Council: Members Spar on Affordable Housing, Meaning of Compassion

Image by Chronicle Art Staff

With Mayor Steve Adler back on the dais, City Council passed measures during its April 7 meeting related to affordable housing, ground transportation chauffeurs, excessive water bills, and zoning to allow for a Boys and Girls Club facility in District 1.

Council approved the first part of an ordinance that requires ground transportation chauffeurs (i.e., taxi and limo drivers) to submit to national criminal background checks, rather than just Texas-based checks, when applying for permits. The measure brings chauffeurs up to speed with the same requirements as TNC (Uber, Lyft) drivers, who must also submit national checks. The second and more controversial part of the ordinance, which listed the specific offenses that would bar chauffeurs and TNC drivers from operating, is still being worked on.

A measure by CM Delia Garza asks the city manager to explore the feasibility of using part of the unallocated 2013 affordable housing bond ($30 million of the total $65 million) for permanent affordable housing aimed at residents at or below 80% of the median family income – in other words, middle-income residents currently unable to afford homes at market rent. Expectedly, CM Don Zimmerman stood as the lone (and enthusiastic) dissenting vote.

Council members got on board with an adjustment policy by CM Ellen Troxclair that allows customers experiencing water bills three times their average to apply for a credit of up to 50% of the water usage once every two years. Last summer, a number of Austinites were hit with seemingly excessive bills: From Aug. 23, 2015, to Jan. 1, 2016, Austin Water received calls from 23,944 customers related to high water charges.

And tensions ran high during a zoning case that proposed changing single-family to community commercial to make way for construction of a Boys and Girls Legacy Club building in East Austin's University Hills neighborhood. Boys and Girls Club members testified before Council on the positive impact the youth-oriented nonprofit, which serves children below the poverty line, has had on their lives, while University Hills Neighborhood Association group leaders criticized the plan as ruining the fabric of their community. CM Ora Houston quelled neighborhood groups' fears that the proposal was just an "attempt to increase underlying entitlements on the property" by striking a trade-off that prevents most of the uses the zoning allowance permits (with the exception of outdoor and indoor sports recreation) in the event the Boys and Girls Club for some reason sells off the land after the zoning change takes place. The measure passed on first reading.

Following recommendations from the city clerk, Council voted to revise electronic campaign finance form rules to align with the same deadlines as the Texas Ethics Commission filings and reformat all forms to PDF. They also passed measures allowing developers of student housing to relocate the historic Dabney-Horne House in West Campus to sit next to the Clyde Littlefield House at 901 Shoal Cliff Court.

While they passed through an ordinance on first reading that limits public testimony at both Council and committee meetings to 90 minutes for each issue, they'll pick the discussion back up this Thursday, April 12, as Item 6 on the agenda. Questions still on the table: When should the cutoff be for speaker sign-up? Should the time allotted for each speaker be reduced after a certain number of minutes? In executive session, Council will also pick up where they left off in the ongoing talks over City Manager Marc Ott's performance.

District 3's Pio Renteria plans to request another postponement (he got one in late March) of the move to rezone and change land-use designation on the site of Cactus Rose Mobile Home Park to build Lenox Oaks, a mixed-use development complex that would displace some 50 households (see "Future Uncertain for Cactus Rose," March 25, and "Fighting to Stay," April 15). Negotiations between the two parties, and a survey to sort out which residents own homes and which lease, are still under way, he said.

Mayor Steve Adler is calling for "creative, out-of-the-box" solutions for ensuring permanent affordable housing at the Sun Chase Planned Unit Development (Item 13) while CM Ora Houston informed Council that neighborhood residents are planning to show up and testify against a rezoning change (Item 16) in her district that would make way for One Two East. Developers of the two residential towers and first-floor grocery store are looking to build at 185 feet rather than the 100 and 150 feet the East 11th Street and I-35 site currently allows. Residents of Central East Austin Neighborhoods have opposed the plan on compatibility grounds, warning that it could bring 10,000 cars per day into their neighborhood and overshadow modest and historic homes.

And if you're wondering what Don Zim­mer­man plans to get in a huff about this week, look no further than Item 5, an innocuous resolution authorizing the city's involvement in the "Compassionate Com­mun­ities Campaign," a program adopted in neighboring cities such as Houston and San Antonio that encourages recycling, community wellness, and environmental consciousness. An offended Zimmerman considered the item tantamount to an accusation that the city is not compassionate enough (we won't get into the irony here) and in the same breath, criticized the resolution for including too much religion while bashing it for promoting idolatry of the Earth but not Jesus Christ. Sponsor Ann Kitchen gingerly explained that the item was not meant to promote religion, but only compassion for fellow residents.

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