will guide the county as it creates Public Improvement Districts, or PIDs, which are a type of financial mechanism that uses bond money to pay for public infrastructure – including streets, parkland and community spaces – in private developments. The debt is then paid back through special assessments on individual properties in the development.

“It’s a granting of an additional privilege to a developer,” Commissioner Brigid Shea explained. “So in exchange, what we’ve said is we will use this tool to create more affordable housing, to guarantee that the workers who work on the construction within the PID are in a safer work environment and are paid fairly and treated fairly.”

Tuesday’s vote scored acclaim from both the development sector and labor rights activists.

Pete Dwyer of Dwyer Realty, the firm behind the first project to petition the county for a PID, praised county staff for doing an “excellent job” of crafting the policy, and Bo Delp of the Workers Defense Project called the vote a “huge victory.”

The policy mandates that any construction on public improvements within the PID comply with the WDP’s Better Builder Program standards, which include better wages, more safety training, workers’ compensation insurance and independent on-site monitoring.

“What this means is that Travis County is defining what responsible development is going to look like in our community,” Delp told the Austin Monitor. “Travis County has decided that it’s going to act as a bulwark against an exploitative construction industry that pays poverty wages, often doesn’t provide workers basic protections like workers’ comp or health care, and where a construction worker dies every two-and-a-half days.”

Dozens of supporters of the higher standards watched the commissioners hash out the policy, a rare instance of large-scale political demonstration amid the otherwise sleepy proceedings of the court. The majority were younger people, including one mother who had to take her fitful infant out to the lobby to avoid disrupting the discussion.

After the vote, one member of the group echoed Delp’s effusive praise to the Monitor. Luis Ortega said his father has worked in construction for 25 years. “Right now, he’s 45 years old, and he’s already suffering from back and knee pain,” Ortega said. “If this work style keeps going, his days in the field are going to be limited. What that means to us, a family that lives on a day-to-day basis, if he were to stop working or get injured, losing three-fourths of our income would move us into poverty.”

The policy also includes language that gives priority to affordable housing, though it neither spells out any specific requirements nor defines that malleable phrase.

Shea clarified on the dais, “Since the county has no control over where the PIDs go – that’s completely market-driven by the developers – we needed to build in some flexibility, but I think the message should be clear to everyone that affordable housing is one of our most urgent priorities and that we will be evaluating this on a case-by-case basis. And certainly, as it comes back to Commissioners Court, I think we will be making it clear with staff and the community the nature of our concern.”

Dwyer told the Monitor that his project, White House WildHorse Ranch, will ultimately add approximately 4,000 homes to the area housing stock. He said that while none of them will be subsidized, they will all be priced under $300,000. He also said that several hundred will be sold for around $180,000, which is generally considered affordable for a family of four with an annual household income of $60,000.

“These people need to have an opportunity to own real estate because it’s still the great American dream,” Dwyer said. “They need to be in a safe, quality, walkable neighborhood. And that’s our goal.”

In the end, the court voted 4-0 to approve the new PID policy. Commissioner Ron Davis of Precinct 1, where the White Horse Ranch development will be built, was not at Tuesday’s meeting. At its next regular voting session on Feb. 2, the court will consider appointing a task force to further iron out the details of the policy.

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