Community event offers free wellness knowledge, and BBQ, too

 

As a longtime church music minister and funeral director in East Austin and Manor, Barry J.W. Franklin has stood at the intersection of some of the most vexing challenges confronting African Americans: Health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, and financial illiteracy.

Those challenges, he says, have diminished the quality of life for so many people he regularly interacts with in church pews and funeral homes – folks who have lost their inheritance, homes and health, essentially because they lacked the knowledge and savvy to address those issues timely.

On Saturday, Franklin is doing something about it by bringing experts, ranging from doctors and nurses to financial planners and insurance professionals to East Austin’s Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex — which by the way, should be renamed for the late Eric Mitchell, who as a council member in the 1990s secured the federal HUD dollars to build it.

READ: Fiery one-term council member was part of pro-business minority, rattled status quo

That’s a story for another column. Back to Saturday’s event, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., at the entertainment complex, 1156 Hargrave St.

Thanks to a host of volunteers and Franklin, who is paying for the venue, barbecue and fixings, the event is free. All are welcome.

“African Americans need to be educated on important issues while they are living so they can improve their health, survive old-age with dignity and hold on to their homes and inheritance,” Franklin said, explaining why he is hosting what he calls “A Community Celebration of Health and Wealth.”

Franklin says the event will feature information and screenings regarding diabetes, heart disease, high and low blood pressure and cancer – several of the chronic illnesses that disproportionately afflict black Americans.

The good news for African Americans is that their death rate has decreased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bad news is that African Americans, ages 18-49, are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites; and they are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites, according to the CDC.

RELATED: African American health

Another overlooked health issue is oral care for children and adults. Franklin’s got that covered with dentists and other specialists who will be on hand to provide information about that. He wants to increase awareness of oral cancer and gum disease.

Franklin says he didn’t limit the health and wellness fair to health issues because finances also play an important role in a person’s quality of life.

“I’ve seen many people pass away and leave their estates to family members and others who aren’t equipped to handle those assets, back taxes and related matters,” Franklin said. “That lack of knowledge has contributed to people losing their homes in East Austin and putting folks in debt.”

Aside from financial and estate planning, experts will be on hand to discuss wills, trusts, reverse mortgages, social security and veteran benefits and various kinds of insurance.

Among those supporting Franklin’s event is the Rev. Henrietta Sullivan Mkwanazi, co-pastor for historic Metropolitan AME Church in East Austin.

“Even those of us with college degrees have a hard time distinguishing between whole life insurance and term life insurance,” she said. “This is three packed hours of knowledge on that and many other topics.”

Mkwanazi continued: “There is an old saying that ‘knowledge is power’ and people suffering from a lack of knowledge don’t know how to tap into the things that need to be done to improve their health and welfare.”

On Saturday, the public can tap in to what Mkwanazi called “free knowledge” at the community celebration.

Poll shows how we’re split over CodeNext and what issue can bring us together

What do you think of CodeNext? It may depend, as much as anything, on how long you’ve been in Austin.

While the legal wrangling plays out at City Hall over whether to put a CodeNext-related item on the November ballot — a subplot with legal questions almost as complex as the rewrite of the land development code itself — I went searching for indicators of what the public actually thinks of CodeNext.

True, more than 32,000 people signed petitions supporting a ballot initiative that would allow voters to decide the fate of CodeNext and similar zoning overhauls, an indication many are concerned about the issue. But as Uber and Lyft can tell you, gathering enough signatures to put something on the ballot doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have enough votes to prevail on election day.

The most revealing glimpse I found on CodeNext attitudes comes from a poll commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. This scientific survey of 501 Austin residents found 45 percent favored CodeNext and 36 percent opposed it. With 19 percent unsure, a decision could swing either way.

EDITORIAL: With no good options, City Council faces dilemma over CodeNext

Most notably, the poll shows a stark difference in support for CodeNext based on how long people have lived in Austin. Support for CodeNext is 63 percent among those here less than a decade, and just 27 percent among those here more than 35 years. The opposition counts just 23 percent of the less-than-10-years crowd — and more than half of the folks here longer than 35 years.

Now, you may quibble with the pollster’s wording of the question, which described CodeNext as an effort “to rewrite the land development code and rezone certain areas of the city … in order to create more diverse housing options and increase density” in Austin or select neighborhoods. The question waves at the expected positives without acknowledging critics’ concerns about the potential displacement of longtime residents and the disruption to established neighborhoods.

And the poll, conducted in December by Baselice & Associates with a 4.4 percent margin of error, is no doubt a few months removed from the pulse of Austinites now. Even so, the results provide a helpful map to the fault lines in the CodeNext debate.

The poll showed Democrats supported CodeNext 2-to-1, while only a third of Republicans did. Predictably, support was stronger among the folks who said they believed in planning for future growth, and tepid among those who would prefer no growth at all.

The length of time people have been in Austin struck me as the most useful prism for understanding the debate, though there are exceptions to the trends. I’ve talked to some decades-long residents who champion CodeNext, and you can count me among the newcomers (I moved here five years ago) who aren’t yet sold on the plan. Still, in broad strokes, it helps to understand people on the other side of the divide.

RELATED: CodeNext foes are done with compromise. They’re going for the kill.

Most of us recognize Austin is a vibrant city that will continue to draw newcomers (there’s no hope, as the joke goes, of building a wall around Austin — and making California pay for it). It’s not a question of whether Austin will change, but in what ways, and to whose benefit?

I don’t think most longtime residents want a city frozen in amber, but they do want the neighborhood they’ve invested in to retain its feeling of home. I don’t most think newcomers want to knock everything down, but as we’re searching for housing, it’s clear to us that much, much more of it is needed.

And here’s where the poll provides some common ground: 85 percent of those surveyed agree that “Austin has an affordability problem.” (I’d love to meet the 15 percent who aren’t feeling the squeeze.) Devise a CodeNext draft that can address that overarching problem, providing more of the affordable units new residents need without physically or financially pushing out longtime residents, and the city of Austin might get more of us on the same page.

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Why Austin isn’t getting as much affordable housing money as you might think

Facing an urgent need to fund more affordable housing in Austin, the City Council set its sights on some tax dollars it figured no one would miss.

New tax dollars.

Specifically, the shiny new tax revenue that materializes when government-owned land, which doesn’t pay property taxes, becomes private housing, commercial or mixed-use developments that do.

The City Council decided in 2000 that as city lands were sold for development, 40 percent of the city tax revenue from those sites should go into Austin’s housing trust fund.

A different council doubled down in December 2015, saying 100 percent of the city tax revenue on former city lands should go to various housing programs.

By June 2016, the council widened the net to capture all city tax revenue from the redevelopment of all government-owned sites — lands owned by state agencies, Travis County, Capital Metro, Central Health, you name it. All of those city tax dollars, the council decided, should go toward affordable housing.

“We have such a need for affordable housing in this community, and this is a very appropriate remedy,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, who championed that 2016 measure, told me this week. (In fact, she said, her 2016 measure spelled out the full extent of the policy that her council predecessors had intended in 2000.)

I recently wondered how much money these mandates are channeling toward Austin’s housing efforts. I was surprised to learn the answer was: Not all of it.

VIEWPOINTS: More study needed before Austin uses this tool for affordable housing

This year, $3.7 million in city taxes are being paid on redeveloped, ex-government lands assessed at $923.8 million. But only $2 million of that revenue went into the housing fund, city finance staff told me.

Next year, redeveloped, ex-government lands worth $1.1 billion will spin off an estimated $4.6 million in city taxes. How much will go to affordable housing? Who knows.

The City Council makes the real spending decisions each year during budget season. The resolutions that called dibs on these redevelopment dollars reflect a goal, but they’re not legally binding. And when council members are facing the city’s many budget needs, they sometimes decide they can’t put as much money as they’d hoped toward affordable housing.

“A couple of us expressed a strong desire (during last budget season) that we would be able to identify enough additional money” to put the full $3.7 million toward the housing fund, Tovo said. “In the end, we had so many needs.”

I appreciate the council’s efforts to look for affordable housing money under every couch cushion, and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wanting to see all of these new tax dollars put toward the cause. But think for a moment about some of the big-ticket developments in the works on old government lands. Is it realistic for Austin to absorb all of these residents and workers without putting at least some of their property tax revenue toward the city services they will need?

VIEWPOINTS: Are developer incentives for affordable housing working?

It’s tempting to put all of the property tax revenue from those developments toward the affordable housing Austin desperately needs. But the reality is, even if these are new tax dollars, other parts of the city budget may need them. They come from residents and commercial projects that add to the demand for city services.

Tovo remains hopeful the city could somehow set aside all of this tax revenue for the housing fund. I’m less optimistic, but I see the value in these resolutions. They set an ambitious funding goal for the council and ensure an annual reckoning at City Hall over housing needs.

“This resolution forces us to acknowledge each year what the amount (for affordable housing) should be,” Tovo said. “I hope we get to the point where it is all flowing to the affordable housing fund because it is so necessary for our city.”

 

Yes, Austin, your taxes are rising (and more to come)

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Lately I’ve been feeling like a grad student at III Forks. The menu looks great. I’m just not sure I can afford it.

Officials have recently unveiled several ambitious proposals befitting Austin’s progressive reputation. A modern transit system, possibly with light rail lines, that could cost upwards of $10.5 billion to build. A $250 million to $300 million investment in much-needed affordable housing. At least $33 million to fix up some city pools — or make that $60 million if you want to cover all the needed repairs to prevent any pools from closing.

And maybe it’s just bad timing, but all of these proposals bubbled up the same week we got our new property value assessments. Let me guess: Yours went up, too.

So you can bet, despite the drumbeat on affordability over the past few years, that higher tax bills are coming. Not because there’s no other way: Officials could lower the tax rate to offset the rising values, such that homeowners would pay the same amount as last year. But that rarely happens. The government’s need for your tax dollars is too great. More often than not, officials get the best of both worlds: They enjoy political cover by touting no increase in tax rate, while raking in the extra dollars from applying that same old tax rate to your increasingly valuable home.

You may remember last year’s sobering analysis by American-Statesman reporters Melissa B. Taboada, Mary Huber and Claire Osborn, which found the average Austin homeowner was paying $7,607 in property taxes, an increase of $517 over the previous year and a $1,342 spike from five years earlier. Those rising bills get folded into rents, too, and not surprisingly, a study last year found nearly half of Austin renters were “burdened,” or spending more than 30 percent of their income just to keep the roof over their head.

We’re hurting. But instead of relief, we’re getting new proposals to spend even more money.

City and county officials are quick to note — and rightly so — that the largest and fastest growing piece of your property tax bill comes from the state’s dysfunctional system for raising public school revenue. True. And state lawmakers need to fix that, urgently.

But local officials don’t get a pass. They’re adding to the pricey menu, too.

Capital Metro officials are months away from finalizing their Project Connect plan, which includes rapid bus or light rail lines up North Lamar/Guadalupe, down South Congress and out to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, among other routes. Early estimates suggest the system would see 121,900 boardings per day across nine new routes, easily taking tens of thousands of cars off the road and providing better service to many who need it — all laudable goals.

The price tag could come in considerably lower than $10.5 billion, if officials opt for buses instead of rail, among other things. But this system would take new tax dollars nonetheless. As early as 2020, Cap Metro could ask voters to open their wallets for the first phase.

By then, taxpayers will notice their bills rising from the $720 million “go big” transportation bond approved in 2016 (a tax increase of $56 to $108 a year, depending on various factors), as well as the $1 billion Austin schools bond (officials never gave a clear number on the cost to homeowners) and the $185 million Travis County road, parks and drainage bonds passed last year (costing up to $24 a year for the typical homeowner). Again, all worthy projects. All adding to your tax bill.

Meanwhile, the city of Austin is crafting its big ask of voters for this fall. Council Members Greg Casar, Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria, whose districts are home to many of Austin’s poorest residents, are calling for a $250 million to $300 million affordable housing bond. All three have touted the plan as one that won’t raise taxes — meaning, the tax rate. But remember your rising home values? For the owner of the median value home, keeping the same debt service tax rate could add roughly $24 to the tax bill, city officials told me.

Yes, I could absorb that $2 a month, especially to help my neighbors. But the ask will likely be more than that.

Garza, whose District 2 in southeast Austin has some of the city’s worst flooding issues, wants another bond to support flood buyouts, drainage improvements and land buys of open space to prevent future flooding problems. She hasn’t settled on a number yet.

And the numbers could get bigger still. Working groups with the city’s bond advisory task force have drawn up proposals totaling $851 million in bond funding, to cover everything from parkland and some pool repairs to new fire stations and about half of the affordable housing that Casar, Garza and Renteria are pushing for. The task force may revise its numbers before making its formal pitch to City Council members next week. The council will hammer out a package to its liking over the next few months before asking voters to decide in November.

It’s not a simple calculation at this point to determine what an $851 million bond, for the sake of discussion, might cost the typical homeowner. The city does the borrowing in pieces over several years, while at the same time earlier bonds are getting paid off, making a bottom line calculation challenging.

But you can bet it’s more money than what you’re paying today, and that’s not even counting the main tax rate you pay to support day-to-day operations at the city,  including salaries for police officers, firefighters and other city staffers. Those taxes have also climbed in recent years, and at a budget forecast presentation to council members this week, the question wasn’t whether to raise taxes even more, but by how much.

I tugged on Garza’s elbow at this week’s Fair Housing Summit, not only about the proposed affordable housing bond, but about the big picture. A few years ago she championed the creation of a regional affordability committee, made up of representatives from various taxing entities, after recognizing the cumulative effect on taxpayers when $50 is added here, $75 there, another $100 over there. She told me the coordination among taxing entities isn’t as far along as she’d hoped — “it’s still very siloed,” she said — but added the discussions have been worthwhile.

She acknowledged “it is a delicate balancing act” between raising taxes to provide more affordable housing and adding to the tax burden that’s making Austin increasingly unaffordable. “Even if this bond were approved,” she said, “the impact on your average homeowner would not be significant.”

It’s just one bite. Voters will decide in November if they have the appetite for it.

With its legal arguments in shreds, Austin should release records for manager search

City of Austin chief communications director Doug Matthews, left, interviews then-candidate Spencer Cronk during a town hall meeting at the Austin Convention Center, Dec. 12, 2017. Cronk was later hired as Austin City Manager. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

 

This week’s decision by the Texas attorney general’s office rejecting the city of Austin’s decision to search in secret for a new city manager was a boost for good government.

As the Statesman’s Elizabeth Findell reported in Friday’s print editions, the city of Austin cannot withhold records showing who applied for its city manager position by claiming the information would harm the city competitively in a search for qualified applicants.

The ruling ripped to shreds nearly every ridiculous argument the Austin City Council and city staff proffered to do its business in the dark, such as their claim that the information is a trade secret, a matter that would harm the search firm competitively or is “highly intimate and embarrassing.”

Thankfully, the AG’s office wasn’t buying that foolishness.

Matthew Taylor, an assistant attorney general in the open records division, wrote the opinion, which directs the city and its executive search firm, Russell Reynolds, to turn over the bulk of the information the American-Statesman requested related to the search for a new city manager, including candidate applications. Austin may withhold only attorney-client privileged emails and some personal email addresses and cellphone numbers.

The Statesman’s editorial board also rejected the city’s arguments.

The city should turn over the information swiftly before any more damage is done to the council’s battered reputation regarding transparency.

It’s telling that the American-Statesman had to sue the city for not releasing the information, and later, for potentially violating the state’s open meetings law when the council publicly posted a meeting at one location, then ducked out a door to take vans to another location that had not been posted. That was done to dodge reporters who staked out the posted meeting place.

The law requires public notice of where and when meetings will be – even when the meetings are in closed session.

The Statesman’s editorial board was sharply critical of the council’s unanimous vote to conduct a secret search and for resorting to bizarre tactics to hide the faces of candidates and evade reporters. Bowing to public pressure, the council finally released the names of five finalists for the job, including Spencer Cronk, who they hired. Cronk starts next month.

Incredibly, the council’s decision to conduct a secret search was unanimous, representing a low point for the city’s first council elected in a 10-1 system that was supposed to yield council members more in tune with public interests. No one should have to tell them that transparency ranks at or near the top of Austin values.

Arguments by Mayor Steve Adler and other council members that the city would get a broader and better pool of applicants if identities of those seeking the job were kept secret so their employers would not know they were being recruited elsewhere were naïve at best. Employers are well aware that head hunters constantly are on the prowl for talent – and some of those recruited for the Austin job had turned up in other searches that were public.

It was particularly disappointing that Adler and his colleagues voted for secrecy in the manager’s search. Yes, Austin’s city manager oversees all city departments, 17,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. But that person also is responsible for the kind of city services residents rely on daily, such as clean water, trash pickup, street repairs, recycling services, electricity and safe neighborhoods.

That position in particular would have benefitted from total transparency and wide public input, given the myriad challenges the city, residents and next manager face. They include the city’s overhaul of its land use and zoning code, affordability crisis, traffic gridlock and economic segregation, among other things.

 

 

Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.

 

Looking for our 2016 endorsements?

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

 

Early voting for the national and local elections starts October 24 and while the Editorial Board is not endorsing in the presidential race, we are weighing in on some very important issues facing Central Texans.

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.)

Presidential Election:

Mobility Bonds Election:

Travis County Sheriff race:

Travis County District Attorney race:

Austin City Council District 2 and 4 races:

Austin City Council District 6 race:

Austin City Council Districts 7 and 10 races:

Austin Community College Board of Trustee races:

Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees races:

 

And of course, you can get full election coverage here: Statesman Elections 2016

 

Local LULAC’s ‘State Of Latino’ guide is helpful summary of best practices

Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla over France, which occupied Mexico. The May 5th holiday has come to be a sort of Hispanic St. Patrick's Day in the United States that is celebrated by people of every ethnic background. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In an increasingly gentrified city, even well-intentioned projects can have a negative effect on existing communities if the overall needs of a specific population aren’t taken into consideration.

So then, how can policymakers avoid overlooking obvious solutions? Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens District XII say they have an answer: Read the recommendations in its recently released “State Of Latinos Austin Texas 2016” guide.

The report, which was presented last month, is a summary of best practices, existing projects and other initiatives already underway in various sectors in Austin. The compilation of so much information offers valuable insight. With a still new 10-1 Austin City Council structure, it makes sense to have a resource that council members can use to familiarize themselves with many of these initiatives as they work on new policies and programs.

The document, LULAC’s District XII members say, aims to “provide some guidance on deliberate steps toward ending persistent racial outcome disparities in specific policy areas.” There’s no way around it; because of Austin’s history of discrimination, disadvantages associated with race remain deeply embedded in the city.

As a solution, LULAC’s report lists three reminders for social change. They are:

  • Include equity as a criteria for inclusion and prioritization of policies.
  • Target benefits to Latinos and other vulnerable populations.
  • Prioritize the provision of resources where they’re most needed.

Currently, the catch-all term that addresses much of the inequalities that persist is “affordability.” But as we all know, affordability doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. For many low-income individuals and families — of which the majority are Latino and African-American — affordability can equate to the ability to meet basic necessities. And, as history shows, helping low-income residents has rarely been a priority for Austin’s leaders and policymakers.

But things are changing.

Today, local leaders and organizations are increasingly partaking in crucial conversations about affordability and inequality in Austin. Much good work is already being done – including in the business, health, housing and education sectors – to address the issue. However, many of those efforts are fragmented.

That’s bad news. When policymakers don’t have the whole picture, it’s easy for things to get lost in the cracks, members of LULAC’s District XII say. That’s why they created the report.

“The guide is a reminder, and a starting point in some cases, for city leaders to focus attention on specific details and to identify core issues and introduce the vocabulary of racial equity into conversations,” Cynthia Valadez, a member of the group, told me.

The concerns outlined by the document align with the city’s Hispanic Quality of Life initiative, which aims to determine what the city can do to improve opportunities and living experiences for Hispanics, a historically underserved community. Since launching the initiative in 2008, the city invested in demographic research and analysis, collected community feedback and had an oversight committee in 2013 – the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission – present a final report with recommendations.

Following the recommendations of the 2013 report, the city has made some changes, like increasing funding and expanding programs at the Department Health and Human Services, as well as creating a Hispanic/Latino Leadership Program at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

What about all the other recommendations made in the report? What’s the status of those?

As David Green, the city’s media relations manager, told me, “there isn’t a single master list of the myriad actions the city has taken in regards to the recommendations from the June 2013 report.” It makes sense to have a master list to reference, which could act as a reminder of what else needs to be done.

What’s next for the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission is presenting a summary later this year that will outline actions and more recommendations, Green said in an email.

It would be wise for the committee to take a good look at LULAC’s guide to ensure the best outcomes for all present and future initiatives targeting low-income Austinites.

Looking forward, the LULAC guide will not only benefit city leaders and policymakers, it could become a vital instrument for the person who serves as the city’s chief equity officer – a newly created seat that has no official start date. That post will lead the newly formed city of Austin’s Diversity and Equity Office. The creation of the office was a direct result of the requests made by Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Advisory Commission members. Currently, the city is searching for a candidate for the job and has scheduled community forums for feedback about which qualities Austinites would like to see in this new leader.

With so much work still left on the affordability front, the LULAC guide would be a useful tool of reference for all city leaders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Austin’s black population falls, a question of representation rises

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A mural of Martin Luther King Jr., as seen on the wall of Sam’s BBQ in East Austin in January. Jay Janner / American-Statesman

African Americans once represented about 15 percent of Austin’s overall population, but over the past few decades, the city’s black population has decreased steadily as African Americans have moved outside Austin. Today, the African-American share of Austin’s population is 7 percent, according to city estimates.

Eric Tang, a professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas, produced an attention-grabbing report two years ago which found that Austin, despite growing 20.4 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, was the country’s only large, fast-growing city to record a decline in its black population: 5.4 percent, from 64,259 in 2000 to 60,760 in 2010.

With the help of UT doctoral student Bisola Falola, Tang recently produced a new report asking African Americans who have moved to the suburbs why they left Austin. I won’t dwell on Tang and Falola’s results, which the American-Statesman’s Dan Zehr covered last week, other than to note that a majority of African Americans — 56 percent — said they left Austin because they no longer could afford to live in the city. Many said they would move back if they could.

For most of the respondents to Tang and Falola’s survey, leaving Austin “was not an act of social mobility” equivalent to the postwar “white flight” to the suburbs, “but one of social sacrifice,” Tang and Falola wrote. “They moved out, but not necessarily up.”

The significance of this “outmigration”? The report briefly goes over several noteworthy effects on those who have left Austin. Public amenities and services often are harder to access in the suburbs than they are in the city. People feel a loss of community and a sense of social disconnection as they move from neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. Economic segregation worsens, further crippling economic mobility.

These effects frequently are discussed and debated in stories about Austin’s declining African-American population. But there is one effect that often is overlooked. It is worth revisiting, for it will be much discussed in about five years when it becomes clear how the African-American migration from Austin to the suburbs potentially affects the makeup of the Austin City Council.

In November 2012, Austin voters ditched the old City Council, with its six members and the mayor elected at large, in favor of a council whose members are elected from 10 geographical districts, with the mayor still elected citywide. One of the main reasons the City Council has 10 district representatives is because 10 was the minimum number needed at the time to draw a district in which black voters would have an opportunity to elect an African-American council member.

Yet, even with 10 districts, creating an African-American opportunity district was barely possible given the movement of African Americans out of Austin, and the decreasing concentration of black Austinites in East Austin. The best the independent commission that drew the new districts could do was District 1 in East and Northeast Austin. District 1 is — or rather was at the time of the 2010 census — 28.2 percent African American.

If drawing an African-American opportunity district was barely possible for the current council, it might be impossible when new district boundaries are drawn after the 2020 census.

Sure, an African American can be elected in any district; he or she does not have run in District 1. And after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the need to create an African American opportunity district may no longer be felt.

But if the city wants to maintain council diversity and continue to give its remaining African Americans a chance to elect one of their own, it will face some tough choices. Either voters will have to be asked to increase the number of council districts to make it possible to draw an African-American opportunity district, or they will have to be asked to add a couple of at-large seats to the council. Either way, it’s conceivable a version of the so-called gentlemen’s agreement that designated one seat on the old at-large council for an African-American member will have to be revived for the district-based council.

Or, it’s also conceivable Austin’s African-American population will have shrunk so much the city will have to consider a different question: At what low percentage point does a group’s numbers no longer justify gerrymandering a district to give them an opportunity to elect their own council representative?

And deciding the answer to this question will have to occur against a different group’s rapid growth: Asian Americans were 6.8 percent of the city’s population in 2014, according to city estimates. This was just below African Americans’ 7 percent. Given current trends, Austin’s Asian population will be greater than its black population after the 2020 census.

Asians are widely dispersed throughout the city, but they made up 13.3 percent of District 6, in Northwest Austin, in 2010. When new districts are drawn after 2020, shouldn’t the next opportunity first be theirs?

Is our approach to wage inequality all wrong?

 

FairChance
People gathered Thursday night at Austin City Hall with signs supporting the proposed “fair chance” hiring rules. The proposal, which was approve last week, would prevent many businesses from asking about a job applicant’s criminal history until a conditional job offer is made.

As depressing as the studies about Austin’s increasing economic stratification may be, it’s not like public policy makers haven’t been talking about the issue for decades.

Austin’s progressive pedigree means that our political lexicon includes perennial discussions about poverty, unequal educational outcomes, access to higher education, job opportunities and wage equity. Just in the past two weeks the city scored two more victories designed to put the city on the road to a more equitable future, with the adoption of “Fair Chance Hiring” rules and and extending the living wage to city contractors.

So why isn’t Austin seeing more progress on the income equity front? Just last week a Brookings Institute study suggested that Austin’s high rate of poverty concentration may, in fact, accelerate in the next few years. Maybe we’re focused on the wrong things, as this article in The Atlantic suggests this week.

The Atlantic’s Gillian White drilled down to the crux of a study by a University of Illinois sociologist Kevin Leicht. The study, published in The Sociological Quarterly, suggests that our national tendency to fixate on racial and gender groups may get in the way of solving the overall problem of income inequality.

Yes, Leicht says, there are gaps between groups, but there are also important gaps within those groups which are getting much, much worse. The most interesting part of the Atlantic’s Q & A has to do with job creation. More than raw numbers of new jobs, success is about the quality and continuous spectrum of the jobs produced. If the only jobs available are high tech jobs with significant educational requirements and minimum wage service jobs, then there are no mid-range alternatives for a moderately educated work force. More importantly there is then no ability for those at the lower end of the spectrum to climb the income ranks. They may be educated, but still earn next to nothing.

Says Leicht:

“We need to focus more directly on labor-market policies that increase people’s earnings and increase the steadiness of their jobs. In the end, fighting income inequality is about fighting income inequality. It’s not about closing educational gaps or getting more people married, or creating a diverse pool of Fortune 500 CEOs.”

Public and social investment are important no doubt, but without the right mix of jobs Austin is going to have a hard time moving the needle on income stratification and inequality.