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Council moves forward with income pilot program

Friday, May 6, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council members attending Thursday’s meeting approved a $1.1 million pilot program to study the impact of providing $1,000 a month to 85 families for a year, with an emphasis on families facing eviction. Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter voted no. Council members Mackenzie Kelly and Leslie Pool, who had indicated misgivings about the program, were not in attendance.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes were the original sponsors of the resolution instructing City Manager Spencer Cronk to move forward and contract with UpTogether to set up the program.

Council heard from about two dozen advocates for the program and a few opponents. Many of the advocates said they had had experience in working with the poor or had received help from programs like RISE (Relief in a State of Emergency).

Ana Gonzalez, a city employee, asked Council to support the program. She told them she was an immigrant who received help after coming to the United States.

“I was a single mother at 17 and was struggling when I arrived here in Austin. It was thanks to investments made in my future that I was able to complete graduate school … I completed a Ph.D. and I’m serving my community back. It is investments that made the difference,” she said. “This is not giveaways. This is just believing that people will lift up and give back what they are able to do … when you believe in them.”

Devon Karle described himself as a single father whose home was badly damaged with broken pipes during last winter’s ice storm. Then he learned he had HIV. He said he went through endless rounds of paperwork but could never get any help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then UpTogether came into his life “and man, they saved me. They took a lot of stress off of me.” He said he did not know what would have happened to his 11-year-old daughter if UpTogether had not come along. He urged Council to approve the pilot program.

Richard Smith, an opponent of the program, complained that Council would be wasting taxpayer money. He said Council should not be using the city as a “test tube for conducting social experiments with taxpayer dollars based on personal ideologies.” He said Austin taxpayers already provide hundreds of millions of dollars to people in need through federal programs and charities. Smith is running against Council Member Paige Ellis in District 8.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who supported the program, asked Adler to add requirements to the resolution for the city manager to brief Council after the program has been operating for three months and six months. Those requirements were added to the resolution.

Although Kelly did not attend the meeting, Adler said she had offered two amendments, which he found acceptable. There was some concern about negotiating the contract with UpTogether without going through the request-for-proposal process. So, at Kelly’s request, Adler added a requirement to the resolution that if the city proceeds past the pilot project it will be through an RFP process. Kelly also requested that the city look for additional funding sources, such as the federal government or charitable organizations. That was added to the resolution.

Alter explained her opposition to spending more than $1 million on the program. “As I look at the various issues and challenges before May, I see that we can’t open our summer pools because we can’t hire enough lifeguards, in part because we can’t afford a sufficiently competitive wage or benefits package. We have alarming shortages with our 911 dispatch staff, in part because we can’t afford to offer them a sufficiently competitive wage or benefits package. We have victims services counselors who don’t have vehicles for their units, which impacts their ability to provide services.

“Just yesterday my staff were meeting with representatives from volunteer groups trying to find housing for Afghan families who are asking for financial assistance from the city to help those families stay in their housing. We are extremely challenged to meet the requests from our first responders and other workers on wages and benefits, from our EMS workers to our AFSCME members and the campaign for $20-$22 an hour.”

For those reasons, Alter said she could not vote to fund the pilot project, though she added, “Families in Austin will benefit.”

But Adler said the program would pay off in money not spent on pulling people out of homelessness, a crisis for everyone in the city.

“One of the serious issues we face are people in tents out on our streets. … Quite frankly, we’ve been working on this issue for years. We all know that once someone ends up in a tent that it’s expensive” to get them back into housing. “Wouldn’t it be great to stop a lot of those people before they end up in tents? This program is so much less expensive,” he said, noting that at some point in the future the program could be “funded by lots of people.”

Adler said he was discouraged to hear rhetoric calling the program a “giveaway.”

“People refer to the school lunch program as a giveaway (and) education as a giveaway. I think that’s so misleading and so wrong,” he said. “We’re investing in our people … (we should) give people the opportunity and resources for them to take care of themselves.”

Austin is one of 50 cities across the country piloting guaranteed income programs.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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