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Tovo keeps chipping away

Thursday, January 4, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo came prepared with folders of articles for her look back on 2017. Immediately, she notes that this year’s progress looks a lot like last year’s, but there is a reason for that. Her focus has remained on the issues that are closest to her heart: housing and homelessness.

“I’ve made good progress on the issues that are most important to me,” said Tovo, though she noted that in a year of long discussions about CodeNEXT, downtown puzzles and the city manager search, “it’s just been a challenge to balance it all.”

This past year, Tovo approached the issue of housing from a number of angles. At the moment, her office is spearheading several resolutions focused on demolitions in the city looking at health and safety concerns, potential links to affordability, and salvage and relocation efforts.

The efforts, she explained, are intended to “stem the tide of demolitions” that she feels has a strong relationship to housing costs.

“I believe, in Austin, demolition is the easiest option. It’s the easiest, cheapest option,” said Tovo. “For a city that cares about housing costs, for a city that cares about the environment, embedded energy costs and zero waste, we need to stop making it the easiest option.

“I really hoped that when CodeNEXT came forward it would have some good new tools for helping us preserve the housing that’s on the ground. And, in addition to not really having new tools … we have proposals that I believe will incentivize continued demolitions, perhaps even increase them.”

In general, as of yet, the ongoing rewrite of the Land Development Code does not make the list of highlights for Tovo. “CodeNEXT, I think, has been extremely divisive and difficult both in the community and here in Council,” said Tovo. She said whether that continues depends on what Draft 3, due in February, looks like, and what information it contains.

“People who have never paid attention to land use issues are turning out in droves at the meetings that I’ve attended. They are very unhappy and upset and, most of the time, have very legitimate concerns,” said Tovo. “There is a lot of animosity about CodeNEXT.”

“Every conversation where it comes up, I’m asked why the public comments aren’t seeming to have any impact on the product, and I have no explanation for them,” said Tovo. She pointed out that even the Austin Independent School District has that question, and she does not yet have an answer. “I can tell you my comments didn’t get incorporated either.”

Looking back at a list of wins, Tovo is also happy that she was able to help foster the creation of the city’s first student commission and an Aquatic Master Plan Task Force that provided alternatives to closing “a whole lot of city pools.” Likewise, she is enthusiastic about the fact that the city’s first sobriety center is, at long last, close to opening.

Tovo counts the reallocation of up to 15 percent of Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to park preservation projects as a definite win, and called it a “sea change,” though the conversation surrounding the restructuring tops her disappointments of the past year.

In particular, Tovo is disappointed with how the Hotel Occupancy Tax change was conflated with the success of the “downtown puzzle” and its associated promises for expansion of the Austin Convention Center and funding for homelessness, preservation, music and parks.

“The tenor of those discussions was extremely unfortunate,” she said. “The conversation in the community became an either/or. You either supported the mayor’s plan or you were opposed to it. For some people, if you opposed the mayor’s plan that also meant you were opposing funding homelessness services and … anything mentioned in that resolution. If you had concerns about the resolution and its feasibility, it became a statement about your commitment to those elements within it.”

“Frankly, there are still relationships being mended over it,” said Tovo. “It concerns me that there are still people out there that believe the only way to fund homelessness services is through a convention center expansion.”

In fact, with more of a focus on homelessness, Tovo is heartened that the city made some real progress on the issue, increasing the budget by $2 million for dedicated funding for homelessness. The city also launched a pay-for-success program, which allows for private investment in permanent supportive housing, and the downtown initiative that is helping to reconceptualize what might happen at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

“And, of course, our restrooms, finally, years later,” added Tovo. She spent a long time fighting for the downtown public restrooms, and this year, they finally became a reality. Though not yet permanent, it’s progress.

“Finding funding for ending homelessness in this community is huge,” she said. “But we need to just keep chipping away at it.”

Tovo also called out this past state legislative session as even worse than years past, categorizing state immigration legislation as “devastating.” She commented on the numerous attacks, and threatened attacks, on Austin by the state, from new limitations on annexations, to an attempt to limit the city’s ability to set taxes, to overriding Austin’s general vote on ride-hailing legislation in a move that she said was “completely outrageous.”

Looking ahead, Tovo hopes that 2018 is a year that sees the city move forward with building affordable housing on public land, and she expressed frustration with how plans have stalled this past year.

“It’s a great idea; everyone thinks so. Practically every report that we’ve had on affordable housing in this community for the last decade cites that as a great opportunity and I’m very eager, in 2018, to really make a commitment on at least one tract of land,” said Tovo. “That’s probably going to continue to be our best way to continue to get significant amounts of affordable housing. … We have tracts of land where it would be very costly to buy at this point.”

In particular, Tovo has her sights set on the HealthSouth site at 1215 Red River St. The city purchased the land in December 2016, and Council Member Ora Houston (and Tovo) initiated a resolution to evaluate it for affordable housing. “I think that might be our first and best possibility,” she said, though she acknowledges that “market forces are pushing in other directions.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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