In his 2016 “State of the City” address last night, Mayor Steve Adler promised that Austin, Texas will do “big things” in the year to come.
The night began with University of Texas President Greg Fenves discussing the 1928 Austin City Plan, where the city made a conscientious decision to become an educational center rather than a manufacturing center, and how that changed Austin’s destiny forever. It was in this context that Mayor Adler laid out an agenda that places a heavy emphasis on affordability, mobility, education, and energy, while boasting of the city’s “innovation, sustainability, and green space.”
For the first time in its history, he said, the City of Austin will undergo an “affordability audit” in order to help the city “get focused, smarter, and more deliberate” on affordable housing. Adler noted there are 21,000 subsidized units and 65,000 unsubsidized units of affordable housing, with 5,432 units that were approved in January 2016. He also cited the Housing Heroes challenge and the Pilot Knob development for helping the city with its affordable housing problem.
The city, he explained, “will use its growth to fund affordable housing.” To combat the affordable housing crisis, Adler said that Austin would launch the Austin Affordable Community Trust Fund and put $68.2 million into it over the next 10 years, and $5.6 million into a Homestead Preservation District, the first of its kind in the state.
“We must build a fire brick to stop gentrification, or we will lose people altogether,” Adler said.
But it’s not just the market that’s creating an affordability issue for the city’s lower income residents. Reforming the permitting process to make Austin an easier place for small businesses, Adler said, is another approach the city plans to take.
“Small business owners have told me that cannot expand because of the permit process,” he explained, calling for a two-year review of the permit process.
Transportation and mobility were two other aspects of Adler’s speech that drew the most attention. Calling 2016 the “Year of Mobility” and citing statistics that show only 17 percent of Austinites think the traffic situation is passable, Adler said that Austin will begin hosting a three-month community conversation aimed at addressing the city’s transit options. “We have to go to work getting you to work,” he said. “Buses need to move at 45 miles per hour during traffic, passing cars during rush hour.”
Common ideas from Austin’s various mobility organizations, like building more rail, lowering I-35, or adding more lanes, were also mentioned. But before he mentioned any of that, Adler put an emphasis on bicycles. Austin, he said, needs “better bike and better pedestrian options” first, to get people out of their cars. “Traffic congestion on I-35 has gotten so bad, people in Houston feel sorry for us,” Adler said.
As expected, Uber and Lyft also made an appearance in Adler’s speech. The mayor explained that he is “proud” that the city council got the two companies to show flexibility on fingerprinting, but was dismayed at the hours expended looking for solutions.
The mayor also touched on education and urged creativity in its funding, and cited his idea for a tax swap with Austin Independent School District as a means of helping out. In addition, the Mayor announced the creation of an Office of Equity, and a public process to hire the first Director of Equity at city hall. The goal of this role would be to “help shape a more prosperous future in… east Austin,” he said.
However, the night was not without controversy. At one point near the end of his speech, protesters interrupted Adler with chants of, “Less talk, more action!” As they were escorted out, a member of the audience shouted back, “Less you, more us!”
— Cristina Parker (@cristiparker) February 17, 2016
A member of the group later told Austin.com that they were demonstrating to end deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The city has explored launching an ID program solely for Austin residents regardless of their immigration status, but Adler has stopped short of the group’s demand for a resolution ordering local law enforcement not to work with immigration officials.
“I am a strong supporter of our local law enforcement prioritizing their time and spending their time on our local issues, on our local safety concerns, and not being put in the position where they are called on to enforce national immigration policies,” Adler said in a recent public meeting with local immigration activists, according to The Austin Monitor.
Watch a summary of the speech, courtesy of Austin CBS affiliate station KEYE-TV, below…