Watch: Where candidates running for Austin City Council District 8 stand on three big issues
District 8 is one of five Austin City Council districts that could have a new representative come the second Tuesday of November. Current District 8 Council Member Paige Ellis is running again for the seat, this time against Kimberly P. Hawkins, Antonio D. Ross and Richard Smith.
Three of the candidates attended a forum on Thursday hosted by KUT and the Austin Monitor. Ross could not attend.
Here's a look at their positions on three major issues facing the district and Austin as a whole.
The responses have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity. Candidates are listed in the order they will appear on the ballot.
How do you plan to address the affordability crisis in your district and across the city?
Ellis: "I think there's more than one way to help with the affordability crisis, one of which is fixing the 1984 land development code that was built for a city less than half the size of what it is today. We have an entire generation of missing middle housing that was never built, and therefore you're not seeing those market rate, affordable units available for people who want to buy their first home and start their family, as a lot of people are in District 8. I was also a proud, original co-sponsor of the 20% homestead exemption, because I keep an eye on the people in our community who are on fixed income and are just paying their utility bills and their property tax bills and trying to make sure that we are looking at that very discerningly. That's why I didn't support the PSA adjustment that recently came before council, because I know that that was going to impact family budgets. So it comes from both directions. It comes with allowing for more housing stock and reducing issues like compatibility that mean housing will get built, so you have to look at it both ways."
Smith: "So there's two components to this: One is actually building affordable housing, and District 8 is way behind on that. In 2017, they committed to building a certain number of affordable houses in the district. As of now, four or five years later, only 2% of those homes were built. You've got to have the will to build affordable housing, and that involves making sure that you're making the decisions and not developers. We can build and we can solve the affordability problem for new housing. But the other problem is the folks that are living in their homes now and want to age in place. And one of the ways you can cut taxes is by using zero-based budgeting, where basically you don't let the department say, 'Well, I need this amount of money because I that's the amount of money I had last year plus some.' You've got to have the departments basically start from zero and, again, you've got to have the will to cut things. It's going to hurt. It's going to hurt to a lot of people. But you got to have the will to cut the budget so that you can keep people's property taxes down. I know we can do it. We just have to have the guts and the will to do it."
Hawkins: "The housing issue is critical. I just learned that they are tearing down the Brodie Oaks Shopping Center and going to putting condos there. And I'm concerned that there won't be housing set aside for people who make less than $40,000 a year, which is my situation. I know that a lot of people are moving out of Austin. A lot of people are sick of the rising cost of living here. And also the more available routes and buses there are, I think that is something that could impact affordability. I would like people to be able to use their cars less and be able to go downtown without having to book an Uber ride, which that is what I do right now for my main source of income. And I talked to a lot of people and I asked them, 'Do they ever ride the bus?' To wait 45 minutes for a bus and then to take one that's going to take an hour to get downtown, it just isn't tenable."
What are your plans to address homelessness in Austin?
Ellis: "Homelessness in Austin certainly has many different facets when trying to help people. There does need to be mental health care, job skills training. I developed the Clean Creek's crew, which is a jobs pipeline. I've supported The Other Ones Foundation, which is also creating jobs for people to be able to get back on their feet. But housing is a component of it. When people can't afford to keep a roof over their head or they're victims of intimate partner violence, there has to be places for people to go. I know that right now there's some angles that we need to consider, but we absolutely cannot rely on our criminal justice system, ticketing people and putting them in jail. If their only infraction is that they don't have a place to go, it's only going to set them back more, make it harder for them to get a job and get a roof over their head. So there has to be the right size of permanent supportive housing, bridge shelter housing, mental health care. And we, above everything else, have to be transparent and show the successes along the way or people won't know."
Smith: "I've had quite a lot of experience working with the homeless, so the issue is near and dear to my heart. That said, we've got to change the narrative, the false narrative that the city has, that homelessness is a housing problem. It's not fundamentally a housing problem. It's fundamentally a problem of addiction, dependence, trauma, the underlying issues that manifest themselves as a symptom of living on the street. So the first thing we've got to do is to enforce the public camping ban. It's not humane nor kind to let people sleep on the streets, stay on the streets. The second thing is we've got to focus on recovery efforts, again, the underlying issues that give rise to people staying on the streets and living on the streets. If we can do that, we won't have people on the streets, or at least we can cut down the number of people on the streets so we can get them the treatment they need. That's the main thing to do. I would also encourage the churches, mosques and temples get involved."
Hawkins: "One of the things that has recently come to my attention, after being invited to the Salvation Army meeting to tour their facility and hear what they do, I was concerned because the Salvation Army has had a past of discriminating or making LGBT+ clients uncomfortable, but they brought that up even before I asked. And they very much try to make people comfortable no matter who they are, and they have a system that is working. They stated that they have an 80% to 90% success rate in getting people into permanent housing, but they only get $3 million from the city. They've requested more and it's been declined, so I would look to programs that are working like Salvation Army and other things."
The high cost and scarcity of affordable, quality child care is causing some young families to move away from Austin. What do you see as the city's role in reducing the child care cost burden for families?
Ellis: "This is another cost driver of family budgets. So for most people, housing is the biggest part of their family budget. And then next either comes transportation or child care, depending on how that pans out financially. We all know that this disproportionately impacts the mothers in each household because by the time you're paying for two kids to be in daycare, sometimes that means one of the parents is not working full time anymore, and it's usually the mom. There are things that we can do. In the past, there were zoning overlays to specifically prohibit child care as something that was not a permitted use within a zoning case. We have now taken steps to make sure that that's not happening anymore. So when people come for a change in their zoning, we're not prohibiting child care as a use. We also need to make sure that with city properties, as we have our own land to redevelop, we are looking at the opportunity to put child care facilities in those city-owned properties. And I also would love to partner with the Austin Community College Pinnacle Campus to do affordable housing and child care on their property as they choose to redevelop that location."
Smith: "I think the fundamental role is to keep people's cost of living in Austin down by dealing with property taxes and other fees like these fees that come out of Austin Energy. I think that's one way they can help. Child care is expensive and thank God I'm not having to deal with that anymore. I think we ought to take a look at some of the child care permitting. I don't know if that's an obstacle to people starting child care businesses, but I think we ought to make sure that the city safely removes barriers for people to start child care facilities."
Hawkins: "I think that the city could set up programs, potentially with our aging population, to encourage child centers that are definitely more affordable. I fortunately have not had to deal with this issue in quite a long time. But it obviously hinders people going to work, and it hinders people's budgets. I don't know what the city is doing right now for that, quite frankly. I know that child care workers are hard to keep in child care centers. It's hard to keep them because they're not paid enough and because it's a stressful job. So the city needs a grant program or a recruitment program, as we do for many of our departments."