Playing the Dozens in District 3

Media forum takes on affordability, rail, city farms

A lively North Door crowd, occasionally rambunctious, heard 12 District 3 City Council candidates address Austin growth, gentrification, affordable housing, urban rail, and urban farms, in the third forum sponsored by the Chronicle, Austin Monitor, KUT-FM, KXAN-TV, and Univision.

At an even dozen, District 3 has the most candidates in any of the district races, and a bit of the reason may have surfaced here and there in a few pointed divisions among the group, occasionally amplified by their partisans in the audience. With so many candidates participating, questions and answers – from moderators Mike Kanin of the Monitor and the Chronicle’s Mary Tuma – were fairly rapid-fire, but allowed the audience (and anyone following on live-stream or radio) to make some basic distinctions among the candidates.

A few highlights, drawn from various candidate answers:

Ricardo Turollols-Bonilla emphasized his role as an author and teacher, and a supporter of Austin’s “creative life,” which he said needs more encouragement. He invited his colleagues to avoid infighting and, whatever happens in the election, to form a “District Council” to advocate on behalf of District 3. He supports greater housing density to increase supply, adding we need to “change our living habits” to accommodate a more dense city.

Kent Phillips said 10-1 represents a defeat of the “elite monopoly” running the city for a more representative government, and that as “not a major party person” (he’s run for office as a Libertarian) he’s the best choice for innovative policy. (He wants to cut taxes and traffic, and increase affordability.) He said he opposes city policies that might interfere with the “free market,” including attempts to control real estate prices or growth.

Christopher Hoerster emphasized his student background in public administration and political science, and said he had entered the race (at the last moment) because the other candidates were bickering among themselves instead of proposing real solutions. On affordability, he proposed less focus on density than on suburban development, and said any additional city funds should be repurposed to reduce utility rates.

Shaun Ireland noted his small business and community advocacy, and said the city should emphasize “small solutions” to produce affordability, like synchronizing traffic lights to ease traffic and using “less expensive fonts” on city documents to save money.

Mario Cantu noted his years in public safety as an EMT-Paramedic and his work in neighborhood associations and the Austin Neighborhoods Council. He said he would be able listen to District 3 residents and collaborate with other Council members, and said the city should work to “slow down growth” – without recommending specific policies to accomplish that.

José Quintero advocated more “accountability and transparency” at City Hall, blamed gentrification on the city and accused unnamed “NGOs” of manipulating city policy. He said city funds for affordable housing had been “hidden” somewhere in city government, and needed to be ferreted out. He blasted the city’s “master plan” as effectively enforcing gentrification and high housing prices.

Julian Limón Fernandez said he would bring “common sense and knowledge” to city government, pointed to his work (as a musician) in fundraising for worthy causes, and emphasized improving conditions for the elderly and disabled. He said “communication and compassion” are the keys to improving city conditions, and emphasized helping small and “mom and pop” businesses.

Susana Almanza emphasized “social justice and human rights,” and her record as a community activist and work on various city commissions. She said she would build on existing relationships with neighborhoods as well as people serving in city committees, and said she would continue to advocate for housing, job creations, equal access to resources, and better land use and transportation.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria also pointed to his long history of neighborhood activism and service on numerous city boards and task forces, and that he had specifically succeeded with colleagues in re-allocating city development funds to affordable housing projects and social services. He said the city should reduce fee waivers and subsidies, work for a state income tax to support public education (and thus reduce property taxes), full disclosure of real estate sales prices, and support a homestead preservation district for District 3.

Eric Rangel described the “biggest challenge” facing the city as the new 10-1 system, because it requires the citizens to choose candidates who will truly represent them at City Hall, saying, “I want to be your voice.” He noted that “gentrification” – much decried among the panel – has both positive and negative aspects, and that the job of the Council will not be simply to try to stop growth but to “control” it. He noted that “cost of living” includes housing, transportation, and utilities, and suggested that the city could better use public lands for affordable housing while it also works on transportation solutions.

José Valera said the city needs to adapt to inevitable “growth and change,” and the priority should be not to displace long-time residents and the elderly on fixed incomes, using whatever tools – property tax exemptions or freezes, homestead preservation – within a “strategic plan.” The city needs to “improve and preserve” existing housing stock as a “precious resource,” and advocated de-emphasizing “median family income” to focus on the poorest 10-15% of residents to increase their access to affordable housing.

Fred McGhee said he is running primarily to provide better opportunities and a better city for his three young children, and on affordability he said he is the only candidate who has actually preserved affordable housing, through his advocacy for historic preservation of Santa Rita Courts and Rosewood Courts. He said Austin needs to recall its history in the New Deal and anti-poverty programs, and not try to reinvent what has worked for many years. McGhee pointed to his campaign slogan – “He’s tough and he knows stuff” – and he repeatedly emphasized that it will take “six votes” to get anything done on the new Council, and candidates will need to be able to find common ground with their elected colleagues.

On a couple of major issues:

Urban rail:

YES: Ireland, Rangel, Renteria; NO: Quintero, Cantu, Hoerster, Phillips, Turollols-Bonilla, McGhee, Valera, Almanza, Limon Fernandez

Urban farms (a contentious issue in District 3, where Almanza opposed them at Council):

YES: Limon Fernandez, Renteria, Rangel, Valera, McGhee, Turollols-Bonilla, Phillips, Ireland, Cantu; NO: Quintero; MAYBE: Almanza* [see note below] (but “we were urban farms” in the past), Hoerster (“the food forest worries me”)

You can listen to the archived forum on KUT-FM and archived live-stream on KXAN-TV. For more on the candidates, visit the Chronicle Election pages.

*Note: Since this story was posted, Almanza and her campaign manager, Daniel Llanes, have insisted to Newsdesk that she "does not oppose" urban farms, that she did not explicitly say "No" at the forum, and that she supports the "food forest" (proposed for Holly Shores/Fiesta Gardens, but rather a different subject). She and Llanes insist that their adamant public opposition to HausBar Farms at City Council (see "The Farm Report: Both Sides Win, Lose," Dec. 6, 2013) was simply a "zoning" dispute, and that they have been (in Llanes' phrase) "demonized" by farm supporters – who counter that the zoning argument was in fact simply the means opponents employed in an attempt to shut down the Eastside farms. At least one of the District 3 candidates (Limón Fernandez) said he entered the race partly to defend the urban farms; readers (and voters) can come to their own conclusions whether Almanza's theoretical support for urban farms applies to the farms that actually exist in East Austin.

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