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Alter highlights efforts to make Austin more resilient

Thursday, December 29, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

After a tumultuous few years, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter has focused this year on making sure the city is able to weather whatever future shocks may lie ahead, be they public health emergencies, natural disasters or economic distress.

“I’ve been really focused on advancing resilience and the long-term health of our city through good governance,” Alter told the Austin Monitor

Improving access to medical services is one of Alter’s top priorities. She highlighted her support for adding more epidemiologists to the city’s payroll, allowing the city to better respond to and prepare for public health emergencies, and for bolstering a paramedic practitioner program, which helps people avoid expensive and unnecessary ambulance trips by bringing doctors to the field.

Alter’s long-running focus on wildfire prevention has also begun to produce results. The Austin Fire Department is creating specialized wildfire battalions, city staffers are implementing an Wildland-Urban Interface Code to ensure resilient development near natural areas, and a new fire station is nearing completion at Davenport Ranch and Loop 360. 

Alter notched a personal achievement in early 2022, assuming the honorific role of mayor pro tem.

She pointed to recruitment and retention as one of the biggest challenges facing city government. “I’ve certainly put that high up there on things that I’ve tasked the city manager,” she said. Vacancies plaguing EMS, the 911 call center and the Development Services Department hurt the city’s ability to deliver services. 

A big part of attracting and keeping public servants is affordability – the biggest challenge facing the city as a whole, according to Alter. In response to rising rents and home prices, Alter sponsored two notable changes to the Land Development Code this year to increase housing supply: allowing housing in commercial zoning and relaxing compatibility along some major streets and transit corridors. 

Allowing residential uses in commercial zones could boost the supply of housing – both affordable and market rate – in West Austin, she said. Few affordable units have been built there, including in Alter’s District 10, compared to the rest of the city.

She emphasized, however, that housing policy discussions should move beyond simple supply-and-demand logic. “Supply and demand is week one of an economics class, and the rest of economics is talking about how supply and demand doesn’t apply in certain markets, particularly the real estate market.” Increasing zoning entitlements doesn’t necessarily mean home prices will decrease, she argued.

Alter hopes to pursue other approaches to affordability next year, like workforce development programs. These could build off her experience launching the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps, a green jobs initiative.

Another important but perhaps overlooked affordability strategy is changes to school funding. While that’s firmly in the purview of the state Legislature, Alter said fixing the state funding formula could be a boon not only to Austin schools but to taxpayers.

“If we could change that school finance system, we could really address affordability and equity in our community, because we’re sending $800 million to the state to fund schools elsewhere. And that’s coming out of the pocketbooks of our community,” she said. 

Some of her other goals for 2023 include strengthening gun violence prevention across government agencies, improving the city’s response to hate crimes, implementing recommendations from a report on the Austin Police Department’s sexual assault response, and seeing through approval of new public safety contracts.

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