Candidates of Districts 2 and 4 answer our questions

With staggered four-year terms, five of Austin’s 10-1 council positions are up for re-election. Among them, incumbents Delia Garza of District 2 and Greg Casar of District 4 face two opponents each in their respective races.

The Editorial Board reached out to candidates including local boxer Casey Ramos and social media manager Wesley Faulkner of District 2 and civil engineer Louis Herrin and traffic engineer Gonzalo Camacho of District 4. Ramos and Camacho did not respond to our requests.

Below are some of the edited responses the candidates emailed us. .

RELATED EDITORIAL: City Council must continue to address Austin’s affordability crisis

American-Statesman Editorial Board: Do you support increasing the homestead tax exemption? Why?

Garza: In regards to tax policy, I have opposed the regressive homestead exemption that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthiest, does little to help lower- and middle-income families, and does nothing for renters who make up over half of Austin. This exemption reduces revenue for the General Fund which impacts our ability to provide basic and necessary services for members of our community. I have supported the increase in the tax exemptions for seniors and the disabled because the state allows us to pass that policy at a flat dollar amount rather than a percentage, which is fair because everyone gets the same amount and this approach has a greater impact for our lowest income homeowners. I believe we should provide tax relief to address our affordability crisis, but only in ways that are effective and truly help our low- and middle-income residents.

Faulkner: At this time, no. I would love to lower the exemptions up to the 20 percent mark, but at this time it is not feasible. We need to supplement the budget with alternative revenue sources and augment the fee structure that is currently in place before we can move this exemption up. If the council is indeed committed to keeping Austin affordable we need to push for this goal long-term.

Casar: The City’s 2017 fiscal analysis forecasts that increases to the homestead exemption would require cuts to existing services and reductions in our goals for programs including affordable housing preservation or health and human services. I won’t support increases to the exemption in tight budget years when a meager amount of tax relief threatens services and programs, like affordable housing preservation and health and human services.

In more flexible budget years, like last year, I will continue to work with the Council on compromise solutions that would allow an increase in the homestead exemption, especially the senior and disabled exemption, in partnership with reducing the cost of living for renters and homeowners alike.

Herrin: Yes, I do support it because I think homeowners should be able to get a break in their tax liability. However, I do think the tax burden needs to be spread throughout the entire tax base at a more equitable rate.

Share some of your ideas to make Austin more affordable for working-class residents.

Garza: Working class families are being priced out of Austin, largely due to the lack of affordable housing. We should work toward policy that increases “missing middle” housing, which refers to houses, town homes, and duplexes which are in a more reasonable price range than much of the housing available on the market today. Wealth can be created through buying a home. While many can afford mortgage payments, the initial down payment is often too high. I am sponsoring a resolution that directs the City Manager to convene a working group to create partnerships with lending institutions to provide options for homeownership and for financing accessory dwelling units. We must also work to improve our public transit system so families could live with one less car and the expenses that come with owning a vehicle, and ensure that working families have access to quality jobs and the opportunity for upward mobility.

Faulkner: Developers need to pay for their fair share of growth. Current residents subsidize Austin’s expansion with raised rates and taxes. If it cost $50 Million to expand water capacity to support a new subdivision, the builder should pay that amount. That’s only fair. Every penny that’s not paid by the city, and in turn the citizens, will result in savings for everyone. We need to also explore alternative revenue sources. Right now we are highly dependent on utility fees, taxes, and the occasional bond. If we setup an endowment for the city, or invested in Austin based companies in exchange for equity, we could help secure our financial future at the same time taking advantage of our prosperity. With this new source of income we would raise the quality of city services and simultaneously lower taxes and fees to make Austin affordable.

Casar: District 4 is largely a working-class district. The rise in housing costs, and rents in particular, is the number one concern I hear from my constituents. We need to take an all-of-the-above approach to address our housing crisis, to provide more affordable housing options inside the city, and to reduce our growing economic segregation.

Council Member Renteria and I co-authored a package of housing policies called the Fair Housing Initiative, which will be implemented over the course of the coming years, along with necessary changes to our land development code to improve affordability. We also must continue to champion reducing the regressivity of the cost of government by supporting income-based discounts on utility bills and other services for those who cannot afford the current cost of living in Austin. Finally, we must support workforce development and workplace protections that raise the incomes of everyday people in our city.

Herrin: To be more affordable, we need a city council that looks at every dime as if it coming out of their own pocket. We need to change the permitting structure to allow developers to develop property without all the regulations the city puts on them. Austin has a supply and demand problem on housing and needs to develop around 15,000 new housing units each year for the next ten years. Last year, the City only developed around 4,000 new housing units.

Identify any existing policies that contribute to Austin’s affordability crisis. What changes do you propose to make, if any, in those policies?

Garza: Much of our affordability crisis is market driven. We are facing the consequences of creating such a great city where many people want to live, which has led to a supply issue that is exacerbating gentrification. Additionally, the average Austinite only pays approximately 5 percent of their monthly expenses on City of Austin taxes and fees. A large portion of property taxes are allocated to AISD for residents that live within their jurisdiction, and about $400 million of that tax revenue will go back to the state because the legislature hasn’t created an appropriate way to fund our public education system. The state needs to create a funding system for our public schools that does not reallocate the taxes or working families back to the state, and we need to be able to implement a flat dollar structure for a homestead exemption which would benefit our working families the most.

Faulkner: Austin is the most economically segregated city in the US. This has not happened by luck, but instead by law. We limit development, high density housing, job creation, and even public transportation to only certain parts of town. Yes costs need to be reduced, but wages also need to go up. By removing the laws that keep Austin an unbalanced and segregated city it will reduce poverty and usher in greater income parity. If we built affordable housing next to higher-paying jobs and incentivize companies to set up shop in lower-income parts of town, things would change drastically. The wealth would be spread evenly and help tackle the affordability problem from both ends.

Casar: Our lack of housing capacity, both market-rate and below-market rate, has helped lead to a spike in housing costs. We must add new capacity to slow the displacement of working people, but we must be careful not to incentivize new development that is likely to lead to the demolition of low-rent apartments. We should re-examine rules that encourage the construction of large houses on large amounts of land instead of smaller-scale homes. Texas’ structure of taxation has been ranked one of the most regressive in the country, so statewide policies lead to significant affordability issues for those least able to pay. Our city budget must also be reprioritized to ensure that our growth and prosperity is reinvested into housing with rents accessible to the working class and working poor.

Herrin: The new construction policies and the amount of red tape it takes for developers to get permits in the city. The city needs to streamline the permitting processes. One of the things that may help is the new CodeNex, but I do not support CodeNex at this time until I am able to see the final draft of the proposed regulations.

What would you do to attract more jobs to Austin?

Garza: Austin has been identified as the most economically segregated city in the country. We must do more to ensure that all Austinites are able to share in our City’s prosperity, which includes encouraging growth for jobs that pay living wages and provide benefits and opportunities for growth. This Council has not voted on any Chapter 380 agreements to provide incentives in exchange for jobs. I would be willing to consider them but only in cases where there is significant public buy-in to the proposal because of extensive public benefits. We should conduct an assessment of our greatest workforce needs to ensure that any investments and efforts are targeted where they’re needed the most. Austin is full of bright and hardworking people, and we should prioritize bringing in jobs that will benefit our residents rather than bringing companies that also have a need to import a large portion of their workforce.

Faulkner: Austin has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. This is despite the record number of people relocating here. I don’t think we need to do much more than what we are doing now to attract more jobs. We should instead focus on attracting jobs that are a closer match to our existing skillset. For every job that is mismatched to our current skillset it either goes unfilled, needs to be broken up into smaller roles, or the company needs to hire outside of Austin and relocate that person here. By matching jobs to the skillset of our citizens that live here can grow into new opportunities, and that organization can fill that spot a lot quicker. Everybody wins.

Casar: I believe that significant investments in human capital have been key to Austin’s success in the past and must be a part of our economic development moving forward. I am excited to support the development of Austin Community College’s flagship new campus in District 4 at the old Highland Mall site. I also believe that the City’s continued investments in afterschool programs and youth development at our schools are powerful generators for future prosperity. We must preserve our beautiful environment and our cultural arts that make Austin a great place to live and do business in. Our rising housing costs and our lack of mass transportation options are liabilities for our ability to have continued job growth for Austinites in the future.

Herrin: I would be working with the Austin schools to encourage a more educated workforce. For students not going to college, Austin schools need to have technical courses that would allow students to become trained in other skills such as cosmetology and auto mechanics. This would provide entrepreneurs a more diverse workforce.

What job sector would you focus most on brining to and/or keeping in Austin?

Garza: We should look at ways to employ our most vulnerable that may have barriers we can help address, and broaden our employment opportunities to ensure that low and middle income workers have jobs where they can support their families and continue to build skills throughout their employment. We can’t focus solely on jobs, we must also invest in workforce development to help working families get past any barriers to employment. Investing in people through workforce development provides a small level of assistance that can make a huge impact on earning potential across a lifetime. Austin could benefit from having more trade level jobs such as manufacturing, which provide high quality jobs with opportunity for growth for residents who may not have a college degree. If we’re going to bridge our economic divide, we must diversify the job opportunities available for all.

Faulkner: High-tech manufacturing is a great sector that provides jobs up and down the skill and income ladder. There is a big barrier of entry in high tech jobs and a narrow income ceiling on labor based jobs, but high-tech manufacturing has the best elements of both. Samsung and Applied Materials are great examples of these types of companies. Even heavily automated factories provide this same job profile.

Casar: I believe a diversified economy is critical for keeping Austin strong through inevitable economic downturns. I believe that blue-collar jobs that provide a path to the middle class are also very important. Construction and manufacturing jobs, with protections for workers and adequate training, are traditionally that pathway for many people in our country. However, some technology and arts companies that have expanded in District 4 have begun to expand their search beyond those with high-level degrees, and they are committed to partnering with local high schools and community colleges to train local talent, which is promising. I believe that a booming economy can be a missed opportunity if we do not spread its benefits far and wide. We should focus on job sectors that can deliver on that promise.

Herrin: I would like to see more service related jobs such as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc. Talking to developers, they tell me that they have a hard time maintaining qualified staff. Austin needs a wide diversity workforce. We cannot rely on high tech, computer programmers, or government to be our main employers.

What are the greatest challenges facing your district now?

Garza: District 2 is one of the last affordable places to live in Austin, and we’ve seen a huge increase in housing prices in my district and across the city. This decrease in affordable options has resulted in working families being forced to move to other cities such as Kyle and Buda.

Flooding is also an ongoing issue which threatens life and property, and has been one of my top priorities to address. District 2 has the largest portion of food deserts in the City, and access to healthy food continue to be a challenge for the working families I represent. Mobility issues and traffic are also a growing challenge across the entire city, including in District 2. These issues are multifaceted in that we need better multimodal options, solutions for traffic congestion, and access to reliable public transit services.

Faulkner: Our biggest challenge is changing how our local government operates. Right now we have a representative that says she is for keeping Austin affordable, but conducts these closed door meetings, like Pilot Knob, that will raise rates for the next 10-20 years. She says she is pro transportation, but voted against TNCs and light rail while sitting on the board of Cap Metro. We want to trust the people we elect, but when they say one thing, and do another it makes it hard to feel like our voice matters. District 2 has a pretty low voter turnout, and it’s easy to see why. If you want to know our real challenges and struggles, just focus your gaze on city hall.

Casar: Growing inequality in our city especially impacts District 4. We must do our part to make sure more District 4 residents can benefit from our economy: from lowering electric bills for everyday people, to giving more people access to public transportation, to creating better job opportunities for young people in our schools, and providing economic empowerment and housing for our communities. We don’t want our communities to just get by; we need to give people a chance to get ahead.

Herrin: The main issues for my district are crime and homelessness.

How do you propose to help solve the problem?

Garza: Increasing access to affordable housing has and will continue to be one of my primary areas of focus. I’ve sponsored resolutions to work toward creating financing options for first time home buyers and building accessory dwelling units, and have pushed for affordable units in new developments. I’ve advocated for policies to move flood survivors out of harm’s way and will continue to prioritize funding for flood mitigation to protect our residents. I also helped create the Flood Mitigation Task Force to take a holistic approach to proactively address our flooding challenges. I’m proud of the work we’ve done to support and fund a healthy corner store initiative and mobile food markets in Del Valle to increase access to healthy foods. In regards to transit, we must increase our investments in multimodal options including safe routes to schools, options for cyclists and pedestrians and ensuring a reliable public transit system.

Faulkner: When elected I will instate transparency, measurement and accountability. We live in a modern world and a city that is a tech hub. We need to do away with paper forms and manual processes. Once that is done we can move everything online so that everyone can easily access every step of an ordinance; from birth to death. You can see who voted for/against/abstained on any issue. With this transparency it will be easy for everyone to see a pattern of behavior. By adding a measurement component to laws, it should clearly state what the goals are. Like the mobility bond will increase traffic flow by x percent by “date”. If we had that we could look back and see if we were right or wrong and learn from our mistakes, instead of doing them over and over again. This accountability will save us time, money, and keep us honest.

Casar: I believe in raising the voices of everyday people in our city and our district. We’ve helped several District 4 neighborhoods start and grow their own neighborhood and tenants’ associations. These groups, with our support, have successfully advocated for fair rents and living conditions from landlords, new and improved park spaces in their neighborhoods and equitable investments in infrastructure from the city.

We helped organize Austinites with conviction histories who have demanded economic empowerment and criminal justice reform from our city. They were the reason that Austin became the first Fair Chance Hiring city in the South.

I believe that we can overcome the challenges we face by empowering all of our community members to advocate for progressive change.

Herrin: For crime, we need a greater police presence. One way is to expand the two walking cops for the district in the Rundberg area. Police officers need to have a bigger presence and become more familiar with the citizens in the area. The other issue of homelessness needs attention. The homeless individuals that are mentally ill, we need to encourage the state to handle these individuals with mental facilities. Those who are homeless due to illness or loss of job, we need to set up job training and temporary housing.

If elected what will your top three priorities be once in office?

Garza: I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do during my first term on behalf of working families in District 2 and across the City. We’ve made significant strides forward for our most vulnerable populations by moving forward a historic increase in funding for health and human services as well as working toward increasing the availability of affordable housing. I’m also proud to serve on the Capital Metro Board of Directors, which provides vital transportation services. If given the opportunity to continue my service on the Austin City Council, I hope to continue my work to increase access to social services, protect working families against our affordability crisis through thoughtful policy and access to affordable housing options, and continue to improve our public transit system to provide reliable and affordable transportation services.

Faulkner: Modernize our government so we waste less and can do more. Appoint a city manager that is capable, fair, and cares for this city and its employees. Implement CodeNEXT in a fair and equitable way to reverse the decades of economic and housing segregation.

Casar: Fighting to get us off the list of most economically segregated cities in America; providing opportunities for working families to get ahead through their education and work; addressing the significant public safety, transportation, parks, and infrastructure needs across Austin, with special attention to underinvested parts of the city.

Herrin: My three top priorities are crime, transportation, and managing the cities assets. We need to have a greater police presence. Police officers need to have a bigger presence and become more familiar with their area. The city needs to make and get a buy-in from the citizens a long range transportation plan. The city needs to do a better job managing and planning their long term assets, i.e., water, wastewater, roads, etc.

Do you support Mayor Steve Adler’s $720 million bond proposal? If not, how would you improve mobility?

Garza: I abstained from the final vote on this bond measure. There are many great things in this proposal, but I have concerns about the fast process and limited public engagement involved up to this point. There was not a single opportunity for an in-person meeting to provide feedback in my entire district before this package was initially proposed. Moving forward with this measure impacts our bond capacity, which is problematic given that we’ll be limited in what we can do for our community in our 2018 comprehensive bond package where we should be taking a holistic approach to considering all the city’s needs such as affordable housing, flood mitigation, and adding fire stations in high needs areas. I hope voters thoroughly educate themselves on what exactly this bond does. I believe that future bond proposals should include a robust public input process that considers direct investment in our public transit.

Faulkner: In the current form, and with the current information available, I can’t support the bond. I like all of the elements in the bond, but it’s hard to understand the value we are getting from the road improvements. Adding bike lanes and sidewalks where there are none, it’s easy to see the advantages there. The bulk of the funds is for motor traffic, and it just doesn’t state how much improvement we should expect to see. Without that measurement how do we know if we should expect a 1% or 30 percent improvement? I understand the cost, but without the data it is hard to tell if it’s a good value. If we are to be trusted we need to make sure that we are making wise decisions with how we’re spending our tax payer’s money. I’m working with the mayor’s office to get that data, and hope to have it in about a week. If the bond doesn’t pass I would like to push for the elements that have goals clearly stated.

Casar: Yes. I voted in favor of putting the transportation bond before the voters, and I am advocating for its approval. The proposal includes critical funding for our key corridors, such as Lamar and Airport Boulevard, along with significant funding for active transportation and safety improvements. The bond is not perfect, but it is a powerful first step in addressing our infrastructure needs. I also believe that we need to fund more mass transit, including rail, in our community in the future. Finally, we need to rethink our urban planning rules to disincentivize sprawling development patterns that clog our roads with long car trips.

Herrin: No, I don’t support this bond issue. I look at what they are proposing as a Band-Aid approach. The bond amount stated is not the true cost of the proposed improvements for the six roadways and the other projects. We will get a bigger bang for this money just by adding bus lane inserts into the roadways which would allow traffic to pass buses without blocking the roadways while passengers are entering and exiting the buses.

Why or why not should voters keep the current council leadership?

Garza: I believe that with any policy, we should evaluate the best way forward on a case by case basis considering all viewpoints and issues at stake. Similarly, I think each Council candidate running for reelection should be evaluated based on their performance in relation to the needs of their districts and their constituents. Prior to serving on Council, I worked hard alongside many community advocates who believed that bringing 10-1 to fruition would provide a voice to many by giving every Austinite the opportunity to be represented by someone who shares their community and daily life. I believe that the people in our City are our greatest asset, and that by investing in them we’re investing in our City’s future. I hope that my district feels I have earned their trust and the opportunity to continue to serve them for four more years.

Faulkner: Pilot Knob alone should be enough justification for a change in district representation. The negotiations were held without all the interested parties included. The water department didn’t know the details until it was already passed. Now that department is on the hook for $81 million, that’s just going to be passed on to customers. There have been multiple lawsuits on this one issue for breaking local and state laws. As a lawyer, she should have known better, or she did know better, and did it anyway. She hurt affordability, not just for district 2, but for all of Austin. That shows poor judgment when it comes to keeping the interests of the people first. She touts that she brought more affordable housing to Austin, but what she leaves out is that it will raise the costs of the people that live here for the next 10-20 years.

Casar: Serving on the City Council has been an honor and a humbling experience. So many people in Austin have committed themselves to supporting our work and to improving our community. I am here to serve the public, and this is the public’s decision.

Herrin: Most of the current council was elected to help bring down affordability. This council has not proven or shown that they are willing to make the decisions that will make Austin more affordable. The current council resembles past councils in the way they spend money on things that are not a top priority for the City. We need a council that will set a budget that gets back to the basics of city government which are health, safety, and managing their assets.

Do you support the Pilot Knob project to create permanent affordable housing?

Garza: Yes. This was the first PUD (Planned Unit Development) passed by this Council, and we have learned some lessons from this process and identified areas for improvement. We were able to create permanent affordability in a way the City has never seen before, as well as improve access for residents to public transit. The developers will be paying fees into the Housing Trust Fund that would have alternatively gone to the Water Utility. This has been framed as giving fee waivers, but the developers will be paying the same amount, Council is simply saying that affordable housing is a priority that we are willing to invest in. I think it is good that we will take another look at this package for the sake of transparency and fully vetting this size of investment, and also that we have the opportunity to make the SMART housing program better moving forward.

Faulkner: Affordable housing is something we should support and encourage, but not at any cost. When the rest of city council voted for the PUD, they had no idea what they were even voting for. Even the mayor demanded to know if we could renegotiate the Pilot Knob deal. The record shows that from the onset that my opponent was concerned about how little affordable housing was initially included, yet she pushed it through anyway. It’s clear to me that we did not come out on the winning side of that deal. So no, I’m not for the Pilot Knob project. Anyone who is for it, in light of this information, is not telling the whole story.

Casar: I support the major investment in affordable housing that the City Council won out of the Pilot Knob project. Although the public debate and process could certainly have been better, I support shifting our priorities across City departments toward household affordability.

Herrin: I support the Pilot Knob project, but I am unsure if you can say it will be permanent affordable housing.

Would you advocate that system of creating affordable housing for other developments?

Garza: SMART Housing is an existing tool that incentivizes affordable housing, and which served as the basis for the Pilot Knob agreement. I support using the tools we have to create more affordable housing, as well as exploring ways to create new tools and improve our current practices. With thoughtful improvements to our SMART housing program, we can use that as a model to implement a similar system for permanent affordable housing opportunities in other developments. We are a better and stronger community when all types of families can be part of our community and we should use tools that help create the most affordable housing possible in every corner of Austin. We cannot continue to use our affordability crisis as a talking point without investing in solutions to actually fix the problem.

Faulkner: PUDs are a great tool for the council to incentivize developers to include items that we, as a city, find valuable. It’s only a tool though, and must be used wisely. A balance must be found between the developer’s interests, and our own. We hold all the cards, and if we can’t work out a deal that benefits us in the end, we need to walk away.

Casar: I believe we need to take an all-of-the-above approach to addressing our housing crisis. Each housing development needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but I do believe that utilizing waivers of utility fees to create affordable housing, as we did in the Pilot Knob case, is a valuable tool.

Herrin: I would support planned subdivisions that set up small communities with a wide variety of housing options. I do not support the City telling a developer that he must build certain types of homes in order for him to get his subdivision plats approved.

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