Candidate questionnaire: Ben Leffler – City Council District 9

Candidate questionnaire: Ben Leffler – City Council District 9

ATA issued a candidate questionnaire to all candidates running in the November 2022 general election. All questions were the same for Mayor, City Council, County Clerk and County Judge. Responses have not been edited. View all responses here.

Ben Leffler – City Council District 9

1. As we head into the 4th year of Covid-19, what learnings have you taken from the pandemic and how will you apply those to your policies and community outreach moving forward?

The pandemic increased existing societal inequities across the board, and it reiterated the need for much more inclusive access to City services and policymakers. While some of the negative impacts can be attributed to failures at the state level, there is no doubt that the City’s response was reactive, insufficient, and inequitable.

Disasters will become more frequent as Austin is increasingly impacted by climate change, and we must be better prepared. We must look ahead to identify and mitigate risks, and reflect to learn from our previous failures. I support creating a task force to understand and document the City’s response to the pandemic, especially in low-income and traditionally underserved communities, so that we will have plans and resources on-hand when the next disaster strikes.

We should also better leverage our creative and tech communities for solutions to increase accessibility, transparency, and public input. It can’t just be a digital solution, as the digital divide is real, but we can certainly make the City more accessible online.

Additionally, our office will be accessible, transparent, and visible in the community. We’ll attend neighborhood meetings and hold open office hours to listen and learn about the community’s priorities and concerns, and make sure that nobody is left behind as Austin continues to evolve. I’ve been a collaborator and a coalition-builder throughout my career, and I know that, together, we can find opportunities to make Austin a better city for us all.

2. How will you work with City leadership to provide a housing plan for unhoused residents?

The City’s HEAL initiative is a good program, but it’s not enough, and we just learned that nearly a third of program participants left without a permanent home placement. The City must improve data collection to better understand how people are moving through HEAL, and work to decrease the time they’re waiting for housing placement. This is a great opportunity to partner with our tech community for creative solutions.

We should also partner with adjacent communities and the private sector on a strategic regional plan that takes a housing first approach and increases temporary and permanent supportive housing. We should also better coordinate with the dozens of wonderful nonprofits serving those experiencing homelessness.

In the meantime, those living on the streets need access to basic services to protect their health and safety. We should continue to expand access to cooling and heating centers, including transit to-and-from facilities. We should explore how other city facilities like libraries, recreation centers, and community centers can help support the unhoused community. We should also explore all options to expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

3. How will you work with City leadership to support marginalized communities in Austin?

Austin’s rapid growth has brought vast amounts of wealth and prosperity to our region, but it has also greatly increased inequities and further marginalized traditionally underinvested communities. Housing affordability is the most obvious example, as all Austinites are affected by rising housing costs, but this disproportionately impacts marginalized communities that already experience structural segregation and underinvestment. We need affordable housing in every area of town—not just east of I-35. We need all types of housing everywhere, especially along transit corridors. And they can’t just be rental properties. Home ownership is the quickest pathway to building wealth, and it’s a critical racial justice issue.

In addition to making our land development code and permitting process more equitable, I will work to increase access to Community Land Trusts and expand access to no/low-interest loans for home construction, repair, and down payment assistance, as well as free construction plans and fee waivers for low-income Austinites.

We also must prioritize access, opportunity, and representation for our historically underrepresented groups. Diversity, equity and inclusion should be considered in all city plans and programs, and resources should be allocated representatively. Additionally, the City should work to streamline grants and reduce the administrative burden for organizations working with our most impacted communities. We know that access to homes, good jobs, and medical care creates safer communities, so we must invest more in our traditionally underrepresented people.

Finally, Black and brown Austinites disproportionately experience police violence. I will work with the community to build trust, increase transparency, and strengthen mutually beneficial relationships between marginalized communities and law enforcement. We should also incorporate recommendations from the Reimagining Public Safety report, including:

  • Pilot projects for income assistance, community health centers, and community food and medical aid,
  • Increased mental health training for first responders, and
  • Ending inhumane, dangerous tactics, such as the use of police dogs against people, and mounted patrol.

4. Homeowners and renters experienced enormous increases in Travis County Property Taxes in 2022. How will you address Austin’s ongoing housing shortage and displacement issues?

As mentioned above, we must build all types of housing for all income levels in all areas of the city, including subsidized Affordable housing and market-rate housing. To do so, we must update Austin’s 38-year-old Land Development Code to be more equitable and consistent across Austin. We can also better incentivize workforce housing development by expanding Affordability Unlocked and increasing density bonus programs.

We must also streamline the permitting process, which is currently a significant contributor to housing costs, and increase transparency into development-related rules at the department level. We should also explore how the City can help low-income people stay in their homes through loans, expedited permitting, fee waivers, and other opportunities. The city should also explore working with UT, ACC, AISD to build housing for students, faculty, and staff, and partnering with the private sector to build employee housing.

5. As our community continues to rely on virtual spaces, how should the City address the digital divide? What steps would you take to bridge that divide?

  • To address the digital divide, the City should focus on increasing internet access, affordability, and adoption/digital literacy.
  • To improve access to high-speed internet, the City should increase staffing to expedite permitting and review for contractors installing fiber lines.
  • To increase affordability, the City can build awareness of the federal ACP program, which provides $30/month to subsidize internet service for eligible households. This can be done alongside existing City/contractor programs that assist with filing taxes, applying for a MAP card, and healthcare enrollment. Additionally, the City should partner with other municipalities to lobby the federal government to make the ACP program permanent. We should also ban predatory exclusive telecom agreements in all multifamily developments in partnership with the City. This will increase internet competition and service quality for tenants in those buildings.
  • To increase adoption, the City should update the 2014 Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan to ensure that it is aligned with modern technology and policies. Additionally, the City should increase support for nonprofit organizations like Austin Free-Net that are helping build digital literacy and skills in the community. Finally, since success in today’s world requires access to the internet, the City should explore how to incentivize all our community partners to include digital skill-building in their offerings.

6. What are your thoughts on the City of Austin using cryptocurrency (AustinCoin)?

The City has a duty to be a trustworthy, responsible steward of Austinities’ and public dollars. As seen in Miami, there are very serious risks associated with CityCoins. What’s worse, these types of “investments” tend to disproportionately attract and negatively impact lower-income people (see the lottery), who can least afford it. While flashy, the City of Austin should stay away from cryptocurrency, at least in its current iteration.

7. How can the City better work with Austin’s tech community to bring innovative approaches to civic challenges?

When I’m not running for office, I manage teams of designers and developers modernizing federal government websites. I know that better tech and creative solutions can improve public service delivery, uplift communities, and save lives. We are so fortunate to have a talented, vibrant, and creative tech community here in Austin, but the City has yet to fully capitalize on this incredible resource.

The City of Austin should be leading the country in civic innovation. As the District 9 Council Member I will make it my mission to achieve this goal. We will establish a civic innovation hub to tackle the most pressing issues facing our community—homelessness, housing, transportation, climate, food security, and education. We’ll partner with UT, the private sector, and community stakeholders to pool resources, address shared issues, and fund micro-grants to innovators. We’ll continue to build on the work of the City Innovation Office, and explore how emerging technology can improve the lives of every Austinite. We have all of the resources to make this happen. We are only limited by our own creativity and determination

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