The issue of affordability is as central to November’s Austin City Council election races as it was two years ago, when Austin inaugurated its new 10-1 governing system. The majority of the then-newly elected council members entered office without any previous political experience. Yet the mayor and 10 council members have taken head on a barrage of issues, including one of the most challenging facing Austinites: affordability.
Now, five of those 10 council seats – Districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10 — are up for re-election. In order to continue momentum current council members have made on affordability, the individuals who take these seats must be prepared to build on those efforts and bring new ideas to the table. As it stands, Austin’s cost of living and particularly housing costs are pricing people out of the city.
That will require an understanding that several issues contribute to Austin’s affordability — taking into consideration that more than half of a typical family’s budget goes directly to child care, transportation and housing. None become more urgent and prevalent to residents than the city’s dwindling affordable housing stock. The depletion of inexpensive units, of course, affects most severely the working-class and low-income families.
Austin, which once had a reputation of welcoming all with its keep it weird” motto, has quickly become more exclusive than inclusive as one of the most — if not the most — expensive Texas cities in which to live, according to a handful of studies.
Yet, Austin’s high cost of living isn’t the only problem. We can’t forget that no large metro area in the country is more economically segregated than Austin, according to a Martin Prosperity Institute report published in 2015.
While inequality isn’t new to Austin or anywhere else, the question of housing affordability has become more intense in this city, in particular in districts in East Austin like Council Member Ora Houston’s District 1 and Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria’s District 3. Those districts aren’t up for re-election.
However, two districts that will be on ballots and are undergoing economic shifts are District 2, represented by Delia Garza, and District 4, represented by Greg Casar. Garza is a lawyer and former Austin firefighter. Casar is former policy director at Workers Defense Project.
The stakes are high for those districts as they are among the last remaining areas in Austin with neighborhoods that still offer affordable housing.
In District 2, Garza faces Wesley Faulkner, a social media manager, and Casey Ramos, a local boxer. In District 4, Casar is vying with civil engineer Louis Herrin and transit engineer Gonzalo Camacho.
Current leadership — from the mayor on downward — has rolled up its sleeves and done a fair share of heavy lifting to adequately address affordability. For example, Renteria’s tenant relocation ordinance — co-sponsored by Casar and Garza — requires developers that displace tenants by demolishing or renovating multi-family properties to provide six months’ notice and in certain cases in which developers are seeking rezoning of properties provide relocation funds.
It’s worth noting the initiative by Mayor Steve Adler and Garza to provide 1,000 permanent affordable homes in the Easton Park project in Southeast Austin’s Pilot Knob. It’s the kind of approach to the housing crisis that would yield large-scale affordable homes that will stay affordable in perpetuity. There are some legal issues that still must be resolved, but it’s the kind of solution that is needed to deal with Austin’s housing crisis.
Herrin and Faulkner say that finding solutions to transportation and generating more jobs are a vital part of addressing affordability. They are right. Ramos and Camacho did not provide information on their positions to the editorial board.
Still, there’s much work ahead.
In our view, a 20 percent homestead exemption must be a part of the solution, and a majority of the council has wisely chosen to phase that in over several years.
Garza and Casar voted against the measure, saying it does more for the rich than for the poor and doesn’t help renters, who make up a large portion of their districts. As we’ve said before, a meaningful homestead exemption acknowledges the struggle of homeowners across Austin whose incomes have remained relatively flat while their home values and property taxes have skyrocketed in the city’s hot housing market. Both Garza and Casar have many homeowners in their districts.
There are many pieces to solving the affordability puzzle.
Voters should look carefully at which candidates will best address the employment, transportation and housing needs of District 2 and 4 residents with an eye on stabilizing trends that threaten many working- and lower-income families who reside in those districts.
This is part of the American-Statesman editorial board’s series about the issues facing our community and the candidates in the Nov. 8 election. The board will not be endorsing in elections as in years past, but the editorials will be accompanied by excerpts of a Q&A with the candidates. A fuller version is available on mystatesman.com.