Interview: Mayor Adler discusses plans for Austin’s future

Steve Adler

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Mayor Steve Adler will talk about affordability and mobility in a live interview Wednesday morning on the CW Austin.

Mayor Adler will appear on KXAN News on the CW Austin at 7:15 a.m.

Affordability and mobility were part of the mayor’s second State of the City address Tuesday night.

The title of this year’s speech was “Great Cities Do Big Things.” Adler outlined the city’s work ensure that the people who live here can afford to stay here. While more and more people flock to Austin traffic, congestion has also become a major concern. Adler said he wants to give people choices for moving around the city.

“Mobility and affordability were two big goals and I think we’ve taken some really concrete efforts towards doing some fundamental things to make progress on both of those this year as well,” Adler earlier told KXAN, saying he’s “looking forward to talking about the challenges that the city faces as well as the things that are going really well. I want to focus on the need for the city to do big things and not nibble around the edges.”

Ahead of Mayor Adler’s address, KXAN spoke with community members about what brought them out to hear the speech.

“Austin isn’t as open as it has portrayed itself. We have a problem with gentrification and our transportation network hasn’t kept up with the growth,” Robin Orlowski, who serves on the Mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities said. “I have a master’s degree, I graduated with a 4.0 but I’ve had to write rejection letters because the job offers I receive are off the public transit.”

For Anita Quintanilla, the issues of affordability and and gentrification hit painfully close to home.

“My family over the 8 generations that we’ve been displaced a number of times, including Rainey Street, we were cheated out of our property on Rainey Street, so it’s happened to me personally, my family for generations,” Quintanilla said. “Right now I have a temporary place, it’s a granny shack, and it’s not in East Austin and I’m trying to get into East Austin ‘cause I feel like that’s sacred ground for me and my family.”

“I feel like those that have been displaced from east Austin should be on the top of the waiting list for those low cost housing. It’s only right. It’s only fair,” she added.

Here are some of the major themes/topics the Mayor addressed, with excerpts from his speech:

Affordability Audit 
“We talk a lot about affordability, but we don’t know exactly and we certainly don’t agree on what that means. That’s why tonight I announcing this year we will have an ‘Affordability Audit’ of city government. Your City Council has appropriated the money, and in the next few weeks we will order the City Auditor to undertake such a government system-wide audit. When it comes to affordability, we need to get smarter, more deliberate, and more focused. This will be a first-ever audit of its kind in Austin. We desperately need it, and we’re going to do it. It should tell us what your government is doing that makes this City more affordable? What are we doing that makes it less affordable? What’s working and what is not?”

Austin Affordable Community Trust
“Last year I called for a strike fund to do just that, and tonight I’m pleased to let you know that we are making great and real progress. We have assembled private, public and nonprofit sector professionals who are in the final stages of creating a funding mechanism to buy and preserve our affordable housing stock. We studied models from across the country. We studied local demographic and market data. We are now working to ‘Austinize’ this idea. By the end of 2016, we will officially launch the Austin Affordable Community Trust. This strike fund will leverage private investment dollars, and we intend to also include opportunities for Austin residents to participate through crowdfunding and minibonds (I still want to see something like an ‘Austin Bond’), to secure affordability now and into the future. This will, quite simply, give affordability a profit motive on a scale that no other city has imagined.”

“Every budget year,the scorecard we use is the average property tax bill and utility bill. That’s easy to understand, but it tells us so little about affordability in Austin. Yes, last year, we cut
property taxes by $14 and even lowered the average residential Austin Energy bill by $3.33 a month. But none of that is as important as the impact on affordability caused by the combined impact of housing, transportation, healthcare, incomes, and even child-care costs. The danger of using the wrong metric to measure whether your government is helping with affordability is not that we’re just measuring the wrong thing – it’s that measuring the wrong thing means we’re not working on what will really have an impact on affordability. This has to change.”

Housing Trust Fund, Homestead Preservation District 
“And as the recent groundbreaking for The Independent – which you probably know as the Jenga Tower – reminded us, giant residential towers are not making Austin more unaffordable. In fact, because of a change this Council passed, downtown towers will pour tens of millions of dollars into the city’s affordable housing trust fund. Over the next 10 years, it is projected that 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, not including Pilot Knob. Making growth pay for the burdens it creates is possible, it’s happening, and it’s working.”

Homestead Exemption Goal
“We created, for the first time, a meaningful general homestead exemption for city taxpayers of 6 percent, saving Austin homeowners a total of $3.5 million. I want to increase the city homestead exemption this year with a goal of reaching the 20-percent threshold in 2018.”

Austin/AISD “Tax Swap”
“For too long, Austin has suffered from a broken school finance system. Because of this, AISD last year sent $270 million to other school districts, which works out to about $1,000 for every homeowner in Austin. So when AISD taxes you a dollar on your tax bill, a big chunk of it leaves and isn’t available to be spent here for services. But if the City taxed you for that same dollar, all your money does stay here. Austin taxpayers could save money or get more for the taxes we pay by having the city and the school district engage in a ‘tax swap.’ What if the city paid from some small part of the social services now being paid for by the district? If the City were to raise its taxes only to the extent necessary to pay for something that AISD already does but which the City takes over, AISD could lower their taxes by even more and our community would get the same value. Last week the Council asked the City Manager to explore this option to see if we can get it done. This, alone, could result in a difference on your tax bill that you’d actually notice. (And we’d make it equitable for taxpayers and students in other school districts.)

Creation of an Office of Equity
“Affordability is not the only lens through which we need to analyze our actions at City Hall, which is why we are creating an Office of Equity at the City of Austin. Your Council put funding for this in the current budget, and soon the Manager has indicated you’ll see a public process to hire the first Director of Equity at City Hall. For too long, this city has not served everyone who lives here or taken into account the long-term effects of what we do. Having an Office of Equity will help us change this by making equity a part of everything we are doing.”

Spirit of East Austin
“We must press forward faster, taking our best assets and leveraging them to bring unprecedented focus, energy, investment and opportunity to East Austin. As we Face East, we do not excuse or dismiss the parts of our past that are, at best, ugly and unjust. Rather, we can use this history as fuel for the kind of determination to shape a more equitable and prosperous future in our City’s East Austin. Just because we were not the ones who originally did wrong does not absolve us of responsibility now for doing what is right.”

Mobility Projects
“The Council has wisely acted to direct the City Manager to identify mobility projects that we could consider bringing to the voters in a bond election as early as this fall.”

I-35 Desires
“I have never seen a TxDOT community and public engagement process that was as robust as the one they have taken over the last few years. TxDOT did a great job focusing attention, energy and expertise on I-35 in this region and, in particular, our downtown. This effort has put us in a great position to do big things on I-35. It resulted in a vision for I-35 that runs from SH 45 in the north to SH 45 to the south. And this work should include lowering the I-35 mainlanes through downtown to alleviate street level congestion and adding capacity with managed lanes to help alleviate I-35 congestion. This would also allow us to put a cap on top of I-35 to help to heal a physical wound that has too long cut our city in half. The process has been responsive to community input. My vision for this project includes cooperation with our regional partners, CAMPO and the CTRMA to draw down money from the state and federal government to transform I-35.”

Mention of Urban Rail
“…at some point in our future, that includes significant mass transit options such as urban rail or other innovative mobility options where people move above our streets. I cannot imagine the Austin metropolitan area, 25 or 30 years from now with 4 million people, not having such infrastructure.”

Job Training – Austin/Travis County Partnership
“County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and I have just commissioned the region’s workforce development community to come back to us with a master plan that allow us to plan for the job training in the same way we do for capital infrastructure – strategically, methodically, and with an intent not to put a report on a shelf but a plan into action. This will be the first-ever coordinated strategic plan between the City and the County on workforce development. It will need to reach consensus on the specific workforce challenges we’ll go after, and then set specific goals and identify the exact metrics we will target.”

Permitting Process
“We must do big things on permitting. Fixing our city’s broken permitting process remains a high priority of my administration. The complexity and delays of the development and permitting process
are not just frustrating, they have a real impact on affordability. Small business owners are telling me they will not try again to expand their operations in our city – even though their customers would like them to, because of the burdensome process and expense. This past year, the Zucker Report commissioned by the City Manager described in painstaking detail the enormity of the challenge. But if the Zucker Report of the Planning and Development Review Department was a wake-up call, then you’re a real deep sleeper. The problems in permitting have been with us for a while, and there are no excuses not to fix them.”

“‘The “Roadmap to Success’ plan put forward by the Development Services Department should make measurable improvements in permitting, some already taking place, from making it possible for you to make a payment or file an application or submit a plan online, to such advancements as releasing the cell phone numbers for building inspectors to increase accessibility. But the key to fixing permitting is the performance metrics. This is a two-year process. My pledge to you is to continue regularly and periodically convening public and stakeholder meetings along the way to make sure that progress is happening over time and that at the end of two years we have indeed reached success. This is a problem that we can fix it, and we will.”

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. That’s why we have been working with the City Manager to bring the transparency and sound business practices that Austin Energy needs to survive and thrive for decades to come. One problem we have is with the murky transfers of funds from the utility to the
city’s general fund. No one seems to understand, trust, or particularly like this model. So let’s change it. I propose learning from San Antonio and moving to a model where the City of Austin, as the owner and shareholder of Austin Energy, gets paid a dividend in a transparent and reliable manner. This will put our utility and our City on a more transparent and fiscally sustainable footing. This coming year will also have us looking at electric rates, both residential and commercial, to make sure they are fair and equitable and we are launching a Cost of Service Study that will be the most transparent and visible of its kind anywhere in Texas.”

Adjusting how Committee meetings are structured
“It is my hope that in doing so that we can be more deliberative about how we use our time. We spend a lot of time on three-letter emergencies — STRs, TNCs, ADUs — that seem to catch us flat-footed. These are important issues that might be best sorted in a calm fashion at successive work sessions. We can and we must, together, work through these issues in a way that does not eat up so much of our time. We can’t pretend that these are aberrations.”

Mayor’s 2016 Focus
“These will be significant focuses of my time this year: affordability, mobility, the Spirit of East Austin, job training, permitting and Austin Energy. We will better make Austin affordable for the people who live in Austin and set into motion real and meaningful solutions. We will realize opportunities by righting past wrongs, and turn congested eye sores and clogged corridors into healthy arteries and ways for you to get to work and to get home.”

“When we come together next year to once again assess the state of our city, the measure of our success will not be whether we have completed our work, but whether we have begun down a substantial and meaningful path and if we are still at it. This is not where our focus as a city should be for just a year, but for a decade or more or even a generation.”

You can read the mayor’s full address here.

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