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Battle over housing policy defines District 3 race

Tuesday, July 31, 2018 by Jack Craver

Growth, gentrification and CodeNEXT are at the center of the race for City Council District 3.

Most of the district is made up of neighborhoods on both sides of the Colorado River that are east of Interstate 35. However, the district boundaries also snake out to grab a large chunk of South Central Austin, including all but the last few blocks of Oltorf Street before it meets South Lamar Boulevard and extending all the way down to East Stassney Lane. In the 2010 census, 61 percent of the population was Hispanic, 27 percent was Anglo and 8 percent was African-American. Thirty-six percent of the population lived below the poverty line and 26 percent of residences were owned by their occupants.

Two challengers are vying to unseat Council Member Pio Renteria, who won the seat four years ago after triumphing over his sister, Susana Almanza, in a runoff election.

While it may lack the family drama of the 2014 race, this year’s contest similarly reflects the divide over how the city should grow and address its affordability crisis.

Renteria’s view is that the city needs to allow more housing of all kinds to be built.

As an activist and as a Council member, Renteria has supported using city funds to provide low-income housing. He is strongly supporting the $250 million housing bond that Council plans to put before voters this November.

Renteria, along with Council members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Jimmy Flannigan, is also supporting using CodeNEXT to create more residential density throughout the city by allowing more units on properties that have traditionally been reserved for single-family homes. Renteria, 68, frequently talks about how building and renting out an accessory dwelling unit on his property has enabled him to afford the property taxes on his home and stay in his neighborhood, where he has lived for nearly 40 years, after growing up in East Austin himself.

James Valadez, one of Renteria’s opponents, appears to reflect a different view. The Austin American-Statesman reported in June that he criticized what he described as “excess density” in the district.

Talking to the Austin Monitor, Valadez declined to offer many details about his views on housing, but stressed that he supported a “balance” between adding more housing and preserving what “people fell in love with when they moved here.”

Valadez said that much of the community felt that their voices had not been heard or considered during the crafting of CodeNEXT. However, Valadez would not specify what he didn’t like about the proposed code.

“I think that will end up coming out in a platform or something like that,” he said. “For the purpose of this story, there’s swaths of the neighborhood that are not being represented by the policies that are being brought forward.”

However, Valadez did say that he supported the idea of the density bonus program included in CodeNEXT, which will offer developers additional entitlements if they provide a certain amount of income-restricted housing. Valadez also said he supports more “affordable housing programs.”

Valadez suggested that he was skeptical of increasing the homestead exemption, which Renteria has voted in favor of doing twice and voted against once, because it only benefits homeowners, not the city’s renter majority.

The 30-year-old real estate broker was born and raised in Central Austin, graduating from McCallum High School. His mother worked for the Austin Independent School District and his father for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Valadez reported raising over $26,000 in the first six months of the year, just a few hundred dollars shy of Renteria’s haul. A number of his donors were prominent anti-CodeNEXT or neighborhood activists who are opposed to increased density.

Renteria’s other opponent, Jessica Cohen, appears to mostly share his views on development. She said that she was running largely due to concerns about displacement, saying that her own rent would have gone up $400 if she hadn’t signed a three-year lease. But she said that Renteria is not an effective enough spokesperson for building more housing.

“I have nothing bad to say about Pio Renteria, other than he’s a little too quiet,” she said.

Cohen, 47, works in network security for hospitals but also works on the weekends at bars. She has lived in Austin since 1992, when she came to visit from Houston. She said she decided to live here during that trip when she saw two men holding hands in public.

“Any city that’s that progressive, where you could be that comfortable on the street, that’s where I want to be,” said Cohen, who is transgender.

So far, it doesn’t appear that Cohen has mounted a serious campaign, having only raised $25 as of June 30.

Asked about his opponents, Renteria only addressed Valadez.

“I actually haven’t seen his platform yet. I don’t know what he’s running for,” said Renteria. “I’m just running on my own record.”

He dismissed Valadez’s comments about “excess density.”

“The whole problem we’re facing in Austin is the lack of housing,” said Renteria. “We have to have density.”

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