Point Austin: Quality of Life for All
Everybody does better when everybody does better
With all the hoopla and headline activism in progress down at the Capitol – suspended through the holiday but certain to resume next week – it's fairly easy to forget that there are other things happening in Austin. For two examples, City Council just took steps to try to sustain the supply of affordable housing (a potential bond vote, the redeveloped Oak Creek Village, and a Downtown affordability program), and is wrestling with a dispute over wages and fee waivers at the new Congress Avenue hotel project. Like the state's war on women's health care (a decade-long subject for us), we've been covering these stories for weeks or months. Perhaps at first glance, they seem far apart in substance.
Yet a case can be made that all these issues are interconnected. Some of those connections are made in the report just issued by the city's Oversight Team for "The Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Initiative" – the latest step in an effort that began in 2008, when Council formally recognized that the city's largest and growing minority population (more than a third of Austin's residents) is often left behind in leadership inclusion, in economic development, and in nuts-and-bolts resources like jobs and education. (The situation is roughly the same on the state level, but the state's current political regime has largely decided to ignore those parlous conditions or even aggravate them.)
The report declares that for Austin, "among the highest priorities are the need for improved employment and promotional opportunities, with the goal of having a City of Austin workforce that better reflects the demographic makeup of our community at all position levels, an increase in bilingual and culturally sensitive information and materials available for public consumption, and [to] promote and market Austin as a cultural city, i.e. 'The Best Cultural Hispanic City of Texas.'"
San Antonio and El Paso may not be trembling at the latter prospect, but you can't meet a goal until you make one.
Beyond these broad ambitions, in more detail the report addresses eight priorities, and what should be done to address each one: education, youth services, housing and community development, cultural arts, economic development, health care, civic engagement, and transportation.
Pressure Flows Downhill
A glance suggests that these priorities are, in fact, on the list for the entire city, and reflect a typical agenda for City Council. Education, notably, has also been a very high-profile item at the Legislature, where the courts have been forcing the state to grudgingly recognize its responsibilities. On the health care side, the state's response has been perverse: massive cuts to women's health care and family planning, adamant refusal to expand Medicaid, ideological rejection of national health care, and most recently, under the guise of "pro-life" sentiments, the regulatory suppression of women's basic reproductive care.
Needless to say, such policies affect the most vulnerable populations firstly and most strongly. In Austin, that's often the Hispanic/Latino community, where the state's downward pressure on public schools has constricted local educational resources, and the health care system has been overstrained and overwhelmed. Just as radical state gerrymandering has the primary effect of marginalizing the growing strength of minority voters, so does the state's refusal to provide needed resources hit hardest those people least likely to have access to private alternatives.
The sheer numbers reflected in the report are sobering: fully 40.6% of Hispanic children in Austin are living in poverty, and a majority of AISD students (60.5%) are Hispanic. That is to say, these are our children, and if the city is to have any kind of prosperous future, we need to address these basic inequities as rapidly and aggressively as our institutions allow.
Subsidizing the Bosses
So where does the White Lodging hotel story fit into this larger social picture? Unlike a lot of folks, I supported the fee waivers initially granted on that project, not only because it meant real, substantial returns for the city and for working people, but because Council wisely negotiated prevailing wages on construction, a significant improvement. Now the developer is claiming it couldn't have known that the wages were worth more than the waivers – so what? – and that former Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza (ironically thanked as an "executive sponsor" of the Quality of Life Initiative's Oversight Team) subsequently signed off on White's downward reinterpretation of the deal.
We won't know the outcome of that dispute until later this year. The point I want to make here is that White Lodging has taken the position that if it must pay its construction workers competitive wages, it's the responsibility of the community at large to make up the difference. Taken a step further: If the workers on the hotel project, not to mention those who will eventually work in the hotel, cannot make ends meet or afford market housing – it's the obligation of the city and the community at large to provide affordable housing.
The city spends a great deal of time and expense working on the supply side of affordability. In the White Lodging case (and other similar development deals), it is trying to put some muscle on the demand side – where working people might stand a better chance to afford housing, and health care, and education, and cultural resources, etc., from the hard-earned fruits of their own labor.
It's about time – and the city should stick to its guns.