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


The chamber has a 13-point agenda to improve affordability in Austin.

Mayor Steve Adler said nearly all of the suggestions are already underway.

Add the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and a coalition of business and nonprofit organizations to the list of names wanting the city to be more affordable.

The chamber is joining with 10 groups — including the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Real Estate Council of Austin and One Voice Central Texas, a coalition of nearly 100 social service and nonprofit groups — to push a 13-point “affordability agenda” at City Hall. One item on that list is something that city officials say is a long shot: holding the line on city tax bills for next year.

The chamber and its partners are urging the City Council to plan the 2018 budget around an effective tax rate, which would mean no increase to tax bills for homeowners and businesses alike, though new construction would bring in additional tax revenue. The chamber and its partners say $7 million of that additional revenue should go toward more social services funding, plus an unspecified amount for job training and other economic development efforts.

The city’s staff hasn’t begun an actual 2018 budget yet, but Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, said staffing additions and other cost increases the council has already approved will mean an estimated $46 million in increases from 2017 to 2018. That will likely put the tax rate close to the rollback rate — the maximum allowed before triggering an election.

“There’s typically about a $35 million swing between the rollback tax rate and the effective tax rate,” Van Eenoo said. “So for us to get to the effective rate, it’s not a matter of belt tightening, it’s a matter of cuts.”

Other ideas in the affordability agenda aren’t new in a city where leaders often call affordability a top priority. But the chamber is hoping the heft of adding new stakeholders to the conversation will help them come to fruition.

“This is unprecedented for us,” said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of policy and advocacy for the chamber. “It’s an unprecedented coalition. It’s a scale and scope that’s new for us. But it’s (an issue) the voters are saying, clearly, is a problem that needs addressed.”

Scheberle pointed to the results of a December poll commissioned by the chamber, which found that 82 percent of those surveyed said Austin had an affordability problem. Asked about their city tax bills, the largest group (48 percent) said they would prefer to continue paying what they do now to keep the services they have now.

Other points on the affordability agenda include: increasing city housing supply, adopting the CodeNext rewrite of city land use ordinances, creating a permitting process to build affordable housing more quickly, supporting workforce training and improving economic incentive policies.

All are things Mayor Steve Adler said Wednesday the city is already doing, or about to do.

“Building enough supply to meet demand — that’s the strategic housing plan that’s about to come out that’s been worked on for six months,” he said. “CodeNext, check. Permitting process, obviously we’ve done great things on that, reformed the permitting process and are moving forward with expedited permitting. Skills of our people is the regional workforce plan that’s about to come out.”

On economic development, Adler announced a resolution Wednesday that he will introduce next week to change the city’s economic incentives program. The proposed resolution, if passed by the rest of the council, will ask the staff to recommend policies to create middle-income jobs and development of underinvested areas of eastern Austin.

“On this list, there’s only like one or two things that aren’t already being done,” he said of the chamber proposal.

Adler acknowledged it’s unlikely the city will pass a budget at the effective rate, but he said the budget process will be different this year, beginning earlier and allowing more room for council input to add and cut programs.

Ronda Rutledge, director of One Voice Central Texas and the Sustainable Food Center, said she hoped, at least, that the heft of the combined agenda would make sure affordability is a guidepost for other issues. Those concerns for her sunk in when the food center tried to hire new employees and had two people turn down jobs saying they couldn’t afford to live here.

“I’m not sure there’s ever been this many different groups that don’t usually cross paths on a regular basis behind one agenda,” she said. “This was another way for us to make sure this stays front and center, as the city goes into the budgeting process that as Austin grows, so does its poverty divide.”

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