Watch: Where candidates running for Austin City Council District 3 stand on three big issues
The dais at Austin City Hall will look a lot different next year.
District 3’s Pio Renteria is stepping down after serving his two-term maximum. Six people are vying to take that spot — José Noé Elías, Gavino Fernandez Jr., Daniela Silva, José Velásquez, Yvonne Weldon and Esala Wueschner.
All six of them joined KUT and the Austin Monitor on Tuesday for a candidate forum.
Here's a look at their positions on three major issues facing the district and Austin writ large.
The responses have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity. Candidates are listed alphabetically, and their responses are arranged in order of their forum responses.
Do you support Proposition A — the $350 million affordable housing bond on the ballot. If so, why? If not, why not?
Elías: "Yes, I do support the housing bond. I believe that we need to really focus on getting real direct results from our housing funds, which means tackling the affordability issue for the people that are struggling the most. HousingWorks data has shown that people below 50% [of the median family income] are the ones that need the most right now. That's where we're lacking. Those are musicians. They're teachers. They're artists. They're service employees that need that housing. So, we need to focus on building that type of housing. We can help families stay in their homes.
"I'm a big proponent of rehabbing houses, rather than demolishing them, and we can have them make them energy efficient. At the same time that we're tackling the affordability issue and the housing issue, we're tackling environmental issues as well. [It is] environmental justice, really, because a lot of our working families live in older homes, homes that are not energy efficient. And, so, if we can tackle that by using that housing bond money, I really do support that."
Fernandez: "Yes, I do support Prop A. I've been a long-time supporter of housing ... but I would like to use this thing, the $350 million, to be able to build affordable housing for those that have a 30% [median family income] in that area. I would also like to research and go beyond that, because we have not had a RBJ [Health Center] or Trinity facility built in Austin since 1967. I think that it's time that the city worked with the [Department of Housing and Urban Development] and congressmen to bring those types of housing, which is for 65 and over and disabled [Austinites]. It is very much needed, and I'm willing to work real hard to bring those assets and those [diverse] housing stocks to the market of Austin.
"Land banking is another approach that we need to [utilize] and use these funds to better provide affordable housing to our people in District 3."
Silva: "Two thumbs up. Yes, definitely support Prop A. I think that it utilizes several different tools, which is what it's going to take to address affordability. There's not just [a] one-size-fits-all answer. The fact that they are going to use the money to build deeply affordable housing, which oftentimes is a little trickier to build due to property reasons. They are looking to expand paths to homeownership, which helps address an equity issue on the East Side, and also home renovation so people can stay in their homes rather than having to leave and then home getting redeveloped and sold for a lot more. So, I am definitely all for Prop A."
Velásquez: "I am running because of the lack of urgency around affordability. I was raised in East Austin with my three siblings by a single mother making $25,000 a year in the '80s and '90s. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $48,000 a year, and she wouldn't be able to afford anything in East Austin."
"Absolutely, I do, and we need more housing all across Austin. We needed it 10 years ago. So, I happily and proudly endorse Prop A."
Weldon: "Absolutely not. I do believe we need to have more housing, but I don't believe housing is going to solve the affordability crisis that we have. We waste so much money in the city government, starting with a 40% pay raise that the City Council [approved for itself], or the number of equity programs and the number of programs that we're spending — that we're wasting — so much money [on]. We could easily find that $350 million some other way just by cutting back on some of the wasteful services.
"Going back even to the homeless, the amount that we're wasting on the homeless, you know, projects that are actually doing nothing. We're wasting more and more money. And if we were more efficient, we can find that money and be able to apply that toward the affordable housing and other initiatives."
Wueschner: "No, I don't. I don't support it. The reason being because it has to come from someone's money. Now, I do believe certain people — especially if you're disabled [or] you're deaf. There's a big deaf community here. I believe, you know, a lot of these people have a hard time, because of their disability, they have a hard time getting a job. So, for those cases, I totally understand when it comes to government spending.
"Now, when it comes to just everyone, you know, getting all these passes, I don't support that, because it has to come from taxpayers' money. And that increases my tax, it increases your taxes and everyone else's taxes to use those incentives. So, I think it will need to be properly vetted in order for me to support these government subsidies when it comes to affordability."
What are your plans to address homelessness in Austin?
Silva: "I think one of the best things the city can do is empower and support existing community organizations, nonprofits and mutual aid groups who are already doing the really important, boots-on-the-ground work of establishing relationships with our in-house community and connecting them with the resources that they need. There are literally dozens of organizations that do this work, but there can be some siloing.
"So, I think the city can step in to help create a more tightly knit network of our resources that anyone can access. So, creating a citywide database that anyone can access either online or by calling either 311 or 211, whichever can be integrated more efficiently. And in District 3, we have lots of folks who are living in our wooded areas. So, [I would suggest] working with organizations like The Other Ones Foundation, which exists in District 3 to help people get into housing, to help clean up areas and to help connect folks with the resources that they need, whether it's health or job [support] or just simple housing."
Velasquez: "Yeah, I agree with Daniela that we need to ensure that the folks that are doing the work on the ground are involved with the policy decisions. I think we need to ensure that we're doing housing first. I think that's the only way to go. Any any other approach is destabilizing. We need to make sure that anybody that's receiving city funding that we can attach strings in order to remove barriers to housing. We need to work on a reentry roundtable [to] make sure that housing is affordable and move people in quickly. And I think in this district — I think in every district — our leaders, our city leaders, our council members ... need to be good advocates and be more compassionate around health and safety issues. Because we know that those will be used against our unhoused neighbors."
Weldon: "So, the first thing I would say is we need to end housing-first dollars. Anything from that is a low-barrier ... that is the fuel that is exasperating the homeless crisis in Austin, in my opinion. We have a lot of homeless solutions that work. Most people are familiar with Community First, and the reason that Community First Village is successful is they have three requirements. One, you have to pay rent. Two, you have to live by civil rules. And three, you have to live by community rules.
"Now, we have here in Austin an incredible resource called Downtown Austin Community Court, a court of law, and they provide a compassionate services, helping people with SNAP benefits, getting resources, and they assign a caseworker ... to help people who are experiencing homelessness. And, so, the first thing we need to do is enforce the [camping] ban, utilize the resources of the DACC and the existing resources that are already in place. And we need to expand that. We don't need to create anything new. We just need to expand the existing services that are being effectively used."
Wueschner: "Right now, the city's incentivizing all these people to do more and more drugs. They don't care about these people working. They just want to use their nonprofit organization to make more and more money. So, I want to bring [San Antonio-based] Haven for Hope in Austin really help a lot of these people out to get back to the job market."
Elías: "I think that the city needs to develop a more clear strategy on how all the different departments work. You know, somebody mentioned, you know, our wooded areas, our parks. So other different departments have a role to play in that, and if we were able to coordinate those efforts because I know Austin Resource Recovery goes out there and cleans up. I know [Austin Watershed] is concerned and goes out to certain areas.
"If we were able to coordinate all those departments — I think we could have a better strategy for that, which includes housing and connection to services and all of the things that are needed. And, of course, it goes back to housing, as well. One thing that, as a teacher, that I see is that there are families that are technically homeless. They're doubled up with another family. They're living somewhere else, living in somebody's garage. And, so, we need to think about that preventative aspect also, which again, means building affordable homes for people that make less than 30% [median family income] and that would prevent a lot of homelessness, as well."
Fernandez: "I would remove bureaucracy because there are many programs out there, but access to those programs becomes a hurdle. No I.D., no birth certificate. Mental health services is very, very much needed for people that need to receive the services, but they're not accessible. So that's one thing that I would do.
"And on top of everything, we must treat and respect with dignity people that fall [into] an unhoused situation. So, I think that the government needs to just continue the funding and bring those [unhoused people] to the table. They need resources. That doesn't mean there they're not educated on what they want and what they need in order to move up and lift up. So, they need to be at the table."
When was the last time you took public transit, and what are your expectations for CapMetro's Project Connect plan in District 3?
Weldon: "So, the last time I rode it was yesterday. I had to go downtown and I live on South First, right on the high frequency route. I was 45 minutes late to where I needed to go. Our public transportation is ... very inefficient and very poorly designed. And Project Connect is an absolute failure of a design. You know, we have a light rail that's going to go through District 3. It's going to stop at Stassney. However, it avoids all the people that are south of that, which is not our district, but still it won't even go to South Park Meadows.
"It's going to only impact a very, extremely small number of people in Austin, predominantly the people that are downtown that want to go to the [events]. That's really going to be the only [people who are] going to benefit. So at this point ... we need to scrap the whole Project Connect and come back to the table and redesign a more effective one that's going to affect especially the working class, the people that need a public transportation to be able to get to work. We need to redesign that."
Wueschner: "Well, last time I took public transit [was to] go to a music festival. But so what? The thing about Project Connect is that ... originally it was supposed to be like $7.9 billion plan, but now it's gone up. ... That means that money has to come from the taxpayers, which is us. And then supposedly, even after this Project Connect, our taxes will not go down. They'll just keep staying up there. So, I think Project Connect really needs to be looked at. There's a couple of organizations that are really trying to analyze this, because they're not telling the voters the right information about the Project Connect.
Now, I do think, you know, the trail system, especially the airports and everything, need to be better built, better infrastructure. But my thing with Project Connect is that we need to really have the right people to look at it, to really see if this is going to work or not."
Elías: "I think [I rode the bus] earlier this month. I take the bus to the my local library 2 miles away, less probably. Yeah, so Project Connect. I serve on the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee. So, we definitely see all the issues that we've talked about. But you know, we also talk about the things that this project could really bring to our city. And I would support Project Connect, you know, if we can do all those things that we promised the voters we were going to do, which is the big thing — the equity, the anti displacement part of it.
"So, we need to really work on that, because right now it seems like we're just tailoring the Project Connect to like choice riders — people that just want to go downtown, people that want to go to the ballgame. We need it for the people that would benefit the most — workers, people to go back and forth to work. And that would really have a big impact because it would cut traffic. It would cut emissions, and it would it would definitely help the people that need it the most. So, yeah, I would support it if, you know, we can do all those things."
Fernandez: "Great question. I am a strong supporter of Project Connect. I am a Project Connector, one of the 150 that applied [for the program]. ... So, we meet with the consultants and we give them our inside boots on the ground, what type of experience we're looking at, protecting that. We're also ... advising them to ensure the $350,000 [in funding for anti-displacement] is actually used to facilitate changes ... and that they empower economically, those landowners that are around the [Equitable Transit-Oriented Developments] in order to ensure that [people] are not displaced, they're not displaced by eminent domain.
"And another thing is that I respect the voters' decision. This is a voter's decision. So, moving forward, we just want to I just want to make sure that all the promises that were made in Project Connect come to fruition."
Silva: "I love public transit. My favorite is doing a bus-bike combo. So, I would just bike to the nearest bus stop at Mabel Davis. I will admit, it has been a couple of months since being in the thick of campaign season and having to go from place to place to place very quickly. Our transit system isn't yet the fastest or most efficient or most reliable. So, I definitely believe in the investment of Project Connect so that we can have a really amazing, thorough, safe, clean, reliable transit system for anyone — whether they're taking transit to work or they're taking it to the airport, which I'm very excited about, or they're taking it to the game.
"The only time I will accept going farther north than Airport — if I'm going to the Domain — is if I can take the train, because I don't like to drive. But I dream of an Austin where if you don't have to drive, then you don't have to own a car and you can get around everywhere and it's not inconvenient or slow."
Velásquez: "Yes, I support Project Connect and, like Daniela, it has been a few months since I was able to ride it because of the because of our campaign schedule. But the last time I did ride it, I went downtown to our our beautiful downtown library. Connectivity is freedom, and when I was younger, we used to ride the Dillo all the time around the city.
"I'm excited about Project Connect coming in because I think it'll lead to less congestion, less traffic, and less of an assault on our environment. But. I'm excited about the city being more connected and us being able to less wait times and more frequent routes and and different routes around the city."