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Tovo concentrates on homelessness, affordability

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 by Jo Clifton

For Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, 2016 was a year she made progress on issues related to the homeless, affordable housing, and uncovering and fighting discrimination and retaliation within the ranks of city employees.

In the Austin Monitor‘s year-end conversation with her, Tovo also cited moving forward on the sobriety center, a long-sought goal for a cadre of local officials. “This year, I think, was a red-letter year for the sobriety center,” she said.

Tovo is now a member of the local government corporation set up to direct operations for the sobriety center, which has been in the works for at least 17 years, she said. One of the most important factors that kept the center from moving forward was finding a location, Tovo noted, which will be at the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office at 12th and Sabine streets.

“We’ve met twice, and next we will hire the executive director,” she said. Tovo is now also on the board of an advisory group to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.

This year saw the launch of the “homeless outreach street team, which my office was very involved in,” said Tovo. She worked to make sure that there was money in the city’s budget to fund the team as a pilot project and said she was “so pleased with the results,” noting that one way to count the team’s successes is in the crises it has averted.

For example, Tovo said, one of the individuals whom team members encountered on the street had a bandage over what turned out to be a bad burn on his leg that needed treatment. That person was taken to the hospital on a nonemergency basis. “In the hospital, they realized that he had a heart condition and probably would have lost his life if he had not gotten immediate medical attention,” she said. In another instance, the team reported finding a homeless family who needed help, and they found shelter for the family.

Overall, Tovo said, there’s been an increase in the number of homeless in our community, but she did not know whether more people who already live here became homeless or if homeless people have moved here.

Tovo noted that the increasing rate of homelessness is a national trend, which she partly attributed to escalating housing costs. “Because so many people are living on the margins, if they have one extra medical bill (for example), they can’t pay their rent,” she said.

According to the website of the End­ing Community Homelessness Coa­li­tion, ECHO has “counted 2,138 persons experiencing homelessness on January 22, 2016, a 17% increase from the previous year. Similarly, the number of persons who experienced homelessness and sought homeless services increased almost 14%, from 6,104 people in 2014 to 7,054 people in 2015.”

Tovo said she is also proud that she and her colleagues increased the amount of money going into the Housing Trust Fund. Under Tovo’s leadership, Council decided to dedicate all the tax money from property previously owned by government entities, such as the Grove at Shoal Creek, to affordable housing.

Tovo also named as a highlight Council’s decision to seek new ways to use money from the city’s hotel-motel taxes or General Fund items, such as the arts. Because of Austin’s popularity as a tourist destination, the city is expected to bring in more than $90 million this year from hotel occupancy taxes, or HOT.

“It’s taken a long time. I’m pleased we were able to have a different conversation this year,” Tovo said. The Parks and Recreation Department, whose facilities host tourists as well as Austin residents, will be coming back to Council in 2017 with ideas for how to use HOT.

In addition, she said she’s looking forward to the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau doing more heritage tourism.

Tovo said she wanted to work on making it harder to get a demolition permit for residential property in order to slow the destruction of affordable rental properties. She said several times that the city’s No. 1 priority should be homelessness and housing.

Tovo said it was “ridiculous” how easy it is to get a permit to destroy a home or an apartment complex in order to put up another less affordable home or apartment complex. Expect a resolution from her on that matter in the near future.

Also on that topic, Tovo will be working in 2017 to identify properties owned by the city and the Austin Independent School District that could be used for emergency shelter.

Tovo also noted that she’s looking forward to having fewer committees in the coming year, a topic on the minds of numerous members. She said she would not mind if she were no longer chair of the Audit and Finance Committee but that it is not one of the committees that should be abolished. Tovo also said she is interested in continuing as mayor pro tem.

As for her work to fight discrimination and retaliation in city departments, Tovo said, “All that work is still in progress. I continue to hear from staff that they appreciate the work that has been done and hope that we will continue to move forward, especially with getting that third party independent review.” The group doing that review, she said, currently plans to report its findings in February.

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