July 17, 2022

2022 Austin City Council Candidate Questionnaire (District 4 Special Election)

Friends of Austin Neighborhoods (FAN) is a coalition of neighborhood associations and at-large individual members improving neighborhoods and improving neighborhood representation. We appreciated the opportunity to hear candidates’ thoughts on how City Council policies can positively impact the quality of life for residents in our neighborhoods. The following question was based on our vision for inclusive neighborhoods and a sustainable city. We received responses from 3 out of a field of 7 candidates. Candidates Amanda Rios, Ramesses II Setepenre, Jade Lovera, and Monica Guzmán did not respond to our invitations to participate.

District 4

FANs envision an Austin where all kinds of people can safely get around by walking, biking, and riding public transportation, and where they can live in the home and neighborhood of their choice. We believe more neighbors, and a greater diversity of neighbors, enrich our lives and make for a more sustainable city.

With which parts of this vision for Austin and its neighborhoods do you agree and disagree, and what are some examples of policies you would champion on city council to achieve your vision for Austin?

Melinda Schiera

I fully respect the reason that FAN was formed, and its mission. I was previously an Austin Neighborhoods Council board member, while representing the North Austin Civic Association. Even as a board member, I could not get the board to have a more transparent & democratic process and lost faith in their representation of all in Austin.

Many districts have been opposed to adding density. All candidates have indicated affordable housing as a priority for Austin. However, only a few candidates are saying that we need additional housing. It was originally my idea to rezone future rail corridors to add multi-use zoning with an affordable housing requirement.

District 4 should be a leader on increasing density—and show that the most dense neighborhood district is willing to add density and affordable housing—especially along the future rail lines. The rezone needs to happen all at one time so that redevelopment occurs in a cohesive manner that encourages connectivity and walkability. I support the vision of a safe, walkable Austin in an effort to reduce pollution and encourage healthy active communities. I plan to work with the mayor and every council member on how they can also support this vision.

When I was purchasing my first home, I was able to do so with the help of a down payment assistance program. I want to ensure that this program is equitable, and we need housing available to purchase that falls within the guidelines of the program.

With the implementation of Project Connect, and the new rail lines, we must connect with the community on what their needs are to ensure that the rail is accessible to all. It is with an environmental and civic conscience that this is important to me.

I have been a leader on increasing methods of communication for our community – implementing websites, Nextdoor, Buy Nothing, and other social media groups. The intention has always been to educate the community on all matters and provide support for even basic needs. I want to support the creation of an open source, multilingual platform to continue my motivation of supporting & educating the community, as well as soliciting feedback and needs.

In an effort to increase communication with renters and multifamily property managers, I plan to implement a task force on creating an “Apartment Coalition” Board/Commission to address all ongoing factors that we need to understand with our renters & affordable housing: market availability and cost, occupancy rates of multifamily housing, anti-displacement efforts, utility costs, utility infrastructure problems, renter educational opportunities. It is first extremely important to understand the scope of the problem, and then ensure that we are addressing issues on an ongoing basis.

Supporting an environment that we can enjoy in our everyday lives is important to me. I have organized many It’s My Park Day, Keep Austin Beautiful, UT Project Day events, and also several grant-funded beautification events over the years. I also organized the Austin Community Tree (ACT) program for the North Austin Civic Association. I supported the replacement of the playground equipment at Cook Elementary School, and also at Quail Creek Park. I supported the funding of the new Georgian Acres Park. I led & completed a grant project that added a Gaga Ball Pit to Cook Elementary.

There is still much especially the need for investment to be made in our combined community and school parks, which I will prioritize and support. I have always given back to the community – it was a no-brainer to pledge to donate 10% of my council income to effective nonprofits/schools for District 4 efforts.

José “Chito” Vela

I agree with this entire vision. Austin must be a welcoming city for working and middle class people. Austin welcomed me when I moved here in 1992. I was lucky to buy my house in 2005 before housing prices went through the roof.

I want others, including my children, to have the same opportunities that I did. What makes Austin Austin is it’s people and its welcoming culture. It’s a city that welcomes everyone. Skyrocketing housing prices threaten to turn Austin into a gated city that only the wealthy can afford to move to or live in. Trying to build a wall around Austin won’t keep prices from going up, it will only ensure that just the wealthy can afford to move here. If we want to preserve what we love about Austin, we must address our housing crises and ensure that we have plenty of homes and housing for all types of people.

Policies I would support to make this happen are:

  • Build out Project Connect and rezone areas along the light rail, especially around the stations, for large amounts of housing.
  • Invest in the corridors along our soon to be built light rail lines so they become beautiful and welcoming boulevards with safe and shaded sidewalks and bike lanes along with vibrant commercial activities along the street.
  • Pass a $250 million affordable housing bond every two years for the next 20 years.
  • Allow the construction of homes on smaller lots. Land costs are driving the increase in housing prices. One quick and easy way to reduce the cost of a home is to allow the use of smaller lots. Austin has one of the highest minimum lot sizes in Texas. That must change.

Site plan requirements are also another major hurdle for smaller developments. Anytime there are more than two homes on a property, a site plan is required, which can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cost of a project. Developments with less than 12 or so units should be exempt from site plan requirements.

Isa Boonto

While we agree with most of FAN’s vision, I would do so with some caveat. Walking while great exercise, is not for all. Not everyone may want to walk or can enjoy walking for a variety of reasons. Not everyone can rely on walking to get to and from their worksite, school, place of business or a destination. Biking is also a fun activity and a great way to commute. However not everyone can or can afford or afford to replace a bicycle especially as bicycle theft is also an issue. Biking in Austin is also not the safest as there is no Bike Culture and drivers of automobiles do not regard bikes resulting in numerous accidents and deaths. A lot of education and investment in expanded bike lanes and routes across the city would be needed for a period of time in order to establish such a culture. Public transportation in Austin is one of the least reliable transit system I’ve ever utilized. Bus routes aren’t straightforward, buses are not frequent enough, stops are far apart and one needs to transfer quite a bit to get across town. Bus stops are also located far away from points of destination or origin thus making it challenging to have to walk the remainder of the way safely and sometimes in the elements. It may also be naive to think we can choose to live in the home and neighborhood of our choice. I know some of the homes I would love to choose to live in, in Tarrytown or by the lake, are merely dream homes. For some being able to afford a home, apartment or any shelter arrangements is still not affordable or attainable for various reasons. Realistically, it would be nice for all to be housed and provided with shelter before being able to choose our home and neighborhood.

Having diverse neighbor can certainly enrich lives, but District 4 for example has one of the most diverse cultural backgrounds where over 200 languages and dialects are spoken. However, that does not mean the entire neighborhood is thriving and enriched. Many in District 4 are impoverished and struggling to make ends meet. Many are renters with families and children in an area that has very little green space and indoor and outdoor recreational facilities. As for a sustainable city, there would also seem to be other factors that would be needed to create and maintain such a concept as having a diverse neighborhood or diverse neighbors alone does not equate one. With that said, we would address our Housing Crisis and review Zoning Policies as it impacts Affordability in Austin. I would also fight for a living wage for workers that aren’t on salary to ensure people can have a decent quality of live in our city.