This is the second of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Pete Salazar on his candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
* Top Priorities, Experience, Community Involvement
* Livability, Affordability and Housing
* Transportation, Open Space and Infrastructure
* Public Safety, Small Business, and City Budget
How do you define a neighborhood? What features make one successful?
I think a neighborhood is kind of like a culture – it is a subculture of the city and a place.
For me it’s kind of where I live – I grew up in the neighborhood, I grew up off of Grover. So from my birth to 15, I lived in this neighborhood. To me that’s the aspect. I can’t really give you a Webster’s dictionary version – I just remember how I grew up. In my neighborhood where I grew up, I knew my neighbors. Our neighbors came by and had coffee with my grandfather every day. We knew everybody on the block, and if somebody needed something, regardless of whether you hung out with them a lot, the neighborhood found out about it and you assisted them. Whether it was a dead in their family, that means you cooked a little more than you normally would and brought it over.
I mean we were lucky. We had parks – parks are an important part of community. I remember going to Brentwood Park. I remember flying kites and playing frisbee, just throwing the football around. That was important, my family was very large. My dad had six brothers and sisters and they were still in the house. And we were there. It wasn’t like you had your own area – it was one big family area. Going to the park was something we could do, and it established us with our community. We couldn’t just invite five friends, there wasn’t room. This was before video games. We could give my grandmother some relief – oh, we’ll go to the park, run around for four or five hours.
And you got to meet people, talk to people, meet other families, even culturally. It didn’t matter. You’ve got to understand – Austin in the 80s – it was just a different time. But when we were in that place, all these other things that matter – we were playing a game, we were playing football, soccer. All these cultural things that were negative, didn’t infect us. We were part of the community – we could go to the pool, Bartholomew. That became us, that became our place. That’s the importance of neighborhoods, even when you move out, you remember the things you did, not only as a child, it’s funny walking around the neighborhood now, older, because when I’m walking around these houses, even though their beautiful new neighbors and beautiful new people, my mind automatically shifts to the neighbors that I knew – the neighbors who would grow things from the ground, whether it’s watermelons or whatever, and bring them to the house.
That’s one of the biggest adjustments I have to make, coming back, moving back into the neighborhood, I pass by my grandmother’s house every day. And it’s not in my mind what is now – I see – even though I know it’s 2014, I see those things, I see my childhood every day. And that makes me want to fight more, be the best I can be to represent District 7. You have to understand it’s not some political journey that I’m going on just for the sake of going on. It may sound corny, but I’m fighting for the home, I’m saving my past, my future, my present all in one. That’s why I fight, that’s what a neighborhood is. A neighborhood in general is home. As Austin grows, you kind of lost that. The more apartments, the more single dwelling homes, people nowdays, they go to work, and then they insulate themselves. When I grew up in Austin, there was no insulation, by virtue of survival. You needed one another.
Is Downtown a Neighborhood?
I think it strives to be, but it misses important cultural components. Part of that is you have to be attached to the area in which you’re from. You can build buildings, you can add parks, you can build all these things. But what attaches you traditionally, what attaches people or schools, churches, and other areas in the community. It’s funny – I laugh, because my friend the other day gave me a Wooten Warriors shirt, cause he works for the school system. “That was us.” I remember the first day I went to Wooten, they gave us some little button with an Indian on it, said, “Here – you’re a Wooten warrior.” I’ve known my friend since I was two. And we still talk about that.
Do you see Downtown becoming a neighborhood in time, as you start to have more people who live there as longer term residents?
It depends. Is it just going to be a place for people to dwell, or people to live? That’s a big distinction. If people are living there, then you need schools. If people are going to raise families there, then you need to establish schools, parks, cultural concepts that are going to bring people to that community. If it’s just supposed to be this young, urban professional that’s just going to be able to have access to downtown, and just live and whatever, then I don’t think it will be. Ultimately, having that community’s a part of every person’s soul. They can live in Austin for a little bit, but if they still want that, and we don’t give them that as a Council, then they’re going to go somewhere else where they can establish that.
Should neighborhoods specialize, or should any neighborhood appeal to anybody?
I think it’s a personal conversation. I have a bias towards this neighborhood because it’s a part of my background, not only as an Austinite, but as a Texan. There are fundamental things that we consider as quality of life issues that other people may not, given where they come from, be it the East coast or West coast. Austin’s this big international hub, and people come here for different things, but they’re things that you and I define here for quality of life.
Being from Texas, green space is important to me. Having some place to show my little cousins and nieces trails, track little animals, that’s a cultural importance to me because that was a skillset in the tradition that I was raised on. Having places to BBQ and recreate in greenery is important to me, it was a value we were taught as Austinites and Texans. If you grew up in Las Vegas, or some other capacity, that may not be important to you.
One of the more controversial votes by the current Council involved a proposal to regulate how businesses can offer single-family homes for short-term lease – in effect micro-hotels in residential neighborhoods. Many Austin residents oppose Commercial Short-Term Rentals (CSTRs) for fear that they will undermine the strong sense of local community that helps to make Austin so livable. Tourism and real estate groups, some homeowners, and especially the Austin-based company HomeAway, countered that some regulation is better than no regulation, but that restrictions shouldn’t undermine the economy. Council approved an ordinance that defines CSTRs, regulates them, and restricts their number in a given census tract to 3% of single family residences. Did they get it right? How would you have voted?
I think first off, if you’re going to use a home in a commercial capacity, for whatever time, if that’s your intent, then it does need to be regulated. You’re not speaking to your right as an individual how you want to express your home, you’re bringing it in for a commercial purpose. For that commercial purpose, there needs to be a structure that – whoever’s coming in to stay in your house, there needs to be oversight of that.
In that regard they got it right. But also we need to be respectful to one’s right to privacy and home ownership as well. I think there’s a distinction between STR’s and commercial things of that nature. If you’re going to use it for profit, by taking that money, by that process, you’re kind of going to this other realm. You do need regulations.
But also, that’s why it’s important to have neighborhood groups’ input in this. Those are the people that you’re directly affecting. People in one neighborhood might not have the same zeal for SXSW as somebody else does. You need to understand what the concerns and needs of that neighborhood association are. That’s also why it’s important to have people from every neighborhood on the commission, and a commission to address this issue as well. It’s not just a representation of a City Council person, but who we’re going to put on commissions to oversee all the aspects of these. They need to come from every part of these 10 districts, so they can appropriately verbalize the needs of their communities.
Another controversial vote this last year involved approval of a local bar, Little Woodrow’s, on Burnet Rd. Rick Engel, the bar owner, said he was drawn to the changing demographics along Burnet, and that his bar would help to activate the corridor and still be family-friendly by sharing the site with a pizza restaurant. Opponents charged that the bar’s 2 AM weekend hours of operation, lack of sufficient parking, and proximity to an existing bar, would start to shape a SoCo-style bar district with serious livability impacts for adjacent residents. Council voted 4-3 to approve a conditional use permit, with restrictions including 1 AM weekend hours, noise restrictions, and a bigger parking requirement. How would you have voted?
It goes back to your question about what is a neighborhood. In the neighborhood, we’re trying to bring things away from the Downtown areas. So part of that is recreation. So yes, I think people want to be able to recreate within their own neighborhood, whether that’s going to the movies, having a good time at a bar with friends. And do that within a reasonable area of where they live.
But in doing that, it doesn’t mean that a Little Woodrow’s gets to operate like they do on 6th Street. When you come into a neighborhood area, if you want to service this community, then you need to change your structure to meet the needs of that community.
Obviously the City Council passed it. I think I would have passed a different version of that, – limited more the hours – 1 o’clock was ok – but given that it was a neighborhood bar, we could bring it down a little bit, 12:30. And that’s why the neighborhood associations are so vital. You can have neighborhood bars, but you have to understand that it’s not this big 6th Street – it’s I’m here to service this community, these peoples’ happiness with me is what’s going to make me successful. So their input is important.
So yes, I would have voted for it, but with more restrictions. And as a District 7 representative, I’ll look to kind of limit that. If you come into District 7, whatever area it is, then you need to go talk to that neighborhood association. The needs at the Domain, what they’re able to move to, what they will allow, will be a little different than what you do in Brentwood or Allandale.
The neighborhood associations opposed the bar completely.
Obviously if the neighborhood association opposed it directly, I would have to vote against it. Regardless of my personal desires to want to have a beer or something with my friends, our first duty is to be representative of our people who put us into office. And that’s the thing, that’s the hard decision, some people in that district, who say “Yeah, that’s great, I would love to go to Little Woodrow’s and have a drink over there.” But faced with tough decisions like that, I would let which neighborhood it directly affects the most, and make sure that neighborhood association did its due diligence to get the feeling of the neighborhoods. It’s not going to be just because some president of the neighborhood didn’t happen to like it, but I would go and get a sense of the community. Our first duty is to protect our constituents.
One of the proposals floated for the CodeNext zoning reform involves scrapping rules like the tree ordinance that protect mature trees on properties subject to redevelopment. Developers argue that rules like this hamstring their projects, hurt the economy and affordability. They want more flexible rules, in this case the option to replant trees of equivalent value at a different location. Many residents argue that large trees are priceless, and fear replacement trees will be somewhere other than where they are needed, in dense urban areas. Would you keep the tree ordinance or revise it?
That is a difficult question, because when you say trees, I think developers for the most part don’t understand the connection to the neighborhoods that we have. And part of that is just the natural landscape. When you talk about trees, the first thing that came to my mind was Treaty Oaks. That was the premier thing that showed not only Austin about its care for itself, but to the world, of how important our natural aspects are to us. I think we set a precedence just on the handling of that case.
So bringing that back to here – there does need to be a new evaluation, but we can’t just give them a carte blanche thing, that you can just take away trees however you want. What people don’t realize, and I have a history degree and so I study some of this stuff, is that there’s certain trees in Austin in certain areas throughout Texas that have cultural significance beyond it just being a beautiful tree. For instance, that Treaty Oak, that was a meeting place for Commanches, and their ceremonies. That oak tree that’s been around for 300-400 years, that has more significance to a person who lived in this community because he established connection – maybe his father planted that tree. It can’t be – “oh, you can’t cut this tree just because whatever – this ordinance.” There has to be some accommodation, but we can’t just have people cut everything down and replant it. It has to be a case-by-case basis. We already have a procedure.
How would you make Austin affordable?
In the short-term, Austin needs to redefine what it says about affordability. One of the catchewords that we have right now is “affordable housing”. Oh we just need more affordable housing, but that’s a misnomer. Because that goes to the median cost of what it costs to live in Austin. We have new developments, the houses are literally selling for $600,000. So what was affordable two years ago, based on this calculation, is not going to be affordable now.
First off, we need low-income housing. But just because we say low-income housing…
Are you saying that because a lot of the new housing is drawing people with more spending power, the bar keeps…
Yes. I have some experience because I was a placement specialist with Caritas, and I worked with people who were receiving a spending voucher or public utility voucher, because there was some incident that happened in their household that put them into homelessness, or a potential for homelessness, because a car broke down or there was a death in the family. So we had these vouchers to help them with the rent and utility payments. When that started your average rent was $550 to $750, depending upon your capacity. So now days, that went from $750 to $950, to over $1000, because they use this calculation of the median range. What was once affordable – $550, $600, the same property, shot up to $950. There was very little change – the only change during this process, is the amount of people who are moving into Austin. That goes into the question of resources. We have more people migrating in, with more resources, so then that comes onto the market.
We can’t stop people from migrating to Austin. What we can do is say, as a Council, it’s not just a District 7 thing, we have to look at where we can best make investments, to low-income housing, and also have a community. It’s not going to be the same for every neighborhood. I don’t think low income housing works in District 7. Let’s say the Triangle, for whatever reason, the developers have a change of heart, “I’m going to take 200 units, because I’m just such a good guy, and we’re going to keep that rent at $400.” But can that family shop, can they enjoy themselves? Have we set those renters up to be functional in the economy in which they live? I don’t think they’re set up for that.
There’s other ways to do it. There’s other communities where we can do it, and make sure that both coincide, and work and be prosperous.
You would target affordable housing in areas that also have affordable services?
Will that mean that you draw more of those housing opportunities, say to East Austin?
We can establish new ones, but it needs to be within a structured community that already has those parameters in place to assist. Technically we can go to west Austin, if we had magical powers. But are those people going to be able to fully enjoy that community?
You’ve got to understand that there’s not just a financial, but a cultural element in which people can feel successful and develop themselves.
What do you do to keep Austin affordable long-term?
Long-term is basically investing in Austin. It’s not just investing in housing, it’s investing in industries, and people. It’s investing in small businesses. I think for the most part, our issue is that everybody wants to come to Austin, we want to be welcoming. We can still do that, but instead of importing people, we need to export the culture of Austin. And the best way we can do that is investing in small businesses. The way you do that is, you talked about tax incentives. We need to redirect tax incentives. Instead of giving [breaks to] some major corporation to come to Austin, we invest in independent businesses, and put them in areas that they can be seen more. That could be a great Little Deli over here in Crestview. You may have some issues, coming and being on 6th and Congress or whatever. As a City Council, we kind of facilitate that – give them a tax credit to subsidize their rent. Things that are truly Austin, for instance the airport, the airport is a perfect example. When they built the airport, everything was local – you had Salt Lick. People’s first arrival in Austin, they got an immediate sense of the local flavor. We take that same business model, and we put it down on S Congress, 6th and Congress. And that way, they don’t only get to experience Austin, but people that want to do these things, we bring it out.
That approach gives us a chance to stabilize our housing market. Because right now we just have flood after flood of people that have excess money. You see it in new housing over on Airport, across from where my grandparents live. Those new houses are going to go for $600,000. That’s a price that was unheard of. But when you look where these people are coming from, in California, your average house is a million dollars. So they’re thinking, “Great – we got this great deal.” We got a house for $600,000, have money to put $200,000 into renovations or whatever we want to do, and still pocket $200,000.” If it keeps on coming, there’s no way we can establish an affordable capacity.
But how do you stop that? You do have those huge income disparities
You invest in small businesses and our cultures. When doing that, it kind of pushes Austin into other areas, hopefully whereever someone is in Barstow, Barstow becomes a better place. We kind of permeate ourselves out. We grow little Austin areas in other areas, so you don’t have the need for migration here. Or, they become acculturated to the point where they don’t need a $600,000 house. Maybe my mind said that where I was coming from, wasn’t the correct way, if I want to live in this community, participate in this community, be a part of this community, I need to restructure of what I define as valuable.
A prominent affordability goal of the CodeNext zoning rewrite is to expand middle-density zoning categories, like duplexes, four-plexes, eight-plexes. It has also been proposed to simplify building accessory housing on SF properties, like granny flats. Opponents argue that such housing tends to suffer maintenance problems, brings in short-duration residents uninvested in their communities, strains infrastructure, and adds more traffic to residential streets. Do you support or oppose such housing, and why?
I think these things have to be really looked at, because we are burning up – we need more housing. Right now the trend and the cool thing to do is build these condos at an expensive rate, that traditionally have one person. We need to recreate housing to have multiple families, but how do we make sure it’s not these people who just want to live in Austin for six months and get to know what it is, and then leave, versus a person who’s looking for an affordable option, that we can also build neighborhoods and communities. We support it, but we establish programs where you become more beneficial if you stay longer. There’s a way to identify the single mother with three kids, versus the musician guy who’s just coming for a year just to see if he can make a record during SXSW. We can still invest in these multi-family homes, but offer structures and incentives for people to stay longer, and people to be more invested in the community.
Let’s say for rent, if you stay for more than 3 years, then your rental will stay level for the next two years.
That would be a city subsidy?
No, we talk to the people who develop it, not the city. If you’re a developer, wanting to bring investment, this is like when you get tax incentives as a developer, and you can establish, ok, we want to put more families in there. Now if we get more families, if we give you certain kinds of subsidies to build these, then if families stay for 3 years or 5 years, plus you agree as a developer, because we’re giving you incentives, then you say OK.
So it’s a different kind of affordable tool?
It gives you a chance to build affordable housing, but you’re also building neighborhoods.
You’re tying your affordable housing policy to duration of residence.
For this example, you could.
Austin is losing families. We have a feedback loop where childless households with more money and desire shape market demand, the market builds mostly 1-BR units that exclude families, the retail and services become less family-friendly, school quality suffers, and so fewer families try to enter that market.
Should we be zoning in a way that adds more family-friendly housing in areas that want to remain family-friendly, or should we zone for housing that best meets market demand?
I think that becomes a slippery slope. Right now you’re looking at how you support schools systems. But if we take a blanket kind of direction to that, then there’s other areas that we can fall into. Because then you’re kind of limiting the diversity, and the cultural aspects that the neighborhood can evolve into. So I’m kind of wary, if we use zoning as a tool, it can have unintended effects.
It becomes an issue of development – how do we control development with other aspects of zoning?
So for instance, if the market is pushing for mainly 4-story apartment blocks, and that’s where the demand is, we should continue to zone to allow for more of those apartment blocks
I understand the market would ask for that, but I’ve seen it – I lived in Las Vegas for a time and caught the tail-end of a development boom. Everybody was into condos. And eventually the demand stopped. And then you had areas with nothing, it just became ghost towns. And the city lost out.
As a Council member for District 7, I’d be cautious about that – I saw it with my own eyes. We can’t just let people build without any kind of structure. Eventually, the desire’s going to stop. You don’t want to be holding the bag for these condos.
So you’re saying a mix of different kinds…
I think you do. We shouldn’t flat out prevent stuff, but we should establish – ok, you have an X amount of condos. Now for this area because we’ve established a need, we know there’s going to be a need, now we need to focus on these other areas. I think we can have that conversation with the developers.