Kathie Tovo, city council member candidate for District 9, was gracious enough to provide detailed and thoughtful responses to the questions given to her by the Northfield Neighborhood Association. Her responses to each question are provided below:
NNA: The city council lowered occupancy limits in an attempt to reduce the proliferation of so-‐called Stealth Dorms, but this reduction in occupancy limits will only be in place for 2 years. What would be your commitment to following through on that initiative to ensure the preservation of single‐family homes into the future?
Tovo: When the ordinance came before Council, I supported Council Member Morrison’s motion to remove the two‐year limit (which failed on a 2-5 vote). The two-year sunset provision is arbitrarily set and defeats the ordinance’s intended purpose of removing both short- and long-term economic pressures that result in the tear‐down and replacement of single-family residences. I was an original co-sponsor of the ordinance, and I will continue to work with the Planning Commission and impacted neighborhoods on its progress.
I am also supportive of preservation and rehabilitation programs, such as the GO Repair program and homeowner rehabilitation loans, which are cost‐effective ways of maintaining long-term affordable housing options in our community and preserving home ownership in lower-income communities. I am also supportive of and have been a co-sponsor on recent resolutions related to implementing preservation programs that help retain multifamily options in our neighborhoods.
NNA: Austin housing prices have increased dramatically over the past 20 years, raising concerns about both affordability and property taxes. What efforts will you take as a city leader to improve housing opportunities in central Austin for people from economically diverse backgrounds. And what will you do to keep increasing property taxes from driving people out of their homes?
Tovo: (On) Affordability, Austinites of all income levels should be able to afford to live in our city. Yet, rising property values, fees, and the overall costs of living are forcing families out of their homes. Throughout my term, I have been focused on improving affordability for Austin’s residents, and it was an area the Austin American-Statesman cited in its endorsement of my re-election campaign.
Here are a few ways I’m working to do this:
Property Taxes. In August, I presented a successful resolution to have staff draft an ordinance for a homestead exemption that will equate to a $5,000 exemption for every homeowner. While the savings are relatively small for the average homeowner, it’s a step in the right direction and a start to a broader conversation of how best to offer our residents property tax relief and address affordability in general. And, as the Austin American-‐Statesman points out, if successful, my proposal will be the first-‐ever city homestead exemption in Austin.
Additionally, the council can offer some relief to residential taxpayers by fixing our broken appraisal process. Data has shown that the current system undervalues commercial properties, which shifts the tax burden onto Austin’s residents. I’ve laid out a plan to restore balance to the tax system via three resolutions that the council recently adopted. We are working to challenge the appraisal process at our next opportunity, in early 2015.
Cut the Costs of Living. One of the areas I’ve been devoting considerable effort on is reducing Austin families’ utility bills. I have been vigilant in protecting ratepayers and helped successfully fight off a proposal for a 12% electricity rate hike. And, I was the only council member to vote against a 20% water rate increase for the lowest water users (which includes homeowners and renters). I led on implementing more reasonable payment plans for families behind on utility bills, which both helps the families in need and ensure the utility collects revenue that might be lost. I voted to reaffirm the City’s commitment to our energy affordability goals: keeping Austin Energy’s rates among the lowest of Texas utilities and limit the annual rate increase to no more than 2% for any customer class.
Additionally, conservation efforts are key to keeping ratepayers’ utilities costs down. Energy and water efficiency programs and improvements offer substantial savings to Austin’s residents by reducing monthly energy and water consumption. For example, I sponsored the creation of the Low Income Consumer Advisory Task Force, which will be making recommendations on expanding our energy conservation efforts to low income families, including renters.
NNA: The City of Austin started a process to improve Airport Boulevard, but there has been no progress in recent years. What would be your commitment to continuing that process?
Tovo: A planning effort is only as good as the City’s willingness to implement it. I am a council member who understands and respects the time and effort community members have invested when they are asked to participate in planning in their neighborhood. I have a strong record of voting to uphold and implement adopted neighborhood and community-based plans.
Airport Boulevard is currently a hot-spot of development activity, so it is important that we incorporate the community’s vision for the area sooner than later. I would be interested in convening the stakeholders to talk about the progress (or lack thereof) to see what elements of the initiative we can incorporate now while city staff continues to work on longer‐term priorities and the Code Next process. We need to set in place measurable implementation goals and avoid leaving the community in the dark about ongoing work of the city staff.
NNA: What are the most important improvements and initiatives that you feel would benefit constituents in the Northfield Neighborhood?
Tovo: My responses to questions 1 and 2 discuss my efforts to reduce economic pressures facing central city families, which includes initiatives to the property tax burdens and overall costs of living. These efforts are aimed, in part, at ensuring our neighborhoods can retain families and thus save and support our existing neighborhood schools, like Ridgetop Elementary.
Since 2003, I have been involved in the fight against these school closures and have advocated for policies and practices at the City that support keeping families with children in our central neighborhoods. I co-drafted the Families and Children Taskforce Report, which provides a blueprint for how we can make our neighborhoods more family friendly—from investing in more parks and open space to investing in Safe Routes to Schools. I have worked to improve our coordination with AISD through a joint taskforce and, prior to my term, through the development of the Educational Impact Statement for major development decisions. As a Council Member, I serve on the Joint Subcommittee of the City, AISD, and Travis County. I helped lead the effort to secure funding for afterschool programs that had been cut at AISD campuses this year and for two campus Family Resource Centers threatened with closure. I initiated a work group to follow up on the earlier task force’s report and to make recommendations related to planning for families with children; at an October council meeting I passed a successful resolution taking the first step toward implementing those recommendations. I will continue these efforts throughout my next term in office.