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Mayor emphasizes Austin’s knack for rising to the occasion

Monday, January 3, 2022 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Monitor sat down with Mayor Steve Adler in early December to recall the highlights – and lowlights – of 2021, including Covid-19, homelessness, Winter Storm Uri, police reform, and the rising cost of housing in Austin.

At the beginning of 2021, Adler and others hoped that they would not have to deal with the pandemic much longer, but as 2022 gets underway, it’s unclear exactly how long the virus will be with us.

“I think our city’s done really well in (dealing with) Covid. If the mortality rate in the state was the same as it is in Austin, over 30,000 Texans would still be alive today.” He added, “I think that our mortality rate is about half of what the state’s is.”

Austin-Travis County’s health department has never faced bigger challenges than the ones presented by Covid, and Adler noted that the pandemic “exercises the city apparatus in an entirely different way.”

The pandemic has also pushed Adler into a role Austin mayors have not previously faced. Under most circumstances, the mayor has just one vote, like his City Council colleagues, but during the pandemic his authority grew, as did the authority of the Travis County Judge. But Adler stresses that Austin is able to weather situations like the pandemic better than most cities. Part of the reason for that, he said, is our workforce, which is younger than in many cities. Covid may have emphasized “the disparities and the challenges that we face … But generally speaking, the city’s worked very hard, put in a lot of resources against it. And compared to our peers, Austin is very strong.”

While many people suffered as a result of February’s winter storm, Adler is proud of the way Austinites came out to help their neighbors. He said the city plans to set up a system of resilience hubs to provide logistical support during future storms, and he expects a network of volunteers to step in to assist with coordination.

“And then we need to do a better job with our (electrical) systems so that we can actually participate in rolling brownouts or blackouts so that our whole system doesn’t have to be shut down.” He noted that Austin Energy is working on its circuits, adding that “we need the state to actually do real reform on ERCOT that prioritizes safety and security and resilience, and not just profit to shareholders.”

Adler recalled that when he came into office people were pushing him and the rest of Council to deal with transportation issues. As a result, the city passed bonds to finance transportation solutions in 2016, 2018 and 2020. He feels the Austin Transit Partnership has started out very strong, with the implementation of Project Connect being a very important factor.

However, solving homelessness has definitely pushed its way to the top of the priority list. While homelessness has been a huge issue for the last three years, finding the solution “has been beyond our grasp,” he said.

“That’s scary, because if we’re not able to figure something out, we are on the path to become Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Portland or Seattle. And we’re not there yet. Our challenge is significantly lower than theirs, but we’re on that path.”

He noted that the budget for Los Angeles includes $1 billion for taking care of the homeless, yet it doesn’t create any housing or move anyone off the streets. Los Angeles, with a population of about 3.9 million, has almost 50,000 homeless people, while Austin, with a little over a million people, counts about 3,000, he said.

Adler said 2021 was the year Austin made remarkable progress on dealing with homelessness. Asked about the impact of last May’s vote to reinstate the ban on public camping, he said it forced the city to deal with the issue. “Our community saw the 3,000 people experiencing homelessness and it was pretty disruptive and disturbing. And this is a community that said we’ve got to do something different and better.”

He thinks half the people who voted for the proposition just wanted the whole issue to go away, while the other half wanted to figure out what the city needs to do so people don’t have to live outdoors in tents. With the help of Travis County, Austin has raised $400 million of the $500 million goal to end homelessness in the area. The mayor believes Austin could be a model for other cities across the country, saying, “I’ve never been more confident.”

While the ever-increasing price of shelter and the plight of people attempting to buy a home in Austin has made national as well as local news, Adler points out that the cause is not the lack of new construction. In fact, he cites an article showing that the problem is not supply but demand in Dallas and Houston as well as Austin.

According to studies from Rent.com, “Austin produced more housing per capita during the pandemic year than any other large metro in the country. And in raw numbers, Austin produced more multifamily housing units last year than any metro in the country except for New York, which is almost 10 times Austin’s size.” Adler noted that Council spent a considerable amount of time and money on housing in 2021 and will continue to do so this year.

Finally, the mayor is encouraged by the changes the city has made to policing. He points to “important advances” in police cadet training that teach new officers in Austin to have a “guardian mentality,” as opposed to a military mentality. And he emphasized that the city has not “defunded” the police force, even though it might be popular for political opponents to make such a claim in an election year.

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