The 2018 Bond Package
I will be voting against Props A-G.
As the above quote makes clear, all of the other candidates in the district 1 race have agreed to support the bond package, even though it would raise your property taxes over the coming years. Homeowners and tenants who cannot afford their current property taxes and rents should absolutely vote no on Props A-G this November. When property taxes rise, so do rents. The city’s 2019 budget separately increases property taxes. I worry about the combined impact of all these increases and do not want to see people priced out of their homes and apartments.
Although I encourage voters to study the $925 million bond package and make their own decisions, I will be voting against Propositions A-G (the entire bond) for the following reasons:
1. Austin’s false narrative of sustainability: we have financed our own displacement
Austin was recently ranked the most economically segregated major city in the nation: the number of high poverty neighborhoods was found to have almost doubled in the past 15 years and the Austin metro area was shown to have one of the highest rates of sub-urbanization of poverty in the same period.
These are both trends that are natural consequences of gentrification: displaced residents move into neighborhoods that are yet to be discovered as profitable by the high-density, mixed use promoters, or move further and further away from the unaffordable urban core, worsening conditions for economic mobility.
Such facts evidently belie Austin’s narrative of sustainability. The sad irony of the city’s promotion of growth, and the consequent displacement of low-income residents - which include police officers, adjunct professors at ACC, reporters, and many others who work in central Austin - is that it has been done with the uninformed complicity of the people of Austin: in effect we have been led to finance our own displacement and resegregation with almost half a billion dollars of our tax money given in incentives to “big businesses” in the past 15 years alone. It is clear that City Hall’s backdoors have been wide open to dominant business and political influences, and that such forces, through public-private partnerships and political clubs, have co-opted the decision-making arm of the city.
What guarantees are there that the future of the present bond money would be any different? The city has shown over and over again that the word “accountability” has been struck from the vocabulary it uses to define its responsibilities. Only petitions and lawsuits have any pull with this municipal administration.
I care about the well-being of single women with children and people of color. Single mothers, African Americans, Latinos, and working-class families in East Austin should not be asked to finance their own displacement.
2. Many items in this bond package should have been a part of the city’s general operating budget: promises unfulfilled
A number of bond items indicate recurring and/or ongoing costs, such as repair and improvement of city facilities, and must be part of the city’s operating budget. These are included in propositions C, F, and G. A fireman whom the city claims would benefit from the approval of proposition F recently told me that the city needs to improve its planning; such repairs must be ongoing and part of the city’s normal operating budget. I am in full agreement with this gentleman.
He was apparently speaking from experience, as we can conclude from the following examples of the city’s treatment of bond money:
The bitter experience of St. Johns neighborhood residents is a consequence of the city’s wastefulness and lack of proper planning when it comes to bond-funded construction and repair of public safety facilities. The city purchased the property previously occupied by Home Depot at the corner of St Johns and I-35 for $8 million a decade ago to construct “a police substation and municipal court.” The property is currently housing no police force and no judges but “a sea of compost bins” in plane public view. Here are excerpts from a report by KXAN investigators David Barer and Kylie McGivern (all emphasis added):
“Austin voters approved $19.7 million in bonds for the East St. Johns public safety project in 2006, after city leaders pitched the substation and court to voters as sorely needed community assets.”
“The city ultimately spent $12.38 million on the property and designs, while $7.31 million lingers unused for the project. A city spokesperson said the city at first “believed” $19.7 million was enough to purchase land and refurbish the building.”
“A KXAN analysis of bond spending has found that the failed former Home Depot site plan is one of many bond projects approved over the past 18 years that have stalled amid budget shortfalls, bureaucratic delays and unexpected obstacles.”
“City records show that $140.8 million in bonds approved from 2000 to 2013 still remain unused. That total includes more than $22.6 million specifically earmarked for public safety projects like the ill-fated St. Johns Avenue project.”
For more examples of the city’s unfulfilled promises (should we call them lies?) see the KXAN article at:
3. Drainage and stormwater projects: the city claims all flooding is due to changes in weather patterns
Some items included in proposition D, designated as drainage and stormwater projects, should have become a central part of the city’s operating budget long ago; Austin is a flood-prone city subject to recurrent, extreme weather phenomena reaching us from the Gulf Coast.
The city’s duplicity is apparent in the fact that necessary environmental impact studies for new development are frequently passed over and old watershed protections are conveniently forgotten. The city has also gained the habit of dispatching “debriefing” squads to community input meetings in order to browbeat longtime residents of neighborhoods into disbelieving established facts about the relationship between impervious land cover, flooding, and water quality.
With very little warning, some of Austin’s creeks metamorphose from shallow waterways into raging rivers, posing a great threat to lives and property. The city placed a moratorium on development along Little Walnut Creek, for example, almost two decades ago due to erosion along the creek and concerns for the safety of residents during episodes of flooding. Incredibly, this fact does not deter the current city “experts” from blaming ‘recent’ changes in weather patterns when floodwaters threaten residents.
Additional impervious land cover hugging Austin’s waterways rightly worries longtime residents of District 1, but the city continually approves variances and ignores concerns raised about the impact of isolated development. Is the city planning to add these developments one at a time, rejecting residents’ concerns as they arise, and continue approving development until the sum total of the added impervious cover leads to the destruction of whole neighborhoods?
If not, after how many wantonly granted permissions for development should residents then be permitted to attribute increased runoff and flooding to impervious cover in watersheds rather than recent weather patterns? Even if the whole increase in floodwaters can be attributed to causes other than the city’s irresponsible practice of approving development along waterways, should not the city step forward in protection of its tax-paying citizens?
It is human greed, lack of compassion, and disregard for the fate of Austin residents, particularly Austin’s communities of color, that compel the city to give the mercenary crowd of itinerant profit-seekers priority over the health and wellbeing of Austin’s longtime residents.
The city has recently approved plans for a soccer stadium at the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek, well within the creek’s watershed. To my knowledge, no studies have assessed the impact this project would have on the watershed. Instead of conducting a study, the city is apparently engaged in secret negotiations with corporate entities who have been awarded a contract to construct the stadium on public land.
Disparities in health and wellness are often closely linked to environmental injustice. Remediating ground contamination near urban core elementary schools, playgrounds, childcare centers, and waterways would be an excellent use of public funds. At this time, I cannot support the use of public money for flood buyouts. The city must first make a concerted effort to prevent new impervious land cover by prohibiting development in watersheds. Any bond money for any purpose should be withheld from the current city administration until the city gives the highest priority to its civic duties.
4. Public money for those who need healthcare or for another massive economic development subsidy?
The question arises: does “long needed” and yet ignored by Travis County’s healthcare district, Central Health, make any sense? Central Health, much like AISD and ACC, but for Travis County, receives a portion of property tax bills; in 2019 Central Health will receive $343.97 of the average homestead’s property taxes. So why has Central Health failed to allocate 16 million dollars for the construction of a health center in Dove Springs? Does this have anything to do with the fact that Dove Springs houses a community of immigrants, mostly of low income and living in rental units? Or the fact that TDCJ operates the only Austin-area parole office in Dove Springs?
Granted, in our country’s broken healthcare system the $258-million budget of Central Health has to travel quite a number of rough miles, but not rough enough for the new CEO of Central Health, who has plans to embroil Central Health in the public-private partnership behind the creation of another new-urbanist hype, an Innovation Zone. We can imagine, based on a study of the city of Austin’s engagement in such ventures, what the fate of our public dollars would be; we would be funding “innovative” and shady private ventures that only on the surface, and in language, have direct bearing to the health of poor Austinites, while the tax payers in Dove Springs go without proper healthcare. No, my conscience does not allow me to support even this proposition.
5. Proposition A: accommodating; no housing for the real needy
We must distinguish “affordable” from “subsidized.” Many of those tax payers who will end up supporting this proposition, out of the goodness of their hearts primarily, will do so under the impression that their money would be supporting housing for low income Austinites, just because the city says so, and that their contribution will perhaps prevent further displacement into the economically depressed suburbs of Austin metro. But consider the following facts:
Affordability is defined as a percentage of median income, normally 60% and 80% of the median income of the region; this means that affordable units are constructed to fit the budget of households whose income is either 60% or 80% of the median income of surrounding households. In 2016, the median income of Austin residents was close to $61,000. Based on this figure, any housing constructed under the label “affordable” in 2016 would have been unaffordable to 29% of Austinites and no housing constructed under the affordability level of 80% in 2016 would have been affordable to about 41% of Austin residents.
Affordable housing is not forever; at best there is a term of 30 or 40 years after which it is up to the owners of the development to keep the rents low or opt for more profit.
The current bond money leaves wide open the circumstances of its future use. Based on City Hall’s “generosity” in using public funds as incentive for private development (half a billion dollars in the past 15 years) and our city administrators’ love-affair with new-urbanist schemes of development, we can surely anticipate more projects like the Domain, the Grove and Mueller, which turned into a larger development than many members of the local community were led to believe, on undeveloped public land in East Austin. The number of units of “affordable” housing included is up to the city’s whims and the taxes collected on such properties will mostly go towards infrastructure maintenance of the properties themselves, even though city council has made half-hearted attempts at allotting these to the city’s affordable housing fund.
Be alert: the city has plans to repeal a 2009 ordinance that bans economic incentives for projects like the Domain. The following is an excerpt from a city webpage describing the plan, which it comically calls “the small business initiative:”
“Since this program [Locational Enhancement Program] may include projects that would be in private, large-scale, mixed-use projects that include a retail component, staff is requesting a limited repeal of Part 2 of Ordinance No. 20090312-005, which eliminates economic incentives for private, large-scale, mixed-use projects that include a retail component, with that repeal only being to the extent necessary to maximize the possibilities for providing options for the Local Enhancement Program to address the matters set out above.”
Bloomberg’s underground economy in the affordable construction industry
Despite the fact that New York’s affordable housing industry, under Bloomberg, the hero and former employer of Austin’s new city manager, was heavily subsidized, it generated an “underground economy in construction.” A Fiscal Policy Institute report states:
Despite the dangerous working conditions in the affordable housing construction industry, most workers earn very low pay and few benefits. Few workers have health insurance. For most workers, employers are not paying premiums for workers compensation or unemployment insurance.
(The Underground Economy in the New York City Affordable Housing Construction Industry; A Fiscal Policy Institute Report, www.fiscalpolicy.org, April 17, 2007)
Did Bloomberg, mayor of NYC for 12 years, manage to construct any affordable housing?
Well, he made everyone believe that he was solving New York City’s affordable housing crisis, but judging from many reports and even his own strange admission at the conclusion of his third term, the whole process was a failure. During his three terms in office, NYC had become more unaffordable than ever and
“…homelessness has increased by a third, some 10,000 additional people. For the first time, there are now more than 40,000 homeless people sleeping in city shelters each night, including over 17,000 children. That number increased by 10 percent in the last six months of 2011 alone.” [Bloomberg was in office from 2002 to 2014]
(Bloomberg’s Housing Policies A Failure; Kenny Schaeffer, March 2012, Metropolitan Council On Housing, http://metcouncilonhousing.org/news_and_issues/tenant_newspaper/2012/march/bloomberg%E2%80%99s_housing_policies_a_failure)
Yet Mr Bloomberg concluded his terms in office with this radio address:
The city's lack of affordable housing actually is a "good sign" of a vibrant economy, Mayor Bloomberg said Friday in remarks that touched off fresh criticism that he is out of touch.
In his weekly radio appearance on WOR-AM, Bloomberg said housing is scarce because "as fast as we build, more people want to live here."
He added that market forces — developers building housing to meet the demand — would help to address that need.
"Somebody said that there's not enough housing. That's a good sign," Bloomberg said.
"It doesn't mean it isn't a problem, but there are no vacancies. That will bring in investment, for people to build for all income levels, different kinds of housing," he said.
"In cities, if you want to have lots of vacancies where everybody could easily find a place, you don't have a good economy."
Of course, the people of Austin have been living the “truth” Mr Bloomberg so naively, and without fear, reveals to his listeners, and we will be doing the same under Bloomberg’s protégé, our city manager. We will have a great economy, but no affordable housing, because “as fast as we build, more people want to live here” and the people who want to live here will be the newcomers, the only ones who can afford to live in the city.
6. Proposition B: lip service to the marginalized and the excluded/new urbanist inroads to the heart of East Austin
“• Prop B (Libraries/Cultural Centers): $128 million. This bond would provide $56.5 million for improvements to the Mexican American Cultural Center, Asian American Resource Center, Carver Museum and Cultural Center, and Mexic-Arte Museum; $34.5 million for branch library renovations and initial adaptation of Faulk Central Library for an Austin History Center annex; $25 million to replace the aged-out Dougherty Arts Facility; and $12 million for acquisition of ‘creative spaces’ supporting the arts.”
Citizens should not be fooled by the “good works” that hide the real intentions of this proposition. City of Austin records indicate that this is, with high likelihood, another ploy by the public-private partnership, the Austin corporation, to make inroads into East Austin neighborhoods; remember always that a snake molts but the same creature lurks under new skin. The city and its private partners have kept us, and the nation, under the spell of sustainability and have bedazzled us with Austin’s numerous “accolades” while our hard-earned dollars have financed the displacement of Austin’s African American community. These are plans for a new wave of gentrification and should be rejected.
Remember the 1998 package of municipal bonds [all emphasis added]:
…in 1998, a package of municipal bonds ,,, was passed in order to fund multiple improvements in East Austin, including cultural amenities, public works projects and watershed protection projects. In retrospect, however, these efforts have been viewed sceptically by residents, many of whom now see the improvements exacerbating gentrification. The environmental justice campaigns of the 1990s and early 2000s were followed by immediate land speculation and property tax increases (PODER, 2013; personal interviews). Since that time, residents have increasingly felt the symptoms of living in what had been designated as a ‘desired development zone.’ As PODER director Susana Almanza noted, every effort to improve the environmental health of the neighborhood has also meant increased property taxes, home values and amenities desirable to wealthier residents.
(Constructing the narrative of the sustainability fix: Sustainability, social justice and representation in Austin, TX; Joshua Long, Urban Studies Journal, 2016, Vol. 53(1), 149-172)
You may have missed the very revealing fact that the mayor’s Institutional Racism task force referred to CodeNext as the latest document in racism. I would not be surprised if the mayor was chastised by the Chamber and Austin Downtown Alliance for the stupid error of ever having appointed a task force on racism in Austin, the most economically segregated major city in the nation, and a city that has for years pushed its minority communities further and further east, and red-lined them purposely to keep them depressed economically. Many Austinites on the west side of I-35 resisted the 10-1 plan because that weakened their ability to handpick their minority representatives at City Hall. But that has not deterred them from doing so; to find out how, you may speak with David Butts, “the invisible man” of the city’s political scene.
It’s notable that up to the day the Institutional Racism report was released, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor and the majority on city council were lauding this racist document [CodeNext]. Even after they had heard from the task force, CodeNext was included in the city’s affordable housing initiative as a possible zoning tool for creating affordable housing.
Do not be fooled; CodeNext is not dead.
Why do you think Spencer Cronk was hired as Austin’s city manager? His admiration for Michael Bloomberg and his service in the Bloomberg administration in New York City will be valuable assets to the public-private partnership that runs this city. Here is what Bloomberg’s rezoning accomplished in NYC [emphasis added]:
The quantitative analysis demonstrates that, on aggregate, rezonings were associated with residential displacement in and near the city's core while serving to exclude low-income households in the periphery. An analysis of the social and political context of the rezonings indicates that while the Department of City Planning was motivated by infrastructural and economic considerations, the interests of nongovernmental stakeholders shaped the rezoning program to a significant extent. Homeowner mobilizations produced downzonings particularly in Staten Island, eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn. Meanwhile, development interests spurred rezonings in commercial and industrial areas as well as gentrifying neighborhoods, inducing a sharp increase in housing costs and residential dislocation. While one portion of the rezoning program embodied the interests of homeowners, another was driven by the demands of the development community, resulting in divergent outcomes that undermined access to housing for New Yorkers of limited means.
(Neighborhood rezonings and uneven urban growth in Bloomberg's New York City. Goldberg, Leo (Leo Michael) : http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/98935)
Sounds very much like what has been happening in Austin, and what will continue to happen in Austin, if citizens do not object.
Given that Prop J provides for a waiting period of close to a year and voter approval for any large-scale land use change, I am in full support of this proposition. Any offspring of CodeNext, in particular if it is midwifed by a protégé of Maestro Bloomberg, will, as exemplified above, require close scrutiny.