Monday, November 5, 2012

Keep Austin Compassionate

What kind of city are we?

When I travel and say I’m from Austin, people gush about our city. “I love Austin!” “Austin is such an awesome city!” “I wish I lived in Austin!”

Recently, Forbes listed Austin as first among US cities in economic growth and Yahoo Finance said Austin was the most popular city for college grads.

From the outside, we look really great. But that begs the question: What really makes a city great?

Last April, as a member of Austin Interfaith, I had the opportunity to accompany several City Council members, staff and representatives from Austin non-profits on a visit to the Chapman Partnership in Miami, Fla. The partnership operates two facilities in Dade County that provide comprehensive services for the homeless, including shelter, day care, job training and housing assistance.  Homelessness has been drastically reduced through the work of this amazing organization.

Trish Bell, chairwoman of the Chapman Partnership board, spoke at a banquet for our Austin entourage. She said that what makes a city great is not exciting sports teams (like the Miami Heat) or generous donors (like  Alvah Chapman) but the degree to which a city is willing to help the poorest among them with dignity and compassion.

On election day, we have an incredible opportunity to continue making Austin a great city for everyone. Three ballot items – Proposition 15 and related Propositions 14 and 17 -- directly address the shortage of affordable housing and medical care for the poor. These propositions, which are part of a $385 million City of Austin bond proposal, will cause no increase in local property taxes. 

Proposition 15 will provide $78.3 million for affordable housing for veterans, low-income seniors, the disabled, the homeless and their families. Passage of this bond allows the city to continue a number of programs for low-and middle-income persons, including rental assistance, home ownership grants and loans, home repair and infrastructure improvements. More funding will be available for transitional and permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Are these programs really needed in Austin? The simple answer:  Yes.

Rental and housing affordability has risen steeply in recent years, which makes housing in Austin out of reach for many working families. According to the U.S. Census, during the past 10 years the poverty rate among seniors has increased by 42 percent in Central Texas. Approximately 24 percent of workers in Austin earn less than $13.50 an hour. Almost 10,000 homeowners here live at or below the poverty level.  

Who are these people? They are cafeteria workers, janitors, cabbies, bus drivers, day care workers and home health attendants. Surely great cities help make available decent, safe and affordable housing for everyone -- especially for the folks we depend upon daily.

In addition, Proposition 15 would provide funds for the most vulnerable among us, for those who have lost their homes or who are chronically homeless and in need of support services to stabilize their lives and work toward self-sufficiency.

But will it work? Housing Works of Austin commissioned an economic impact study which showed that the 2006 Housing Bond of $55 million brought more than $800 million to the city of Austin.  Housing Works estimates that more than 3,000 affordable homes have been added since the last bond, along with critical repairs for 600 low-income homeowners. These bonds have helped more than 200 first-time home owners and thousands of renters.

Propositions 14 and 17 also stand to make positive impacts on the poor in our community.  Proposition 14 is a $78.6 million bond designed to improve public parks, recreation centers and trails. It will provide funding for much needed expansions at the Dove Creek Recreation Center, which features programs and activities for low-income families.

 And Proposition 17, an $11.1 million bond for health and human services, will let the city expand shelter services for women and children. The recent creation of “Safe Sleep Shelter” by a coalition of downtown and university-area churches, providing emergency shelter for about 40 to 50 women each night, demonstrates the need for increased shelter for Austin women.
The ballot this year is long, so when you arrive at your polling booth, please take time to scroll down to the propositions. Let’s continue working together to keep Austin compassionate.  I hope you’ll join me and Austin Interfaith in voting YES on Propositions 14, 15 and 17.

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