The three candidates vying for the first District 9 Austin City Council seat discussed the city’s affordability at KUT’s “Ballot Boxing” forum on campus in the Belo Center for New Media on Monday.
Current Council members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo are seeking reelection to the restructured council, which will be made up of 10 single-member districts and one citywide, elected mayor come January. Erin McGann, a program supervisor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is running for the seat as an outsider. District 9 includes most of the UT campus, West Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress.
“Affordability is the most important issue in District 9,” Riley said. “It’s about getting enough housing out there. The one issue we have is the way we’ve been developing new homes isn’t in line with what people want today. We need more of those creative small options and large options — a whole variety of options to meet the diverse demand out there.”
Inept landlords and rental building owners also struck a chord with the candidates. McGann said the city is “understaffed and overworked” in its ability to enforce building codes.
“The code is way too much up to interpretation,” McGann said. “I have worked with people who live in residences that are a nightmare. We do need to have a better way of handling our code-breakers and having a rental registration is not necessarily the best way to do it, but we need to be protecting people who are living in bad residences.”
According to Riley, the Council has talked about implementing a blanket rental registration program for all rental properties, but he believes it would not be effective.
“The city hasn’t been doing a good job when it comes to enforcing the code with the problem properties,” Riley said. “The problem is the code compliance department has been struggling to get problems addressed at properties we know are the worst offenders. If we know where the worst cases are, and we can’t get those straightened out, I don’t think it’s time to start citywide scale bureaucracy.”
The three candidates also discussed traffic and state incentives to attract businesses to Austin. Tovo said she did not support the state providing incentives to businesses, such as the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, to attract them to Austin.
“Unless we have companies that are offering really extraordinary benefits, we do not need to offer them incentives,” Tovo said.
McGann echoed Tovo’s opinion of Austin being a highly desirable city — with or without incentives.
“Incentives create an uneven playing field,” McGann said. “We have a dynamic population in Austin of very smart people who are great employees. It’s a great area to live in, and there’s no need to be offering incentives.”
McGann criticized the Council for overspending and not cutting enough from the budget.
“We could trim the budget by $30 million tomorrow,” McGann said. “We need to be looking at every single part of the budget and do a full audit of the budget and on both of the utilities.”
According to Riley, the financial transactions of the Council are completely transparent and can be found online. He also said that cutting budgets would be difficult, as in the case with cutting the police budget in favor of parks or libraries.
“[The police force] is about 1,700 cops,” Riley said. “That metric provides a very useful mechanism of gauging the growth of the police force over time. We looked at a study that said if that’s an appropriate metric, and we need more than that. Most of it goes to the salaries of those police officers, and I think our public expects a high level of safety.”
Tovo also said public safety was paramount in priority and concern.
“I’m a strong supporter of making sure we have an adequate police force,” Tovo said. “I also believe we need to talk comprehensively about how we support public safety goals with other departments.”