Vote yes to the Affordable Housing Bond

Chuck Matula

Municipal bonds are not typically regarded by taxpayers as an exciting or note-worthy issue. But the Travis County Taxpayer’s Union has made very public its feelings about a proposed affordable housing bond initiative placed on the upcoming Nov. 5 ballot. In fact, it feels so strongly about the initiative that the union has taken to comparing it to rape: According to an October broadcast of Austin CBS affiliate KEYE, the group sported posters blaring the slogan “No means no!” and blew rape whistles during a protest of the initiative. 

By the union’s reasoning, the aforementioned ballot initiative is an imposition on taxpayers because a similar initiative failed at the polls last year. The group’s treasurer, Don Zimmerman, declined to comment, but in the Press Advisory for the “No means No!” protest against the bonds, Zimmerman is said to be ready to ask “if taxpayers need to blow the ‘taxpayer rape whistle,’ because City Council won’t accept ‘NO’ for ‘will you give us more money?’” 

Needless to say, this is an extremely disturbing comparison that demands reasonable voters to consider if Zimmerman’s position has any merit beneath its callous and outrageous metaphors. It’s alarming that the union feels the need to equivocate its opposition with a horrific crime to garner support, immediately damaging the credibility of its agenda, which is questionable to begin with. 

The Affordable Housing Bond Initiative the union is protesting is a $65 million bond package that would be dedicated to the development, rehabilitation and repair of affordable housing projects in the metropolitan area. Despite the failure of last year’s initiative, community activists insist that the urgent need for more housing merits the introduction of a similar measure. 

Marshall Jones, a member of the advocacy group Keep Austin Affordable, argued that proposing the package a second time is justified because the community did not do enough to communicate the benefits and importance of affordable housing to voters during election season last year. The Austin Chronicle, according to an Oct. 18 endorsement, credits the failure of the bond package to vagueness in the language of last year’s ballot.  

The availability of affordable housing to low-income families has become an issue as more people move to Austin, driving up housing prices. According to a database maintained by the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of living in the Austin metropolitan statistical area annually for a family of four is, on average, almost $67,000. That makes Austin several thousand dollars more expensive than every other major city in Texas, including San Antonio, Houston and the Metroplex. Without more affordable housing as many as 38,000 Austin-area families could be priced out of town, warns Tim League, a local housing advocate, on the Keep Austin Affordable website.

Sara Behunek, a public information specialist in the City of Austin’s Capital Planning Office, explained to me via email that once approved, the money raised from the bonds’ sale would need approval from City Council before being used on individual projects. Non-governmental organizations would be eligible to receive the money to implement affordable housing programs as approved.

The Keep Austin Affordable website touts success stories of previous housing bond initiatives at building communities, particularly among low-income seniors, single mothers and the previously homeless. A report from HousingWorks Austin reports that a 2006 affordable housing bond package worth $55 million produced $865 million in economic benefits for the city, supporting the argument that issuing more municipal bonds would be economically prudent decision.

Most Austinites of privileged backgrounds — myself included — reap benefits from the growth of the city. Increased Austin metropolitan area population and an expanding UT bring opportunities to individuals and businesses. Formerly poor areas become gentrified, which is great for fans of Austin’s vibrant culture and flourishing small businesses, but devastating for the low-income communities driven out of the city limits by rising costs. If we are willing to accept the proliferation of trendy neighborhoods in poor areas, we need to address the human cost of that growth. 

The union seems to be the only organized opposition group actively campaigning against the measure. It warns that paying investors back on the bonds would entail higher taxes and rents and conceal profits for the owners of housing projects.

If the union feels that the needs of Austin’s most vulnerable citizens — single parents, the elderly, the working poor and people dependent fixed income — are worth the capital cost of issuing bonds, the dynamic of the election is very different. And regardless of what decision you make on Nov. 5, the comparison of municipal bonds to rape should be an ugly reminder of what can happen when we veil our beliefs in emotion and false victimhood, to say nothing of the pain those affected by rape experience when a traumatic act of physical and emotional violence is reduced to a demagogue’s slogan. But ultimately, if we as Austinites are willing to embrace the benefits of exploding population and gentrification of the East Side, then we similarly have an obligation to the people those phenomena displace. I urge you to support the ballot measure.

Matula is a finance junior from Austin.