Affordability: Everywhere But Here

Council parses contracts, buys CD’s, and postpones housing

Last Thursday’s City Council meeting adjourned at the fairly unheard of hour of 5:30pm, and proceeded with relatively little melodrama. There was the ongoing fuss over new toys for the Austin Police Department, and District 4 Council Member Greg Casar asked his colleagues to commit to affordable housing – to a very uneasy response.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar (Photo by Jana Birchum)

There were not many hot-button items under consideration, although of the 49 items nominally on the “consent” agenda – in the pre-10-1 Era, considered the repository of matters not requiring extensive discussion before pre-noon approval – various council members “pulled” 20 items for further discussion, meaning that it was after lunch, executive session, and 3:30pm before all consent items were finally approved.

Among that group included the now-reflexive examination of pending contracts, including a $2 million addition to what had been a $5 million project to repair and upgrade the 60-year-old Davis Water Treatment Plant. District 10 CM Sheri Gallo questioned the size of the increase; staff responded that the original contract was somewhat speculative, and over time the detail and scope of the work had expanded. That didn’t satisfy D6 CM Don Zimmerman, who testily questioned the scale of the changes, the length of the contract, and the staff review process. He could tell by the length of the project alone that it had been mismanaged, he said, “and I just know that by looking at a piece of paper.” His was the only no vote; D1 CM Ora Houston and D8 CM Ellen Troxclair abstained, and the contract was approved 8-1-2.

Similar but briefer treatment was reserved for a contract renewing the Convention Center’s annual support for KLRU’s Austin City Limits ($250,000 a year for millions in city promotion), and for the acceptance of a $75,000 grant from national nonprofit Living Cities to support Austin’s efforts to improve economic equity. Houston wanted to confirm that no other city funding goes to KLRU, and (joined by Zimmerman) she voted no on accepting the Living Cities grant because she didn’t believe “the process” was sufficiently inclusive of local advocacy groups.

There was greater scrutiny of a couple of lingering APD matters. One was for a grant application to support the eventual purchase of officer body cameras (pending the eventual resolution of a lawsuit by a rejected vendor) and another for license plate readers. Witnesses repeated earlier suspicions that the plate readers, intended to help pursue felons, could be used for harvesting fines or random surveillance (APD insists it has no such intentions). Fatima Mann of the Austin Justice Coalition protested that buying more “toys” for the police is not the best use of city funds. She and others continued to oppose purchasing the body cameras until there’s a firm policy in place on maintenance and release of video footage. That policy remains unfinished, under collaborative development by APD and advocacy groups – Council moved to continue to pursue the equipment.

The Central Library staff came in for a scolding again: This time for a four-year $900,000 contract to purchase compact music discs. Gallo raised the question whether necessary renovations of branch libraries should take precedence over a seemingly outmoded technology like CDs – she seemed somewhat mollified to learn 20,000 or so CDs still circulate to borrowers per month, and by Library Facilities Process Manager John Gillum’s summary of the ongoing branch construction schedule. Not so Zimmerman, who complained that lending music to library patrons amounted to state-subsidized competition against private businesses. “By that line of logic,” responded Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, “we wouldn't be providing books through our public libraries.” Gallo abstained, Zimmerman and Troxclair voted no, and the contract was approved, 8-2-1.

Passing almost under the radar was Gallo’s removal of her District 10 appointee to the Parks & Recreation Commission, Alison Alter – after Alter had declared her November candidacy for Gallo’s seat. The move passed on consent (CM's generally disdain interfering with each other’s appointees), but it’s likely to resurface on the campaign trail. (See “Council Candidate Forced Out of Parks Board," Aug. 4, here.)

The primary afternoon contretemps had to do with “Elysium Park” – the idyllic name given to a proposed affordable housing development just west of MoPac above Parmer Lane – and the Council discussion was almost all subtext, for what otherwise seemed a routine down-zoning of a currently wooded tract from light industrial to multifamily (90 proposed units). Both city staff and the Zoning and Platting Commission had recommended approval – over strenuous objections from nearby neighborhood associations, which had been generating negative emails from residents eager to proclaim their opposition publicly to Council.

But a few days before Thursday’s meeting, the developer (partnered with consultant Saigebrook Development, experienced at affordable projects) learned the project had not received state tax credits needed to help underwrite the variously affordable units, and the debate was (at least temporarily) moot. The reported monkey wrench had been District 50 state Rep. Celia Israel’s refusal to provide a letter of support – thereby killing the project’s application to the state Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

There’s more backstory yet to be discovered – the site is just barely in CM Leslie Pool’s District 7, and she made the motion to accept the developer's request for an indefinite postponement while the company considers its next move. But Casar pressed his colleagues on whether they still supported affordable housing on the Northwest Austin site, as they had in February, when the project first came before them. “We talk a lot about affordable housing,” said Casar. “We talk a lot about being an economically segregated city, and this is a chance for us to do something about it. So I want to – before supporting a motion for any kind of postponement – understand that that's the commitment of the council.”

The responses from his colleagues were not overwhelming. D2 CM Delia Garza spoke strongly in support of the project, as did Gallo (who's been consistent in her support for more housing generally), but D5 CM Ann Kitchen fairly bristled that the only question currently before Council was the postponement, not a generalized commitment to affordable housing. Houston briefly tried to call the question (that vote failed), and Zimmerman repeated his reflexive ideological objection to “unaffordable and unsustainable" subsidized housing. Otherwise, the dais was silent, and the pro forma postponement passed, with only Troxclair abstaining.

After the meeting, Casar issued a statement expressing disappointment in the council’s hesitation but thanking Adler, Garza, Gallo, and D3 CM Sabino Renteria for expressing continued support for the project. If Elysium Park does proceed eventually in some form, the project might pick up one or two additional votes – but it will need a Council supermajority to overturn a “valid petition” from nearby homeowners in opposition.

Until then, the story of Elysium Park remains that of many similarly proposed affordable, multifamily projects throughout the city. Nearly everybody on the dais, and indeed in town, gives earnest lip service to “affordability,” “equity,” and more specifically, “affordable housing.” But when it comes to specific multifamily housing projects that would provide desperately needed homes, including affordable units – the “neighborhood associations” and their political allies always seem to find reasons to say: “Everywhere … but not here.”

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