Austin City Council funds guaranteed basic income pilot program

Photo by Randy von Liski

By: Chad Swiatecki

Joining the ranks of a handful of other cities interested in adopting some form of ongoing assistance for low-income residents, Austin has committed more than $1 million to study the creation of a guaranteed income program for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

A budget amendment adopted last week allocates $1.13 million in the next budget to further fund and expand an ongoing pilot program conducted by the Family Independence Initiative, Up Together and other philanthropic groups.

The amendment is more than four times the $250,000 suggested in the city manager’s proposed budget, with the goal of creating a repeatable program that can provide income stability for those in need.

The move came just before census data released last week showed that by 2022 Austin is expected to be the least affordable U.S. city outside of California, surpassing major metro areas such as Miami, Seattle and New York. Data from real estate company Zillow suggest Austin residents will spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on mortgage or living costs by the end of this year, a threshold that qualifies as “housing burdened.”

In June, City Council approved a resolution directing city staff to take initial steps to study a guaranteed income program.

“This is a concept that we employed in pretty significant ways during the pandemic with the RISE fund that we brought to people. Because we were trying to get it out so quickly we weren’t really set up to evaluate it to be able to learn lessons from it, to see how it would work as an ongoing project,” Mayor Steve Adler said at the budget session.

When Council passed the initial resolution in June, it was part of a trio of policy pieces that Adler said would be important in helping to address the city’s homelessness problem. One of those resolutions provided $4.9 million in reimbursement of fees and infrastructure support to Community First! Village for the construction of two more phases of additional housing to assist the chronically homeless.

The other June resolution provides up to $5.1 million to Integral Care through September 2022 to provide permanent supportive housing to chronically homeless disabled individuals.

So far Council has moved to use roughly $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan money toward efforts to provide housing and supportive services for the homeless.

Adler said the allocation of funds “places the city among a relatively smaller group of cities around the country that are looking for better ways to support and achieve stability in the community, and preserve everybody living in the community. These were all good things for us to pass.”

A handful of other cities across the country have experimented with pilot programs offering universal basic income for the neediest portions of their populace, with Stockton, California, the most high-profile example.

The budget amendment had one vote against it, from Council Member Leslie Pool, who said a guaranteed income program should be left up to federal lawmakers instead of being created and funded locally.

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