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City’s federal housing funds in jeopardy

Thursday, December 13, 2018 by Jo Clifton

The city of Austin could lose a significant amount of federal funding if President Trump follows through on his threat to shut down the federal government on Dec. 21. Various national publications reported Trump making the threat if Congress refuses to authorize $5 billion for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

At about the same time Trump was throwing what several media outlets described as a public “temper tantrum” in a meeting Tuesday with Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Austin City Council was hearing a report from its lobbyists, both state and federal.

Austin’s Intergovernmental Relations Officer Brie Franco and congressional lobbyist Ralph Garboushian of Capital Edge told Council during Tuesday’s work session that the city could lose a significant amount of money if Congress does not approve funding for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as HUD.

Although Congress has approved a budget for Fiscal Year 2018-19, Garboushian said there are still seven pieces of legislation they must approve in order to fund various agencies, including HUD, which provides money for cities to build affordable housing through the HOME Investment Partnerships Program. The city also receives money through Community Development Block Grants.

The city reports that in FY 2016-17, “CDBG funds of approximately $7.5 million helped more than 1,500 Austinites with home repairs, contributed to the construction of affordable housing for low-income families and persons with disabilities, provided renter assistance, and funded public service activities such as childcare, senior and youth support services.”

In addition to HUD, Congress must still approve legislation to continue funding for the Homeland Security Department, as well as the Justice, Interior and Agriculture departments. Trump is seeking $5 billion for Homeland Security while Democrats have offered $1.3 billion.

Because of what is called sequestration, Garboushian said, “We’ll have to work hard to maintain those (current) funding levels.”

At today’s meeting, Council will consider a lengthy list of proposed policies and legislation as part of the city’s federal legislative agenda. That list includes a directive to lobbyists to protect Austin’s civil rights ordinances “and support the expansion of the rights, programs, and services provided to immigrants, regardless of their immigration status.”

That stance is directly at odds with the current administration’s proposal, which includes cutting back on health care and nutrition programs available to immigrant families.

The city also “opposes any policies, legislation or regulatory actions” that erode or pre-empt city authority in areas such as “employment, housing, public accommodation, and other civil rights that would threaten Austin’s welcoming environment to businesses, conventions and events and would tarnish Austin’s status as an inclusive community for all,” according to the draft statement of the city’s legislative agenda.

In response to a question from Council Member Ann Kitchen about money for transit, Garboushian explained that the money comes from the Highway Trust Fund. Revenue to the fund is not keeping up with expenditures, so he advised her that transit money is definitely at risk this year. The trust fund is projected to have a $500 million deficit in 2021, he said, concluding, “In that situation, I think the transit program is more vulnerable than ever.”

Franco said one big change for the city’s Washington lobbyists is the presence of the U.S. Army’s Futures Command, which chose Austin because of its high-tech capability. She said the city will now be monitoring defense appropriations and spending for that command.

“It is the only command of that size that is not at a military installation,” Franco said, noting that there had been some pushback from other communities because the command is not on a military installation. “But that was the entire goal,” she said, to encourage “out-of-the-box thinking by having the military work with the tech sector,” with Austin being the winner.

Photo by Ad Meskens [Attribution, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons.

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