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Casar reflects on a ‘hellish year’

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 by Jack Craver

2017 was a big year for Council Member Greg Casar. Nevertheless, in an interview for the Austin Monitor, he described it as “hellish.”

On Nov. 9, 2016, the day after he was easily re-elected to Council, Casar was in no mood to celebrate. In an email missive to supporters and media, Casar called for a “resistance” to Donald Trump’s impending presidency, which he framed as a triumph of bigotry and authoritarianism.

“I will be a part of your civil disobedience. I will go to jail with you,” he said, citing a litany of “horrible things” that Trump stands for, but putting particular emphasis on the threats of deportation to immigrant families.

Casar kept true to his promise and was arrested as part of a demonstration in the state Capitol against Senate Bill 4, the controversial bill signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott that targets “sanctuary cities.”

Casar’s activism has gotten recognition outside of Austin. He was intimately involved in coordinating a number of Texas cities to jointly challenge SB 4 in court, and a column in which he described the bill as part of a “continued cycle of political and economic disenfranchisement of working-class minority communities” was published in The New York Times.

Casar rejected criticism that he should not be devoting significant time or energy to state or national issues as an Austin City Council member. Immigration is the issue that he is asked about most frequently by his constituents, he said, noting that a third of the residents of his district, which covers a large portion of North-Central and Northeast Austin, are noncitizens.

On a practical level, he said, the city’s legal efforts against SB 4 have “protected our policing resources and protected many of my constituents.”

Simply showing the immigrant community that Council has its back is also important in this “helpless moment.”

Casar is also proud of his role in pushing the city to sue the state over a law passed that allows landlords to deny apartments to those who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers, which he strongly believes is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.

He also applauded Mayor Steve Adler’s role in the fight against state overreach.

“I think the mayor is a really good guy, and he’s been a key ally during this really hard year with Trump and Abbott,” Casar said.

Locally, Casar and his office have helped to organize tenants to force landlords to address substandard properties. In November, Council finalized a settlement with the owners of two properties in Casar’s district on East 52nd Street that the code department had repeatedly cited for unsafe living conditions.

In the coming year, Casar says it is imperative that Austin voters approve “the largest affordable housing bond in the history of the city,” although it’s not yet clear how big it will be. The multipurpose bond package proposed by city staff included $85 million for affordable housing, while the housing working group of the Bond Election Advisory Task Force has recommended upping that to $146 million.

Council also has to do a better job of funding the affordable housing trust fund, said Casar. Those funds, along with bond funds approved by voters, are needed to provide housing to those in the lowest income brackets, who Casar believes the market is unlikely to serve.

But while he strongly believes that direct subsidies must be part of the city’s affordable housing solution, Casar also thinks a new Land Development Code can help reshape the market in a way that serves working-class residents better than the status quo.

“We need to make sure that we have rules that allow us to have sufficient housing and to not continue pushing people out in a game of musical chairs,” he said.

That means more multifamily housing. “The data is irrefutable: Attached housing is much cheaper than detached housing,” he said.

Hopefully, he said, CodeNEXT will provide “at least the opportunity 15, 20, 30 years from now for us to be a less single-occupancy car-congested city. At least the opportunity for us to be a less segregated city.”

The top priority for Casar at the beginning of 2018 will be crafting a paid sick leave ordinance to guarantee Austin workers a certain amount of paid time off when they fall ill. Casar has not yet revealed what he would like the details of the eventual ordinance to be, but he told the Monitor that whatever he proposes, “We’re talking about potentially improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people with one vote.”

With the notable exception of one testy exchange on the dais over immigration with Council Member Ellen Troxclair last February, Casar tends to take a diplomatic approach to city politics. He takes pains to avoid antagonizing colleagues or constituencies. The question of next year’s mayoral election, as well as potential re-election bids involving five of his fellow Council members, puts him in a tough spot.

“I have not figured out yet what my policy or philosophy is going to be on commenting on my colleagues’ races when I’m not on the ballot,” he said.

He also insists he’s not plotting a bid for a higher office – Congress, for instance – in the near future.

“I’m planning on figuring out how to get through the (next) Council meeting,” he said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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