State Senate hearing yields testimonials on affordable housing

PHARR — A committee of Texas state senators fielded testimony Thursday from leaders in the Rio Grande Valley, and across Texas, in hopes of better understanding issues that affect housing affordability.

The hearing, chaired by state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, invited the officials and the public to the Pharr Events Center Thursday for a hearing to inform the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations about local government taxes, fees and mandates.

Rising housing costs across the state have caused debate, with some in the Texas Legislature laying blame with municipalities while some cities have condemned those at the Capitol.

“City’s have a difficult task,” Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said at Thursday’s hearing. “It’s a fine dance they do to balance out their interests for the community and what’s best for housing and to keep the costs down.”

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, who testified alongside Pharr Mayor Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez and Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, has placed blame on state leadership in the housing sector, and his claims on Thursday were no different.

“The backbone of the Texas economy’s resurgence is with cities, and I hope you don’t forget that,” Darling said, citing a report he read before the hearing. “Strong cities need to have independent home rule ability to regulate what’s right in their community. And if the community doesn’t like it, then they can vote me out of office.”

The committee had an official charge at Tuesday’s hearing: “Examine issues that impact housing affordability, including the effect of local government taxes, fees and mandates. Evaluate the cost of purchasing a single-family residence in different parts of the state, factoring in the impact of local rules and regulations; to identify matters of policy with the greatest influence; and identify ways to increase transparency and awareness prior to the adoption of costly local ordinances or orders.”

Darling disputed the charge, too.

“What your charge is all about, I think, is restrictions that cities place on buildings.” he said.

State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he sympathized with Darling.

“You pass rules to protect the quality of life, sometimes, in neighborhoods,” Menendez said.

Huffines, however, disagreed with Darling, and had some questions for the three mayors. He asked how they fund affordable housing programs, perhaps with voting fees.

“I look at it as just one pot,” Hernandez said. “Whether I get building fees or water fees or what have you, it will come into one pot at the end of the day, and from there we allocate as needed. So indirectly, yes.”

Huffines had a larger point.

“When you do that, if you increase the building fees for the builders to put into the other pot for affordable housing, now you’ve made it unaffordable for the rest of the community,” Huffines said. “So I encourage you guys to be careful with that.”

As the conversation continued, Huffines asked if the mayors conduct cost-benefit analyses when implementing new building codes or any regulations on builders.

“We don’t just adopt new building codes, we make sure that the building inspection department lists each change…” Darling said. “Because we want to make sure they’re effective and make a lot of sense,” such as an automatic closing of a garage door. “So we said, ‘How many fires are happening that would prevent that? So we didn’t adopt that.”

Boswell said how his constituents and local builders will call his cell phone if there are impeding regulations.

“I’m always doing a cost-benefit if I’m gonna get a phone call or not,” Boswell said. “We hear these things from realtors, from developers. And we know exactly what’s good and what’s not.”

Hernandez said all the cities know what the others’ policies are, and that Pharr, at times, brings in third parties to evaluate specifics.

“Really, I think one of your committee’s charges should be to go back and look what state mandates cost developers,” Darling said.

Huffines said he appreciated the mayors’ points.

Beyond the three mayors, the committee heard from groups across the Valley and the state, including representatives from Texas A&M University, the Texas Association of Builders, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas Municipal League, Alamo Area Council of Government and the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville.

Ultimately, Lucio wanted to impress a collegial mood on everyone participating in the hearing.

“We do our very best to work with you,” Lucio said. “We want a balance, and we certainly want everyone to succeed.”