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Casar says 2021 was about helping people in crisis

Wednesday, December 22, 2021 by Amy Smith

From community organizer to City Council member to congressional candidate, Greg Casar exudes the energy of someone eager to get things done.

Since taking office in January 2015, he has accomplished much of the social agenda he put forward as a Council member. Now he’s poised to make an early departure from Council once his successor is sworn into office sometime after a special election on Jan. 25.

Looking ahead, Casar is campaigning for U.S. Congressional District 35 in a Democratic primary race that includes Austin state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and former San Antonio Council Member Rebecca Viagran.

Reflecting on 2021, Casar summed up his last 12 months on Council as a time of assisting others, especially during the February winter storm, which compounded the economic side effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. “This year was about helping people and delivering results in crisis, whether it was bringing blankets and food to people when the power went out or blocking foreclosures and evictions throughout the year.”

Casar spoke to the Austin Monitor a few days before Council’s vote to buy hotel property for a new family violence shelter in partnership with the SAFE Alliance. “This is something I’ve been working on for years,” he said of his goal to close the loop on the new shelter before leaving Council. “This year we did get the funding we needed so that we could put survivors of family violence into hotel rooms, because there isn’t enough shelter space spread out across the city.”

Casar was able to cap off another initiative with Council’s selection of a partner to redevelop the St. John Home Depot site in his underserved district, an endeavor he pursued early in his tenure by asking his constituents what they wanted to see in place of a vacant big-box store.

While the District 4 Council member is a leading advocate of fortifying the housing market, much of 2021 has seen a continuation of trying to keep residents in their homes. “We continued to have protections so that people wouldn’t lose their homes, and we worked really hard with the mayor on the moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, and to provide funding so that people could have assistance with their mortgages and with their rents,” Casar said.

“In other cities we saw five, 10, 20 times more people losing their homes than in Austin, and we had one of the lowest eviction rates in the country. That’s because we provided assistance to help mom-and-pop landlords cover the rents, (which) also supports tenants so that they wouldn’t lose their homes,” Casar said. “That’s something I think Austin did really well on and that my team and I were really dedicated to. Now, there’s a lot of important work to do moving forward to address rising rents in our city.”

One of the year’s high points was the defeat of Proposition A, which sought to beef up Austin’s police force in response to Council’s previous budget action to shift police funding to shore up other needs, such as mental health and emergency medical services. Casar, the mayor and most Council members opposed the ballot item and worked independently to explain to their constituents its damaging fiscal implications.

“There was such a risk that what Save Austin Now and (SAN co-founder) Matt Mackowiak were doing would devastate public budgets and try to undo the progress we made with things like our family violence shelter and expanded EMS city services, and it threatened jobs for firefighters and librarians and park rangers,” Casar said.

Prop A’s overwhelming defeat solidified Casar’s belief that the community supports Council’s progressive actions, particularly in the area of reimagining public safety. SAN’s ballot-box drubbing, Casar said, “spoke to all the work that we’ve done, and the community was able to come together and prioritize criminal justice reform and city services over the fear-mongering that we saw from Save Austin Now.”

Trying to encapsulate the policy measures Casar put forward during his seven years on City Council is no easy task. Casar himself is hard pressed to summarize his priority policy issues during his entire tenure. Not all of his policy measures stuck. His 2018 sick pay mandate for private employers, backed by a Council majority, was blocked months later by the 3rd Court of Appeals, and the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

Additionally, Casar’s campaign to put a human face on the homelessness crisis by relaxing the no-camping ordinance was not wholly accepted by the community. But that defeat reinvigorated Council’s work to provide more housing for people experiencing homelessness.

“When we worked on the paid sick time campaign, so much of it came from hearing from students and young people and teachers, and from working parents who would have to send their kids to school sick,” Casar said, noting that the paid sick leave policy still applies to all city employees.

“City Hall can be headed in the right direction when we are talking directly to people, directly addressing their concerns – even if that means upsetting the status quo,” he said.

He added, “It’s important for us to understand that if we’re committed to really addressing peoples’ needs, that means there’s going to be change and change isn’t always easy.”

Clearing the rape kit backlog was another big lift Council tackled during Casar’s tenure. “That was really a turning point for me, when the top police administrators told me that survivors were making mountains out of molehills when that issue was brought to us. It was actually such a really big problem that had been hiding under a rock for years,” he said. Early this year, Council voted to transfer $11.9 million from the police budget to an outside forensic science lab in Dallas.

“I think we do our best work when it comes from love of the city and its people,” Casar said. “Things can get hard at City Hall when we’re just thinking about City Hall politics, and we do really well when we break out of that and think about why it is we’re all doing this work in the first place.”

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