Campaign Questions: Gentrification, health care and small business stability weigh on District 1 City Council candidates

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District 1 Council Member Ora Houston’s decision to not seek re-election meant the East Austin district would welcome fresh representation at the city’s decision-making table, and a cast of newcomers have flocked to the opportunity.

The majority-minority district begins just west of I-35, extends east to SH 130, and is bordered by Parmer Lane to the north and the Colorado River to the south. District 1’s west end has become a magnet for commercial and residential development, which has priced many longtime residents and businesses out of their homes and created a growing gentrification problem. The area also suffers from restricted access to health care and other city resources and a depleted relationship with the police force.

The candidates running to represent District 1 on the Austin City Council dais hail from a range of backgrounds and experiences. They each answered five questions, ranging from how to address gentrification and improve the relationship with the police, to traffic and small businesses stability. Community Impact Newspaper set a strict 100-word limit and did not edit the answers for grammar or spelling—they are printed verbatim.

 

1. District 1 lacks adequate health care access, leading some parts of the district to have shorter lifespans than others. How will you improve the gaps in access to health care facing your constituents?

Mitrah Avini

Mitrah Avini (via Courtesy Avini Campaign)

Mitrah Avini, 29, has lived in Austin for 20 years.

Central Health is financed by our taxes and is responsible for serving the healthcare needs of Travis County residents. We have been hearing about plans for a partnership between Central Health and certain private organizations in formation of an Innovation District/Zone where UT’s teaching hospital is currently being constructed. This will essentially amount to a public-private partnership and can be classed as a case that provides economic development incentives by a local government division. Public scrutiny of this plan is of highest priority: given the city’s record in promoting irrational growth using public funds, this partnership must be opposed.

Lewis Conway, Jr.

Lewis Conway, Jr. (via Courtesy Conway Campaign)

Lewis Conway, Jr., 48, has lived in Austin for 45 years.

Health care is a human right. Our current system of providing care is broken and immoral. We have an opportunity to create a universal healthcare system in Austin that guarantees care to all Austinites. I am proposing that we institute a pilot program in District One called DistriCare. This program would be modeled after Healthy San Francisco, a healthcare program that has been successfully implemented for nearly ten years. Austin Public Health operates on three P’s – Prevent, Promote and Protect. We are proposing a 4th ‘P’ – Provide. Let’s create a healthier Austin.

Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding (via Courtesy Harding Campaign)

Vincent Harding, 31, has lived in Austin for 9 years.

I want to increase health screenings and education provided by Austin’s Health Department to the community. Additionally, I will evaluate ways to increase the health options currently existing at the Sandra Joy Anderson Clinic on the Huston Tillotson Campus and the one-­‐day a week health services provided at Overton Elementary School. I want to partner with Central Health to provide more health care and develop strategies to better address health ailments and life expectancy disparities. I will seek to partner with the community and businesses to increase healthy food options. I will continue to advocate for the expansion of Obamacare.

Natasha Harper-Madison

Natasha Harper-Madison (via Courtesy Harper-Madison Campaign)

Natasha Harper-Madison, 41, has lived in Austin for 38 years.

Prop E addresses this very issue, I’m certain that the same reconciliation can be done in D1. My first step to addressing gaps in healthcare access would be to institute practices that produce more robust preemptive and preventive models to address the problem. We need a more frequent community needs assessment.
Public/private partnerships and a comprehensive approach to securing funding for increased access to conveniently located healthcare options is imperative. Additionally, as we approach the designation of being the host for a fabulous new medical school and subsequently enhanced medical system, those resources should obviously benefit those in the margins.

Mariana Salazar

Mariana Salazar (via Courtesy Salazar Campaign)

Mariana Salazar, 37, has lived in Austin for 11 years.

Inequities in social determinants of health like education, transportation, employment, and healthy food access impact our ability to live healthy lives. As a council member, I will work with Central Health, Austin Public Health and other stakeholders to increase access to facilities, like primary care clinics & urgent care centers, while providing more initiatives that promote health & wellness. District 1’s ever-evolving population should benefit from mobile health services, community health worker initiatives, and other affordable services that can be mobilized and tailored to the health needs of our community. I support the expansion of mental health coverage and behavioral health supports.

Reedy Spigner

Reedy Spigner (via Courtesy Spigner Campaign)

Reedy Spigner, 37, has lived in Austin for 34 years.

Healthcare access in District 1 requires planning, eliminating food deserts, public/private collaboration and technology. Fund an adequate supply of walkable sidewalks and bike-friendly lanes to promote physical activity. Food deserts should be replaced with community gardens and grocery stores. Council should capitalize on the expansion of healthcare opportunities provided by Dell Medical School, Dell Children and Heart Hospital and University of Texas through collaboration. For minor and preventable medical situations, increase funding for internet portals for access to Austin’s telemedicine virtual care. For emergency situations, District 1 needs more ER vehicles and to ultimately build a hospital.

2. Longtime residents of District 1 are being displaced as land prices increase and rapid development moves east. How will you work to ensure housing stability for District 1 residents?

Mitrah Avini

Mitrah Avini (via Courtesy Avini Campaign)

Avini

There are two courses of action for dealing with any ill: we can either treat the symptoms or the root causes. Most cures proposed so far deal with the former, but I prefer to directly attack the latter as well as attend to the former. Austin’s growth has been insane and irrational; because profit has been the main motivator, there has been disregard for the inevitable effect on longtime residents. We must look at growth proactively, carefully considering all its possible effects. The damage already done, however, can be remedied to some extent by making property taxes and rents manageable.

Lewis Conway, Jr.

Lewis Conway, Jr. (via Courtesy Conway Campaign)

Conway, Jr.

Austin is not just one of the top cities to live in America, it is our home. Rising property taxes, stagnant wages, record high rents, and soaring cost of living are making Austin unaffordable for most residents. I am proposing that we institute a Municipal Affordable Housing Trust through the Housing Authority of the City of Austin in order to create permanent equitable, affordable housing in Austin. Creating Community Land Trusts will create affordable housing in District One that our communities desperately need.

Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding (via Courtesy Harding Campaign)

Harding

I support the housing bond that would provide repairs for older homes, buy land, and build new affordable housing. Homestead preservation district could help with community land trusts and tax revenue dedicated to provide long-­‐term affordable housing. By providing housing density on corridors and missing middle housing behind it, this will provide additional less expensive housing options than the cost of a single family home replacement. This will also help reduce some of the demand by providing alternative housing options near downtown. A strike fund can help Austin buy existing lower cost apartment complexes and maintain affordable housing stock.

Natasha Harper-Madison (via Courtesy Harper-Madison Campaign)

Harper-Madison

Passing the upcoming housing bond (Prop A) will assist with the issue of displacement by way of introducing increased affordable housing in the city center and beyond. Additional measures with the upcoming bond proposals, especially Prop G that make improvements to transportation infrastructure, will assist long term. I plan to introduce and implement alternative institutions, including home repairs, comprehensive resident representation and advocacy, public/private partnerships, community land trusts and more. Access to transportation, fair wages, as well as community amenities, quality schools, healthcare, parks, aquatics infrastructure, etc make for accessible, diverse communities.

Mariana Salazar

Mariana Salazar (via Courtesy Salazar Campaign)

Salazar

53% of District 1 residents are renters while 47% are homeowners. As a council member, I will work to preserve and create more mixed-income housing in East Austin and throughout the city. Not only is it important for housing to be affordable, but also for neighborhoods to have nearby amenities like transportation & childcare. On the November ballot, I will support the Affordable Housing Bond which will expand home repair, the Homeownership Assistance Program, and acquisition of land for developing more affordable housing. Additionally, I support solutions outlined in the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint to address rising property taxes for homeowners.

Reedy Spigner

Reedy Spigner (via Courtesy Spigner Campaign)

Spigner

Housing stability, for renters and landowners, can be achieved by increasing housing capacity and variety throughout the city. This can be accomplished and still protect the character of Austin’s older neighborhoods. Compatibility regulations are the biggest limiter of housing supply. I advocate amending those regulations. Amendment would allow the creation of zoning that encourages missing middle housing like duplexes, triplexes and row homes while still preserving the character of each neighborhood in a district dominated by single family homes.

3. What do you see as the greatest transportation challenge in District 1 and how will you improve it?

Mitrah Avini

Mitrah Avini (via Courtesy Avini Campaign)

Avini

District 1 residents as matter of course have been helping to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint by their consistent use of CapMetro’s bus system. The service needs to be expanded and CapMetro’s drivers commended as they do a great service in providing indispensable transportation for the vulnerable and disabled Austinites.

Lewis Conway, Jr.

Lewis Conway, Jr. (via Courtesy Conway Campaign)

Conway, Jr.

We believe the City and Cap Metro must commit to public transportation as a 1st option for District 1 and plan forward from that baseline. We would unequivocally support any effort that increases access to those that rely on public transportation.ages and benefits. Multi-modal forms of transportation must be pursued for two reasons: jobs and eliminating the reliance on gas-powered vehicles.

Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding (via Courtesy Harding Campaign)

Harding

Improving mass transit, road congestion, lack of sidewalks and bicycle paths, and affordability. I want to create the transportation system of the 21st century that includes wheelchairs, walking, buses, autonomous vehicles, rail, cars, bicycles, and scooters. A focus should be on providing more comfortable mass transit stops with additional benches and shelters, shorter wait times, and faster travel times of mass transit by increasing dedicated pathways. Additionally, there is the need to increase sidewalks to comply with ADA laws and provide safer paths for children. I want to utilize technology such as synchronized lights and autonomous vehicles moving forward.

Natasha Harper-Madison (via Courtesy Harper-Madison Campaign)

Harper-Madison

I truly believe the greatest challenge for District 1 and beyond regarding transportation is the culture around transportation (especially car dependency) and education/information about multi modal transportation options. We absolutely have to as soon as possible address the lack of shelter and comfort for people who access public transportation options. I will definitely be in favor of the upcoming housing bond (Prop A) especially to see the funds deployed in a myriad of ways to reconcile issues relating to affordable housing near transportation corridors. People need to be able to live, work and play in compact, considerately dense communities.

Mariana Salazar

Mariana Salazar (via Courtesy Salazar Campaign)

Salazar

Public transit is not meeting our community needs and as a result only 4.4% of District-1 residents take transit to go to work. As a council member, I will collaborate with CapMetro and stakeholders to increase transit service quality, provide a more effective and frequent network of routes, invest in high capacity transit and use limited transit dollars more efficiently. We must update our land use code to support compact urban growth, allowing transit to reach the critical ridership needed to expand service. I will support sidewalks, bike lanes, urban trails, and road improvements to complement our transit system.

Reedy Spigner

Reedy Spigner (via Courtesy Spigner Campaign)

Spigner

The greatest transportation challenges in District 1 are education and a lack of options. Council must educate residents that the one person per vehicle model is broken, encourage transit, increase connectivity to various parts of the city and increase the variety of modes of transportation. Buses should be reliable, with direct routes to relevant destinations. For cars, Austin needs 21st century solutions like smart traffic lights and smart traffic management infrastructure. Austin should allow pick up and drop off zones for ride-share and carpooling in congested areas, eliminate some on-street parking, ease restrictions on scooters and increase bike lanes and

4. As a council member, how can you work to improve the relationship between District 1 residents and law enforcement?

Mitrah Avini

Mitrah Avini (via Courtesy Avini Campaign)

Avini

The aforementioned relationship is a direct reflection of the irresponsible growth promoted by the City Hall and its corporate partners. Have you ever seen a police officer in civilian clothes ? Police officers, not surprisingly, are people like you and me with the difference that, when in uniform, they are seen as representing the government of a city that prioritizes profit over people. The city’s disregard for people extends also to police officers. Both a letter by the ‘Public Safety First Coalition’ to Mayor Adler and the Institutional Racism Report indicate a highly overworked Austin police force.

Lewis Conway, Jr.

Lewis Conway, Jr. (via Courtesy Conway Campaign)

Conway, Jr.

I experienced Austin’s criminal justice system firsthand when I was convicted for manslaughter in 1992. Having spent eight years in prison and twelve years on parole, I understand our criminal justice system and the obstacles the people in it face inside and outside of incarceration. Since my release, I have worked as a community and criminal justice organizer working to create a more just system. I am proposing that we end cash bail, support treatment over incarceration, and treat arrests and incarceration as a last resort. We need to institute citizen oversight over our police department.

Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding (via Courtesy Harding Campaign)

Harding

After years of silence, I am proud of the work I did to pioneer community conversations on policing, immigration, and criminal justice to push for safety and improved relationships between residents and law enforcement. I will continue to hold public meetings, push for policy changes, work toward finding an agreement on the police contract, and going to the Legislature to fight against laws that attack immigrant families. All residents of District 1, no matter their race, gender, economic status, deserve a chance to live their lives, pursue their passions, and seek to bring to reality the dreams of their families.

Natasha Harper-Madison (via Courtesy Harper-Madison Campaign)

Harper-Madison

As a council member something I would like very much to do immediately is reconcile our lack of having a contract for our police department. The issues surrounding general relations between PD and D1 residents are worth addressing; transparency, oversight and accountability are paramount. I would empower the monitor’s office, modify the reporting process, diversify the department’s recruitment, enhance training and selection protocol, encourage more civilians to engage with a ride along as well as increase efforts towards community policing and district representation efforts.

Mariana Salazar

Mariana Salazar (via Courtesy Salazar Campaign)

Salazar

It is critical for District 1 residents and law enforcement to work together toward improving the safety of our communities. As a council member, I will facilitate more opportunities for residents to interact and collaborate in a positive way with local law enforcement, finding common ground and providing opportunities for regular interaction and collaboration. There are valid concerns in our community, and police oversight and monitoring are critical to enhancing transparency and trust. Meanwhile, we must ensure our police are receiving high quality training, adequate compensation, and a chance to work in partnership with the community they serve.

Reedy Spigner

Reedy Spigner (via Courtesy Spigner Campaign)

Spigner

First the council should complete negotiation with the APD about their contract disputes. Then we should create a framework for Community Policing that includes community outreach,information sharing, collaboration on area problems, quality of life concerns, to establish an ongoing relationship with community members. Expand youth engagement efforts to provide mentoring and support services. Subsidize affordable officer housing within District 1. Last, council should increase police training for mental health and cultural sensitivity training.

5. Many longtime small businesses in District 1 have closed in recent years. What work can you do with small local businesses to ensure their viability?

Mitrah Avini

Mitrah Avini (via Courtesy Avini Campaign)

Avini

This is taking place in other districts as well and the rapid increase in property taxes is cited as one cause. The city’s small business initiative is a front for inviting big retail businesses into the city and in particular district 1, as it requires a ‘limited repeal of Part 2 of Ordinance No. 20090312-005.’ This was an ordinance that was passed in 2009 after the Domain debacle forced the city to ban “economic incentives for private, large-scale, mixed-use projects that include a retail component.” Austin’s small businesses are best served by eliminating tax-payer subsidized growth.

Lewis Conway, Jr.

Lewis Conway, Jr. (via Courtesy Conway Campaign)

Conway, Jr.

The first step is to undergird those businesses with policies that protect their economic and neighborhood footprint. Folks are being driven out of business by property valuations and excessive tax burdens. We must look for ways outside of taxing our small businesses to generate income for our general fund. A culture shift is needed, a shift that highlights the importance of these neighborhood and community anchors.

Vincent Harding

Vincent Harding (via Courtesy Harding Campaign)

Harding

Austin’s incentive policy should emphasize helping longtime businesses by providing more opportunities and giving a fair opportunity to earn incentives. Austin should help provide additional education regarding local regulations to help minimize potential confusion regarding requirements. I want small businesses to have a seat at the table when decisions are being made that impact them. I want to increase resources for job education and training for local residents to help result in higher paying jobs in the future. While individuals are seeking education and training, I want to help provide childcare at a lower cost to help families.

Natasha Harper-Madison (via Courtesy Harper-Madison Campaign)

Harper-Madison

Viability in small business is of the utmost importance to me. I believe that access to economic mobility is largely aligned with opportunity. Frequently opportunity by way of entrepreneurship can make up for cyclical impediments. I look forward to implementing grandfather clauses, incumbances, fixed rental rates and historical considerations for commercial real estate. Additionally, I believe we need to address access to small business development, financial and digital literacy and access to financing options.

Mariana Salazar

Mariana Salazar (via Courtesy Salazar Campaign)

Salazar

I support incentivising small businesses through a combination of tax breaks, direct payments, or reimbursements for the costs of job training and hiring. As a council member, I would like to ensure that Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprises have a fair chance at participating in City bids and contracts. I’d like to talk with both business owners and the City of Austin Small Business Programs to identify unmet needs and opportunities. There are also additional nonprofit and community organizations dedicated to supporting small businesses, such as People Fund. I would like to work to connect small businesses to services available locally.

Reedy Spigner

Reedy Spigner (via Courtesy Spigner Campaign)

Spigner

Council should concentrate on the communities that are susceptible to gentrification to prevent residents and small businesses from being priced out as their neighborhoods become more attractive to developers and investors. As a community we need to rally and collaborate to find a solution that is plaguing Austin and several big cities.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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