When Mayor Steve Adler took the lectern Saturday to give his annual State of the City Address, the speech was dominated by two of the city’s focal issues—growth and affordability—and how the city planned to manage both.
“There is something we often tell ourselves about this city, and we say it as if it were a knowing, painful joke,” Adler said. “The best time to be in Austin … was five years before you got here.”
Although he referred to the joke as “painful,” Adler explained that the only reason it’s a joke and not “serious” and “tragic” is because Austin “is so good at change.”
The mayor talked about the consequence of “false narratives” regarding polarity in Austin—most notably, the neighborhoods and the old-time Austinites against the developers and the urbanists.
While the citywide unemployment rate is 3 percent overall, African Americans are unemployed at a 10 percent rate and more than 30 percent of Latinos are uninsured, he said. Most students in Austin’s public schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, he said, and roughly 25 percent of city children do not have reliable access to food. And while job growth has sustained, “most of the jobs created in recent years do not pay a living wage, and our middle class is shrinking,” he said.
“When it comes to managing growth in Austin, the other side doesn’t have to lose for us to win,” Adler said. “So let’s join and start figuring this out together. It’s time, at long last, for Austin to get real results managing growth.”
“When it comes to managing growth in Austin, the other side doesn’t have to lose for us to win … Let’s join and start figuring this out together. It’s time, at long last, for Austin to get real results managing growth.” — Mayor Steve Adler
Adler expressed anxiety that the city was on its way to becoming San Francisco, a city where a failure to manage growth and affordability has resulted in the average home costing more than $1.1 million.
In response, the city has promised to complete work on the $720 million mobility bond, which was passed overwhelmingly in 2016, within eight years. And this year, the mayor said the public can expect to see tangible results on the city’s sidewalks and safe routes to school.
Speaking to press before Saturday’s speech, the mayor said the city must combat affordability issues by passing CodeNEXT—the rewrite of the city’s complex land development code—on the first reading. According to a timeline provided by city staff, that first reading is due on the dais by the end of 2017.
“In rewriting the code, I’d like to propose that we treat each other like we’re on the same team,” Adler said to a room full of applause. “We can win if we achieve two goals: protect our neighborhoods and deliver the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.”
The city needs housing stock. The mayor said there is simply not enough housing to go around. However, Austinites cannot stop growth, he said, and managing that growth will require what Adler referred to as an “Austin bargain.”
Half that bargain would focus on preserving neighborhood character by not forcing density. In exchange, the code rewrite needs to bring density along the corridors, such as Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road and Airport Boulevard, thus providing the city with the housing stock necessary to wisely manage growth and affordability, he said.
“Sure, we’ll need to make hard decisions in the transition areas between corridors, centers and our neighborhoods,” Adler said. “But an ‘Austin bargain’ would mean that we would begin the code revision process with agreement on as many as 95-percent of all properties in the city. What a great way to start.”
The state of the music industry
The crisis facing Austin’s music industry is directly related to the city’s wider affordability crisis. The mayor and council have made it clear that stimulating the city’s creative economy is a top priority in 2017.
Earlier this week, the council took the first steps in implementing the Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus resolution, while also approving a pilot program to allow extended outdoor music curfews in the Red River Cultural District to stimulate venue revenues.
“If we’re going to succeed, it could mean that we’re going to need to do things the Austin way, by utilizing our strength as a tech city.” — Mayor Steve Adler
“If we’re going to succeed, it could mean that we’re going to need to do things the Austin way by utilizing our strength as a tech city,” Adler said Saturday.
The mayor introduced two tech-centered initiatives aimed at assisting the music industry’s affordability crisis. The first is a crowd-sourced mini-bond program that will allow the community to invest in an effort to preserve iconic venues throughout the city. The idea has been talked about for roughly a year, but the mayor said the first concrete steps toward its implementation will be taken in the spring.
The second initiative, which was introduced for the first time Saturday night, is TipCow, a mobile application that allows users to tip musicians from their phone.
“You can’t expect someone to make it as a working musician in Austin if you’re not willing to pay them for their work,” Adler said. “Just because sometimes there’s no cover charge doesn’t make the musicians volunteers.”
Public Safety and the city’s stance on the refugee crisis
Issues with the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab and rape kit backlog have made headlines in recent months. Adler said APD and DNA join TNCs and STRs as the “latest three-letter emergencies.”
“Fixing this will take time and money, but we must commit to doing this right, and so far I’m encouraged that everyone is working together to do exactly that,” Adler said.
“I just want the immigrant and refugee community in this city to know that we are a welcoming and supportive community and that they are an important part of our community and in this community they should feel welcomed and safe.” — Mayor Steve Adler
Adler claimed Austin is one of the safest cities in the country, something he owed to the trust built between the community and law enforcement—a comment aimed directly toward a recent controversy at the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez announced little more than a week ago a new policy regarding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in which her department, in certain instances, would no longer detain inmates on behalf of the federal immigration enforcement agency. In response, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to remove Hernandez from her post and withhold state funds from the Travis County sheriff’s office.
Austin has stated itself as a “sanctuary city,” meaning local law enforcement officers focus their resources on fighting crime rather than searching for illegal immigrants. Last year, Adler said Austin welcomed roughly 600 refugees into the city, and the expectation is the same this year. However, yesterday President Donald Trump signed an executive order blocking immigrants from seven middle-eastern countries from entering the United States.
“Immigrants are part of who we are and who we have always been,” Adler said Saturday night. “I just want the immigrant and refugee community in this city to know that we are a welcoming and supportive community and that they are an important part of our community and in this community they should feel welcomed and safe.”
Although much change is on the horizon, the mayor closed out his speech by confirming the state of the city is strong.
“The world can completely lose its mind and we’re still going to be Austin,” Adler said. “No matter what happens, we will resolutely, unapologetically remain Austin. Believe me.”