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Affordability, CodeNEXT and displacement steer candidates in District 3 forum

Monday, October 8, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s failed CodeNEXT process – a nearly two-year rewrite of the Land Development Code that was scrapped in August – continues to be one of the most provocative issues in local politics. One needed only to listen in to last week’s forum hosted by KUT, the Austin Monitor, Glasshouse Policy, Austin Tech Alliance and A Functional Democracy for candidates running for the District 3 City Council seat to hear how divided those on the ballot and community members in attendance are on the matter.

Answering a question about how the city should reboot from the expensive and ridiculed process, Council Member Pio Renteria defended the work of the city staff and consultants who worked to implement a tool to guide growth and address growing affordability and transportation issues.

“If you don’t like CodeNEXT, then like what you’ve got right now,” he said. “If you live in this part of East Austin, your land value is going to go up to $400,000 next year. We have studied other cities, and if you look at San Francisco, there’s no children there because the families can’t afford to live there.”

In response, community organizer Susana Almanza said it’s likely that the August decision will turn out to have been a political ploy to lessen this issue as election fodder, and that it’s almost certain to be revived in 2019. She also jumped on the San Francisco comparison in a move that drew cheers from the audience at Tamale House East.

“The consultants who made CodeNEXT are from San Francisco and were the ones trying to displace all of those families and are now trying to displace all of us down here,” she said, while also voicing support for the Proposition J November ballot initiative that will allow residents to vote on the implementation of comprehensive zoning matters.

CodeNEXT was an easy target for the other four candidates at the forum.

Restaurant worker Justin Jacobson said the issue stalled because of a lack of leadership to pursue valuable data on land use. Jessica Cohen, a network security administrator and former emergency medical technician, said the complexity of the project and a flawed belief that more housing guarantees affordability was the culprit.

Real estate broker James Valadez said over-reliance on consultants rather than community input caused it to fail, while tech and education executive Amit Motwani said residents lost trust in what he called an overlong process because they felt special interests had more influence than elected officials and community leaders.

Other subjects discussed in the event included increasing the district’s quality of life, improving transportation, making the area more affordable and commentary on how they’ll best represent the area’s growing diversity.

Valadez invoked the fate of the business where the event was held to illustrate how the city’s growth rate is impacting social fabric.

“Businesses like this one are being priced out of our neighborhoods, and they make up the primary fabric of what brought us to move into the neighborhood,” he said while advocating for incentives focused on local businesses. “As we walk up and down Sixth Street now and think about 15 or 20 years ago, it’s nothing like what it once was.”

Jacobson sounded a similar tone, arguing that the district’s interests haven’t been at the forefront of discussions on larger city initiatives.

“I want to listen to people’s truth and be a conduit, because that’s what we need on City Council, not a blank check for other people’s priorities from other parts of the city,” he said, adding that on the matter of affordability he pushed for a focus on marrying density with transit access.

Motwani said he supports a mix of tax relief, economic access and better coordination of community resources for residents as the answer to affordability and the problem of displacement.

“I’m looking at reducing tax burden, but if affordability is still unreachable after we maximize homestead exemptions as much as we can, we must find a way to raise the floor,” he said. “The hundreds of nonprofits we have are not coordinated by one particular entity and more aggressive management of our social service contracts could leverage our social safety net.”

Cohen brought her own life story to the forefront when addressing how she’d connect with the largely Latino district.

“As an EMT, I’ve seen people’s insides all over, and you can’t tell the difference between a white person’s lungs, a black person’s lungs or a Latin person’s lungs,” she said. “I am a Jewish transgender women in Texas. I am probably one of the most hated minorities in the state. It gives me a unique perspective and makes me want to fight, not just for me but for every minority.”

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