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Housing, CodeNEXT restart and Houston’s positions shape D1 candidate forum

Friday, October 5, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Ora Houston’s decision to exit City Council at the end of the year has ushered in a crowded field of contenders for her District 1 seat, but her presence and influence are still well felt in the positions and talking points taken among the seven candidates headed into the November election.

One of the first questions to the candidates at Monday’s District 1 forum – held at Wesley United Methodist Church and organized by the Austin Monitor, KUT, Glasshouse Policy, Austin Tech Alliance and A Functional Democracy – asked them to name positions where they differ politically from Houston.

All seven said they would have supported the city’s recently passed and enjoined paid sick leave policy instead of voting against it as Houston did, with other positions bringing into relief the issues and policy points that are at the top of their minds.

For former Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, that included a greater emphasis on pursuing affordable housing for the most financially distressed, and opposing a November ballot proposition calling for an audit of City Hall. For Mariana Salazar the issues were support for a living wage increase and equitable funding for sidewalks in the district.

Natasha Harper-Madison said the district’s Council member needs to have workable relationships with property owners buying and developing East Austin, while Lewis Conway Jr. and Reedy Spigner said Houston tended to vote with the Republican interests on the Council more often than they liked. And write-in candidate Misael Ramos said he would push harder to obtain grants and other support for affordable housing.

Other issues on the night included the effects of gentrification, how to best represent a growing and ethnically diverse district, opinions on updates to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority system routes, how to improve oversight of the Austin Police Department, and how to address inequity in the maintenance resources available to community pools in the district.

All were critical of the city’s recently abandoned CodeNEXT project to rewrite the local Land Development Code. There was a roughly even split between those who said they’d restart the process – “CodeNEXT 4.0?” Harding joked in response to the question – or attempt a completely different tactic for addressing the city’s population growth.

Harper-Madison: “Why is housing not equally distributed throughout Austin? If we don’t talk about historic issues with racism and segregation and their direct effect on housing, accessibility and affordability, then we won’t fix it. Let’s keep it real and talk about the things in our past that need to be rectified.”

Salazar: “It is important to make room for new people, and that includes new housing – and the question is, where should that housing be?” Salazar also added that more density is needed in the areas west of MoPac.

Mitrah Avini: “We need a waiting period (before restarting), and it’s also time to look at Imagine Austin and how it placed East Austin into arbitrary zones of redevelopment. We need to look at whether those zones are also experiencing a lot of gentrification and displacement.”

Conway Jr.: “CodeNEXT isn’t CodeNEXT until it moves west. We shouldn’t think about density until we think about impact on water usage and water quality, and what it’s doing to all these poor people who live under the pendulum of growth.”

Spigner: “The land code is (almost) 100 years old and now we’ve spent $6 million on a new land code and haven’t implemented one thing from it. That money could have gone to other people who need help in our community. We need transparency, accountability and community involvement.”

Ramos: “Every part of Austin – north, west, east and south – should take part in increasing housing density. And we should come up with our own standards for design in the urban cores so whenever a rewrite happens, they’ll already have the layout of what can and cannot be built.”

Harding: “It should be simpler and should not take a consultant to know how to fix up your house. If there are conflicts, we should write in which part of the code supersedes other parts of the code.” He added that he supports a fast process to moderate disputes, allowing smaller lot sizes, and creating community land trusts to preserve affordability.

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