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City Council candidates discuss growth, segregation and the land use code

Tuesday, August 25, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The Nov. 3 election is set to shape the future of transportation in Austin, but it could also shift City Council’s 7-4 divide on housing and density in the Land Development Code rewrite. While the effort is now tied up in a legal battle over the right to protest specific rezonings in the context of a citywide land use reform, Paul Saldaña with Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin invited new candidates in districts 2, 7 and 10 to weigh in on the hot-button issue for when it eventually returns to Council.

The participating new candidates joined Council members Leslie Pool, Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan at the virtual event Thursday to discuss the city’s greatest challenges. Both Alter and Flannigan had to leave before the discussion on the Land Development Code to join a meeting of the Mobility Committee.

The four new candidates represent only a fifth of all the candidates, including incumbents, on the November ballot for districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10. Each of them – David Chincanchan and Vanessa Fuentes in District 2, Morgan Witt in District 7 and Pooja Sethi in District 10 – has been running an active election campaign.

With Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza of District 2 set to take the seat for Travis County attorney, Chincanchan and Fuentes are both offering to carry on Garza’s work of centering equity in the land use conversation, with Chincanchan emphasizing the need for an updated land use code and Fuentes highlighting the need for stronger protections for neighborhoods in Southeast Austin.

Chincanchan praised Garza’s work with the proposed Equity Overlay that would buffer Southeast Austin neighborhoods from the pressures of rapid development and displacement. At the same time, Chincanchan noted that the existing code is outdated and “rooted in a segregationist, racist plan from 1928.”

“Over the last several years, including in East Austin and including in Rainey Street, we have seen the effects of gentrification, we have seen displacement, we have seen real suffering, and in our community, we have seen flooding as well. All of those things that we want to address are happening under the current Land Development Code and so we should be clamoring for change.”

Fuentes, on the other hand, called for stronger protections for residents at risk of displacement by adopting tools such as the People’s Plan, a framework for East Austin that supports expanded use of neighborhood conservation combining districts and historic districts to give neighborhoods more power to restrict development.

“As someone who is seeking to serve a community that is vulnerable and at risk to gentrification and displacement, I would like to see the City Council take a stronger stance on anti-displacement strategies. … I would like to see a fully funded anti-displacement program and more anti-gentrification, anti-displacement measures adopted into the Land Development Code update,” Fuentes said.

By a show of hands, all four new candidates and Council Member Leslie Pool said they would support the creation of an anti-displacement department to concentrate efforts to mitigate gentrification and prevent displacement.

Saldaña set the stage for District 10 candidate Pooja Sethi and District 7 candidate Morgan Witt by noting the ambiguity of the concept of affordability in local housing discussions. “It’s my understanding that if right now you make $58,000 a year and you’re a household of one, you technically qualify for affordable housing at the 80 percent median family income. There are a lot of folks in our black and brown communities where the entire household doesn’t make $58,000 a year.”

Sethi, an immigration attorney, promised to work against land use policies that promote segregation and fight to ensure immigrant families are able to stay in their communities.

“I do believe that any housing we put in now needs to be affordable, truly, and we need to get rid of the segregated city that we’re facing,” Sethi said. “I would push consistently to make sure that all of our communities have access to good schools, community resources, and have access to housing and be able to stay where they are as much as possible.”

Witt said affordability is not only a question of a lack of income-restricted housing units but also a consequence of limiting the supply of housing through rigid zoning restrictions.

“The reality is that when we talk about preserving neighborhoods as they exist right now, that means we’re excluding people from those neighborhoods,” Witt said. “If we don’t develop in these neighborhoods, people build outward. That means the people most vulnerable to being displaced because of lack of affordability, they have to move further out of the city; they have less access to resources, they have more transportation costs to get to work, but also we as a city have to spend more money in infrastructure to build out so that people can access the city.”

Witt also noted the environmental impact of zoning policies that prohibit compact development in favor of larger houses on larger lots.

“While we think that not developing in these neighborhoods is protecting the environment, the reality is sprawl is a huge environmental issue. We really need to think about how can we be more inclusive as a city and allow more people and more diverse people to live in the neighborhoods that exist so that everybody gets the opportunity to live that Austin experience and share in that neighborhood character.”

Council is currently appealing a legal ruling that states residents have a right to protest specific zoning changes within a land code overhaul. If the ruling stands, Council would need nine votes, a supermajority, to deny each protest and move forward with the code rewrite. Depending on the results, the November election could push Council toward or further away from that supermajority in favor of the zoning changes proposed by the city’s code rewrite team.

“We are sending additional good money after bad with the appeal of that ruling,” said Pool, part of the four-member voting bloc supporting the right to protest zoning. “We would be further down the road with regard to implementing our Water Forward flood mitigation and drought response programs and water conservation programs if we had just recognized that the people of the city were trying to be heard and unfortunately only four of us were listening.”

Meeting still courtesy of Facebook.

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