There’s no doubt that by now most Americans know how they’ll vote on the main ticket this presidential election, but local races are just as important — if not more so, some will argue — and deserve voters’ attention. It’s at the local level that the Editorial Board has decided to focus and dig a little deeper, providing both analytical editorials on some of the most pressing issues coupled with Q&A’s with candidates who will take on these issues if elected. Below, you’ll find a list of the races and issues we’ve chosen to weigh in on.
So whether you choose to head to the polls next week (early voting ends Nov. 4) or decide to wait for Election Day on Nov. 8, we encourage you to make it through to the end of the ballot and cast as an informed vote as much a possible. (BTW: Need more info on Austin City Council Candidates? Don’t know who represents you? No problem. Use the Statesman’s City Council Candidate Explorer to answer your questions.)
Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, speaking in Austin on Wednesday to the Texas Association of Black City Council Members, emphasized the importance of cities, and particularly municipalities in Texas, in leading “an urban renaissance” as the nation continues its demographic shift — culturally and economically.
“There are new roles for cities that are yet to come,” said Cisneros to the group meeting at Huston-Tillotson University. “We’re witnessing an urban renaissance in America.”
Manufacturing no longer is the economic engine of U.S. cities, Cisneros said, adding that economies are powered by new media, international trade, and big universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin.
The former mayor of San Antonio said that Austin with its booming high tech, knowledge and research infrastructure, along with San Antonio with its bio medical and science sectors are positioned to become big players on a national stage, as are Houston, the energy capital of the country, and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a major financial hub. Because the populations of those cities are largely minority, African American and Latino leaders are at the forefront of those shifts.
“These are the next world capitals,” Cisneros said, referring to Texas major cities.
Two of those cities, Houston and San Antonio, are led by mayors who are African American.
Cisneros also reminded the group that smaller cities – think San Marcos, Manor, Elgin, Smithville and Bastrop – situated on the outskirts of larger cities have greater roles to play in driving regional and state economies.
“Because we live in a system of cities, even small cities are important,” Cisneros said. “Cities will be the engines that pull Texas.”
On the cultural front, Cisneros noted that a majority of all children who entered kindergarten this year are minority: “It’s not just children in California, but all kids,” across the country, he said, adding “that will change the American story going forward. We’ve got to prepare those kids.”
As the keynote speaker at the Texas Association of Black City Council Members, Cisneros talked about his earlier years as a council member and mayor of San Antonio and how switching to a single-member district system made a huge difference in the way San Antonio did business and addressed its challenges. The council went from one dominated by older, white men with a chamber of commerce focus to one in which six of 11 members were minority who brought a more inclusive governing style by focusing on areas of town that had been marginalized, he said.
Though the event was well attended, drawing officials and others from Fort Worth, Sulphur Springs, Cedar Hill, Garland, Austin, Bastrop, San Antonio and other cities, nearly all of the participants were African American. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I couldn’t help think that Cisneros’ message was one that would resonate with a broader, more diverse audience, including elected officials and business leaders from Austin and Travis and Williamson counties. That is especially true when Cisneros
talked about the special role African American and Latino leaders must play as bridges that bring diverse sectors together to get things done for their cities.
Shortly after Cisneros took office as mayor in 1981 he got a call from friend and mentor Andrew Young, a civil rights leader and a former ambassador to the United Nations appointed by then-President Jimmy Carter. Young, who also served as mayor of Atlanta, advised Cisneros to be “an honest bridge.”
That means persuading minority communities to work with white communities and in particular the business and financial sectors because they would provide the financial investments and support cities need to improve the quality of life for their many minority residents, including expanding jobs and educational opportunities.
Being an honest bridge also means persuading white communities and bankers that they have a stake in making investments that help minority communities because they will need the votes of Latinos and African Americans to get their agendas passed on tax policies and other economic issues important to business.
Cisneros cited former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro’s role in passing a measure expanding San Antonio’s sales tax to finance several pre-kindergarten programs in the city. Pre-K programs give minority kids the head start they need for school, but they’re also good for the business community and city, which will need an educated workforce to fill jobs and people who in future years will contribute to San Antonio’s tax base.
He also noted current San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor’s role in brokering a collective bargaining agreement with the city’s police union, breaking a three-year stalemate. Taylor was at the event, along with Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, to mark the 30th anniversary of the organization.
For his part, Cisneros said he landed in a great spot last year by securing an ownership stake in the New York-based firm Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co. LLC, a full-service investment banking and financial services company (formerly Siebert Brandford Shank) that was founded in 1996.
The firm, he said, is in an elite circle as a Wall Street firm owned by an African American, Hispanic and woman. Cisneros also served in President Clinton’s administration as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 1993 to 1997.
When it comes to affordable housing, particularly for low- or working-income families, Austin’s attitude seems to be “There’s no more room at the inn.”
Sadly, it has become acceptable – even laudable – in some circles to evict, eject or otherwise force out long-time residents of modest or meager means to make way for the more prosperous newcomers who want to live in the central city. It is, as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would say, “smart” business to demolish the city’s most affordable housing stock and neighborhoods to build high-rent condos and homes for the well-heeled.
The most recent example of that is the hard-core eviction notices that went to residents of an East Austin apartment complex to move out in 30 days. These were low-income families – all Hispanic — with children who attend nearby Blanton Elementary School.
Blanton is a school with a pretty good record of educating all kids, including those who come speaking little or no English, or show up hungry because their families are deciding between paying the rent or buying enough food to last the month. So it makes sense that parents would want their children in a school with such a reputation.
As apartment complexes go, 5020 Manor Road is relatively small with 58 units. It has been repeatedly cited by the city for code violations. Despite such issues, it has served many families over the decades as an affordable option in the central city near major public transportation.
But here’s the thing: The property, which has gone by the name Harvard Manor and Lyric at Mueller, is walking distance from the affluent Mueller redevelopment with its pricey homes and condos, sprawling parks and trails, trendy shops and restaurants and protected bike lanes. So the 5020 Manor Road’s proximity to Mueller makes it too valuable for low-income residents who have occupied it all these years as it languished in disrepair.
Maybe the former owner could not afford to continue maintenance or maybe the offer by a new, out of state investor was too good to turn down. Whatever the case, there’s no more room at that inn for the working poor.
In all, 30 families were ordered out of their homes by Sept. 30. Thanks to intervention of several city and school district leaders, including Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo and school trustee, Edmund Gordon, as well as Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, the remaining couple of dozen families initially were given another month to find new homes.
But they now will have more time – until about the end of the year — due to a new city ordinance aimed at softening the impact of evictions on low-income Austin residents.
The ordinance requires property owners to give tenants who might be displaced at least 120 days’ notice before the filing of an application for a building or demolition permit that would force them from their homes. As the American-Statesman’s James Barragan reported, the city’s development services on Friday triggered the ordinance, suspending three demolition permits that the owners of 5020 Manor filed with the city.
Aaron Rasty, the new manager of the company that owns the property, later told Barragan that he was unaware of the tenant relocation ordinance, but now will work with the city. He added that management had assisted some tenants in finding new housing.
But even with more time, finding an affordable apartment in Austin these days is akin to finding a needle in a haystack.
There was a time when a large stretch of Manor Road, from Airport Boulevard to U.S. 183, was lined with low-rent and so-called Section 8 housing for the poor. But the rise of the Mueller redevelopment – ironically from city-owned property that once housed Robert Mueller Municipal Airport – has triggered a shift in housing that now beckons hipsters with apartments marketed by their location to nearby Mueller.
Those trends that are disproportionately displacing African Americans and Latinos have been aided by city policies dating back several mayors to then-Mayor Kirk Watson, and numerous city managers, including City Manager Marc Ott, who last week stepped down to take a job in Washington, D.C.
Even the city’s well-intended repeat offender list seems to be working against affordability in certain cases.
Though the city’s repeat offender list for rental properties that violate city code aims to pressure landlords to repair properties, it has instead become what Shoshana Krieger of Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid calls a “real estate speculator’s list.” So instead of spending money to fix properties in desirable areas of town, such as 5020 Manor Road, owners sell them for big profits. Apartments that were once low-rent are replaced with higher-rental units or condos.
“Instead of helping the people who have been living in these conditions for so long, whose health and safety has suffered, it (repeat offender list) seems to be rewarding slumlords who have profited off families,” said Krieger who heads the Building and Strengthening Tenant Action project.
Tovo also expressed concern that the repeat offender list is in certain cases spurring landlords to sell properties rather than repair them for the tenants living in them. Tovo said the city should examine ways to help landlords who are financially-strapped, such as steering them to low-interest loans, so there are options other than selling properties when landlords can’t afford to repair them.
As for the city’s tenant relocation ordinance, it did its job by stopping speedy evictions. It is unfortunate, however, that success is not measured by keeping families in their homes, schools or community, but in how long they get to stay before being booted out.