ADDRESSING AUSTIN’S AFFORDABILITY CRISIS
On Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman ran a story about the hardships that climbing property taxes are causing for Austin homeowners. It’s no secret that Austin is becoming less affordable, and high property taxes are a significant part of the problem.
But it is not a new problem. Amazingly, the Statesman story failed to acknowledge the long history of affordability struggles in mostly working class and minority neighborhoods on the east side of Austin. It seems that an issue has to get the attention of homeowners in middle-class neighborhoods before it reaches the “critical mass” that warrants a newspaper story.
As a longtime resident of central East Austin, I’ve personally seen many neighbors taxed out of the central city. Many have had to sell their homes and move to the suburbs, away from our traditionally Hispanic community centered on East Cesar Chavez Street. My African American neighbors have endured the same awful trend. They would have stayed if they could have afforded the $8,000 to $12,000 per year in assessed property taxes – on homes which became over-valued thanks to demographic changes that are typically considered examples of “gentrification” – a word I don’t like for its implied criticism of the old.
Affordability is a value I believe most Austinites share. It is a goal that as a policymaker I have worked on for more than 15 years, often against the odds in a red state whose leaders value corporate tax breaks more than affordability for regular homeowners. Locally, I’m not the only one addressing this issue, but it will take cooperation at an unprecedented level to bring back affordability to Austin.
The problem with property taxes is that there is no correlation between your tax bill and your ability to pay. For example, in my neighborhood there are retirees who bring in only $20,000 a year and their latest property tax bill wants half of it.
A few years ago I passed a bill to provide automatic property tax exemptions for senior citizens. But now implementation of the new law is being held up by state bureaucracy.
Last legislative session, I filed a constitutional amendment to allow local governments to offer a flat dollar-amount exemption in lieu of the current percentage-based exemption. While I initially had bipartisan support for the bill, Republican peer pressure caused it to stall.
Senator Kirk Watson and I worked in 2011 on a study to determine the feasibility of local governments basing property taxes on a homeowner’s ability to pay (income based), but the Governor vetoed it.
Prior to that I worked on legislation to make information on homestead exemptions part of the closing documents for the purchase of any home, so that buyers don’t have to go looking far and wide for such assistance. That bill was blocked by special interests.
My most impactful affordability policy turns the negative trend of gentrification into a fuel for affordability. As home values in a neighborhood inflate, a percentage of that tax revenue flows into a fund for local affordability initiatives. This historic Homestead Preservation Act passed in 2005 – nearly 10 years ago. After the law was passed at the state level, it was the task of Travis County and the City to adopt and implement the program. The City did its part quickly, but a majority of Travis County Commissioners refused to take a vote on its adoption for years. Then, last session, I revised the law so the City of Austin may move forward in implementing the new law without the cooperation of Travis County. Today, the City is quickly preparing to offer this savings for homeowners in historically low-income neighborhoods. That will be a triumph, but sadly, it’s practically too late for my own neighborhood.
Despite the roadblocks, I stay motivated when an issue is this important. I will continue to strive for innovative ways to use state law to provide better affordability, until the Legislature implements wholesale reforms. I strongly suspect partisan shift will have to precede that.
And I will continue to work at the local level with my peers in City and County government to ensure implementation of public policies that protect families from being priced out of Austin.
I welcome the new voices from middle-class neighborhoods to this cause. I’m glad you are paying attention, because we will need all the local cooperation and coordination that we can get to actually achieve the affordable communities that we value.
Welcoming Senator Van de Putte to Austin
It is always great to welcome our candidate for Lt. Governor, Senator Leticia Van de Putte to Austin, especially if it is in House District 51! She stopped by for a fun “Viva La Leti” event at El Gallo on South Congress.
Whether it is protecting our veterans after they return from the hardships of war, or fighting for a competitive education system that is well-funded, she has been on the forefront of the issues that matter the most. I cannot wait to see her take the oath of office in January.
On Monday, we lost a tremendous Texas woman. I mourn the loss of Grace Garcia, a woman who fought tirelessly to make Texas a better place.
She was known for an incredible work ethic and inspirational drive. A former top aide to President Bill Clinton and, later on, Secretary Hillary Clinton, she returned to the Lone Star State to head up Annie’s List, an organization dedicated to electing more Democratic women to public office. She was key to Leticia Van de Putte’s decision to run for Lt. Governor.
My sympathy and prayers to her family and many friends.