MAKING AUSTIN MORE AFFORDABLE

Let’s be honest: much of Austin’s high cost of living is the result of forces we simply can’t control. Facing everything from inflation and higher gas prices to the effects of war, Austinites, like everyone else, are struggling. That’s why I believe it’s more important than ever for local leaders to step up and tackle, head on, the challenges that we can control.

I deeply believe that Austin’s best days are ahead. To ensure that they are, we should focus on pragmatic ways to improve the quality of our daily life and solve local problems that matter to local people. And right now, nothing matters more to Austinites than affordability.

We all know that Austin’s housing costs – the most significant monthly expense for almost everyone in our community – have spiraled out of control, and I’ve proposed a number of new ideas that I believe can help. But there are other ways that City Hall, other local governments, and community leaders could and should work together to help more people live and thrive in our city. If elected mayor, I will work to:

EXPAND AFFORDABLE CHILDCARE OPTIONS CITYWIDE

For many Austin families, childcare is the second-biggest monthly expense, behind only housing. Unfortunately, like so many other sectors in the wake of the pandemic, childcare providers continue to experience serious staffing shortages, which reduces available options (Texas lost more than 20% of childcare providers over a recent 18-month period) and drives up costs. When parents can’t find affordable, acceptable childcare, it impedes their career growth and slows Austin’s economic recovery. Research also clearly shows that strong pre-kindergarten programs demonstrably improve students’ success in school and later in life. The City can make a big difference for family budgets, our workforce, our children, and Austin’s economic future by expanding affordable, high-quality childcare and pre-kindergarten options in every part of the city. To that end, I propose to launch the Mayor’s Task Force on Childcare. Our goal would be to bring sector leaders together with other experts and parents to rethink how we fund and deliver childcare in our community, and to fully explore options – potentially including a dedicated tax rate election – to remake Austin into the best place in America to raise kids.

HELP MORE AUSTINITES BUILD LOCAL CAREERS

For many years, Austin’s economic development efforts have focused almost entirely on creating and bringing new jobs here. Today those efforts, and the allure of our great city, have been so successful that we face a different challenge: our region has a 2.9% unemployment rate (one of the lowest in the country) and nearly 40,000 unfilled jobs. This creates a singular opportunity to help people in every part of Austin do better with the rising cost of living. It’s time to shift our focus to ensuring that Austinites are well-positioned to fill available local jobs and, more than that, to build prosperous careers. With that goal, I propose to collaborate with our community’s business, educational and labor leaders to identify, on an ongoing basis, the jobs and careers that will be in highest demand over the coming decade – including those that don’t require four-year degrees – and to advance programs that help Austinites plug directly into those opportunities. This could include bringing Austin ISD, Austin Community College and trade unions together to create and expand joint training, accreditation and apprenticeship programs. We should also find new ways to support and scale already-successful programs like the Make It Movement, which connects high schoolers to skilled careers and career-oriented educational opportunities. And, very importantly, we need to carefully track exactly how we’re supporting our workforce and what’s actually working by using data from The Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas and others. Finally, the City of Austin must work very closely with Workforce Solutions, a private, publicly-funded workforce development non-profit, to help ensure that our community’s workforce plans are succeeding.

SUPPORT OUR MINORITY-OWNED AND WOMEN-OWNED BUSINESSES

Austin’s small businesses, including minority-owned and women-owned enterprises, are absolutely essential to our local economy — they allow countless Austinites to afford to live here. That’s why City government should constantly seek to improve programs that support these businesses, and to ensure that municipal contracts are awarded to local businesses equitably. This means, at a minimum, that the City must not only perform legally-required disparity studies, but must also act on them to ensure proper procurement and awarding of contracting opportunities. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels or lower our goals on this front. Instead, we should set our goals higher and elevate the City’s efforts to strengthen local businesses, with a focus on making Austin more affordable in a more equitable way.

LET MORE RENTERS USE SECURITY DEPOSIT INSURANCE

Over the past year, rental rates in Austin have increased more than in any other large metro area in the country. To make a difference on affordability, we must find ways to help renters. One significant housing barrier for renters is advance payments. Some landlords require both first and last month’s rent at the beginning of a lease term, while nearly all require a significant security deposit. As mayor, I would capitalize on a new state law that codifies the use of security deposit insurance. Rather than requiring a large security deposit to sign a lease, security deposit insurance allows landlords or tenants to purchase an insurance policy for a monthly fee that covers renter defaults, like unpaid rent or damages. At a minimum, I believe Austin should require that all housing projects constructed with the help of City financing give renters the option of using security deposit insurance. We should also explore whether there are incentives that could encourage all landlords in Austin to offer this option to renters, and to ensure that it increases affordability as much as possible.

MINIMIZE CITY TAX AND FEE INCREASES

The City of Austin represents a relatively small piece of Austinites’ property tax bill, but City government still adds to our affordability problems when it increases taxes and fees for utilities and other services. State law caps how much cities can raise their tax rate without voter approval – and in every annual budget, Austin routinely goes up to (or stays only marginally below) that limit. Indeed, City staff’s current five-year budget projection is premised on continuing to adopt the maximum tax rate every year. Over time, the impact is substantial. I believe wholeheartedly that the City of Austin plays an indispensable role in protecting and improving our community’s quality of life, and I’m fully committed to ensuring that it capably delivers all of its vital services to Austinites. But Austin is experiencing a cost-of-living crisis. During this crisis, the City must explore every option to minimize – rather than automatically maximize – its annual tax and fee increases. Particularly as our region’s meteoric growth fuels an explosion of sales tax revenue and property tax base, the City can take a more aggressively cost-conscious approach to budgeting without constraining or compromising the quality of City services. I propose that this should include: 1) Starting each budget with an assumption of a no-new-revenue tax rate – the property tax rate that would allow the City to collect the same amount of revenue from the same taxpayers as it did the year before – and then having a transparent public discussion about what expenditures, if any, may justify a rate increase; 2) Asking hard questions about the effectiveness of every City function, and being willing to cut out-of-date programs and eliminate long-vacant, unnecessary positions; 3) Revisiting our fiscal policies, including the use of reserve funds; and 4) Asking our City staff to recommend new ways to deliver essential services more efficiently. Importantly, Austin also owns and operates our own electric utility, Austin Energy. In a period of crisis, we should take every possible step to stabilize the cost of electricity. Rate increases, such as the one proposed for next year of nearly 20% (about $15 per month for the typical ratepayer), should be deeply scrutinized – especially after a summer of historic heat and higher electricity bills.

SPEND LOCAL TAX DOLLARS MORE EFFICIENTLY

Now more than ever it’s critical to ensure that our community is spending all of our tax dollars efficiently. This is especially true for those of us living in Austin given Texas’ broken school finance system, under which some school districts pay a large portion of residents’ property taxes to the state. For most Austin residents, about 50% of our property tax payments go to the Austin Independent School District, and roughly 50% of those funds are then paid to the State of Texas. That means that only about 75% of most Austinites’ total property tax payments fund services we actually receive. Further, Austin ISD now pays out more tax revenue each year than any other school district in Texas; next year the figure will reach almost $800 million – more than the next three highest-paying districts combined. It’s time to crack the code on optimizing local partnerships to deliver maximum value to taxpayers. As mayor, I would bring the City together with local ISDs, Travis County, Capital Metro, ACC and other jurisdictions to find new ways to collaborate, coordinate and potentially consolidate operations that could allow us to save taxpayer money.

INVEST IN EXCELLENT PUBLIC EMPLOYEES

To ensure that Austinites receive excellent public services and get the biggest bang for their buck, the City must invest in excellent public employees. From first responders to road repair crews to waste collectors to code inspectors, City employees impact how we go about our daily lives – and, in some cases, how well we can do our jobs. It should always be a top City budget priority to attract and retain the best people. And as a matter of principle, we should also want our public servants to be able to afford to live in the city they serve. Further, as one of Austin’s 10 largest employers, the City not only sets a standard for other employers to follow, but also creates economic ripple effects when it compensates its 13,000+ employees competitively. Thus, as mayor, I would champion an immediate increase in salaries and the Living Wage for all City employees (I support the proposal to pay $22 per hour). I would also launch a new program to help employees pay down student debt. Student debt can be a huge hurdle for young people, and the City should reduce that burden wherever possible for those who choose a career in local public service.