RECA Mayoral Townhall
Mar. 9, 2017
Mayor Adler deviated somewhat from his prepared text.
It’s good that we can be together today.
The guidance I was given gently suggested that y’all might like to have perhaps more time for questions this year and a bit less time for me to hold forth on my insights. Boy, you know the honeymoon is over when they ask you to hurry it up with the speech so they can get to the Q&A. Don’t worry. I want to get to your questions as much as you do. Knowing what’s on your mind is as important to me as you knowing what’s on my mind.
It’s been a year since we were together at this event. In the intervening months, I have spent literally tens of thousands of hours in City Council meetings. The process of governing might be sometimes awkward, and the results are rarely – if ever – to everyone’s liking, we are dealing with the big issue facing Austin: affordability.
Affordability means a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, it means whether we can make things in Austin cost less than they otherwise would have, like rent, taxes and fees, or your commute, or whether we can help you make more money, like we’re focusing on now with workforce training to lift people out of poverty and into good jobs.
We work on affordability constantly. Take last week’s meeting, for example. We met past midnight because of an agenda that was packed with items directly impacting whether we can make Austin more affordable.
It wasn’t always pretty. But it was unvarnished. You saw play out on live TV the differences of opinion that exist in this community about how we will address affordability.
We made important progress on economic incentives so we can attract good jobs to the Eastern Crescent.
We said we were going to pass expedited permitting, and we did. This is Austin, so people brought up concerns about workers, and we found a way to accommodate that did not apply to any residential permits. We set a goal and achieved it.
With Capitol View Corridors, it’s important to know this. Council Member Ora Houston was been wanting to have a conversation about equity for longer than some of you have been alive. She deserves to have that conversation, and we worked with Central Health and others to ensure we could have a productive and focused talk.
And we approved Plaza Saltillo. And we worked with the neighborhood to create an option that could result in the community getting better transit and more affordable housing.
None of these got done without differences of opinion being aired. But they did get done. We can’t wait for perfect. We must begin.
Whether you’re talking about the Council or active voices in the community, we might literally not be able to get on the same page sometimes, but we generally end up in the right place. We have too much to do to make Austin more affordable to get stuck in disagreements when consensus is possible.
And in fact, we are moving forward on so many fronts on affordability that it’s difficult to know where to start.
- We are making the budget process more transparent.
- We are adopting a strategic housing plan that will address our supply shortage that is pushing prices higher.
- We are on the verge of kicking off a strike fund to preserve workforce housing – and a privately funded minibond program to preserve iconic music venues.
- We are about a month away from seeing the maps in CodeNEXT when our next land use code will seem much more real.
- We’re close to adopting a Community Workforce Development Plan that will help us coordinate our job training efforts and lift thousands of people here locally out of poverty and into good jobs.
- We negotiated a big reduction in electric rates.
- We’ve cut tax rates. Twice
- We’ve increased the senior and disabled tax exemption. Twice
- And we not only created, but we increased the homestead tax exemption.
But if we couldn’t pass a largely symbolic resolution about affordability last week, then how are we going to get on the same page and get these real world things done? After what happened last week, I did not lose hope, but I confess I was not encouraged.
It was at that low point that I ran across a phrase: “Come now, let us reason together.”
Oh, I love that one. One thing that drives me is to find the solution to things. Being Mayor is basically pragmatic. You need me to do basic things. Fix potholes, focus on traffic. Hire police officers, focus on public safety. No politics. Just pragmatism.
I really believe that we can come together from different backgrounds, different viewpoints, and reason together.
I was not raised in a particularly religious way, so I always thought “Come now, let us reason together” was something LBJ said. He did say it, but I can see from some of your faces that at least a few of you recognize this as a line from the Book of Isiah.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence, but both Lyndon Johnson and the Prophet Isiah used the line for the same purpose. It could be a Prophet warning the Israelites to put their personal agendas aside and to follow God while facing the threat of the Babylonians. Or it could be a President riling up Democrats against the Washington press corps. In either case, the meaning for us is clear.
It’s more than knowing that doing the same thing we’ve always done will just get us more of the same things we’ve always gotten.
It’s clear to any of you who has ever negotiated a deal, and you know that your success depends on addressing the needs of the other party.
That’s where we are right now. Right back where we started. On one side, we’ve got y’all. On the other side, we’ve got the people who don’t trust y’all. And I’m in the middle, trying to get all y’all to work together. Because we all pretty much want the same thing.
Come now, let us reason together.
We know what happens if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. We don’t have the immediate threats of the Babylonians or the North Vietnamese. What we have is the threat of what happens if we do not manage growth well. We will end up like San Francisco – a fine city, to be sure – but one where the average home costs more than $1.1 million.
How we avoid that fate is to reason together. It’s not enough to be right. It’s not enough to beat the other side unless you are prepared to come right back here and have the same fight again that none of us wanted to have in the first place.
Consider this – and I’ll leave you with this thought – when it comes to managing growth to make Austin more affordable, the other side doesn’t have to lose for you to win. In fact, if we’re truly going to meet our challenges, then everyone has to win. We must come now, and reason together.
I’m far from a biblical scholar, so I’ll leave Isiah to the preachers. But in two years as Mayor, I’ve become a big fan of what LBJ was able to pull off.
You don’t think we can get neighborhoods to embrace density along the corridors as their only means of preservation? LBJ got Southerners to vote for the Civil Rights Act! LBJ understood that a person’s salvation often is in the hands of the person on the other side of the table.
He got corporate America to back price controls and unions to support wage limits. He got auto companies to embrace safety and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to support job training for the unemployed.
If he could do all that by making people see that their survival was dependent upon the success of another, if he could get people to see that their opponent was in fact their partner, then surely we can sell the future of Austin to the people who need it to turn out OK.
We can do that here. I’m going to wind it up now, because I know you have questions. As we leave here today, let’s keep that line in our minds: “Come now, let us reason together.”