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Casar proud of victories in 2019, ready to prove value of progressive policy again in 2020

Monday, December 23, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Council Member Greg Casar began the year defending several of the city’s workers’ rights ordinances at the 86th legislative session while pushing for adoption of Affordability Unlocked at City Council.

Senate Bill 15 was known for its attack on the paid sick leave ordinance Casar authored in early 2018. The bill took aim at other city policies as well, including the rest break ordinance, LGBTQ protection, the fair chance hiring ordinance, and some required employee benefits. Had the bill passed, it could have undone years of Casar’s advocacy work.

“Part of the goal of those right-wing legislators is not only to stop progressive policy, but to stop Texans from seeing that progressive policy can work,” he told the Austin Monitor.

The controversial bill lost additional support as Casar teamed up with Council members from Dallas and San Antonio and Democratic House members to fight for cities’ rights to protect people on the job. SB 15 ultimately fell apart near the end of the legislative session.

“I was really proud and it was one of the big achievements of this year to block the anti-workers’ rights bill,” Casar said.

At the same time, Casar had been refining and advocating for Affordability Unlocked, a housing program intended to leverage $250 million of the 2018 affordable housing bond to benefit the community to the fullest extent possible. Council adopted the program in May and Casar said it’s working. He notes that Project Transitions, a nonprofit that provides housing and services to people living with HIV/AIDS, now expects to triple its housing supply over two years. He said the program’s relaxed site requirements are already helping to put affordable units on the ground and stretching affordable housing bond dollars as far as possible.

“This year alone, the affordable housing bond supported over 1,000 new homes for very low- to low-income people,” he said.

Now Casar is looking at ways to ensure that a 2020 mass transit bond is set up to ensure equitable transit access for people of all incomes. Although nothing specific has been proposed, he said that could mean the bond contains initiatives for sidewalks, bike lanes, shade, and transit-focused land acquisition. With a land acquisition fund, he said, the city could buy land around transit stops to guarantee more affordable housing.

Casar said the city still has plenty of land and opportunities to guarantee workforce housing well into the future. He demonstrated that conviction this year with his opposition to a massive development planned for East Riverside Drive. “I didn’t feel that torn,” he said. Aside from this being the third time he’s fought to protect existing housing and residents in the Riverside neighborhood – first with Lakeview Apartments; then Mesh Apartments – he said the point is the city isn’t so built out that it makes sense to tear down apartments for working- and middle-class Austinites.

“We know from every expert that we can add so much more housing capacity in the city without necessarily having to redevelop our existing dense, more affordable housing,” he said. “There are a lot of backyards where (accessory dwelling units) and small duplexes can go, there are a lot of corridors that can be redeveloped into mixed-use housing, and there are a lot of parking lots.”

Now that the public is seeing progressive housing policy at work in Austin, Casar said he hopes residents will be able to see similar results with the homelessness crisis over the next year. After having a hard conversation this year about whether people sleeping under bridges should be given “homes or handcuffs,” he said Council did the right thing by choosing homes.

“I think you’re going to see, hopefully in the coming months, hundreds of rooms open up for people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “And if we manage to finish out the strategy of diverting resources just from jailing people simply for sleeping outside to housing people, I think the community will see the brave progressive work bear fruit.”

The Council member also reported ongoing success with the city’s Freedom City policy, which “really went into full effect this year.” Year over year, he said preliminary data is showing a nearly 80 percent drop in discretionary arrests, leading to a sharp drop in bookings for low-level offenses.

In his own district, Casar has been working to get more parks and make the environment safer for all road users. When District 4 was drawn, he said, it was the most park-deficient district in the city while also having some of the city’s highest-density neighborhoods. Georgian Acres, one of the densest and lowest-income neighborhoods in the city, is now getting a neighborhood park that Casar said will be an “amazing amenity” for residents.

Casar also worked to fill sidewalk gaps and double the amount of safe pedestrian crossings in some parts of North Lamar Boulevard this year. He said traffic is the most dangerous thing in the city, and North Lamar is a spine that lacks adequate sidewalks, decent bus stops and crosswalks. Casar hopes to further improve the corridor by completing negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation to transfer right-of-way ownership to the city.

Over the next year, Casar hopes Council will continue to pursue progressive policy in decisions both large and small.

“This Council has begun to put social justice, social equity and racial justice at the forefront of our minds and of our work over the last few years, and I really hope that we imbue those values of social equity and racial justice into every part of the Land Development Code and of Project Connect. We are working so hard to close the gap between who Austin says we are and what it is that we actually do as leaders, and I think this Council is doing the really hard work of closing that gap.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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