Council Recap: Stay Home, Go Slow, Be Resilient, Ask for Help

City Hall extends eviction freeze, earmarks relief funds, and more

Photo by John Anderson

Austin renters are protected from eviction proceedings until at least Aug. 24, thanks to a City Council vote taken Thu., May 8.

The vote extended an ordinance approved in March that barred landlords from beginning eviction proceedings until 60 days after a tenant failed to pay rent – instead, they could provide “proposals to evict” that could be acted on after the window expired.

A local order enacted by Mayor Steve Adler also prevented landlords from locking people out of their homes or seizing their belongings due to failure to pay rent; that order was extended to July 25. But other council members said it’s important for those who can pay rent to continue doing so, especially to landlords who may own a small number of properties and would be unable to absorb the loss of rent in the way a large corporate property manager would.

The rent will still come due, eventually. It’s possible the anti-eviction ordinance could be extended again if public health officials are still recommending staying home as the safest way to slow transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but even then, any back rent owed to landlords would need to be paid. Late fees are also allowed to accrue on any missed rent payments.

Three new funds were also approved aimed at helping small businesses, nonprofits, and childcare centers. About $18 million of the federal stimulus money Austin will receive ($170.8 million) from the CARES Act will be used to establish the funds.

The Commercial Loans for Economic Assistance & Recovery (CLEAR) Fund will allow the city to extend more emergency bridge loans and also help businesses cover costs incurred from adapting to new safety requirements before reopening. The Austin Nonprofit & Civic Health Organizations Relief (ANCHOR) Fund will distribute $6 million to a variety of nonprofits addressing education, workforce development, arts and culture, environmental and animal services, and health and human services. The Childcare Support Fund will allocate $1 million for childcare centers that have at least a 2-star rating under the Texas Rising Star system and are serving families who already receive childcare subsidies.

Council also approved a resolution directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to return in June with proposals for how to create and fund a comprehensive “community resilience plan” to possibly be implemented by a Chief Resilience Officer. The plan would seek to prepare Austin to weather the range of challenges posed by a crisis – food access, housing security, and health care among them.

That breadth of scope concerned Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who voiced apprehension that the plan would simply end up on a shelf next to Austin’s many other ambitious and aspirational notes to itself. “This has got to be an actionable plan,” Garza said on the dais. “Black and brown communities are tired of plans, they’re tired of headlines, they’re tired of reports. They want action.”

Garza and others also amended the resolution, introduced by CM Leslie Pool, to address equity concerns both at the front end and when the plan is implemented. This included new language from Garza to ensure the planning effort engages with Austin’s minority communities so the final product would address issues that matter to everyone in the city.

Any real moves to make a resilience plan or office happen won’t come until June, when Council sets priorities for the Fiscal 2021 and future budgets in discussions that will almost certainly feature across-the-board austerity measures prompted by the COVID-19 crisis. Pool’s resolution suggests a resilience officer could be paid through grant money, though the availability or duration of such funding is yet to be discovered.

Austin may soon join the growing number of world cities that are closing off streets to cars so they can be safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. A resolution from CM Paige Ellis directs staff to develop a “Healthy Streets” program that would give people more outdoor space to use during the pandemic.

The resolution follows a public push by mobility advocates for a “slow streets” program. Ellis’ plan calls for street closures to roll out in phases, to achieve a to-be-determined benchmark of road miles that have been made safer and more accessible to active transportation. Public feedback would guide which streets to close off in every Council district; the first selection of streets is due by May 22.

Crucially, an amendment from CM Kathie Tovo could make some “slow streets” changes permanent. Instead of winding down once social distancing is no longer a routine fixture of life, the language from Tovo directs Cronk to “return to Council with recommendations for instituting long-term investments in ‘slow streets’ programs citywide to prioritize certain neighborhood streets for walking and bicycling while still allowing local vehicular traffic."

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