PHARR, RGV – State Sen. Don Huffines says political subdivisions are pulling in more money than ever in property taxes and he doesn’t see the funds going back to the residents or to the business community.
The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) met Thursday, May 31, at the Pharr Events Center for a public hearing on affordable housing in the region. The panel consisted of state Senators Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Huffines, R-Dallas. Lucio chairs IGR.
The first panel of witnesses were Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez, mayor of Pharr, Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen and Chris Boswell, mayor of Harlingen. Their discussions included the different initiatives each city is taking to make sure there is affordable housing for low-income families. One common issue between the three cities is that there are not enough funds for affordable housing, the mayors argued.
However, Huffines believes political subdivisions can make decisions to allocate their money accordingly.
“I know it’s a delicate balance. I know it’s not easy, but how you spend your money is your choice. And what you do with it. And I find that most political subdivisions don’t say ‘no’ enough. You just don’t say ‘no’ enough,” Huffines said.
“We deal with the same population growth that the cities do. We deal with all the state growth. We keep our budget under control. We track population growth and inflation and I don’t see that in political subdivisions.”
By political subdivisions, Huffines meant cities.
However, Mayor Boswell said increases in revenue come from new growth in the community such as new buildings and construction rather than the appraisal of properties. Two thirds of the City of Harlingen’s budget is for public safety. Any extra revenue goes to supporting the police environment.
“What I would implore you to do is to think about bracketing and understanding that our situation is different from the metro areas. Everybody is overtaxed,” Boswell said. “We’re trying to keep that balance and have good public safety [as well as] good standards in the communities. I think [we’re] different from some of the metro areas.”
According to Menendez, the population growth in the region will double in the next 20 years. He says there is a lot of work for each of the cities to do and the government has to be careful about putting impediments in the way of political subdivisions that would stop them building more affordable housing for residents.
The City of Pharr has a population of nearly 80,000 residents. According to Hernandez, the median family household income is approximately $36,000 and the median value of owner occupied housing is $73,000. Unfortunately, only 60 percent of residents in the City of Pharr own a home.
Hernandez said the city is addressing this issue through innovative programs, partnerships supporting affordable transition and temporary housing for those in need as well as utilizing opportunities by offsetting fees associated with development. Some examples include the Pharr Family Housing Foundation, low interest financing, Pharr Housing for Heroes Buyers program and a program that will aid families with their utility bills under certain qualifications.
“Our goal is to ultimately increase availability of affordable housing opportunities to our Pharr families. Some of our recommendations that we propose would be to continue to support local efforts of nonprofits and local community banks who understand the market and the unique, underwriting standards of our culture here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hernandez said.
“The City of Pharr wants educate the State of Texas and the Senate committee. We’re not asking for your handouts. We don’t need your handouts. We do things on our own, locally, to provide for our people, for our population.”
According to Darling, the City of McAllen began a low income housing program that has been the most successful in the U.S. He says the program was built on the fact that developers had a whole integrated process of building and created over 3,000 homes for the lowest income earners. Darling believes it is a city leadership’s responsibility to regulate what goes on in their own community.
“The backbone of the Texas economy’s resurgence is with the cities and I hope you don’t forget that,” Darling said, citing Dr. Ray Perryman, president and CEO of The Perryman Group. “Strong cities need to have independent home rule ability to regulate what’s right in their community. If the community doesn’t like it then they can vote me out of office.”
Boswell said the City of Harlingen has not raised its tax rate in over 12 years. The city has been experiencing a lot of growth as it relates to building permits, development and residential lots. One major project is tearing down a nine-story vacant building and turning it into affordable housing for the community.
“I think what I would ask you is to do no harm,” Boswell said. “Whatever you do, don’t do anything to inhibit what’s already happening here in our region because there are already good things happening.”
Other testimonies at the hearing included representatives from the Texas Association of Affordable Housing Providers, the Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.