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Harper-Madison wants more housing, transportation options for District 1

Friday, December 21, 2018 by Jack Craver

Above all else, Natasha Harper-Madison, the incoming City Council member for District 1, wants to use her new platform to connect more people to the decisions made every day at City Hall.

The campaign Harper-Madison waged for the Council seat over the past year has given her hope that people want to be engaged, though it has also highlighted the major barriers to engagement.

“More people care about municipal politics than we give them credit for,” she said during an interview with the Austin Monitor at the Cookbook Bar & Cafe at the new Central Library. “However, the system is virtually impenetrable for newcomers and laymen.”

Therefore, “We have to make the system more accessible and we have to make the understanding of the hierarchy of the system more accessible.”

For instance, she said, “I think most people don’t even know there’s 56 boards and commissions” that play a major role in shaping city policy. She wants to make more people aware of the impact they can have by attending the meetings of boards and commissions – or even better, by serving on them.

Harper-Madison said it will be a major priority of hers to diversify commissions, so that “they actually represent the citizenry of the city.”

There are barriers to engagement beyond a lack of awareness. Many people don’t have the time or have conflicting work and family obligations. Harper-Madison believes that City Hall should provide on-site child care for citizens, city staff and even Council members who need a few hours of child supervision while they engage in city politics.

“We can find money in the budget,” she said.

Harper-Madison also wants the city to become a more aggressive advocate for child care in general, including by incentivizing developers to provide day care in apartment complexes. She is confident that whatever it costs to provide that care, whether it’s paid for by developers or city taxpayers, will be a bargain compared to the high price society is paying in terms of lost economic productivity and the negative effects on children who miss out on early childhood education.

Unsurprisingly, housing is another major priority for Harper-Madison, whose East Austin district includes a large population of low-income people who are struggling to afford housing amidst rapid gentrification. It’s key that the city begin to put the $250 million housing bond to work, she said, to put in place income-restricted housing as quickly as possible.

In contrast to her predecessor, Council Member Ora Houston, Harper-Madison also emphasizes the importance of creating more market-rate housing and believes that the city’s housing crisis is partially due to a lack of supply.

“It’s obvious that we need more in the way of housing stock, that we need more in the way of zoning that allows for more types of housing,” she said.

In addition to slowing the growth in housing costs, additional density along transit corridors can help free people from the costly burden of car ownership. Not only is it a challenge for many poor people to afford a car, but the cars they can afford are often unreliable.

Harper-Madison said her top infrastructure priority for her district is getting more sidewalks repaired and built. She also wants more investment in bike infrastructure, such as protected bike lanes, saying, “We have to make it safer for people to navigate the neighborhood without a car.”

Finally, she is excited to engage with Project Connect, Capital Metro’s planning process to develop a proposal for high-capacity mass transit, such as light rail or bus rapid transit, that voters will likely have to approve in fall 2020.

In the meantime, there are smaller steps to improve transit, such as more bus shelters. Harper-Madison recently saw a woman waiting for the bus at the corner of Interstate 35 and East 12th in a fold-up lawn chair, holding an umbrella in the rain. “She’s carrying around a lawn chair and an umbrella!” Harper-Madison exclaimed.

Asked how her perspective will differ from her colleagues, Harper-Madison pointed to one “obvious” difference: “I’m the only person who looks like me,” she said, referencing the fact that there are no other African-Americans on Council.

And despite fending off questions about her residency in the district, Harper-Madison has deep ties to East Austin in general and District 1 in particular. Her mother and all six of her siblings live in different parts of the district.

“I got nothing to lose. I’m bringing bold, innovative ideas,” she said. “I feel intensely responsible for the job that I was just chosen to do.”

Photo courtesy of Natasha for District 1.

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