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Ann Kitchen: Building better solutions

Tuesday, January 5, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik, Reporting Texas

Council Member Ann Kitchen has spent the year juggling difficult decisions – about the Covid-19 pandemic, reallocating police funds, finding solutions for homelessness, improving mobility and preserving the arts.

“Covid has highlighted disparities in our community and highlighted problems that we already have and made them worse,” the District 5 Council member said. “So, in terms of thinking about our solutions, we’ve been thinking not only in terms of how we deal with immediate emergencies, but also how to build things better so that we are not as vulnerable in the future.”

Kitchen brought up the city’s March 6 declaration of disaster, an effort to reduce exposure to Covid-19 and promote the health and safety of Austin residents. Through that, she said, City Council was able to control the level of hospitalizations in the community and respond to residents’ needs for rent and food assistance.

Kitchen led the effort for a resolution addressing infection rates in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. There were already existing problems in some of those facilities, and Covid-19 only highlighted and worsened them.

“One aspect of what we’ve done in addition to working on immediate emergencies is we’ve helped with PPE (personal protective equipment) and expert help,” Kitchen said.

In addition, Kitchen recognized another problem. “It’s been a long-standing problem that the folks who work in those places are underpaid significantly. The situation is worse in some nursing facilities that primarily rely upon Medicaid.”

In a long-term effort to help the residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, Council engaged the Design Institute for Health at the Dell Medical School to conduct a study of nursing homes, she said. Two out of five phases of the study are complete.

Regarding a proposed reallocation of police department funds, Kitchen highlighted her work with Council Member Greg Casar to fund mental health services as part of the dispatch centers. “What it means is, when someone calls 911, they have an option for a mental health professional to be their primary contact,” she explained.

Kitchen also detailed her efforts in addressing police training.

“We’ve also identified, as part of policing, the importance of training (to) be culturally sensitive and racially unbiased and new and up to date with best practices for policing and community policing,” she said. “We’re in the process of getting that training done and I am hopeful that it will be done in time to start another police academy in the spring.”

She drew attention to progress made to connect homeless individuals with housing.

“We are in the process of buying hotels and motels and turning them into shelters. We rented and we bought a few and immediately put our most vulnerable homeless individuals – I think 300 of them – into these motels.”

Kitchen continues to work on the $12 million in bond funding for the preservation of creative spaces that was approved by voters in 2018. “Frankly, it is going slower than I prefer,” she said. “But we did take the step of getting ideas from the creative community about how they’d like to use those bonds.”

“We also created an economic development corporation, which we expect to be working with the creative community on using those creative space bonds. And the point of all that is we’re a city that, because we’re growing, we’re losing our spaces.” Kitchen used the example of Pump Project, a nonprofit arts space that relocated in 2017 because it could not afford the expensive renovations required by the city’s building code. The landlord, instead of renovating and renewing the lease, decided to put the land up for sale.

“We just created an iconic music venue fund and we put initial dollars in it,” Kitchen said, talking about helping venues like Saxon Pub and Victory Grill. “I’m proud to say we’ve got some of those (venues) in District 5.”

“Unfortunately, we already lost Threadgill’s,” she added.

Looking back on the past year in transportation, Kitchen called the voter-approved Project Connect “a real opportunity to turn transportation into an asset in the city and to address some inequities that we’ve had.”

Council approved street impact fees this December, a charge assessed on new development that pays for the construction or expansion of roadway facilities. “This gives us a better opportunity to pay for those costs with development – it certainly doesn’t pay for everything, but it aligns better,” she said.

Most of the work of 2020 will continue on in 2021. Kitchen is looking forward to implementing Project Connect and revisiting the Land Development Code.

“I think we need to accelerate our efforts around connecting people to housing, and we need to do a better job of addressing the use of public space,” she said. “We need to continue to make progress on policing and public safety.”

Kitchen is hopeful that the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine in the new year will bring the pandemic to an end.

“We have to hang on for a bit longer,” she said.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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