State of the City: How Can Austin Be More Affordable and Mobile?

State of the City: How Can Austin Be More Affordable and Mobile?

Mayor Adler State of the City Address

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“…Austin has become a city where good ideas become real,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler to a packed crowd at the ZACH Theatre. Earlier this week he was at the theater to deliver his annual State of the City Address. Kind of like the president’s State of the Union, Mayor Adler uses this yearly speech to talk about Austin’s current successes and problems, as well as to propose ideas for how to govern in the year ahead.

This year, he spent a lot of time talking about what makes Austin so great – from our breakfast tacos to our major solar purchases – but, he stressed that we can’t just rest on our laurels forever. “…I do not believe that I was elected to be a caretaker mayor,” Adler said, stressing the fact that Austin only became a great city because of the hard work and dedication of earlier residents, and that it will only continue to succeed with more of that hard work. The problems that Austin is now facing are big problems that require long-term solutions and innovative ideas, the mayor said. While other cities have failed to solve them, he stressed that it is not too late for Austin.

“There is no law of cities that says as Austin grows we will become unaffordable and immobile,” Adler said. “Our future is still in our hands. Austin is still at a place where we can do something about it.”

To address these issues, Adler suggested taking a page from the tech startup playbook by not being afraid to try new things and sometimes, to even fail. “That means we try things and we learn,” Adler said. “Then we try better things and we get better.” That, he explained, is how Austin will be able to “do big things.”

So what issues will Mayor Adler be trying out these new ideas on? During his speech he identified his main focus areas for 2016 as:

  • Mobility
  • Affordability
  • Spirit of East Austin
  • Job Training
  • Permitting
  • Austin Energy

On Mobility – 

“Traffic congestion on I-35 has gotten so bad, people in Houston feel sorry for us,” Adler said, expressing his sympathy for the growing frustration over Austin’s transportation crisis. He mentioned a recent survey that found that fewer than 1 in 5 Austinites are satisfied with traffic flow on major streets.

We have the problems of a great town that is suddenly becoming a great city,” Adler added, attributing much of the traffic problem to a failure to properly plan for the area’s explosive growth.

Adler said that he is dedicated to implementing major solutions to the city’s transportation problems, from dealing with I-35, to improving pedestrian, bike, and transit infrastructure. He also acknowledged that the drawn out Uber/Lyft debate (and upcoming election) might have been a distraction for City Council, diverting their attention from working on other innovative mobility solutions. He said that while he is proud of his Thumbs Up program (the first cross-platform safety badge in the sharing economy), he is less proud of the time that it took to negotiate, and plans to use the experience to help him more efficiently govern in the future.

And last, but not least, he also was sure to tie transportation to many of the city’s other problems. “What good does it do to create all these jobs if you can’t get to the one you have because you’re stuck in traffic?” he asked, to a great round of applause. He continued on to make the important link between affordability and transportation, pointing out that transportation is often a family’s second biggest expense (after housing).

On Affordability – 

Mayor Adler spent a big part of his speech laying out the city’s growing affordability problems as well. He noted that Austin is losing its affordable housing stock on a daily basis to gentrification and redevelopment, a trend that if continued, could mean the loss of a group of people nearly the size of Amarillo.

“These people are a part of who we are, and we cannot lose them without losing something we value about this city,” Adler stressed, adding that, “…if we harness growth, we can use it to power the solution.”

He mentioned that because of a change this City Council has made, Austin’s growing stock of downtown towers will pour tens of millions of dollars into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Over the next 10 years, he said that it is projected this council will have put a combined $68.2 million dollars into the Housing Trust Fund and $5.6 million into the Homestead Preservation District.

On top of that, Adler announced that by the end of 2016 the city will be able to launch the Austin Affordable Community Trust, an idea he has long talked about with passion. The trust will allow the city to leverage private investment dollars, as well as crowdfunding and minibonds, to buy and preserve affordable housing stock. This, Adler said, will allow the city to actually achieve the scale that is needed to keep Austin affordable en masse, and to add a profit motive to affordability in a way that no other city has.

On the Spirit of East Austin –

“We will never reach our full greatness if we don’t face east,” Adler said. “Just as the sun rises in the east, so does the future of our city.”

Adler plans to “face east” with the Spirit of East Austin Initiative, a strategic partnership launched last year between the Mayor’s Office, City Council, the City Manager, and the communities of East Austin. Its goal is to, “combat the effects of historical and intentional inequitable policies and practices, as well as the results of benign neglect.”

Using a ground-up, community-driven approach, the mayor hopes to find out what the communities in East Austin want and then help them to achieve it. The idea, he said, is that City Hall won’t be the, “generators of change but the accelerators, removing barriers to success and connecting the projects people want with the people who can make them happen.”

Projects already being discussed include affordable housing, anti-displacement policies, workforce training, and mobility upgrades.

Closely connected to the Spirit of East Austin, the mayor also announced that the city will soon be hiring a Director of Equity, to help ensure that the city is serving all of its people.

On Austin Energy – 

“If we do not reform our utility’s business model, we face the threat of the legislature taking control of our utility away from us,” Adler said.

That’s why he announced that he’s been working with the City Manager to bring more transparency and sound business practices to Austin Energy. On the much debated general fund transfer, Adler proposed switching to San Antonio’s model, where the city (as the owner and shareholder of the utility) gets paid a dividend in a “transparent and reliable manner.”

With an eye toward the future, Adler also said that both with Austin Energy and Austin Water, the city needs to begin the work of transitioning into new utility business models that represent new technologies. Things like renewable energy and water reuse are shaking up the utility industry, and the mayor made it clear that he wants Austin to be ahead of the curve.


So what does all of this mean for Austin and the environment? What do issues like affordability, mobility, and equity have to do with the environment anyway?

It’s important to remember that these issues are largely interconnected. Austin’s current fossil fuel-powered transportation system emits a lot of greenhouse gas, in addition to more localized pollutants, which affect our city’s most vulnerable residents most severely. As the mayor said, transportation is also closely tied to affordability, as owning a car can be a near insurmountable expense for some families. A lack of affordability in the city’s core also pushes families farther and farther away from downtown, adding to the region’s growing sprawl problem.

It’s also important to remember that Austin cannot boast to have a strong local environment with clean water, open spaces, and lots of renewable energy unless these things benefit everyone.

This is the only way that Austin can become, “a more fully realized version of itself,” Adler said. “To do what Austin needs us to do, we have to be better versions of ourselves, more willing to fail in the pursuit of progress, less afraid of doing what has never been done before. If we find the courage to lead our city to where it’s asking us to go, if we can work together to do big things, then we will be a great city.”

The full text and video of Mayor Adler’s speech is available here.

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