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D1 forum looks at city’s role in affordability, health care, displacement

Monday, December 3, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

The runoff election to fill the seat of District 1 Council Member Ora Houston may well hinge on the approaches candidates Natasha Harper-Madison and Mariana Salazar take to persistent East Austin issues such as housing affordability, health care access and how the city can help longtime residents remain in the fast-growing area.

At last week’s candidate forum presented by Austin’s League of Women Voters and the city’s Ethics Review Commission, the two shared similar concerns and occasionally similar approaches to these and other issues, favoring the city playing an increased role in improving quality of life in the district.

Salazar, who referenced her family story as a Venezuelan immigrant and who has raised her family in Austin, said she wants the city to remain welcoming and hospitable for all newcomers.

On the question of how City Council can help limit the impact of rising land values and property taxes on residents, she promoted land trusts, neighborhood empowerment zones and programs that could allow seniors to defer their property taxes.

Harper-Madison said the city needs to actively educate homeowners on the tax relief programs that may be available to them, and said financial assistance to build accessory dwelling units to help owners generate revenue from their homes would make a difference.

“People can generate more revenue and not be pushed out of their homes,” she said. “The onus is on the city to help people understand why land use values are rising and what their options are. Land use policy can be complicated and people need to know exactly what their options are.”

Both candidates support the city taking steps to increase fee collection from unregistered short-term rentals in the city, though Harper-Madison said she’s in favor of allowing owners who rent rooms in their homes to be exempt from fees. So-called Type 2 STRs that are vacant outside of their leasing business threaten to turn neighborhoods into boutique hotels, she said.

Salazar returned to her family-friendly stance when questioned about the eventual restart of efforts to revise the city’s land use code, which ended this summer with the demise of the CodeNEXT process.

“It’s important that as we move and update the code we need to make new spaces for families, and I hope the city can remain a city where new families can thrive,” she said. “There are things market won’t handle. We have to make sure new housing is coupled with a comprehensive new housing strategy … and I also want to see growth in other parts of the city.”

Harper-Madison said the code rewrite should be shaped heavily by the addition of affordable housing slated to be built with $250 million in bond funding recently approved by voters, with more participation from the public to prevent disenfranchisement with the process.

On the matter of health care gaps in the district’s marginal populations, Salazar said she’d place heavy emphasis on place-based initiatives to make parks and other portions of the district more inviting for physical activity.

“East Austin has faced so many challenges in the form of historic segregation from the 1928 (city) plan to redlining, and we have a shortage of things including parks that are not maintained,” she said. “It’s important to think of health as preventive and parks play a role in that. I’m excited about place-based initiatives to address wellness from a comprehensive perspective.”

Harper-Madison said the city needs to take steps to make healthy food available in so-called food deserts in the area. She also wants to find ways to shorten the wait times for preventive and follow-up care that can keep minor ailments from developing into chronic and expensive conditions.

“So many clients have to wait months and months for screenings or to see someone like an oncologist, and on community outreach, we talk about it but we don’t talk about how to do it,” she said. “So many things we do are dismal at best and we have to figure out how to meet people where they are.”

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