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Child care, CodeNEXT, grocery stores: Garza focuses on economic justice

Thursday, December 28, 2017 by Jack Craver

Before walking into an executive session where City Council members decided unanimously to select Spencer Cronk as Austin’s next city manager, Council Member Delia Garza spoke to the Austin Monitor about her thoughts on her third year on Council.

Although she didn’t disclose who she planned to support for the position, she volunteered that all of the applicants were “very qualified.” Above all else, she wanted a city manager who would respect the will of Council and implement the policies that it passes.

Is that what former City Manager Marc Ott did?

“I’m not going to answer that,” she said with a laugh.

However, Garza was willing to stir the pot on other issues.

Although she said she was happy that Council had agreed to “slow down” the crafting of CodeNEXT, Garza was pointed in her criticism of groups opposed to CodeNEXT, drawing parallels between their rhetoric about Austin’s impending destruction and the talk of American carnage that put Donald Trump in the White House.

“There are ads with bulldozers,” she said, describing anti-CodeNEXT signs that have been popping up around town. “Everybody’s house is going to be demolished. Everybody’s house is going to have an (accessory dwelling unit) in the back.”

While she is sympathetic to angst about change, particularly rising housing costs, she is frustrated by the arguments made by some CodeNEXT opponents. The problems they’re describing, she said, is why the code needs to change.

“When I hear people who are anti-CodeNEXT talk about what’s going on, they’re talking about what’s going on in the current code right now,” she said.

The theory upon which density opponents are basing their argument “assumes that people stop moving here,” said Garza. “And that in and of itself is an unreasonable place to start and an impractical place to start. If we could build a wall around Austin, that theory could hold.”

Garza also expressed frustration with fellow colleagues who blamed demolitions for rising prices. As long as lots need to be large, said Garza, the incentive is for developers to raze existing homes and replace them with newer ones.

“But if we allow smaller lots, they could build that house and the older house could stay,” she said.

Above all else, Garza is flummoxed by some people’s refusal to accept that housing prices are related to supply.

“It just blows my mind that people think that supply and demand is not the issue here,” she said.

Garza is nonetheless cautiously optimistic that there is consensus on Council to pass some type of code reform, although she is unsure of how aggressive it will be.

Asked about her proudest accomplishments over the past year, Garza points to a measure she crafted aimed at deterring municipal judges from jailing defendants who can’t afford to pay traffic fines. Her perspective on the issue was largely shaped by her experience as a prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office in the child support division.

“I’ve been on the side where I’m representing the state and we were asking folks to spend time in jail because they couldn’t pay child support,” she recalls.

Garza also highlighted a resolution she authored directing city staff to collect information on child care in Austin and explore ways the city could help low-income families access what is an essential but often prohibitively expensive service. While it’s not yet clear what the city can or will do, Garza is open to a variety of options, including the city setting up its own low-cost child care facilities.

Garza also draws upon her own experience as the mother of a toddler to describe the challenge of child care. “I say that I pay three mortgages: my actual mortgage, child care and law school loans,” she said.

A former firefighter who has credited unions with providing her own parents with the means to provide for her growing up, Garza is also proud of her role in requiring airport concessionaires to sign “labor peace agreements” in which they commit to not interfering with unions’ attempts to organize the food service workers at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Garza is also working with the city manager to remove questions related to prior salary from interviews for municipal jobs. Basing pay on what an applicant was paid before, said Garza, entrenches the gender pay gap.

Throughout her time on Council representing District 2, Garza has repeatedly highlighted what she views as neglect of Southeast Austin when it comes to city services or infrastructure, lamenting, for instance, that city staffers mistakenly believe that some parts of her district aren’t even in the city.

The southeast is also neglected by the private sector. Much of the district is considered a “food desert” because of a scarcity of grocery stores; many of Garza’s constituents drive as far away as Bastrop for groceries. Garza isn’t sure what the solution to the problem is, but she has explored ways for the city to collaborate with nonprofits or for-profit businesses to get a grocery store in the area.

She’s open to the city opening and operating a store on its own, although she’s unsure of whether that’s feasible: “I don’t know how we could become a grocery store.”

Garza does not tend to sugarcoat policy disagreements with colleagues, but she believes that “people can appreciate that I don’t come from a place of trying to be contentious.”

She draws inspiration from a line in a Mary J. Blige song, “Take Me as I Am.”

“My motto,” said Garza, “has always been, ‘I can only be me.’”

An earlier version of this story stated that there were “no major grocery stores” in District 2 – the story has been corrected to clarify that there is a scarcity of grocery stores in the district. 

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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