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Renteria concentrates on affordable housing

Tuesday, January 2, 2018 by Jo Clifton

For District 3 City Council Member Pio Renteria, 2017 saw the culmination of projects large and small, many of which he has been working on for years. Most of those projects are related to helping low-income people who continue to maintain their homes in his district.

Renteria saw the groundbreaking this year for one of those long-term projects, the Plaza Saltillo development. He said he has worked on that one for the past 25 years. For much of that time he has worried that the redevelopment would not help people in the neighborhood but merely put more money into the pockets of a developer or not happen at all.

Renteria grew up close to Plaza Saltillo, and has pointed out that as a young boy he used the empty land as a playground. It pains him to note that many of the former Mexican-American residents have been displaced by increased housing costs. He hopes that the new project, which under Endeavor’s proposal will include “close to 20 percent” of the 800 units for families at 60 percent of the median family income, can help reverse that.

And because it is a station for Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail service, he said, it was very important to have density there. Renteria currently serves on the board of directors of Capital Metro but started out as a neighborhood advocate.

As he said when the zoning for the property won Council approval in March, “My passion is to bring people back who grew up in that neighborhood, not displace anyone.” Construction on the project is expected to wrap up in late 2018.

Renteria also sponsored a resolution to help push a project from Austin Habitat for Humanity at Fourth and Onion streets in his district, called the Plaza Saltillo Transit-Oriented Development. Habitat proposes “a multifamily development with levels of long-term affordability in excess of the current Plaza Saltillo TOD affordable housing goals and density bonus programs,” according to the Aug. 17 resolution.

The resolution directs staff to initiate amendments allowing increased density for the project, which Renteria envisions will allow for long-term affordability for more families in his district than would happen without the amendments. The materials for the building as well as the architecture and the job of shepherding the project through the city’s approval process are all donated, he said. Greg Anderson, director of operations at Habitat, told the Austin Monitor that Larry Speck at the Page architecture firm and Leah Bojo at the Drenner Group are assisting with the project free of charge.

Renteria said he has not finished the work he started with his election in 2014 and intends to run for re-election in 2018.

The search for a new city manager was not on Renteria’s list of favorite topics for 2017. In fact, he described that search as “a mess,” especially compared to the relatively short and easy search for a new general manager at Capital Metro. “We lost some people and I don’t know if we lost them because of their process or because they got a raise.” He said he was particularly impressed with Cecil House, who apparently decided that he would be better off keeping his current job in New York.

“I don’t know why this search firm had such a hard time finding qualified candidates,” Renteria said, adding that Steve Newton of Russell Reynolds Associates showed Council how he had reached out to many city managers who rejected the opportunity.

Included among the projects that Renteria worked on in 2017 were several he has championed in previous years, including expansion of the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, a retirement community in his district. Construction of a second building for low-income seniors is finally slated to start in April, Renteria noted. This will increase the size of the outdated complex from 280 units to 600 units.

Construction of the new building and renovation of the old one was financed through the sale of a small portion of the property to a private landowner, Renteria said. The project is required to move utilities, he said, costing about $600,000. He added that he was not happy about that fact, but he’s happy the project is moving forward.

Renteria said he was very pleased that the city had finally started the road improvements for Jain Lane, a project he championed for a number of years. He said it was not until he convinced Mayor Steve Adler to help him put those improvements on the 2016 bond election that he was able to get the money. Without that funding, he said, the three nonprofits wanting to build new affordable housing on Jain Lane would not have been able to move forward.

The price tag for those improvements was $3.5 million, not so much in the city bond election, but far too much for the nonprofits, he said.

Renteria also said he’s very proud to have been part of the push to direct the removal of Confederate monuments and names around the city, which was the subject of a resolution on Oct. 5.

In addition, he said preservation of the Montopolis Negro School was an important step for the city. He is hopeful that the city will be able to buy it with hotel tax funds and turn it into a museum.

He said he was proud to support Council Member Delia Garza’s family homestead initiative, basically instructing city management to address questions that relate to people who want to build a secondary unit.

Renteria said a lot of the homes where families want to build accessory dwelling units were built in the 1930s, 40s or 50s. “So, when you go to pull permit” and inspectors come in, “they see everything that’s wrong with it and they want to bring everything up to code which is a very expensive process.” He should know, he said, “because I did it.”

So, the idea of addressing that issue is “one I’m really happy about.”

One thing that Renteria is not happy about is that the city lost some of its tools for creating or maintaining affordable housing, he said. That included a homestead preservation bill that the legislature passed but Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed. In addition, the legislature passed a bill that overturned the city’s attempt to collect more fees from developers in order to build more affordable housing.

Fortunately, he said, Austin had already created Homestead Preservation District A, which takes 5 percent of the increased value of property taxes and puts it into the housing trust fund. That money has to be spent within the district, he said. “It’s a way to make gentrification pay for affordable units.”

As he has in the past, Renteria bemoaned Austin’s ever-increasing property values. A native Austinite, Renteria has lived in Austin for 67 years. His East Cesar Chavez neighborhood has steadily gentrified in the last several decades, but he remembers how things were in his childhood. Sometimes it wasn’t safe and the residents were frequently insecure.

Renteria told activists gathered at City Hall urging Council not to agree to the contract negotiated with the Austin Police Association that he ran on the idea of community policing because he saw “what community policing did for my neighborhood. There were times when we couldn’t sit out on the front porch without fear of having drive-bys coming through my neighborhood.”

“I had friends that got shot and killed sitting there with their families drug dealers were coming through my neighborhood streets and shooting up the neighborhood. My brother got shot coming out of Martin Pool in his leg and there were over 100 rounds exchanged there at Martin Park by two groups of gangs. Those are the kinds of situations I grew up with in my neighborhood. And you know, the police didn’t care about us.”

But thanks to the police chief at the time, Elizabeth Watson, officers got out of their cars and started walking around the neighborhood, and things got better, he said. Now, he said, people walk down the street with no fear, even at night.

The police contract neither proposed nor prohibited community policing, but several Council members said they could not vote for it because continuing to pay Austin officers as much as the city has been would mean it could not afford to hire enough officers to do the kind of policing Renteria and others favor.

It remains to be seen whether a future contract can allow for enough officers to do that.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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