Austin is several weeks away from its first normal election under the 10-1 City Council structure. Last Saturday afternoon Austin Women in Housing and the Austin Housing Coalition held a candidates forum at the First United Methodist Church Family Life Center just west of the State Capitol. The forum gave the candidates for the City Council seats that are on the ballot a chance to focus on housing affordability, a critical issue in Austin.
First up were the candidates for District 7 located in North Austin. While incumbent Leslie Pool touted a list of measures she supported that were aimed at bringing more affordability to homeowners and renters, including supporting state tax credit developments, neighborhood preservation districts and the Tenant Relocation Assistance Program, challenger Natalie Gauldin repeatedly called for more diversity in housing types to accommodate those who can’t afford to pay market rate for single-family homes. The candidates disagreed on the Council’s recent increase in the homestead exemption. Council member Pool voted in favor of it believing Austin homeowners deserved some property tax relief, while Gauldin felt the measure favored the wealthy more than low-income residents and that the $3.8 million the City gave up via the exemption should have been used to fund more social services for needy Austinites.
Moving on to district 3, there were no disagreements that emerged between incumbent council member Delia Garza, the city’s first Latina council member, and her challenger Wesley Faulkner. Both candidates showed support for policies that would protect working families such as stronger code enforcement for landlords, a new homestead preservation district, more housing options, urban density and tenant relocation assistance. Garza said she has a strong, progressive record, but Faulkner said he believes the City should be more forward looking and progressive.
Two of the three candidates running for Council for District 4 took part in the forum. Incumbent Gregorio Casar said the affordability crisis in Austin and the way it threatens the city’s diversity disturbs him deeply. Casar believes the City should move money from departments wherever possible to fund affordable housing. Challenger Louis Herrin III complained that the current Council cut funding for training of code enforcement staff. Herrin believes poor training is the main reason an audit was highly critical of the City’s Code Department. Councilmember Casar believes the problem was more due to poor management.
Jimmy Flannigan was the only candidate in the District 6 race who attended the forum. A current renter, Flannigan said City leaders need a better understanding of the actual fiscal impact of policies on all types of residents rather than always using the average homeowner as the standard. Incumbent Don Zimmerman, a longtime tax opponent, issued a statement that said he did not take part in the forum because he objected to the way the hosting organizations describe subsidized housing as affordable housing.
By contrast all four candidates in the District 10 race took part in the forum. Candidate Alison Alter used her opening statement to lay out her extensive background in higher education – she holds degrees from Stanford and Harvard in public policy – and working with nonprofits. She’s often referred to as the “park lady” for her work on Ramsey Park and on the City’s Parks and Recreation board.
Rob Walker, an Austin CPA, said he considers the homeless and disabled as his priorities and he took the opportunity to praise the work being done by Mobile Loaves & Fishes with its Community First! Village for the homeless.
Incumbent Council Member Sheri Gallo said her background in housing has been a distinct advantage for her in handling housing and homeless issues. Gallo is a longtime member of the Austin Board of Realtors. She also served as president of the Austin Apartment Association and was tapped by Mayor Bruce Todd during the 90s to make sweeping changes at the City’s Housing Authority.
Nicholas Virden, a 23-year-old recent UT graduate, said the City needs to do more to promote diversity through affordable housing “in the traditional sense and the progressive sense.” Early voting for the November 8th election opens on October 24th.