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Renteria’s issues: affordability, protecting tenants

Wednesday, December 28, 2016 by Jo Clifton

For District 3 City Council Member Pio Renteria, Council’s big accomplishments, and his own, revolve around housing affordability in 2016. That includes passage of a tenant relocation ordinance with provisions to protect mobile home park residents and funding of affordable housing through a homestead preservation district.

In 2015, when Council started working on an ordinance to help people being displaced from apartment complexes that were being refurbished or demolished, Renteria said he and his colleagues did not realize the extent of the problem for mobile home owners and tenants. But one case in particular illustrated the problem: the now-famous Cactus Rose zoning case.

In April, Renteria brought the plight of the mobile home residents to the attention of his colleagues. Developers wanted to rezone the east side property to redevelop it as a multifamily, mixed-use development called Lenox Oaks. In order to do that, they needed Council to act on their zoning request.

In November, after residents of the mobile home park and developers of the property came together, they reached an agreement that would help the residents relocate and keep their children in the same schools they have been attending. At that time, Renteria said, “The case of Cactus Rose has changed our city. By working with the residents of Cactus Rose, our city has realized how vulnerable mobile home owners can be when redevelopment occurs.”

While discussing the case with the Austin Monitor, Renteria said that, prior to the resolution of the matter, Cactus Rose residents had come to his house to protest. But that protest turned out to be a good thing, he said, because he was able to explain to those residents that the developers would be able to develop the property because of the way the neighborhood contact team had written its plan.

“Once (the tenants) found out that the alternative was worse than (what the developers) were offering, they decided to work with the developer. I was very glad about that,” he said, giving his staff credit for the achievement.

For Renteria, 2016 seems like a better year than 2015, in part because he was able to achieve one of his long-held goals for East Austin – the activation of the homestead preservation district and collection of funds.

Although the district was created some time ago, it has just in the past year started to collect money, Renteria said, noting that city staff had estimated that they collected $240,000-$260,000 in District 3. The money, which was raised through tax increment financing, will be devoted to affordable housing in the area, he said. “I was very glad to see that.”

Although it does not seem like a difficult task, Renteria had to put a lot of effort into securing funding for a long-neglected East Austin street.

In August, Renteria led on a decision to fund long-delayed improvements to Jain Lane in the 2017 Capital Improvement Program. He explained that Jain Lane had been slated for improvements in either 2001 or 2005, but the money allocated at the time was insufficient after the discovery of underground utilities in the path of the construction.

The project was put off again and again until finally it had an advocate in Renteria. He told the Monitor he was able to persuade Mayor Steve Adler to put the project on this year’s CIP list, and with the mayor’s backing, other Council members agreed. That is important because the failure to fix the road meant that nonprofits planning to build affordable housing on the street would not be able to do so until the street is reconstructed.

Renteria said that he had a talk with Adler about Jain Lane and about the big transportation proposition the mayor wanted to get passed. He told Adler that he would help pass the bond if the mayor would support putting Jain Lane improvements into the 2017 CIP. They both got what they wanted and, Renteria said, the improvements will lead to doubling the number of housing units on that street.

Renteria is also pleased that he was able to get more sidewalk money for his district as well as approval for a pedestrian hybrid beacon established on Montopolis Drive, but he acknowledged that there is still a need to do more on that street. He said he would be looking for additional lights and a lower speed limit on Montopolis, where two pedestrians have already been hit while crossing the street. It will be one of Renteria’s projects for 2017, he said.

Renteria told the Monitor that he and his neighbors are very much aware of gentrification and the burden that places on the owners of older homes. Renteria, whose home is in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood close to downtown, said, “I know the feeling.” He said he was encouraged by what he has heard from the Travis Central Appraisal District, but noted that it would not solve the gentrification problem.

“The lady that I buy my tamales from sold her house for $500,000 on Second Street and moved out to Buda and bought a house down there, where it’s a lot cheaper and still has money in the bank,” he said. “I hate to lose those kinds of people because we have worked together for so many years. We have volunteered at all the rec centers and at schools. We have set up a network. That’s what we’re losing – the culture and the network, which is pretty much disappearing.”

Renteria continued, “A lot of people in this neighborhood are seniors, and I don’t blame them for selling. You know the big dream is you raise your family and they move out and you downsize to a smaller house – so if that’s what they want to do (that’s OK). I’ve seen some sell their house and buy one of the condos over there by Barton Springs. There is no maintenance.” But that is not what Renteria wants for himself. He intends to stay in the neighborhood.

When the senior members of the family pass away and leave their house to their children, he said, “The kids can move in, but they don’t have the senior tax exemption and they get a big bill, maybe $7,000. That’s an amount that they didn’t budget (for) and they usually can’t afford, so they end up selling the house,” he concluded.

In addition to losing people, Renteria said, “We’re losing the character of our neighborhoods. There were bungalows and one-story homes, and now we’re getting these block houses and all kinds of designs, so it’s just changing the whole character. That’s why we did the initial homestead historic survey, because we wanted to identify those homes that really have some historic significance.”

He said the number of demolition requests in District 3 is “very alarming. I get about five or six mailed to me every week. That goes from the Colorado River to Manor Road to I-35 to 183 to the east. That includes Ora (Houston’s) district.”

Renteria said he would not mind if people built an accessory dwelling unit on the back of the lots if they kept the original house in the front. “It would be a goal and dream to at least preserve the character of the neighborhood,” he said.

Yet, the Austin American-Statesman reported that a new condominium project at Fourth and Chicon streets would be offering micro units of 510 square ft. for $248,500 and larger units for up to $585,000. Renteria definitely has his work cut out for him, as does the rest of Council.

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