The trio joins Mayor Kirk Watson and seven returning members on the council dais, and each brings a new voice to represent their communities across East, Central and South Austin. All three say they hope to spur more housing and affordable options in the city in addition to tackling issues, such as child care, the environment and homelessness during their terms.
Prior to being sworn in Jan. 6, Velásquez, Alter and Qadri each spoke individually with Community Impact about their work as council members and priority issues both within their districts and citywide. Interview content was edited for length and clarity.
A separate Q&A with Watson can be viewed here.
What are you most looking forward to about the new council term?
Velásquez: Service. Seriously, just service to the people of Austin. ... Bringing city government as close to the people as we can. I think that there for a little while, people have been feeling that there’s a disconnect between the people and City Hall. And one of the core issues that I ran on also was accessibility, so making sure that people felt a presence, people felt acknowledged, people felt respected as far as their interactions with City Hall and especially the District 3 office.
Alter: I’m excited to just get to know everybody. We all have a lot of the same priorities, I think. Everybody comes at it a little differently. That’s one of the special parts about 10-1 [Austin's council district system], is you come at it geographically different, right ... Everyone just has different ideas about things, and so I’m really excited to both share my ideas and thoughts, but also hear what other people are thinking about and how they want to tackle, whether it’s affordability, homelessness, you name it. And figure out, "Well okay, we share the same goal. How can our various ideas fit together or maybe build on each other?"
Qadri: What I’m most looking forward to is having the opportunity to work with my colleagues. ... Hearing them, especially the ones who have been in office talking about their priorities for the upcoming year, seeing where we could collaborate with them. And then also talking to folks like José and Ryan who I’m so excited to be a part of this incoming member class and seeing the issues that we ran on, talking about where we can come together and tackle them together and work toward solutions together.
What do you think might be the biggest differences between you all and the previous council?
Velásquez: The people that were elected were elected because people want to see action on affordability. Genuine action, I think they’re tired of the pageantry. And people also forget that we are just rolling off our first round of council members from the 10-1, and so really I think they gave people a little grace, and now it’s time to get to work.
Alter: We are a newer generation in many regards. If you look at who we’re replacing, we are younger than they are, and so that just comes with a different perspective on things. ... I think [former District 5 Council Member Ann] Kitchen did a lot of great work. There are certain things where we don’t necessarily agree on some approach, and so I think there will be a little bit of a different direction. But by and large, I think we will plug in very nicely to the members who are returning and be able to build upon some of their efforts.
Qadri: I have a lot of respect for the outgoing council members. ... Their time on the dais, we’re grateful for it. But I think what José and Ryan and I—and I speak for myself in saying this—I think we bring fresh ideas. I think there’s a lot of things that the other three had done that we can build on, and there are places where we might have differed from our predecessors that I think we can collaborate with this new council.
How can the council most effectively work on affordability this year?
Velásquez: Figuring out how we can have the biggest and most lasting impact on peoples’ pocketbooks. As far as the housing market, that’s going to be a whole other beast to tackle. ... One of the issues that I presented was full-day pre-K. And if we get free, full-day pre-K, if we’re able to work on that, that immediately allows for a $1,200-$1,500 reprieve from child care. And if you’re able to put that back into peoples’ pockets it makes it a little bit easier to live in Austin, Texas.
Alter: There’s no one solution. So I think a lot of us can come at it from a lot of different ways and tackle different problems. ... I think we need to do a lot, and what I really plan on drilling into is on the administrative side. Just, why is it taking so long, why is it so difficult to get anything built?
The way I look at it is we can’t buy our way out of this problem. We can’t do affordable housing bonds out of this, but what we do have the power to do is influence the market and how the market steers people. So right now, I view the code really steering the market toward a lot of very expensive homes. And so I want to, through the code, steer it in a different direction. And so is that comprehensive? Is that looking piece-by-piece within the code? I don’t know.
Qadri: That was the big issue on everyone’s mind throughout the different council districts and the mayor’s race. Austin is in a housing crisis, and I think the broadest way to put it is that we need more housing. But specifically, we need more affordable housing. And with that, we can build off the things we’ve done as a city, like Affordability Unlocked or VMU2s or looking to build more density in our transit corridors. I think long-term we’re looking, hopefully, at a land development code that hasn’t been updated in God knows how long.
What issues are you looking at in your district specifically?
Velásquez: The one thing that I have heard about nonstop ... is STRs and ensuring that District 3 doesn’t just turn into short-term rental properties. It’s becoming extremely problematic, especially with one of the shootings that they just had recently in East Austin. ... One of the neighbors reached out to me and asked me what they could do, because that was essentially a teenage party that happened, and the owners of the property are an LLC out of California. So we need to figure out how to reign those in a little bit.
Alter: We’re going to run into one big one real quick, and that’s Brodie Oaks. And so that impacts a big portion of the district. And so just making sure that that project is done responsibly because it is over the aquifer, it’s right next to Barton Creek and so we have to be very mindful of the environmental impacts there.
... We are coming up on May, which is typically when we see the big rains, the big floods. One of the defining things about District 5 are the creeks. We have a lot of different watersheds and different creeks, and so I really want to make sure that those are being properly maintained so that we are forward-thinking and not reactive to a disaster. Because we’ve seen that side of the equation.
Qadri: When I was on the campaign trail, like I said housing and transit are the big things, but in [District 9] something that I heard a lot, which is something that honestly could also have been heard in 3 and 5 and all the other districts that were up, was helping our unhoused neighbors. And so I think that’s really important, and you see it a lot in District 9 whether it be around [The University of Texas] area or downtown or on Rainey Street or even closer to certain neighborhoods.
I don’t believe this is [District 9]-specific, but it’s also a thing that I heard ... is better staffing and equipping our first responders.
What else are you looking at to start your term?
Velásquez: I want to put together a task force to tackle the pre-K issue.
Also, ensuring that we have food equity and food access in District 3 because we do have a couple of food deserts.
Alter: Environmental issues are something that I think we have to constantly be talking about, and making sure that we are not only being good stewards but taking meaningful action to make this a place we can live for decades, for my kids, for their kids. And so I would like to see us be as aggressive as we can in that space. ... Something that always has to be on our mind when we’re making a decision.
Qadri: Something that’s been very important to me is how we treat our workers in this city, to be an ally to labor, to make sure that we’re paying our workers enough. ... Making sure that they’re properly taken care of, whether it be with pay or whether it be with protections on the worksites and out on the job.
And I think overall, Austin needs to continue to be and strive to be a welcoming place. So I think on a lot of social issues, helping communities that are underserved or underlooked especially when it comes to immigrants or members of the LGBTQIA+ community, students, renters, the elderly, communities of color. Making sure that the city works for them. And not only does it work for them, but that people feel safe and they feel like they belong in this city.