AUSTIN, Texas — It's been a long year for Austin. From pandemic response to changes to policing, a reinstated homeless camping ban and a historic freeze, the city has been through a lot.
KVUE's Molly Oak sat down with Mayor Steve Adler to recap the struggles Austin has faced this year, what's been done to overcome them and how the city is preparing to meet new challenges in the future.
Watch the full interview below:
A full transcript of the interview can be found below, separated by topic.
Austin's 2021 pandemic response
Molly Oak: It's been a long two years, to say the least. But this past year, we've dealt with COVID, we've seen protests over the past two years, policing, homelessness. We want to dove into all of that. But first, let's talk about the pandemic. Going forward, what do you see the City focusing on and what policies need to be implemented?
Austin Mayor Steve Adler: "Well, overall, I'm real pleased with the city's response to COVID. You know, if, if their mortality rate was the same in the state of Texas as it is in Austin, over 30,000 Texans would still be alive. So, we've done a lot that's right and we have to keep doing that. We have a community right now that has vaccinated twice the percentage of kids over five years old, five to 12, as the state percentage as well. So, we're doing a good job with a community that is responsive. We need more people to get their boosters and we need more people to get vaccinated. The early information coming in on the new variant, I'm hopeful that the vaccines will, will be effective against them. I'm hopeful that the severity won't be as high as we once feared. But people who are not vaccinated are at increased risk, especially older people that are not vaccinated, at increased risk. Somehow or another, we have to be able to provide the information to those folks so that they, they protect themselves and better protect the community."
Policing in Austin
Oak: One of the hot topics the past couple of years, but especially the past year or two, has been policing in Austin. We saw Prop A – it got pretty overwhelmingly defeated. But that all sparked because of staffing concerns. How is staffing looking right now going into the new year with a city that just continually draws more people in?
Adler: "We have a little over 200 funded but unfilled spots on our police force, and I believe we need to fill those. We have a cadet class that's going to graduate in February. I'm doing everything I can to push the city management and our police management being ready with the next cadet class so that we can continue to run those because I think we do need to to to get more police officers. At the same time, there are a lot of things our police officers do that they – [that] I don't think they should be doing. We don't need to send a really skilled, trained professional with a badge and a gun to take notes on every fender bender or to help get pets out of trees. And what we know now is that, as we are having more and more 911 calls handled by, by criminal technicians or by others, the early indications are that the response times are improving even with the police force that we have right now.
That said, we have to do what we can to get those cadet classes out; get the graduates to, to look at things we might be able to do with modified classes, with peace people, peace officers and other places that are already trained; increasing or doing something different with our retention incentives to try and keep people on the force. But this is a hard profession, and cities across the country right now are dealing with decreased numbers of available officers."
Oak: You mentioned that 200 number. Some would argue that while that's great to add more positions that need to be filled in an ever-growing city, as we continually see, that's on top of 150 that city council cut. So, if you do the math, it's really almost like only 50. How do you respond to something like that question of, "You cut 150 initially, so yes, there's 200, but how does that make sense?"
Adler: "I don't, I'm not exactly sure what the 50 number is. We know that we have 200 funded but unfilled positions we need to get to. And then the question is, do we need officers even more above that? And I think that there's a study that has to be done to analyze that. And there's a model that is being developed by the Crime Commission and by the police force, and I'm anxious to see what kind of information that model gives us. But part of it is taking a look at what our police officers do. There's a lot that our police officers do right now that would be better handled, I think, as we talked about with 911 calls, for taking reports on fender benders – our police shouldn't be doing that. Our police shouldn't be the way that we deal with most of the mental health issues that our city has and the number of, of, of mental health calls that we were able to defer to police was a really small percentage at first. But as everybody's getting more comfortable with it, we see the opportunities and that percentage is significantly increasing. So, if we can have, if we can really define what the police officers need to be doing in order to be able to keep us safe and have everyone feel safe in the community, that's going to tell us the number of officers we need. And I don't think we know that answer yet."
Oak: How are you working to incentivize more police officers to come here? We saw the protests in 2020. It's just tough to be a police officer in general, as you mentioned. And then there's also the affordability aspect of this city and also a city that had the whole question of, "Did it defund police or not?" I know you and I have talked about that. So, what are you guys working on to make sure, you know, this is a city that wants to be safe and wants police officers – good police officers – to be here working for us?
Adler: "I think it's really important that our potential officers, as well as our existing officers, know that they have the support of the city council and the community, despite what you may be hearing in social media. And I've said that consistently, I have said that when I've had the opportunity to speak with the cadets in our, in our, in our program. And I stop and talk to the officers on the, on the street because they do have support and they are very important to what it is that that helps drive this community in terms of public safety. We are one of the safest big cities in the country, in part because we have such a good police force. And we have to be able to maintain that.
I think the best way to encourage new officers to come is to maintain the quality of life that exists in this city. I mean, people come here for the same reasons I came here and you came here and other people came here, too. Businesses are coming here because the people that they want to have work for them want to live in Austin, Texas. So, I think that that means we have to do something about the housing affordability and housing supply issue in our city – more than anything else, I think that's our existential challenge right now. I think that we're on a good track with policing, we're on a good track with homelessness, we're on a really good track with transportation, which was the big issue when I ran eight years ago for being mayor. Our existential challenge right now is housing supply and affordability because that determines who it is that lives here."
Oak: And I want to go back to the question that I asked about that 150 number because I maybe didn't phrase it correctly. Initially, [the] city council did cut 150 positions. Obviously, those 200 have been added. Some would argue that's only because the State stepped in and said, "Police need to be refunded to previous levels." Why should people have faith that you guys want officers to come here?
Adler: "So, let me talk about the numbers for a second and then we can answer the final question that you asked. So, our city had 150 positions that were unfilled but funded, and we took the money from those and moved it to mental health first response and places for people to be that are in homes where they're getting, they're victims of domestic violence, and the EMS and the like. That left us with a certain staffing level once we remove that 150. That next staffing level, we now have dropped below that in terms of the number of officers we have, and that's what we need to fill back. So, there's about 200 now unfunded, I mean, funded but available positions that we need to fill. When we do that, we'll get to the, we'll get to the staffing levels that we had voted on two years ago. So the, the, the action in the state Legislature hasn't caused us to change staffing levels at all in the city. We were at that 1,950 and then we went down to 1,800 authorized positions, and we're about 1,600 on the force. And we need to fill those. We need to get to the 1,800, which is our full strength number right now. Now the question is: should we go above 1,800? Should we go back to the 1,950 we had before or some other number? And I don't know the answer to that question because I think it's a function of what it is we're asking our officers to do. And we have models now that are being developed to help us learn that, right? So those, those are the numbers and where we are.
Your question is how do people feel confident knowing that we'll do what it takes to ensure public safety in the city? And I think that the answer to that question is we'll do whatever it takes for us to ensure public safety in this community. It is perhaps the most important thing that local governments do. We have consistently been within the top five safest big cities in the country, and we need to maintain that. We need to do what it takes because we are a safe city. You know, there are most of the other cities in the country would, would love to have the violent crime numbers that, that we have. That said, when there's any violent crime, you always have to be working to, to address that challenge. And we'll continue to do that, but we always have. We have never 'defunded' police and to say that we want to reimagine police is not an effort to do away with police, it's an effort to make sure that a safe city is even easier and safer. And we're going to continue to do that."
An increase in homicides
Oak: You mentioned it's one of the safest cities. However – and obviously some of this comes with growth – we have seen homicide rates higher than, really, ever before. So, how do you stick with "it's a safe city," but we're seeing these homicide rates continually climb and we still have a month left.
Adler: "Homicides a big challenge for our city. In fact, our number this year is about double of what it was last year. Even with that, our rate of homicides is low compared to most other cities around the country. So, if you start out with a really small number and you double it, you can still have a relatively small number. And that's what we're dealing with in this city. That said, I am real concerned about our rate having doubled, whether the ultimate number is, is relatively low or not. It's too, it's too many. But we're not the only city that's seeing that. Cities across the country are also seeing increases in homicide rates. I think it's more related to the pandemic, which is something that we're enduring in common with cities across the country, than it is any local policy that we've adopted or not adopted.
Cities that, that doubled down a year and a half ago, and two years ago, and dramatically increase the number of officers are seeing their homicide rates go up. And that's because homicides are not stopped, necessarily, with the number of policemen that are out on, in the, in the field. The, the, the shootings we have that killed, shot, injured multiple people down on Sixth Street happened at a time when they were surrounded by police officers. We had more than the normal contingent on duty on Sixth Street that night, but yet we still had the, the shootings. We have to get guns off our street, illegal guns off our street. We have to deal with violence intervention and protection programs. We have to get women out of abusive homes before they get hurt rather than dealing with it after they get hurt. There are a lot of things we can do to prevent crime, rather than just dealing with crime once it's already happened. And that's the way I think that we make Austin even safer than it is today and how we make people feel safer in this city."
Austin's response to February's winter storm
Oak: Speaking of feeling safe, we are in winter, almost – certainly feels like it, especially this morning [Dec. 8]. We had a freeze ... we've seen an audit and a winter storm report. Both criticize the City and other entities, saying we were not prepared to keep people safe. How are you all working now, in the next month or two, to make sure people aren't left in the dark?
Adler: "There's no question that we were not prepared for what happened last February with the winter storm. I mean, that was such an extreme state. We weren't ready for it. We've learned a lot since then. One of the things I think that's real important that we learned was that when you have that degree of disruptive measure – you know, a huge bomb goes off, we're under attack, I don't know what the next unimagined catastrophe is going to be. We have a lot of people in our community that are coming out to help one another. Communities helping communities, neighbors helping neighbors because the city and the county and government will never be able to step in when we have that kind of event at that extreme. That's what we saw happen. And I don't think that's a bad thing, I think that's a good thing. I think that's what communities and cities do.
That said, government should be doing a much better job of supporting that and coordinating with that, which is why we're setting up the resiliency hubs throughout the city so that we're better able to coordinate and supply and help with logistical help. We're changing kind of the communication patterns so that we can communicate with all the people that will be pitching in and helping in that kind of a situation. So, we've tried to go to school to learn. The [city] manager is still being asked to give us reports on on the things that have changed into response to what it is that we, that we learned.
And then the specific kinds of things for this particular kind of emergency, should that arise again. We've gone back to Austin Energy and said 'it's absolutely unacceptable that you can't do rolling brownouts or blackouts so that power goes on and off. It just doesn't go off and stay off.' And I know that they're working on that. There's also action there ought to be happening at the State level to, to really harden and protect and contribute to the resiliency of the ERCOT, the statewide grid. And I'm still not convinced that the governor and the State are doing everything that they should be doing in that regard. We have to really prioritize people's safety and risk prevention rather than shareholder dividends. And we're not doing that yet, to the degree that I think we need to."
Oak: One of the big things that the audit found was that communication just fell flat within the City, within departments and then also to the community to let them know, you know, "This is going to be bad, you need to prepare or you need to move somewhere else." I've seen reports that the communication has increased, they're starting to get multiple languages out and a lot faster. What are you guys working on within the department to make sure you all are on the same page? And then also the communities on the same page at the same time, you guys are?
Adler: "I think the communications is one of the big challenges that we had in that last storm. There were a lot of people in the community that that didn't speak ... English and didn't speak the two or three most prevalent languages in our city, and we weren't communicating with that, that, those communities well at all. We had communications that were down, as people know, all over the city. People were – including city employees – were, were, were having difficulty keeping their cellphones charged so that they could continue to stay in communication.
So, I know there are a lot of efforts now to, to centralize communication, to make sure that all the different people that are working in different areas have more single points of contact. We're decentralizing communications so that there would be communication centers and resilience centers, rather than having to reach one nerve center in the city. Communications was, was a, was a really big issue. And I know that they're working on that real hard."
Oak: How about infrastructure and just the things that we need to either make sure our streets are cleared or that people can get water or even get out to try to get food? I volunteered at one of the overnight shelters at Palmer two nights and it was just a cluster, for lack of a better word. There were a lot of people that didn't have a place to go that all just got crammed into that building. How are we working on that kind of stuff?
Adler: "Well, we don't have enough places for people to, to, to go. And we got better after that as we were trying to deal with both that and COVID. If you were in Palmer, you also know that we had a big space and we were still trying to keep people six feet apart in an environment where we could have been able to handle a lot more people if we weren't being charged with the COVID response.
But we need more places for people to be, and we've been able to, over the course of the year, bring in more hotels and more availability of spaces for, for people. I don't know that it's the right thing for the City to do to go out and buy a fleet of, of snowplows. But as soon as I say that, we're going to get a foot and a half of snow that gets delivered. But, but those are the kinds of questions you face. I mean, we could have an army of snowplows. And if we got, you know, two and a half feet of snow, we're going to wish that we, we had them. But, but should we do that? I mean, is the chance that we're going to have a two and a half foot snow something that we should be making that kind of capital investment in? Those are the hard questions. And I think that, for me, having a fleet of snowplows is probably not the right thing to do. But having resiliency centers and hubs throughout our city where we have a lot of food and water, where we have more places for people to go that need heat and warmth, where we're better able to communicate with people as to what it is that's going on and what the prognosis is and what the possibilities are and trying to get out notices earlier than we, than we, than we have in the past. Probably will result in some more instances where we warn people of events that don't happen or don't happen as severely as we thought. But I think that's a better risk to take than not giving people all the information we have."
Oak: Everything you just talked about, that's a lot on a plate that needs to be done soon. Realistically, will that happen before we could see another winter storm?
Adler: "I think a lot of these things will happen before we would see another winter storm because we didn't, we're not starting now. I mean, we started learning lessons back last February and things started changing in March. So, the lessons learned, the reports that we've seen have come out over the last three months or so, but work was already being done before the reports were issued. And the work called for [in] those reports, if they hadn't already begun, began when the reports were issued. And we've asked the [city] manager to come back and regularly report on those and I anticipate that, as we come back right after the holidays, we'll get another update from him on where we are."
Homelessness in Austin
Oak: You mentioned people who need warmth and a place to stay. Let's talk about homelessness. You and I have talked about this a lot, to say the least, over the past couple of years. We saw Prop B pass and some people are wondering, you know, we've seen a lot of the underpasses get cleared out, but there are still people out in tents and living on the street. Where are we at with Prop B, with getting the city cleaned up and getting these people, who really need a place to stay, someplace to go?
Adler: "Well, you know, we have a homelessness challenge in the city because we don't have enough places for people to be. If we had enough places for people to be, we wouldn't have anybody experiencing homelessness. So, Prop B passed that said, 'Hey, we don't want people out in public.' But what Prop B did not do is give us any more places for people to, to be. So, I think Prop B was a really important thing to happen in our city, as was decriminalizing homelessness in our city because our numbers are lower than, than, than many other cities we talk about – L.A., San Francisco, Portland, Seattle. But those cities didn't act when their numbers were about where they are in Austin right now and the scale of the challenge in those cities is so great, I don't know what you do. But because people saw in our city the people experiencing homelessness, because our community came in, in that vote said, 'We have got to do better than this. You have got to find a place for these people to be that is healthy and safe and gets them back into their lives,' we have the summit plan, which now is getting more support now than it ever would have gotten in our past.
It's going to cost us a little over $500 million to set up the system that's required to really reach equilibrium, net effect to zero with homelessness, where we actually have a place for people, for everybody to go that that falls into homelessness. And we have raised about $400 million of the $500 million. I have never been more confident than I am right now that we're going to be able to solve this challenge, which is real important to me. But to your question, do we have a place for everybody to go right now? The answer is no. Which means some of the people that are being moved from underpasses and the like are being moved into hotels or into places that we're able to find and we're increasing that number every day. Some of those people are just going back to the woods and into the streams that they were at two and a half and three years ago and 10 years ago. And, and we need to do better by those people. And that's what the summit plan is, is all about.
I do not support creating sanctioned camp areas for everyone to be in our city as we move them out of an underpass because even though that's a better place for them to be short-term than being in the woods and the streams, cities that have tried to do that have spent all their money doing that and those camps, once established, never go away and they continue to multiply. Our city's going to do it differently. Our city's going to actually set up the system to get people off the streets and into real homes and getting the services that they need to be able to stabilize their lives. That's how we avoid ending up in the position that these West Coast cities have ended up in. We have to do more than just deal with this symptom we see immediately. We actually have to set up a system to meet the challenge. That's what the summit plan is doing. That's what the County investment's doing, the City's investments. St David's is investing, the Dow Foundation came in last week. We're going to solve this challenge in a way that actually solves the challenge, and I'm real excited about that."
Oak: You mentioned $500 million. There have been hundreds of millions of dollars put into homelessness, and critics are saying it's still not fixed. And then an audit came out that said the City's not keeping a great track of where all that money goes. You're asking for more money now to, again, solve that issue, which does need to be solved. But how are you ensuring that the money is being monitored to make sure it's going where it really needs to go and where it will make an impact to help solve it?
Adler: "Homelessness is a really expensive challenge. And in a city like Los Angeles that had never actually dealt with it when it was able to be dealt with has a $1 billion line item in their city budget right now just to maintain people where, where they are – doesn't get people out of homelessness, it's just to maintain the system. A $1 billion line item. We can't do that. We can't let ourselves be on that path. We actually have to pull together the money necessary to be able to set up the system because, absent setting up the system, we're not going to be able to reach net effective zero. What we have been doing in the past is putting money against slivers of that system because we've never pulled together the money enough to build the whole system. And quite frankly, doing things for pieces of that system don't work. Because people back up before that sliver, as you go through the, the continuum of care needed, or they back up after that. And it's not effective. Which is what I've been saying for several years.
We actually have to commit to do what's necessary to set up the complete system, or any money we spend is not going to be as efficient or as productive. That's, right now, with the investments that are made – in part because this became the political issue in our city, the resolve was finally there. Everybody in the city, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, was saying, 'Let's do what it takes in order to actually fix this if you actually have a process that will get that done.' And right now, this is not a government-initiated plan, although the governments are participating, but this is the plan that's come from the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Austin Alliance, but also the Austin Justice Coalition and Homes Not Handcuffs coalition. So, we have everybody now agreed on what it is we need to do to actually meet this challenge, and that's happened for the very first time. And for the very first time, we have the money necessary to do that. So, we're trying to do something now that we've never tried to do before, and I am confident it's going to work."
Austin's land development code
Oak: What's one thing this past year that didn't happen that you wish would have been solved or done?
Adler: "I wish this year we were putting final touches on a comprehensive land development code rewrite because I think that that would dramatically be helping us right now with housing supply in our city. And we have so many people that are coming right now and so little housing supply that it's just getting beat up in prices people can't afford. The housing that should be available for people that are making 60 to 80% of mean family income are being sold to people who are making 80 to 120% of.mean family income because they can't find any homes in their price range, so they're going down and beating up the price for the available more affordable housing. And now it's costs what someone can only afford to pay if they're making 120% of mean family income.
I wish we had a comprehensive land development code, changes that would fix that. Right now, that's caught up in the courts because the court here locally said we can't pass a comprehensive zoning change without a supermajority, without nine of the 11 votes on council all agreeing. This is an area where it's hard to come by agreement of seven people, much less nine out of 11 of council members. That said, I've pulled the council together here in the last couple of months to say, 'We can't wait for the courts to decide that question.' We know that, at the very least, we can move with a supermajority. What are the things we can agree on collectively as a group? So, we're moving forward now and allowing more residential and commercial corridors, with freeing up the opportunities to put auxiliary dwelling units or granny flats in people's backyards, taking a look at reducing the cost to produce housing. I wish this year we had been able to do more of that. And but for the pandemic, but for the winter storm, I think we would have gotten more done on that. And that's my disappointment."
Adler's top priority for his final year
Oak: It's your last year. Heading into it, what's the top priority?
Adler: "The top priority this last year has got to be housing affordability and housing supply. That's the existential challenge that we have right now. Austin is a magical place, which is why, I think why people are so many are wanting to come here. We're a city where art is being created everywhere. If we're not able to do something about housing affordability, we will be a city that continues to grow, but it'll be a city that can only be afforded by a small group of people and will be a city that consumes art rather than a city that creates art. And if that were to ever happen, the culture and nature of this magical place would change. So, that's got to be the priority this next year."
Oak: You hate to see when people say, 'Oh, well, this is where the old Austin is,' and then you're losing all the original Austinites because they can't afford to be here anymore.
Adler: "It's heartbreaking. And, and we have to recognize that Austin can do change well. You know, I got here in 1978, and everybody who got here with me in 1978 are sure that the people who got here in 1979 and '80 are the ones that started messing this place up. But the people who got here three years ago feel the same way about the people who got here last year. But, in this entire period of time, we've been able to maintain this community as a, as a really friendly place. We still make eye contact with people on the, on the streets. This is still an innovative, creative, entrepreneurial place. Even though we've changed. We can change and still preserve that if we're willing to do what's necessary to make sure that that happens. That is our challenge this next year. Is it important enough for us to do what's necessary to preserve what's special about this place? If, if it is, then I think we're going to be able to do it."
PEOPLE ARE ALSO READING: