Austin Mayor Steve Adler celebrates mobility, equity and housing wins in final State of the City
Austin Mayor Steve Adler lauded the 10-1 City Council system and the headway council has made on mobility, equity and housing issues during his eighth and final State of the City address, delivered to a packed City Hall on Thursday. He also lamented the lack of progress on more intransigent issues, such as zoning reform.
“If we retreat from the progress we have made or if we don’t confront and own our most serious challenges, if we nibble at problems rather than facing them head-on; if we shy away from the cost and conflict and disruption that attend anything important enough to be worth doing, we imperil the future we seek,” he said.
Adler’s two terms as mayor have coincided with growth — and growing pains — in Austin. Since the civil rights and eminent domain lawyer took office in 2015, the city has debuted the Central Library downtown, joined the Major League Soccer league and broke ground on Waterloo Greenway, the High Line of the Lone Star State. But the city also has faced significant challenges, including a historic flood in 2015, a serial bomber in 2018, a weeklong boil-water notice in 2019, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and mass protests over police brutality and racial injustice in 2020, and Winter Storm Uri in 2021.
Adler was the first mayor to preside under the 10-1 council system, which was enacted after a successful citizen-led petition initiative. Prior to 10-1, the mayor and six Council members were elected in citywide races. Under the new system, 10 geographic districts elect their own Council members in an effort to improve voter turnout and representation.
Two terms in, Adler believes 10-1 has proven its mettle.
“It created the power and need for new coalitions,” he said. “Coalitions that have passed historic, progressive initiatives. Coalitions that have made the big, hard and disruptive decisions and historic investments to make good on the hopes and dreams of this new governmental system.”
Adler credited the 10-1 system for ushering in what he called “Austin’s Golden Age of Mobility,” citing Project Connect, a $4 billion plan to expand Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, a state plan to widen Austin’s portion of Interstate 35, hundreds of additional miles of sidewalks and bike lanes, and corridor improvements across the city.
He juxtaposed these five “historic, progressive initiatives,” enacted over the last eight years, with five previous such initiatives – relocating the former Mueller airport, converting Research and Ben White boulevards into highways 71 and 183, and building State Highway 71 and MoPac Expressway — which took 40 years to accomplish.
“Because of the hard decisions we made, our children and grandchildren will inherit a city bound together with the new sinews of rail, road and trail that are a clear sign of Austin’s strength and unity,” he said.
Adler also touted the city’s centering of equity under the 10-1 system, singling out the leadership of East Austin residents and their representatives.
He pointed to city government infrastructure established over the past eight years to support this work, including the Office of Police Oversight, which was formed under the city’s police contract in 2018; the LGBTQ Quality of Life Commission, which Council created in 2017; and the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, which he commissioned in 2016.
He also highlighted several policies, including:
- raising the minimum wage for city employees to $20 an hour starting in October;
- a taxpayer-funded, guaranteed-income pilot program slated to begin in September;
- decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana and abortion;
- increased investment in public health;
- $300 million in funding for anti-displacement initiatives included under Project Connect;
- the reimagining public safety initiative;
- a paid sick leave ordinance, which council approved in 2018 but which never took effect after a state court ruled it unconstitutional; and
- a fair chance hiring ordinance, which took effect in 2016 and prohibits certain employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal history.
“I cannot claim that Austin today has overcome the often iniquitous legacy of our past,” he said. “But I believe we can say with honesty that when America reached yet another critical moment in its long reckoning with our original sin of white supremacy, that Austin was not found wanting.”
Adler’s time in office coincided with a worsening housing affordability crisis, which he called “an existential challenge.” Over the past eight years, the median sales price for a single-family home in the Austin-Round Rock metro has more than doubled, rising to $515,000 in July 2022 from $238,000 in January 2015, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University.
Adler said the 10-1 Council responded to this meteoric rise in myriad ways, including by:
- raising $422 million, or 82%, of the targeted funding for the Finding Home ATX plan, which aims to house 3,000 homeless people and build 1,300 affordable housing units for the unhoused population, among other goals;
- adopting the HEAL Initiative in 2021, which aims to connect people living in encampments to housing or shelter and supportive services;
- earning voter support for a $250 million affordable housing bond in 2018; and
- functionally ending veteran homelessness in 2016, meaning that a veteran who becomes homeless in Austin and wants housing can access it within 90 days.
But Adler acknowledged that there is still work to be done, specifically when it comes to comprehensive zoning reform, which has proven elusive during his time in office.
Council voted in 2018 to end CodeNEXT, a six-year, $8.5 million attempt to rewrite the city’s Land Development Code that Adler described as one of his highest priorities in his first State of the City address. Since then, its members have taken a more piecemeal approach. More recently, mayoral candidates who will vie to replace Adler this fall have proposed their own affordable housing policies.
Adler hopes they are successful.
“The Austin of the future must keep and care for its people,” he said. “When we confront the issues of housing and homelessness, we are deciding who we are and who we will be.”
Adler’s term ends in January. Seven candidates — including former Austin mayor and state Sen. Kirk Watson, former state Rep. Celia Israel, conservative challenger Jennifer Virden and University of Texas student Phil Brual — have declared their candidacy ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
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