Saturday, March 4, 2017

#ATXCouncil "indefinitely postpones" cost of living relief....


"Wealth gained by dishonesty will be diminished,
But he who gathers by labor will increase."
Proverbs 13:11

[Author's Note: The Statesman has a cynical, though plausible, analysis of the politics here.]

In what can only be described as a crying shame, on Thursday a 6 to 5 majority on the Austin City Council voted to "indefinitely postpone" council member Ellen Troxclair's proposed affordability action plan.  The vote doesn't kill the action outright (why would they have the guts to do that?!?), but it does take the planning process back to square one.  That being said, absent a public backlash, it's hard to see how this returns in anything resembling its current form.

The plan, in which Troxclair was joined by council members Flannigan, Houston, Kitchen, and Mayor Adler, had at least twenty components.  We'll include a PDF of the full proposal below this write up, but suffice to say that it reflected individual priorities voiced over the years by each of the five co-sponsors.  From our perspective, tangible metrics for aggressive housing construction, simplification of permitting, biennial performance reviews for all city departments (how are they not doing this already?!?), creation of a "no tax increase" option for council during budget season, creation of a similar "no rate or fee increase" option for city utilities, ensuring projects from the 2016 transportation bond are completed on time and on budget, and a fair regulatory environment for mobility service providers (ie. starting with, but not limited to, Uber and Lyft) packed the biggest punch.  As a team effort from five individual council members it wasn't perfect, and there were a few things in there that we're not crazy about, but it was nevertheless a significant step forward.

The initiative was supported by a diverse array of community partners, including the Independent Business Alliance, the NAACP, the Austin Tech Council, the Hispanic Contractors association, the Real Estate council, and Goodwill industries (yes, THAT Goodwill).  Not that we're always crazy about their priorities, but even the Austin Chamber of Commerce supported this approach.  When are the Independent Business Alliance and the NAACP ever on the same side of anything?!?

We didn't keep a tally during public testimony, but our informal guess is that it ran 2 to 1 in favor.  Space limitations make it impossible to catalog everything, but a few moments stood out.  The CEO of Kerby Lane cafe discussed how it's becoming prohibitively difficult to open restaurants in Austin because the majority of employees can only afford to live in (*shudder*) Williamson county.  The representative from Goodwill pointed out that, even if we don't agree on all the specifics, getting this diverse of a coalition to support a measure was significant in and of itself.  Personally, we were struck by a slide from a representative of the real estate industry that showed house prices have nearly tripled in the past decade.  From the opponents, we were struck by a gentleman named Gus Pena who protested that the plan didn't do enough for the homeless while overlooking that it would produce significantly more housing.

During dais discussion, Council member Garza passed the buck to Austin ISD and the state over robin hood; she's not exactly wrong, but her point is irrelevant as long as the city refuses to take care of business in its' own area of jurisdiction.  Pio Renteria offered hyperbole about laying off police officers while similarly refusing to accept the city's share of responsibility.  Greg Casar at least had the courage of his convictions to advocate for a housing bond and "workforce development programs" for "low and moderate wage workers."  On the one hand, we appreciate Council member Casar advocating an alternative policy; on the other hand, we've taken this approach for decades, and
the results seem meager.  If the last billion dollars didn't accomplish your goal, and if the billion before that didn't accomplish your goal (to say nothing of all of the untold previous billions going back to the 1930's)...why is the next billion is going to be different?!?  Furthermore, the city has had record revenues at its disposal every year of the 10-1 council and the idea that widespread budget cuts are coming anytime soon seems...far fetched.  In a city where the median income is less than $33,000 and the median city employee makes around $60,000 lightening the burden on the people paying the bills doesn't seem unreasonable.

[Note: You can read a press release from the council members who opposed the plan here.]

But (no surprise here) the cake was taken by Kathie Tovo.  Tovo spoke about all of the allegedly wonderful work council has done on affordability since she campaigned on the issue in her first (2011) campaign.  Unfortunately, by whatever metric you choose (housing costs, property taxes, utility rates) affordability has gotten worse over the past six years.  Perhaps the time has come to try a new approach?!?  To be honest, Tovo sounded a lot like UT Football fans making excuses for Charlie Strong in that she just "needed more time."  Well, similarly to Charlie Strong, there comes a time when you have to stop grading on intentions and start grading on outcomes.  What did Einstein say about trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?!?

Bottom Line: Any serious attempt to translate "affordability" from a vague buzzword into tangible relief requires addressing housing costs, city spending/taxes, and utility rates/fees.  Thursday's proposal, while far from perfect, would have represented a significant step forward on all three.  Unfortunately, the council majority chose to protect privileged bureaucrats at the expense of struggling renters, local businesses, and homeowners.  Total missed opportunity.  It's a damn shame....

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Our testimony:



Full public testimony/dais discussion:



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The full proposal:

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