KUT and the Austin Monitor held a series of forums over the past few weeks with candidates running for Austin City Council. Not everyone can watch an hour-long forum, though, so we picked three big questions from the event and are providing text of the candidates' answers here.
There are three candidates running for the open seat in District 2, which covers Southeast Austin: David Chincanchan, Vanessa Fuentes, Casey Ramos and Alex Strenger.
We posed these questions to candidates in the order they appear on the ballot.
Chincanchan: It's going to be the pandemic and the recovery that comes afterwards. Our community has been disproportionately impacted in Southeast Austin, in 78744, the ZIP code that I was raised in, the ZIP code that I live in now. There's real pain, suffering and death around us right now. When we think about how we got here, it's the result of decades and decades of institutional neglect that have left us with preexisting conditions, like housing insecurity, lack of access to quality health care and economic opportunity.
We have frontline workers as part of our community that are going out there risking their lives, risking their health and their safety to provide essential services, but not being given a lot of choice, compensation or protection. And so we need to build community resilience. We need to learn the lessons that are here to be learned so then we can build a new and better normal that focuses on justice and equity for our entire community.
Ramos: I think this is an issue that really encompasses all of the issues and that covers all of them, and it's the poverty rate. We have approximately 30% of our residents in our district are poverty-stricken or below the poverty rate. And only 20% have bachelor's degrees. And also a majority of our people live at 60%, 50% or 40% below the median family income. So, you know, this all affects COVID. This all affects small business ownership. This all affects affordable housing. So, this is actually the most important issue in our district.
So, if we can focus on bringing people above the poverty line, having them mitigate the costs of living through programs like boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour instead of $7 and $8 an hour so that people can actually live. Having access to food, having access to health care. All of this encompasses the poverty line. And so I believe if we can bring our people out of poverty, we can thrive as a community even further.
Fuentes: The most important issue facing District 2 in 2021 is getting through the pandemic. Now, as I shared earlier, our community is disproportionately affected by coronavirus, and it stems largely because our community is working and serving on the front lines, whether in the health care industry and construction industries. You know, my mom works at a grocery store and so our exposure risk is much higher.
We have to ensure that we have community leaders who are ready to have a proactive approach to ensure that our community is protected and stands ready to get through the pandemic. And I believe that my experience in public health advocacy will serve our community well as we look to navigate the pandemic and then the subsequent recovery. I think another top issue for our community will be economic stability. We know that Austin is one of the most economically segregated cities in this entire country. And so we have to ensure that we have an economy that works for the everyday Austinite and that our Austinites here in Southeast Austin get to share in Austin's prosperity.
Strenger: Look, I'm going to tell you what the most important issue facing not only District 2, but the entire city of Austin. And it's our small business and our live music and our service industry. You know, people move here because of our bar scene, because of our nightlife, because of our live music. And, you know, our city has pretty much just turned its back on what makes our city special. And a lot of people in District 2, they're musicians. They work downtown. They go downtown. This affects them.
The way our city is treating small businesses. It's not fair to the Hispanic Americans that live here, considering that they make up the largest percentage of new entrepreneurs in the entire United States. So we need to give meaningful aid to the small businesses, and we need to give meaningful aid to our live music venues and our bars and some of our restaurants that are not going to be able to operate as a result of our response to the pandemic.
Chincanchan: Well, like I said, in Southeast Austin, we're making up for decades of institutional neglect. We took a huge step forward when we finally approved 10-1 to make sure that we had our own voice from Southeast Austin in those communities. And I think that has already made a huge difference. But we have a long way to go. And so we need to do proactive outreach. If I have the honor of serving as a council member, that's exactly what I will do. I will make sure that I not just have my door open, but to go into the community proactively to talk to folks about their needs, their anxieties, their hopes, their dreams for what our city can be and look like.
And I think we need more access. We need language access. We need accommodations for folks. We need to make it as easy as possible for folks to participate. And, you know, speaking about working families. One of my top priorities is providing child care services. I think that that's another big barrier for participation that we need to help knock down to make sure that working families are able to participate in their local government.
Ramos: I believe that if we can implement an extensive testing program, we can encompass bringing everybody of all walks of life, including those who are Spanish-speaking. So, whenever they show up to the testing center, whenever they show up to find information, everything needs to be double-sided in English and in Spanish. There needs to be a translator, somebody who speaks English and Spanish. A doctor who's preferably bilingual.
So, you know, we just need to think about those people whenever we make each and every one of our decisions, because they're a huge part of our community. Immigrants, people who have been here for a long time, people who haven't been here for a long time. I mean, people who speak English and Spanish or people who speak both. So, we just need to have a more extensive testing program with extensive back-tracing. That way we can find out who and where these are coming from and we can stop the spread of COVID.
Fuentes: I think right now we're at a critical time period. We're going to judge our city leaders by the decisions that were made and the decisions that were not made. And when the pandemic first hit our community, we saw closures of our CommUnityCare clinics on the east side. And what kind of message does that send when you close health care clinics in areas that are predominantly Latino, that depend on CommUnityCare?
So, what I believe the City of Austin should do is work with boots-on-the-ground community members and organizations. The best thing they can do to help us to get through the pandemic. We have the Austin Latino Coalition, which is organized and represents multiple organizations who could serve as liaison for outreach, in addition to the Del Valle Community Coalition and the Dove Springs community. There are many groups who'd be great access point for our City of Austin to ensure that outreach, PPE, resources and services are getting out into the community.
I also have a plan on my website that calls for an investment of community health workers. I think when we look at building community resilience, one way for us to go about building community resilience is having additional community health workers providing services.
Strenger: Ninety-four percent of people who died while having COVID had preexisting health conditions and our city is filled with food deserts. You know, when you go to H-E-B on William Cannon, all you get is junk food and mystery meat, whereas if you go to the grocery store in Mueller, you get, you know, organic, non-processed, amazing foods from JBG organics and whatnot. So, we need to incentivize the grocery stores to build affordable, healthy options for people so they can adopt a better lifestyle.
And we need to do a better job of collaborating with our sustainable farms, like JBG in order to not only feed people in AISD and Dove Springs and in Del Valle ISD, but also to teach people how to sustainably grow their own food. District 2 has the most open space out of any other district in the entire city. So, I think that when you really look at the numbers, we all need to adopt a lifestyle change, and the city should be facilitating that along with our organic, sustainable farms as well as our grocery stores.
Chincanchan: Yes, I support Prop A, because for me, transportation, especially public transit, isn't just about getting from point A to point B. It's about social justice, and it's about access to opportunity. It's about whether people can access employment centers, schools, health centers, grocery stores. And in Austin, investing seriously in a transit system that serves folks who are transit-dependent or working families is long overdue.
And if we don't act now, it's only going to get more expensive, more costly to do this in the future. And so I'm going to continue to advocate for better services, for better infrastructure, for our Southeast Austin communities. But I do think Project Connect gets us moving in the right direction. And I will be supporting that.
Ramos: No, I do not support Prop A. As I stated earlier, people in our district live below or at the poverty line, and an increase in their taxes, whether minimal or maximum, which is maximum in terms of Prop A, they simply can't afford it. And also, Prop A is not a bond. Bonds are usually taken out for loans that you eventually pay off. Well, with Prop A, it has expenses in there for operating salaries and buildings, construction buildings and other expenses that keep rising. So, as they keep rising, so will our taxes. And so there is no set limit to how much this is going to cost us.
Where does the money come from? Who got the budget for $9 billion? How many workers is it going to take? How much steel is going to take? How much work hours is it going to take to complete this and to dig a hole? And how much traffic is going to have to be backed up until we finish this?
So, what I propose is just adding more bus lines. For a billion dollars, we could add bus lines to make our bus routes come every five minutes and have twice as many bus routes in each neighborhood. And on top of that, we could have supplemental transportation. Smaller Metro vehicles that are going back and forth from bus stops and neighborhoods that are taking people like the elderly, pregnant women, children.
Fuentes: Yes, I support Prop A. I believe public transportation for many Austinites is a lifeline, a lifeline that connects us to our work, child care, health services, families and much more. I believe that every segment of Austin stands to benefit from robust public transportation. And in our district, the western portion of District 2 will benefit immensely from Project Connect.
However, I do not think Project Connect is good enough for our southeast quadrant of our community and especially our community in Del Valle. We need to see more access routes and service routes in Del Valle, and I call upon our county leaders and Cap Metro to ensure equity in transit and make sure that we get equitable service to our Southeast Austinite residents.
Right now, coming through a recession, we're going to need a large-scale public infrastructure project. Project Connect will bring us jobs. The reason why it costs so much is because we haven't invested in a mass-scale public transit system. Austin's one of the largest cities without one. And also, we are in a climate crisis. So for our generation and for the generations that come after us, it's incumbent upon us to invest in Project Connect.
Strenger: Absolutely not. We are in our biggest economic recession in history. The last thing we should be doing is spending billions of dollars on an infrastructure project that's going to be obsolete by the time it's finished. We need more bus lines. And, two years ago, they cut 19 bus routes on predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhoods is what the city did.
So, we need more bus lines and we need to better utilize our micro-mobility devices also and place them at our bus stops and maybe even create a program where people can subscribe to utilize some of these electric bikes and have a program where they can have those in their homes to enable efficient, green transportation.
And if you really want to talk about green transportation, by the time this rail gets built, you're going to have like Lime scooters and mopeds and e-bikes that are going to be able to go on 35 and Mopac anyway. We're already making great advancements with electric vehicles and they're going to be a lot more affordable by the time this happens. So, you know, by the time this rail gets built, it's not even going to be useful. And then you factor in that more and more people are working from home as a result of the pandemic. We're not going to get what we paid for when it comes to this.