McALLEN — Just days before early voting is set to begin, the candidates running to be the city’s next mayor sat down to discuss their positions on housing during a luncheon held by the Rio Grande Valley Builders Association.
The event gave the candidates an opportunity to offer their views on subjects not often discussed during local elections such as affordable housing and what actions they would take as the next mayor to bring down the high rate of poverty among city residents.
Dr. Rashid Shahid, a physician specializing in pain management, could not stay for the question and answer portion of the luncheon but, in his introductory remarks, said the city was in a state of stagnation, citing the high rate of unemployment, poverty, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and depression.
“But it does not have to be this way,” Shahid said. “We can progress out of this vicious cycle by diversifying our economic profile.”
Specifically, he pointed to growing the medical, manufacturing, and technological industry so that revenue streams would shift inward.
“Together, we will invest in public health, develop the skilled workforce and improve and expand our infrastructure for efficient mobility, traffic flow and flood water drainage,” he said.
“We the city will work in tandem with the construction industry and facilitate them in every possible way to meet these exciting opportunities and in achieving our mutual economic objectives,” Rashid added. “In addition, we will cut our wasteful spending, reset our priorities and acquire every possible state and federal grants to realize our goals without increasing taxes.”
As for the remaining four candidates, they first addressed a question about how to make the permitting and inspection process more efficient.
Javier Villalobos, current District 1 city commissioner, replied that he understood the frustration of the process and said they could fix the issue but stressed the importance of experience.
Othal E. Brand Jr., president of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3, said two of the current mayoral candidates, referring to Villalobos and District 6 City Commissioner Veronica Whitacre, already had the opportunity to fix the issue but hadn’t done so.
“It is nothing more than a mindset reset and a will to make sure it happens and it works for you,” Brand said.
Whitacre, however, followed up saying that she had tried to the address the issue and said the city needed to implement guidelines and workshops so builders and Realtors know what will be required of them before they even walk into the McAllen Development Center.
Michael Fallek, a business owner, said he’d dealt with the challenges of those processes for his own projects but has also sat on the other side as a member of the city’s planning and zoning commission.
One thing he suggested was having a liaison between the private community and city hall.
“We could have one liaison for the residential development, one liaison for the business development,” Fallek said. “Their point would be to make sure that there is no hurdle that can’t be overcome, that the communication is given between city hall and the developer, to make sure that it’s a smooth, efficient process.”
Over the years, the city has grown significantly, reaching the borders of neighboring cities. But for the next question, the candidates were asked of the possibility of the city growing vertically.
Whitacre appeared to be in favor of such growth, stating that she wanted to revitalize the inner city.
“We are already all the way up to 107, up to Edinburg,” she said. “We’re already up to Mission, we’re already up to Pharr and we’re almost to Hidalgo so we need to revitalize our inner city.”
Fallek was also in favor of incorporating vertical housing, calling it “a terrific idea.”
“It’s something that hasn’t really come up much before because we’ve had enough land and the pricing is such on available land that it didn’t make financial sense to go vertical,” Fallek began. “That probably is changing now and so there are likely opportunities to incorporate that type of development into our city proper and we can make sure that codes and zoning provides for that and that those opportunities are out there.”
Brand said he had no qualms about having vertical housing but said that sort of change had to be driven by the builder community.
“This is not something that the city needs to address as much but just wait and see what comes from you all as builders,” Brand said. “Where we do those or where we allow that to happen as a city, all that depends on the neighborhoods and how they respond to it.”
He added, “It has to kind of flow with the community that’s already here and those that want to bring it and build it.”
Villalobos agreed with the others in favoring that type of housing, noting that McAllen is very old-fashioned.
“We need your help because I believe in mixed-use, I think we need to modernize a little bit but they won’t let us,” Villalobos said. “And who doesn’t let us? It’s the people, it’s you all out there, your neighbors; I agree with everybody else, we need to include mixed development and modernize.”
The candidates also talked about what the city could do to address the high level of poverty experienced among McAllen residents, like those in the rest of the Rio Grande Valley.
According to Villalobos, not much.
“When it comes to issues of poverty, we can’t … you see all those people out there, we cannot go spend our money for the homeless people, we can’t,” Villalobos said, explaining that it was up to the state and federal government to provide funds for affordable housing and other services for individuals who may be experiencing homelessness.
“Even though I understand the question and it may sound kind of mean in a sense, we can’t,” Villalobos said. “I stay within my lane and that’s serving and giving the best services to the city of McAllen.”
Brand pointed to nonprofit or other private organizations that provided services for people of low-income, noting that the city indirectly helps those individuals through grants they award those nonprofits.
“Our hands are tied to a degree but, again, where there’s a willingness to partner with people in the private sector and the nonprofits, it can be solved,” Brand said.
Fallek said the city can and should improve people’s lives, specifically by bringing in new businesses with job opportunities.
“We bring in new companies, we increase the number of jobs, we make sure that there’s enough capital investment moving in to the city so that those new opportunities can be spread out to those people here who need them,” Fallek said. “And then secondly, it’s incumbent on us to collaborate with our education partners. Education is the way that you make people ready for the jobs that will be moving into our community.”
Whitacre, similarly, stressed education, adding that students needed to be encouraged to go to career schools and overall continue their education.
As for their stance on broader topics, the time for the five candidates to share those and make their pitch to voters is closing fast.
Early voting begins Monday and runs through April 27. Election day is May 1.