Affordability, education challenging Austin status

AUSTIN, Texas (KXAN) – Rising home prices are pushing Austin residents outside the city limits and burdening families and students, Austin leaders said at a Wednesday morning event.

Affordability is our number one problem and the reason we are seeing an exodus of so many from Austin,” said Sheryl Cole an Austin attorney and former mayor pro tem. In particular, Cole said, the African-American community is leaving town.

Mark Strama, head of Google Fiber in Austin, and Paul Saldana, an Austin Independent School District trustee joined Cole at the Leadership Austin’s Engage breakfast series event. The three panelists discussed affordability, education, transportation and other challenges facing the city. KXAN sponsored the event, among other business entities.

Cole said affordability is a function of the economics of housing, with diminishing availability comes rising demand. Micro units and homestead tax exemptions could help ease the problem.

And while decreased affordability pushes residents to Austin periphery—worsening traffic—it also saddles residents with higher home payments and strains budgets. The financial strain ends up burdening students in the public school system, the panelists said.

“Disproportionately more of our children are low income,” Saldana said.

AISD faces another challenge as well: it is considered a rich district, which means the state captures and redistributes a portion of the district’s tax income to poorer school districts. This past year, the district forfeited over $272 million to the state, Saldana said.

And teacher pay is lagging, too.

For the first time, “we have teachers who are qualifying for public housing,” Saldana said. “we rank dead last [in teacher pay].”

Strama said the school lunch program plays an important role in keeping students’ energy up during the day. Despite dwindling enrollment numbers, AISD outperforms similar school districts throughout the nation, he added.

“Feeding kids who don’t get fed at home is the best thing we do to improve educational outcomes,” Strama said. “What if we created a free and reduced dinner program?”

Austin City Council have formed a regional affordability committee, headed by Councilwoman Delia Garza, to address affordability.

The panelists also discussed Austin’s increasing traffic problems. Cole said the city should have a package of rail and road improvements to address road delays.

Strama described traffic as a “peak” problem. For 20 hours each day, Austin roadways are adequately sized, he said. The four hours of traffic congestion could be reduced, in part, by having people work from home and video conferencing.

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