Editor’s Note: In May, HPNA hosted a discussion between District 9 candidates Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley. At the time, organizers were not aware of the candidacy of Erin McGann. She was thus invited at the September HPNA meeting to answer the same questions originally crafted by the HPNA Steering Committee, plus questions from the audience. Her answers are excerpted below, as transcribed by Lorre Weidlich. (Chris Riley addressed the audience beforehand, and Kathie Tovo joined McGann in the forum, but their remarks and responses are not included here. For excerpts of their original responses to the questions, see the June issue of the Pecan Press.)
Please share your thoughts regarding the role of the city manager in the new 10-1 form of city governance. Does a strong city manager enhance or limit single district council members in providing constituent services? How could the relationship between city manager and council members be improved?
Erin McGann (EM): I’m concerned about the relationship between the current city
council and the city manager in that it does not seem as if a lot of information is shared with the council. They shouldn’t be surprised by anything that’s going on with the city. The structure of the communication now is poor and I don’t know which way this is not working, if it’s coming from the city manager over this way or if it’s coming from the council to the city manager, but it does not seem as if the staff is sharing enough information with council so that they can make good decisions based on what they need to know. It seems to me that they have to go outside the government in order to find out a lot of things, which they should be doing in some cases, but in a lot of cases this information needs to be shared inside. I will work to insist that the city government work with the city council and not look at the council as just temporary people who are going to go away at some point. With that kind of leadership, you will see more functioning happening with the city in a more cohesive way.
A recent neighborhood poll revealed that two issues that concern Hyde Park residents the most are neighborhood preservation and development. Other central Austin neighborhoods have also indicated that these issues are a concern in District 9. Older, affordable single-family homes continue to be lost as developers replace them with poorly formed new houses, super duplexes, and other structures that are out of character in our neighborhoods. What have you done during your career to preserve the character of central Austin neighborhoods? What do you plan to do if elected as the District 9 representative?
EM: I live in the south end of the Bouldin neighborhood where I’ve seen this very clearly. When I moved into my neighborhood 12 years ago, which is when I moved to Austin, all of the houses in my neighborhood were little bungalows, including the one I live in. I don’t want to say a majority, but a good many of them have been torn down and been turned into David Weekley homes, some of them have been turned into giant duplexes, others of them are super modern homes. I was very concerned about this. The people who lived in my neighborhood have basically turned over in the time that I’ve lived there.
I was talking to some people over at the Owana neighborhood meeting last week. They told me that they had put a historical district in their neighborhood and that’s why there weren’t all of these big changes in the types of housing going in. But they also told me that the city makes it very difficult to get historic neighborhood designation. I was talking to another neighborhood that said they wanted it and I think that’s something that should be considered. It shouldn’t be that difficult to make a neighborhood a historic neighborhood. When we’re looking at our neighborhoods, I really would like to see the changes in the neighborhood being the changes that you all want to see. I don’t like the way the house that was built across the street from me looks. It doesn’t look like it’s within the (McMansion) guidelines but it really is. And I think that’s part of the problem.
The cost of living, and housing in particular, continues to rise in Austin. It seems that our secret is out—Austin is a great place to live—yet affordability continues to be a challenge in the face of rising demand for centrally located housing. Please share your views on housing affordability and what you would do as the district representative to address the imbalance between supply and demand, create affordable housing opportunities for low income households, and help prevent current residents from being taxed out of their homes. What is your approach to balance affordability with preservation of neighborhood character?
EM: Austin is not affordable anymore. I couldn’t afford the house that I live in today. And I hate that; I wish more families with children could afford to move into my neighborhood. When I first moved in, there were lots of people with families and now there are not. I would like to see council stop approving giant buildings that are single small dwellings, 500 square foot apartments, micro units, that sort of thing. Those are the kinds of things that are driving people with children out of the city. If you can’t find a place to live with your three children, you’re not going to stay here.
We have two opportunities coming up very soon. One is the 45th Street and Bull Creek property, and it looks like the legislature is likely to close down the Austin State School, so there will be that property available as well. That’s at 35th and MoPac. In both of those properties, the council will have the opportunity to approve development that can benefit everyone in the city. There is quite a large leeway that council has in approving these kinds of developments and what I would like to see in both of those places is completely mixed development—with affordable housing, with apartments, with townhomes, with duplexes, with standalone homes, and with all of the homes being a variety of different prices so that a lot of different kinds of people can move in there. Basically it’s creating a community. And also include in there disabled housing and protected elderly housing, both of which we have a severe lack of in town. We also have to, if we’re going to be building these kinds of things in those areas, shore up the infrastructure there because right now neither of those areas are capable of taking on any kind of infrastructure for any kind of building there.
We also need to bring in the (City of Austin) homestead exemption for homeowners because we can’t keep paying for everything. And we need to just look at the budget and take out a lot of the extra stuff.