Organizer Osvaldo Guerrero Pho to by Dave De n iso n like 25,000 people living in sustandard or too expensive housing,” she said, explaining that by too expensive she meant that more than half the income goes for rent. “And 3,000 people without homes, living in cars. We know some of them.” To her, the situation recalls the Biblical passage about the Good Samaritan who helps a poor man out of a ditch. “Except now instead of having one poor person in a ditch we have a hundred,” she said. Amid the buzzing phone bank, it was clear that Sister Amalia didn’t plan to stand idly by. The mission, she said, was “educating our congregations that they have the power of the vote, and that’s all they have,” she said. Not far away, at the cluttered East 1st Street office that served as headquarters for the city-wide coalition calling itself Concerned Citizens for Affordable Housing, Russ Tidwell was anxiously monitoring the afternoon returns in key precincts around the city. Tidwell, a former Austin state representative, had been managing the coalition’s campaign since December. “We’re not overrun with volunteers,” Tidwell said, but he thought the returns were “fair,” so far. “It’s been a very low-budget campaign,” without nearly enough money to run television advertising, he said. $120,000 would be a minimum amount to run an effective city-wide campaign, he said, but the coalition had spent only about $35,000. He took the opposition seriously: in Austin there is “a core of people who will turn out against any tax or spending program.” Blockwalkers checking in at the central office were grumbling about the occasional hostility they were encountering from people opposed to the bond issue. BY THE EARLY evening, it became apparent that opposition to the bonds was not isolated, and that, in fact, the propositions were destined to lose. Austin Interfaith supporters gathered at Dolores Church for what they had hoped would be a victory celebration. Instead, they clung to the hope that late boxes would change the outcome, and went home early. The next day brought a proliferation of reasons why the bonds failed to pass. A pesky little group with the nonsensical name of Concerned Austinites for Sensible Housing, claimed some of the credit for the defeat. Others said the bonds became the victim of a bad mood that has hit the city and generated a recall movement among people unhappy with the City Council and just about everyone seems unhappy with the council for one reason or another. Or perhaps the housing proposals were too vague and voters had no confidence the program would really help the poor. One factor that had an effect was the lack of support for the bonds in white liberal districts some neighborhood activists concluded, seemingly without studying the agreements that the council had made with housing advocates on how the money would be spent, that the money would help developers more than poor people. \(The council agreed that most of the money would benefit families with less than a $16,000 a year income, and that programs would emphasize rental housing in existing neighborhoods. But some liberals worried that the program would “bail out” developers who would sell their bad investFor their part, Austin Interfaith leaders reacted without acrimony and spoke of the need to educate the rest of the city to the needs of poor people. “Some of us felt that perhaps it was a matter of some people not understanding fully” why the bonds were needed, said Roberto Perez. “I guess we had the hope that the people of Austin knew enough about the plight of the homeless,” said Sister Amalia Rios. “The message didn’t get out, obviously,” said Ken Fujimoto, a key Interfaith organizer. But nothing tells the story the way the precinct-by-precinct vote totals do. Here you see the unmistakeable pattern of two separate cities voting with separate interests. In precinct after precinct in affluent Northwest Austin the bonds were rejected by 75 to 25 percent margins. Out of the city’s 134 precincts, the bonds lost in 83, won in 48, and drew an even split in three. The bonds were to have been paid back out of the city’s general revenue, and that would have meant eventual property tax increases. This is what seemed to be uppermost in the minds of many well-off citizens. One Northwest Hills voter told the Austin American-Statesman he voted against the bonds because “we’re concerned about what the tax rate is around here. It’s become pretty tough for people to live.” His neighbors apparently agreed: the precinct went 78 to 22 percent against low-income housing bonds. City officials said, however, that the tax increases for such a small bond issue would have amounted to no more than an additional 40 cents per year on a $100,000 home, climbing to an increase of $3.50 per year in 1994. Meanwhile, the low-income neighborhoods that Austin Interfaith had targeted saw a voter turnout two and three times larger than they saw in the most recent bond election. Montopolis precincts, which had 1 to 3 percent turnouts in a December 1985 election, saw 7 to 12 percent turnouts on February 7. “People we thought would be our allies in this thing did not support us, and that hurt us,” said Fujimoto. But Interfaith activists are already talking of making another bid for city money. “We cannot wait years anymore for looking after the homeless and the shelterless,” said Roberto Perez. And Sister Amalia Rios has not given up on the spirit of the city. Asked if she thought the election proved a shortage of “Good Samaritans,” she said, “I think that maybe the Good Samaritans out there were afraid to come out. They must be out there.” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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