Austin City Council divided on affordability action plan


The plan has support from five council members and various local organizations.

Critics believe it is overly broad and would make it more difficult to fund social programs.

An affordability action plan championed by Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair and four of her colleagues, including the mayor, landed with a thud before the other half of the City Council on Tuesday.

“This is filled with things we are either already doing, can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done,” Council Member Delia Garza said.

The action plan originated with a push from the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of business and nonprofit organizations, and pulled in elements from drafts of other city planning initiatives. It creates an affordability manifesto that includes recommendations to aggressively build more housing, consider a budget option keeping property taxes flat and approve an already-started reform of the city’s permitting process, economic development policy and land development code.

Council members are set to vote on it Thursday.

RELATED: Austin chamber, other groups make new push for ‘affordability agenda’

Tuesday’s initial discussion made it clear that getting the plan through the council will be tight. Troxclair, Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Ora Houston, Jimmy Flannigan and Ann Kitchen are all co-sponsors of the item. Five other council members — Garza, Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo, Greg Casar and Sabino “Pio” Renteria — all voiced opposition.

That leaves Council Member Alison Alter, who remained uncommitted, a possible swing vote.

Troxclair said the document is not meant to set requirements in stone, but to create a road map, bring disparate parties together on a plan and recognize work already done.

“If you ask the person behind you in line at the grocery store if the council has addressed affordability, the answer is ‘no,’” Troxclair said. “I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, check, check, check: Here is what we’ve done.’”

INTERACTIVE: How does your budget compare to the average Austinite’s?

Perhaps the proposal’s most controversial element directs the city’s staff to create an effective tax rate budget option — in other words, a budget that wouldn’t increase property tax bills.

Troxclair acknowledged off the bat that she knew her council colleagues wouldn’t support passing such a budget. But she said seeing it would allow them to view their choices more clearly and have better discussions about priorities.

Garza strongly opposed presenting that option, saying that, because of cost drivers in the city, keeping taxes flat would mean making cuts in spending. It would be harder to justify adding costs to a tax-neutral budget, she said.

“If we have to start adding there, that puts us in a much harder — let’s be honest — political position,” she said.

Flannigan disagreed.

“There are certainly people who believe having an effective tax rate budget is the key to affordability,” he said. “But having never seen one, they don’t know the hard choices.”

But several council members said they feared the affordability stipulations would affect funding for health and social programs. Other criticisms of the plan included concerns that it’s overly broad. Pool argued that setting metrics on housing numbers would push the council to rush decisions. Casar suggested that each component of the action plan should be considered separately.

RELATED: Austin City Council approves $22.3 million boost for social services

A couple of opponents suggested the plan was an attempt by its supporters to take credit for efforts already near completion.

“I’m a little bit old school in that, if one of my colleagues has been working on a project, I’d like them to have the opportunity to continue it and receive credit,” Pool said.

Others lodged objections to how closely the plan mirrored the proposal submitted by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. Flannigan, a former president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, jumped in to defend the Greater Austin Chamber’s role.

“It’s not the kind of evil place that evil ideas come from,” he said.

Troxclair urged her colleagues who were critical of the proposal to suggest any edits that would allow them to support it by Thursday. She said after Tuesday’s meeting that she and her staff were drafting amendments that would, among other things, make it clearer which projects are already underway.

“Of course, the people who are like ‘I don’t like this because the Chamber is supporting it,’ there’s nothing I can do,” she said.

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