Should the city continue to have housing restrictions on pets?
At the Dec. 10 meeting of the Animal Advisory Commission, the commissioners discussed changing the pet restrictions that the city Housing Authority has placed on its housing units. “Clearly what we have is a housing authority policy for people who live in Austin regulated by the city of Austin that is grossly inconsistent with city of Austin policies,” said Commissioner Ryan Clinton. He noted that some restrictions include no pets over 30 pounds, no so-called “dangerous” breeds including chow chows, boxers, pit bulls, Dobermans and Rottweilers, and a prohibition on pet-sitting such breeds. The Housing Authority also requires that pets be licensed, a requirement that Clinton said does not exist at either a city or state level. These policies, which were adopted in 2010, are applicable to any units under the Housing Authority including nonprofits and for-profits that provide city-funded projects. “We don’t have authority (to change the rules), we’re just going to have to ask for help,” explained Clinton. The commission voted to begin a working group focused on “reducing or limiting restrictions to pet ownership in city run, funded, or subsidized housing.”
Vision Zero intersection improvements underway
The Transportation Department has begun planned safety improvements at the intersection of Slaughter Lane and South First Street. The $2 million project, which is expected to take six months to complete, will include new dual left-turn lanes, upgraded medians, enhanced crosswalks and green arrow left-turn signals on Slaughter Lane. Improvements completed over the weekend to Slaughter and Cullen lanes include upgraded signals and more space for vehicles waiting to turn left on Slaughter. These safety and mobility improvements are funded by the 2016 Mobility Bond, which dedicates $15 million to improving the city’s most dangerous intersections.
Workforce housing fund acquires new properties
The Austin Housing Conservancy, a recently formed local investment fund created to preserve workforce housing, has acquired two more properties in cooperation with Austin Affordable Housing Corporation. Late last month the fund completed deals for The Place at Terracina, located off MoPac Expressway in North Austin, and Northwest Hills on Greystone Drive. Enterprise Community Partners and the Community Development Trust were partners in the acquisitions, which give the fund three multifamily properties in its portfolio, with 792 total units in North and Central Austin. The fund was created earlier this year and intends to keep rates in its properties at a level affordable to Austin’s middle- and working-class residents, who are at risk of being priced out of the city as property values continue to climb. Conservancy leaders aim to acquire 5,000 total units in the next five years, and plan to have 10,000 units in the portfolio in the next decade.
Chamber names 2018 Austinite of the Year
The Austin Chamber of Commerce has conferred its highest honor, Austinite of the Year, on local businessman Ray Wilkerson in recognition of his decades of community and civic leadership. Wilkerson, the CEO of commercial real estate investment firm Ray Wilkerson Companies Inc., is known for his philanthropy, his strong ties to the community and his dedicated civic involvement. He is the co-founder of the HeartGift Foundation, which has provided critical surgeries for more than 400 children around the world who were born with heart defects. He also serves on several boards and commissions, including the Colorado River Land Trust and the Greater Austin Crime Commission. “Austin is better because Ray Wilkerson stepped up in so may ways,” said the chamber’s Board Chairman Phil Wilson. The chamber will present the award at its annual meeting on Feb. 5.
Hope springs eternal
After a court ruling, Austin is in the position of “asking nicely” when it comes to not using single-use bags. But yesterday the Texas Campaign for the Environment spread the word that state Representative Gina Hinojosa of Austin has filed a bill that would restore the right of local governments to regulate single-use bags. “Bag pollution is bad for Texas, and if the state government isn’t going to take action to eliminate it, then they need to stand out of the way of local governments ready to lead on the issue,” said Andrew Dobbs, legislative director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “Texas businesses and taxpayers foot the bill for these unnecessary products, and HB 514 will help our local leaders save us those resources.” A press release about the filing noted that “(a) similar bill filed by Rep. Hinojosa in the 2017 session, HB 3482, passed out of committee and out of the House Calendars Committee on bipartisan votes. It did not get a House vote because of procedural deadlines.”
County to stop ignoring needs of female inmates
Travis County is considering using Certificates of Obligation to fund construction of a women’s facility at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has cited numerous structural and design flaws with the complex that prevent the county from meeting the specific needs of female inmates. Apart from the physical deterioration of several buildings within the complex, a report presented to the court outlined several inherent design flaws including inadequate housing capacity, location of beds for women scattered across four buildings, a lack of on-site OB-GYN health services and insufficient gender-specific programming addressing the needs of female inmates. A new women’s facility is included as part of the Travis County Adult System Master Plan and may offer a wide variety of benefits to the prisoners resulting in improved physical and mental health, better relationships between incarcerated mothers and their families and more effective rehabilitation. Benefits are also expected to extend to the staff through a better work environment. The Commissioners Court discussed plans for the new facility Tuesday afternoon and mentioned a possible vote in April that would allow the county to move forward with construction without need for a public-approved bond.
Hemphill Park case granted reconsideration
After several months of contentious discussion between the Board of Adjustment, members of the North University Neighborhood Association, and the developer of the property at 2713 Hemphill Park, in November the board approved the request to grant a variance for minimum lot size. However, the neighborhood association came back at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting to request a reconsideration of the case. Specifically, Mary Ingle, who was speaking on behalf of the neighborhood association, requested that the board remove the reasonable conditions attached to their initial ruling. In a Nov. 19 letter to the board, Rick Iverson, the co-president of the North University Neighborhood Association, requested the removal of conditions associated with the University Neighborhood Overlay in order to be replaced with conditions that aligned more closely with the neighborhood character. Gregg Andrulis, representing the original applicant for the variance, said that she “supports the recommendation for the removal of the condition.” The neighborhood association requested 4-foot sidewalks instead of 12-foot sidewalks, 15-foot setbacks, appropriate landscaping for the area, and no required lighting. After reopening the case, the board unanimously re-approved the motion to approve the lot size variance “using the findings we previously used at the last meeting” with the conditions itemized on the letter from Rick Iverson.
Study examines link between homelessness and rising rents
A new study from the real estate research outlet Zillow takes a look at the link between rates of homelessness and the price of local rents. The data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development show that communities where residents spend more than 32 percent of their income on rent experience a rapid increase in homelessness. The 32 percent threshold is the most dramatic tipping point in the ratio of income/housing cost, with a notable but less pronounced uptick when rents represent 22 percent or more of an individual’s total income. On average, U.S. renters spend 28.2 percent of their earnings on housing, an increase from the historical average of 25.8 percent. The bad news for Austinites comes from GoBankingRates.com which shows that the cost to live comfortably in the city has risen by $18,531 in the past year to a total income of nearly $80,000 per year. That increase made Austin second in the study in total cost increases. And finally, the folks at RentCafe tell us local rent prices and square footage of apartments are moving in opposite directions. From 2008 to 2018 the average apartment in Austin has shrunk from 955 square feet to 878 (an 8 percent drop) while monthly rents have grown by 55 percent, from $869 per month to $1,347.
SCOTUS declines to hear Zimmerman case
The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to hear the case of former Austin City Council Member Don Zimmerman, who sued the city over provisions of its campaign finance law that limited individual donor amounts and how much candidates could raise from donors outside the city. Zimmerman’s federal lawsuit took several turns since its initial filing in 2015, while he was still on Council, with lower courts agreeing with him that so-called “blackout periods,” which prohibited fundraising long before an election, were a violation of free speech rights. After an initial six-month window of allowed fundraising was struck down, the city instituted a one-year fundraising period that remains in place. In February, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the limits on individual and non-Austin contributions. While Zimmerman is disappointed his case won’t be heard, he said he’s glad that the blackout dates in the city’s laws were struck down. “We’re batting .500 against the city’s campaign finance curveballs, so that’s not too bad,” he said, adding that he’ll likely pursue a state Legislature seat instead of running for the District 6 Council seat he lost to Jimmy Flannigan in 2016. “The city seems determined to turn even harder to the left, and so I’m looking at a possible House District 47 run.” He added that he expects conservatives to mount more legal challenges to expected liberal policies from Austin’s City Council, and said he will file to have some of his legal fees in the lawsuit covered by the city as some of his claims were found to be valid.
This whisper has been corrected to clarify the original court ruling on the case.
Runoff election today
Today is election day, and the Austin Monitor formally invites all of our readers to join the proud few to vote in this runoff. Representation for City Council Districts 1, 3 and 8 will be decided tonight in addition to one at-large Austin Independent School District trustee and Place 8 for the Austin Community College Board. A list of voting locations is available on the Travis County Clerk’s Office website. Approximately 18,000 Austinites cast ballots in early voting, which represents just 2.71 percent of eligible voters.
City holds virtual open house to collect comments
If you have an opinion about the new pedestrian and bicycle crossing planned for Lady Bird Lake and Longhorn Dam, there’s still time to get your two cents in. The city is using a virtual open house to collect comments on the design process for the bridge, and this phase of the comment period ends Sunday, Dec. 16. You can provide your feedback in English or Spanish. Alternative designs for the crossing will be shared at a spring 2019 meeting, followed by a final recommendation to come in fall 2019. To catch up on the history and background of the whole Longhorn Dam improvement project, go here.
Call for artists to beautify bland utility boxes
Are you tired of looking at those dreary metal utility boxes – aka traffic signal control cabinets – that dot the intersections of Austin? We sure are, and finally, someone agrees with us. The Austin Transportation Department, in league with UP Art Studio, has issued a call for local visual artists to transform the city’s traffic cabinets from bland and boring eyesores into bold and beautiful works of art. “The Artbox program is just one way we are moving to make Austin streets more people-oriented,” said Katherine Gregor, ATD’s coordinator for the program, adding that the installations will help “express the special character of our community.” The first four Artboxes will be funded by the Transportation Department. The program is seeking sponsors to fund additional installations. Qualifying artists will be invited to create a mini-mural on a traffic cabinet and will be compensated $1,000. Application guidelines and more information can be found here. The deadline to apply is Sunday, Dec. 30.
… back to Ohio
The recent announcement that Austin will likely be the recipient of a Major League Soccer expansion team makes the legal wrangling in Ohio over the fate of the Columbus Crew franchise decidedly less high-stakes, at least as it concerns the proposed construction of a 20,000-seat soccer stadium on city property in North Austin. Still, last week’s decision by an Ohio judge provides lots of legal wiggle room for Precourt Sports Ventures, owners of the Crew, in its attempt to relocate the team to Austin. Judge Jeffrey Brown’s decision was that the state’s “right to buy” opportunity for a local group to buy and keep the Crew in Ohio doesn’t equate to a right of first refusal for the local interests. Austin Sports Law has an in-depth look at the finer points of the ruling. Here in Austin, PSV and the city are still in negotiations to finalize the lease agreement for the McKalla Place property. City Council approved the basic term sheet for that agreement in August on a 7-4 vote, and now it appears the Austin team will make its debut in 2021.
This space for art
Local artists and performance groups have until Saturday to apply for space in the 2019 slate of the city’s Artist Access Program, which was created to more fully use four local cultural centers as a resource for the creative class. Eligible artists, who must become cultural contractors with the city, have until midnight Saturday to submit an application and enroll in the panel evaluation process in January that ranks submissions as part of the space negotiation period that begins in February. Spaces are available from Oct. 1, 2019, through Sept. 30, 2020. The program’s guidelines and application are available here.
New MUD for Austin?
In the farthest reaches of West Austin lies a 124-acre tract of land whose owner has requested to become a municipal utility district (MUD) of the city of Austin. Although the land borders the cities of Lakeway and Bee Caves, the parcel is part of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and is surrounded by Austin’s Lazy Nine MUD on three sides. The acreage of this un-annexed outpost is currently undeveloped. However, this request, if granted, will allow the MUD to become a part of Austin and provide utility services for a future large-lot single family development. According to city staff, Austin Water would not provide water to the development; instead, it will be in the Lake Travis Watershed and subject to the Lower Colorado River Authority’s Highland Lakes Watershed Ordinance and the city of Bee Cave’s water quality ordinances. Both city staff and the Environmental Commission recommended the annexation to City Council for approval. The request will appear before City Council on Dec. 13 for a final decision.
Govalle Park parking lot closed this week
The Govalle Park parking lot at 5200 Bolm Road will be closed the week of Dec. 10-14 for the installation of a natural gas line. Visitors to Govalle Park or Southern Walnut Creek Trail are advised to enter at the ballpark parking lot, just east of the closed paved parking lot along Bolm Road, and then take the pedestrian bridge across Boggy Creek to access the playground or bike trail. The new, modernized Govalle Pool facility is under construction and is set to open in summer 2019.
Cohen endorses Renteria
After some back and forth, former District 3 candidate Jessica Cohen formally endorsed incumbent City Council Member Pio Renteria yesterday. In a statement to the press, she explained, “Since the election I have spoken at length with Pio and his team to discuss the important issues facing our district and I’m confident that in this runoff Pio is the right choice. I believe Pio is the only candidate that will represent every part of District 3. He’s the only candidate capable and ready to tackle District 3’s biggest challenges. His history as an activist, community leader and life-long Austinite makes him my choice for our district.” Cohen, who earned 8.88 percent of the vote in November, joins former candidate Amit Motwani, who won 7.76 percent of the vote, in endorsing Renteria.
Early voting numbers continue to underwhelm
Early votes continue to trickle in for the Dec. 11 special election. By the end of Thursday, just 14,949 votes had been cast, representing 2.26 percent of eligible Travis County voters. The most popular of the pared-down voting locations, by far, has been the Randalls at South MoPac, which has seen 2,911 voters. Early voting continues through Friday, with the election that will determine three City Council seats as well as Austin Independent School District and Austin Community College representation, taking place next Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Where’s the bus?
Planning a trip on a Capital Metro bus is expected to get easier as early as mid-January, thanks to a contract with San Francisco-based mobility solutions company Swiftly Inc. The contract was approved by the Capital Metro board Nov. 14 with the goal of improving the customer experience by providing precise information about when a bus will arrive at a stop. Compared to the data available to customers today, which can typically pinpoint a bus’ distance within a 3-5 minute margin of error, Swiftly claims to use “sophisticated algorithms” and “billions of data points” to provide updates to customers in real time. Capital Metro staff is now working on beta-testing the new features and the change will be reflected in the CapMetro app once testing is completed. Based on previous successes in a growing list of cities including Los Angeles and Boston, choosing transit in Austin should soon become slightly less difficult.
Southwest Key to launch internal review
Austin nonprofit Southwest Key, which this summer earned a boycott from the local activist group Frente de Liberación Inmigrante, has pledged to hire an outside entity to review its practices in response to a New York Times investigative article revealing possibly troubling financial and other practices by the group that operates shelters for migrant children. Founder and CEO Juan Sanchez told the Austin American-Statesman that his organization’s board of directors would seek outside legal counsel to review practices and concerns raised by the Times. Southwest Key, which is based in Austin and operates shelters in Texas, Arizona and California, became caught up this summer in the national debate over the separation of immigrant families attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border.