Austin: “Strong, Unique, and Special”

“State of the City” emphasizes change, permanence, independence

Mayor Steve Adler
Mayor Steve Adler (Photo by Michael King)

Saturday evening featured the third “State of the City” address by Mayor Steve Adler, and the predictably upbeat speech declared Austin “strong,” “weird,” and “creative.” The capacity crowd was friendly – but gave its biggest ovation not to the mayor, but to Sheriff Sally Hernandez.

The event – at City Hall instead of the performance venues of 2015 and 2016 – was not quite as showbiz this time, and somewhat overshadowed by national politics. The mayor’s theme, broadly speaking, was Welcoming Change While Remaining Austin, and his biggest applause line, near the end of the speech, was: “The world can completely lose its mind and we’re still gonna be Austin.” It was impossible to separate that declaration from the larger, immediate national context, of the Donald Trump regime in D.C. and the day’s worst news, originating from the White House: an ill-conceived and tyrannical executive order to ban refugees and immigrants from seven targeted, Muslim-majority countries, under the guise of “homeland security.”

The mayor’s only substantial departure from his lengthy prepared text was to comment briefly on the day’s events concerning immigration, and to welcome refugees and immigrants to Austin. “Immigrants are part of who we are,” Adler said, “and who we have always been.”

On the more mundane task of laying out the city’s 2016 achievements and 2017’s appointed tasks, Adler began with variations on an old Austin joke repeated by virtually every recent arrival: “The best time to be in Austin, we say, was five years before you got here.” He reiterated his own history as a new Austinite in 1978 – “The folks that got here in 1979 started messing up the place” – to argue that “doing things differently is how we’ve always done things,” and “the only constant in Austin is change.” He listed as evidence of Austin’s success through change and innovation Willie Nelson, Samsung Semiconductor, Alamo Drafthouse, Dell, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, etc.

That background founded his argument that Austin can remain itself only by planning for, and welcoming, change. The mayor spoke of the city’s successes over the last few years, and the challenges it faces going forward, particularly in 2017. And he warned against “false narratives” – of seeing only the loss in changes, and therefore finding someone to blame for ruining Austin. “We must change in order to continue being the city we all love.” Several other themes emerged:

Unshared prosperity: Adler noted persistent inequality in the city, with high unemployment (10%) for African-American residents, high uninsurance rates (30%) for Latinos, high poverty rates in Austin ISD, and too many jobs that don’t pay living wages: “Our middle class is shrinking.”

Housing affordability: The mayor touched several times on the lack of sufficient affordable housing, and the urgent need to find ways to address it or “end up like San Francisco, where the average house price is $1.15 million,” where only the wealthy or subsidized can live.

Recent accomplishments: He cited the mobility bond passage including its upcoming implementation plan, sidewalk construction in process, and TxDOT’s matching highway funds in response to the bond; ending veteran homelessness; permitting process reform …

Spirit of East Austin: Progress includes new website, Equity Office, Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequalities.

Other efforts: Support for live music and creative arts, Fair Chance hiring ordinance (under threat at Legislature), tenant relocation support, sobriety center, APD body cameras.

The mayor reiterated several projects and programs he wants to emphasize this year, including in particular the East Downtown “corridor”: Including Waller Creek linear park, Mexican American Cultural Center, the ARCH, possibly expanded Convention Center …

Returning to housing affordability, Adler argued that “the biggest problem with housing is that there’s just not enough of it to go around.” With another 95,000 people expected to move into the Austin area by 2020, “to stabilize housing prices,” Adler said, “we need to build at least 135,000 new housing units over the next decade.”

That section segued into a discussion of CodeNEXT, the first draft of which is to be publicly engaged this Wednesday evening, Feb. 1. The mayor cited two goals in that ongoing rewrite of the city’s Land Use Code: 1) “protect our neighborhoods,” and 2) “deliver the increased housing supply we need to make Austin more affordable.” To create a code that “makes sense for everyone,” the mayor emphasized, we must “begin to learn that managing growth depends upon cooperation instead of mutually assured distraction.”

Adler also announced the creation of his promised “strike fund” – a “socially responsible investment fund” to preserve existing workforce housing (the “Austin Affordable Fund” to be administered by a nonprofit, “Affordable Central Texas”). He described a joint effort with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the “Community Workforce Master Plan” to design economic incentives specifically to import or create “middle class jobs” for Austinites most in need.

And in an additional moment of “breaking news," the mayor congratulated the creators of “TipCow” – a smartphone app designed to stream live music but also provide tips for the musicians. “So I want to set an expectation in Austin that we tip live musicians,” the mayor said. “Just because sometimes there’s no cover charge doesn’t make the musicians volunteers.”

In the first few minutes of the speech, the Council chamber crowd was fairly subdued, at least in comparison to the much larger public audiences possible at 2015’s AISD Performing Arts Center and last year’s Zach Theatre. Applause was enthusiastic but sporadic. But when Adler returned to immigration – and congratulated Sheriff Hernandez on her stand, to respond to federal immigration “detainer” requests only as warranted, for serious felonies – the audience ovation was long, loud, and standing.

The mayor said Austin had welcomed about 600 refugees last year, from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, and Republic of Congo, and (until the Trump order) had expected about the same number for 2017. He noted that the refugees are “70-80%” women and children, the rest men accompanying their families. Moreover, Adler said, as in many cities, about 1 in 4 Austinites were born in another country.

“Immigrants are part of who we are, and who we have always been,” said Mayor Adler, “and part of why this city and country are as strong as they are.”

“I want the immigrant and refugee community in this city to know that we are a welcoming and supportive community, that they are an important part of this community,” the mayor continued, “and in this community, they should feel welcome and safe.” That also earned an ovation.

Returning to his theme of Austin’s change within continuity, the mayor declared, “No legislature and no election can change who we are, and the values that as a community we hold dear. Just as we can still see our skyline rise over what used to be a sleepy college town and still recognize the spirit and soul of Austin everywhere we look, the world can completely lose its mind and we’re still gonna be Austin. No matter what happens, we will resolutely, unapologetically remain Austin.”

Mayor Adler’s State of the City Address (as prepared) is available in full at

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