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Tovo to keep focus on housing, homelessness issues in 2019

Friday, December 28, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Questions of where and how people live in Austin – specifically in District 9 – remained a front-of-mind issue for Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo in 2018.

Whether she was on the City Council dais or involved in campaign events ahead of her successful re-election in November, Tovo said a combination of displacement, homelessness, affordability, rising property taxes and the tabled rewrite of the city’s land use code were the biggest issues on her agenda.

It doesn’t appear that 2019 will be much different; the restart of the CodeNEXT process is sure to be one of Council’s main priorities beginning in January, and the situation with homelessness downtown is as concerning as ever.

But Tovo said some long-gestating policies conceived and enacted in recent years should come to fruition in 2019, especially related to homelessness. Among them: increased funding for a variety of services for the homeless, and awarding a new contract to manage the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which will come with a reinvention of how the facility operates.

“Over the last several years we have been able to increase funding, and it has become one of the highest priorities for the City Council. In these next couple of years we will see the implementation of some of the work,” she said. “These next two years will be extremely important in terms of how we how we let that action plan guide our city investments and guide our actions both in and increasing the services and resources we offer and also using and deploying innovative strategies, from the homelessness outreach street team to a different kind of design of our emergency shelter.”

Tovo points out that roughly one-third of the significant (non-fee waiver) policy resolutions she’s sponsored have been related to housing preservation and affordability. She hopes to continue that focus in 2019, and she’s particularly excited about the development of programs to help renters purchase and rehab the neglected rental properties in which they live.

She also highlights Council’s push to use city-owned parcels for affordable housing, while supporting alternative uses for the Winnebago tract and the McKalla Place property.

Her work with Council Member Ora Houston on making the former HealthSouth property that sits just outside her district a prime candidate for redevelopment with affordable and mixed-income units shows the progress that’s being made. That property is currently going through the request-for-proposal process, with concepts from interested development groups expected in early 2019.

“One real interest of mine is making sure we get a good applicant pool and that we have developers who are committed to affordable housing, and are going to look at that property creatively,” she said. “We began talking about that property in a slightly different place, with some rumblings about maybe the better value was to sell it and invest that money somewhere else. I hope that our Council will hold true to our interest in developing that property and using it and retaining city ownership.”

Like others on Council, Tovo said she looks forward to the recommendations from City Manager Spencer Cronk regarding how to restart the CodeNEXT process that was halted in the summer amid frustrations over how it was being conducted.

She said her own frustrations match those of many residents over a seeming acceptance in the drafts of the code rewrites that increased demolitions were inevitable, which she said leads to new, expensive housing units rather than preserving existing homes.

Her preferred approach for the next go-around is to look more at small neighborhood plans and find remedies for gentrification issues on a case-by-case basis rather than prescribing zoning changes for the entire city using a likely multi-year process.

“Most of the plans we’ve developed previously speak to where increased density should go, even in areas where there aren’t neighborhood plans on the ground or where they may have not been updated in a while,” Tovo said. “(We should be) getting back to those and letting them be the starting place, rather than coming in with a very top-down approach where members of the community will not feel respectful of the processes.

“Our job should be to work to prevent displacement and find appropriate areas increasing in density,” she added. “Starting those conversations in areas that are right at the beginning in early stages of gentrification is a very strong tendency to consider.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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