Zimmerman Fights Affordable Housing

The D6 CM is the lone "no" vote on Cardinal Point

Walter Moreau
Walter Moreau (Photo by John Anderson)

Six applications for subsidized housing tax credits passed at the Feb. 12 City Council meeting, but they didn't go quietly. When Council Member Don Zimmerman was gearing up for this fight at the beginning of the month, he made clear the process for funding subsidized housing projects would face scrutiny, and that his constituents' anger over adding high-density housing to a traffic-congested District 6 would be voiced on the dais.

"They're angry that their tax dollars are not being used first to relieve traffic congestion. People are complaining about it," he told the Chronicle on Feb. 3. "How many times do they have to tell city government? Over and over again. 'We have traffic gridlock. Stop forcing us to subsidize these developments when we're already in gridlock. Do you want us to be parked for 45 minutes longer?' They are exasperated, and I think that's what you're hearing."

Local nonprofit Foundation Communities, which oversees affordable housing complexes around Austin, has drawn Zimmerman's ire for its proposed Cardinal Point project in D6, even though the whole area has only two such projects, and established policy is to build such housing throughout the city. This was one of two FC projects Zimmerman voted against; the contention stemmed in part from his belief that Council could put off approval until April, even though city staff assured him the deadline is Feb. 27.

"The Council voted in support of six projects that are competing for housing tax credits at the state, and the state process to score and underwrite all the projects goes through the end of July. This was a crucial step," FC Executive Director Walter Moreau said. "The city's support and matching funds are part of the scoring between Austin projects and the suburbs, so it's important if Austin wants to build affordable housing.

"At the Council meeting we had residents from River Place that spoke," Moreau added. "Brent who used to work at the Walgreens at Four Points before his apartment landlord raised the rent, and he had to move his wife and daughter. So there are some vocal opponents, but there are definitely supporters in the neighborhood."

At the Feb. 10 work session, Zimmerman interrogated city staff, whom he accused of advocating in favor of the projects. "In order to have a dialogue, I need to have other points of view represented," he said. "Is there anybody of the four of you not lobbying in favor of the projects? Can anyone here speak against them? Why they might be unaffordable? Why they might be unsustainable? Why it might be a bad idea? Why it's contributing to increased taxes and increasing the national debt?"

Though he belabored the point, it became clear the other members – notably CMs Pio Renteria and Ann Kitchen – would not be persuaded; Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo pointed out that staff is expressly charged with implementing Council policy, not debating it. Ellen Troxclair cited the complex funding process as the reason she abstained from the votes on Thursday. The Realtor and former Lege staffer said she wants to draw out discussion on individual projects rather than giving "blanket approval."

"I would love to have a conversation in committee or with other Council members about moving forward, let's talk about each project in more depth individually, and maybe approving the ones we think are the best fit for our city," she said. "I'm not opposed to affordable housing. It's just that I think Austin has an opportunity to have a bigger role in which projects get built and where."

As for Zimmerman's behest that the other members should have followed his lead on Cardinal Point because it falls in his district, Troxclair wouldn't go that far.

"Although I hope that, going forward, if there's an issue in Southwest Austin that I can be a resource for other members, I hope that I can answer questions, and provide information to members who aren't as familiar with the area, but at the end of the day I don't necessarily think [my opinion] is the only opinion that matters."

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City Council, Don Zimmerman, Walter Moreau, Foundation Communities, subsidized housing, Ellen Troxclair, Ann Kitchen, Pio Renteria, Cardinal Point

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