Austin needs to prioritize its residents


Steve Adler

Daily Texan: What is the city currently working on to keep housing affordable?

Adler: The city’s working on lots of different things. The CodeNEXT project — it became apparent that it wasn’t going to get a good community consensus. So, we stopped that process, but, at the same time, we recognized that all the reasons to fix the land development code still exist, and if anything, they’re more intense now than when the process started. So, picking that up again is a really high priority. We also just created a crash course on gentrification that’s been doing a lot of public engagement work as well as analysis of the issue, and they’re supposed to report back to the city council with their findings in November.

There’s a bond election coming up in November with seven different bond propositions. Proposition A will put aside 250 million dollars for affordable housing in the city — it’s money that will be invested into buying new property and providing support for first-time homebuyers. We’re just trying to do as much as we can in as many different places as possible. 

DT: Austin is becoming a really big tech city, and, as a Texas Tribune article mentioned, younger people who are moving here for work aren’t really here to make an investment in the community. How is the city going to work with this growing trend? 

A: This is kind of an interesting thing. I came down here in 1978. I would have been included among those people who were coming here just for school, I never had this expectation that I would be investing in the community, but here I am forty years later. I think a lot of people come to Austin rarely with the intention to stay, but it’s such a magical city that they end up staying. There are things we have control over and things that we don’t, but we can do everything that we can to ensure that the people who live here have jobs, and that helps with not creating demand for people to move into the city, and doing a better job of training the people who do live here to take those jobs. What we have done was rewrite the incentive policy so that the primary functions aren’t just attracting big companies with high-paying jobs, but focusing more on the community benefits — training people who live here, and paying people living wages and serving iconic music and art. What we can do is focus on the people who live here, but who moves to our city and this country is not something we can control. If they come, it’s for all the reasons I choose to live here as well — the hill country, the lake, Barton Springs. We can’t stop that. But we can take the energy and power and resources associated with the people coming and then devote those resources back to affordability issues in our community. 

DT: You recently said in a forum hosted by Blue Action Democrats that housing in West Campus needs to be safer and more affordable. What can we do to achieve those goals?

A: The challenge is great, because more and more people want to live closer and closer to the University, and housing is available in a limited supply. So, one of the things that we do in the West Campus area is we have density bonus programs. If someone comes in and they want a little more height, if they want to build a bigger building, they are required either to dedicate a certain percentage of the unit for lower-income renters, or they have to pay an affordable housing fund. 

Right now, some of the money that’s being taken from these buildings is being collected and used to help subsidize some of the housing cooperatives that exist around the University. So, part of what we’re doing has created some affordable units. It’s also created support for cooperative housing. We’re also now talking to create a registry of dedicated affordable units so people can see when they become available, and also perhaps a registry of people who qualify for these affordable units, because in a perfect world, the person who’s next on the list has the first shot at whatever’s available. 

We would also certainly love it if UT would build more dormitories on campus. That would relieve the pressure of some of the housing in the surrounding area. And we’re trying to increase the supply of housing in areas other than West Campus. If we create more supply in other parts of the city, people who might be competing for units in West Campus can find housing in other places. 

DT: Is there anything else UT can do to help address this problem? Can they work with the city to collaborate in coming up with a solution?

A: Yes. We’re trying to do more and more collaboration. We’re trying to tie in more and more to that talent and expertise on campus, kind of like what we just did with this study. We’re also taking a look at some of the university-owned property that exists in the city, we’re looking at making titlements on some of that excess property that the university wants to sell, and we’re making sure that whoever buys that property from UT puts some of that property towards affordable housing, or that the tax revenue that’s generated from that additional titlement is dedicated to affordable housing.

DT: In the same Tribune article, a resident who lives in Montopolis said that “politicians have historically ignored the needs of low-income residents and people of color, and have instead supported wishes of white voters and profit-driven developers.” What are your views on this?

A: I think the City of Austin certainly has a history of what are racist policies.The city council in the 1950s doubled down on some of those policies, but the 10-1 council that we have right now — the first council elected by district — is a council that puts equity as a big priority. I spent my entire adult life practicing civil rights law, working with civil rights organizations, organizations designed to bring equity and access and opportunity to people, especially those to who are most disenfranchised, like to communities of color. Right now, government here is predisposed to doing what’s necessary. The 10-1 council created the equity office, we created a task force on institutional racism, wrote 256 recommendations, 60 already implemented, 90 in the process of being implemented. This is a council and a city that is doing more for equity and opportunity than any council I can think of in my political years. We’re always doing more. 

DT: Do you think gentrification is just as much of a question of preserving the city’s culture, as much as it is an economic issue?

A: Yes. We’re a magical city, and there’s so much diversity that exists in our city, and we continue to bring in people and build community. Look at a city like San Francisco. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was a wonderful city. It’s still a great place, but it’s also a very different place. The only people who are living there now are people who are either really affluent or they’re not. There’s nobody in the middle, there’s no
artists who create. San Francisco used to be a city that created art. Now they’re a city that consumes art. Austin is a city that creates art. If we don’t get a handle on preserving community, then we won’t create art anymore. And if Austin doesn’t create art anymore, then we’re a different place.

Adler is the current mayor of Austin.