Homelessness and Mobility Top District 5 and 8 Issues

A southwest state of mind

l-r: Aaron Webman, Ken Craig, Paige Ellis, Ryan Alter, Stephanie Bazan (Courtesy of the candidates' campaigns)

City Council Districts 5 and 8 begin just across the lake from City Hall, on opposite sides of Barton Creek; from there, D5 stretches down through the 04 and then sweeps the southern edge of town from Sunset Valley to Manchaca to I-35, while D8 heads to and across the Hays County line. They include some of Austin's most vulnerable areas to flooding and wildfire, but also major tech employers and industrial parks; they're riddled with transit and health care deserts, but also contain a lot of important corridors. As 10-1 original Ann Kitchen retires in D5, a crowd has emerged for her open seat, while D8 incumbent Paige Ellis again faces conservatives who consider this seat one of theirs by right, so to speak.

Ken Craig, Kitchen's senior policy advisor for almost her entire tenure, has much direct Council experience, having worked with his boss to pass the Housing-Focused Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative to place unsheltered Austinites in temporary housing while clearing unsafe encampments, and a new 911 triage process that offers mental health crisis care as an option, a major victory for local justice reformers. He wants to continue that work along with securing flood mitigation around Williamson and Onion Creeks and transit options south of Slaughter Lane, as well as to "stand strong against actions by Greg Abbott or the Supreme Court" that target marginalized Austinites.

Ryan Alter (no relation to Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter), an attorney and aide to then-state Sen. Kirk Watson from 2015 to 2020, calls for streamlining site planning and reducing fees to incentivize multifamily housing on larger lots in South Austin, targeting the elusive "missing middle" housing. He says Kitchen's HEAL initiative is too small in scale (her just-passed budget rider contemplates serving 200 people this upcoming fiscal year) and wants to better coordinate the 50-plus existing service providers in Austin to tailor solutions to the specific circumstances of each person without housing.

On the other hand, attorney/filmmaker/entrepreneur Aaron Webman, who claims "zero desire to run for office beyond this election," says Austin is repeating the wrongs of San Francisco and Los Angeles in its homelessness policies; he favors a "shelter first" approach, rather than the Housing First model the city is trying to follow. Bill Welch, an Air Force veteran and businessman, wants to bring a "voice of reason" to Council, to advocate for more police funding, further enforcement of the camping ban, and more housing in transit corridors. Stephanie Bazan, a communications officer for a law firm who has worked with the Hispanic Impact Fund, wants improved accessibility in civic engagement and prioritizes education and families.

In mid-July, Alter had $49,000 on hand, Bazan $50,500, Craig $14,000, and Welch $11,000. Webman reported more than anyone ($104,000 on hand), but that includes a $50,000 contribution to himself that should have been reported as a personal loan.

Over in D8, Ellis laid down a marker in July with a quite impressive report of over $100,000 on hand. Richard Smith, a patent attorney, former judge, and member of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN), reported $41,000 on hand last month to emerge as Ellis' chief competitor; he's running to turn around Austin's "public safety crisis, an inability to humanely and effectively address homelessness, and fiscal mismanagement/affordability issues." He wants to reduce property taxes, maintain "full staffing" of public safety departments, and conduct an independent audit of Council expenditures – all old favorites of would-be GOP council members. Yet he also mentions a lack of safe and abundant mobility as an issue in the southwest. Ellis has owned that space on Council, leading on initiatives to reduce traffic fatalities, create Living Streets (the successor to COVID's Healthy Streets), and champion the 2020 mobility bond that passed alongside Project Connect, a $460 million investment in "safe routes to school, urban trails, and bike lanes," she says. A priority for the incumbent is redeveloping the Y at Oak Hill, where "there's an opportunity to create a more connected community, [with] access to grocery stores, an ACC campus, and jobs." Ellis says such unfinished business has compelled her to run again: "There's just too much happening right now to stop." There are two other candidates on the ballot: Neither Antonio Ross nor Kimberly Hawkins has reported any fundraising; Ross has voted exactly once in Travis County (he's 50), two years ago, according to the Austin Bulldog.

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