Oped: Affordability in Austin is about more than just the tax rate



Your City Council just passed a budget that balances our critical needs with affordability. We cut your electric bills and your property tax rate, and next year we will have the lowest rate of increase in combined taxes and fees in many years. This budget bends the cost curve. We have more work to do, but we are finally headed in the right direction.

On property taxes, this council created and then this year raised the homestead exemption. For the second year in a row, we raised the senior and disabled property tax exemption, and next year the median senior or disabled homeowner will pay less in Austin property taxes than four years ago — even with rising home values. We’re taking an increasingly smaller bite out of a bigger pie.

So, we cut your tax rate, increase the homestead and senior exemption and lower utility rates — does Austin feel more affordable?


For most of us, the answer is no.

If we limit our field of vision to the ways that government costs you money directly, then we’re missing the big picture on how we could be making Austin more affordable. Housing, transportation and child care take a shade over half of the typical family’s budget. City taxes and fees? They are only 4.8 percent of the average family’s budget.

If you think the city budget is the thing to focus on, then you’re missing affordability for the fees.

We can do more to make Austin affordable by moving aggressively to address traffic congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute says the average Austin commuter pays an extra $1,159 a year because of traffic congestion, not to mention how much time you lose with your family. If we reduce traffic congestion and give you cheaper transportation options, we save you a lot more than we can by cutting your taxes, which is why we need to approve the $720 Million “Go Big” transportation bond this November.

We can do more to make Austin affordable by mitigating demand that’s driving up housing prices, which is why the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development’s draft plan calls for building more than 75,000 housing units over the next decade. Your Council is putting millions of dollars into fixing the permitting process (which takes too long and costs too much) and a new land development code to enable greater housing supply, especially geographically dispersed affordable housing and mixed income housing opportunities.

We can do more to make Austin affordable by helping you with housing, which is why we’re capturing much of the increased downtown property tax revenue and directing it into our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. In this budget we increased the transfers into the Housing Trust Fund by a million dollars, plus another million to improve substandard housing, and we have created a fund to help relocate tenants displaced by new development.

We can do more to make Austin affordable by helping you make more money. That’s why I’m proud the White House recognized the work we’re doing with colleges, universities and local employers to match local youth, women, African-Americans and Latinos with training programs that will get them into high-growth IT occupations. In this budget, we also boosted spending for workforce training, as well as child care programs so parents can take advantage of it. We’ve got a lot of good jobs in this town, and a lot of good people who need them. We need to do more here.

We need to move tens of thousands of Austinites out of poverty and into middle-class jobs, which is why, with the able guidance of Workforce Solutions, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and I are leading a community workforce strategic planning effort with stakeholders in an unprecedented way.

We can do more to make Austin affordable by recognizing that our challenges are huge opportunities, whether we’re talking about the crisis in the local music industry or the historical inequities in the eastern crescent. Inherent in these challenges is the possibility of transformative change — as well as a more equitable prosperity.

These are just some of the ways that we can do so much more than just bend the cost curves on taxes and fees. We all agree that we have an affordability crisis. To make Austin more affordable, we need to focus on what matters most. We can do more for you if we focus on what’s costing you dollars and not pennies. That just makes more sense.