Austin elected officials decided Thursday to delay a vote on a program that would have sent a monthly allowance to low-income families — with no strings attached.
Council member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents Austin’s far northwest, initially asked for a postponement. “There are parts of this article that have raised questions that need to be answered,” she wrote Wednesday on an online message board used by council members.
Kelly said she wanted to understand how the city’s first guaranteed income pilot program would be evaluated before she votes. City staff said those details have yet to be ironed out with a nonprofit the city is hiring to implement the program.
The vote to carry was 10 to 1, with council member Leslie Pool absent.
Others have raised legal concerns about such a program. Bill Aleshire, an attorney and former Travis County judge, wrote to council members this week advising them that state law may not allow a government to disburse public funds in this manner.
“Before spending this money, the Council should either seek an opinion from the AG or bring an action for declaratory judgment,” he wrote. “Otherwise it would be inhumane to offer this money to the poor and raise their expectations, only for the money to be stopped (if not refunded) if a court finds it illegal.”
Council members met with city prosecutors in a closed session Thursday afternoon to discuss the program.
The item, which has been moved to May 5, asks the board to approve a contract with the nonprofit to oversee the pilot program. Guaranteed income programs, also called basic income programs, provide people with one-time or regular allowances; unlike other social services, however, a guaranteed income program does not stipulate how families are allowed to spend that money.
“Having a program where you actually go to see the family and say, ‘Damn, maybe you know better than us,’ is not how government programs are often run,” Mayor Steve said Monday. Adler, who supports the program. .
The Council originally earmarked nearly $1.2 million for a program during budget discussions last summer. From this pot, the city offered to send $1,000 a month to 85 low-income families for a year. During that year, city staff said the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank, would study the effects on people receiving the money. City staff and elected officials would then decide whether to establish a more permanent program.
The delayed vote comes as housing prices have skyrocketed in Austin, leading to an affordability crisis. On Thursday, the National Low-Income Coalition released an annual report on affordable housing in the United States; Austin ranked among the top 10 cities with the least amount of rental housing available for people considered very low-income.
“We are in a housing crisis… we all know that. We know the dollars from these programs are needed to help families now,” council member Vanessa Fuentes said after Kelly proposed to the council to delay the vote for several more weeks. This amendment ultimately failed.
The nonprofit organization the city chose to oversee the program, California-based UpTogether, recently completed a pilot privately-funded basic income program, distributing $1,000 a month to 125 families in Austin. and Georgetown. According to a report released three months after the program began, 95% of families said they planned to spend the money on immediate needs such as bills and food.