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Moving All Communities Forward: Austin’s African American Heritage

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The African American community of Austin has been hit hard by rising costs and inequities and it is causing many residents to leave the city they call home. Austin is experiencing an affordability crisis and many of our residents are struggling with economic hardship. Every resident across the city has seen their property taxes, rental costs, utility rates and fees skyrocket since 2006. This crisis is most acutely felt in the African American community where nearly one in three of African Americans in Austin live in poverty and 53 percent of African American children under the age of eighteen live in poverty.[1] Despite being a city experiencing double digit growth in our population over the past decade, there has been a 5.4 percent decline in our African American population—due largely to the lack of affordability, educational opportunity or access to jobs that pay a living wage for families.[2]

These issues were referenced as areas in need of improvement in the African American Quality of Life Report and the work of the related African American Resource Advisory Commission. During my campaign, I have produced several policy papers that address key priorities in the report, especially in the areas of education and affordability, and they are posted on the campaign website. The City of Austin must ensure that our African American community is gaining greater access to quality education and youth services. We should be promoting and advancing partnerships for expanded economic development and improved workforce training with Austin Community College, Workforce Solutions Capital Area, and the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce. We need to be addressing lack of access to quality healthcare and good healthcare outcomes.

Immediate Action on Austin’s Affordability and Housing Crisis

Median homeowners have seen a 58 percent increase in property taxes and over 60 percent increase on their water and energy rates since 2006.[3],[4],[5] Average rent have increased by $380 per month since 2009.[6] Austin’s poor population grew by 80 percent from 126,375 in 2000 to 230,437 in 2012.[7] As costs of living continue to rise, families are faced with having to leave the city they call home. As Mayor, I will push for the following policies to address the loss of affordability.

  • A homestead exemption for the City of Austin that will give homeowners and their families immediate relief to their skyrocketing property tax bills. Roughly 80 percent of all homeowners in this city live in houses valued at less than $400,000. Seventy-one percent of all African American households earn less than the median household income for Austin of $56,000.[8],[9],[10],[11] This is at a time where home prices in Austin are rising three times faster than incomes.[12],[13],[14],[15] This homestead exemption will provide rapid relief to hard-working middle class families.    
  • Fairer utility costs, first by reforming the drainage fee that City Council has unfairly and illegally charged to renters. Reform the operating models at the utilities so that ratepayers do not face ever-increasing costs despite using less energy and water through conservation over time.
  • Reform the permitting process and the land development code that are hindering the construction of both affordable and middle-income housing. We need to better provide housing supply so as to meet demand so that housing costs can decrease.
  • We must preserve affordable housing stock throughout the city, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Making Education a Top Priority

One of my highest policy priorities is to expand access and quality of education throughout the City of Austin. There is more our city government can do to improve the African American community’s access to quality education at the pre-kindergarten, public school and post-high school levels. As high-tech jobs continue to lead our economy—most of which require college degrees or advanced technical skills—we have to ensure the African American community is gaining access and opportunity to quality education and training. We must work toward:

  • New Education Outreach Coordinator in the mayor’s office to work with the Joint Committee on education, with all citywide school boards, Austin Community College and the regional universities, nonprofits focused on educational services, private investment from major employers, philanthropy, and the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce.
  • Robust expansion of high-quality pre-kindergarten to all Austin children. Even though our city’s school districts receive funding from the State for a half-day pre-kindergarten program, Austin Independent School District—our largest district—is able to offer limited full-day pre-k by coordinating efforts with the local Head Start program. We must continue our efforts to expand these programs.
  • In AISD, over 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, many of them African American.[16] As poverty has a direct impact on the quality and success a child will have in school and thus their future, we have to do far more to improve this situation.
  • We must support and increase youth programs dedicated to employment, workforce training and internships. The City of Austin should be working closely and partnerships with the Austin Urban League and the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce among other civic institutions.
  • Seek to reform state law to receive fairer and adequate state funding for our schools but, in the meantime, use schools as community centers to deliver city wraparound services. Work creatively with City of Austin school districts on these and possibly coordinating financing efforts.

Economic Development Reflecting our Values

We need to be focusing on economic development and job training for under employed Austinites, including African American workers and communities. Per capita income among African Americans in Austin is $20,293 which is 37 percent lower than Austin-wide at $32,297.[17],[18] The African American Quality of Life Initiate Report and subsequent studies have attributed the gap to the lack adequate workforce training, particularly in the high-tech fields.[19] I have proposed to change our focus and reform our economic incentives programs.

  • Increase focus on small and local businesses and creating, expanding, and training for middle class jobs for people who live here, expanding partnerships between private businesses, the City of Austin, Workforce Solutions Capital Area and other job service providers and Austin Community College.
  • It is in our city’s interests to ensure that African American businesses are receiving the support they need to succeed and that workers are both gaining the skills they need and are being matched with companies that are ready to hire them. This should be the focus of any incentives.
  • We have too many people working for the City of Austin at or near the minimum wage. We should work to raise pay scales and encourage training for city employees so as to provide advancement and greater career opportunities. We must also work with the State to raise the minimum wage.

Preserving African American Heritage and Cultural Arts

Our community cannot fully experience a high quality of life if it does not include and take advantage of the talents of all communities and have a thriving and diverse cultural arts component.

  • We must continue to celebrate and support the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the African American Cultural & Heritage Facility and the African American Cultural Heritage District. It is very important that these cultural assets to our city have strong public involvement and the funding needed to serve the needs of both the community and the City of Austin.

Ensuring Civic Engagement and Community Outreach

  • I intend to ensure that the African American community has a strong voice in our city government and is civically engaged. We must preserve and protect diversity in this city, and the first place to start is in local government. We need to emphasize cultural competency in city government. Appointments to our boards and commissions, and staffing in the mayor’s office, must reflect the diverse makeup of our city, ensuring African American advocates and policy specialists.
  • I commend the work done by the Austin Police Department with their African American Outreach Program and their work to implement the recommendations provided in the African American Quality of Life Report. We must be exceedingly diligent in this area and all members of our community must feel safe and secure. I feel that it is important that our police and city staff always remains aware and sensitive to the needs of our minority communities. As mayor I will continue to look for any and all opportunities to improve our city’s engagement with the African American community to ensure inclusion and community cohesion.

Access to Quality Health Care

More than one in three African Americans go without healthcare due to cost barriers. The African American community’s obesity rate of 42 percent is much higher than the general population and their death rate due to diabetes is twice the rate of whites.[20]

  • We need health programming focusing on health disparities, especially in chronic care.
  • We must ensure that the new medical school and teaching hospital, and perhaps a re-purposed Brackenridge Hospital, focus on and improve the health and well being of the surrounding community in holistic ways.

Transportation

With the failure of the transportation bond package, we cannot wait and must immediately develop a plan to address congestion that will work and be approved. There is increasing dispersion of African Americans and flight to outlying areas and this creates roadblocks for reasonable and affordable transportation options to places of employment.

  • We need to expand roadway infrastructure, deal with the most congested intersections and choke points, expand use of continuous movement intersections, increase ridership and effectiveness of our transit system, expand and connect trails, and move forward with a long range mass transit solution.
  • But dealing with long-term traffic congestion is also about how and where we live. It is in part a land planning issue. We cannot just buy or build roadway infrastructure and get out of this challenge. We need to expand staggered work hours and telecommuting. Austin in 20 years should have a mid-town or other area(s) that provides an urban choice to existing downtown so that not everyone wanting that kind of option has to be in or come through the existing downtown.
  • We need a better sidewalks in all neighborhoods and ensure that bus services reach those communities in greatest need.

Steve Adler’s Experience Standing up for Minority Communities:

  • I began my legal practice as a civil rights attorney and defended women and minority workers facing workplace discrimination. I continued this civil rights work, among other ways, as chair of the Anti-Defamation League (helping to start the No Place For Hate program in 300 Central Texas schools).
  • Served as a Board Member to Breakthrough Austin, an organization that recruits sixth grade students who would be the first in their family to attend college and mentors them through the education process.
  • Board Member with GEN Austin (Girls Empowerment Network), an organization that mentors middle school age girls to make good choices. (My wife and I have raised three strong, successful and independent women.)
  • Served as Chief and Staff and General Counsel to Senator Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, TX. Working in the Legislature for eight years, I fought to build economic opportunities in communities, helped close down the harmful Asarco power plant that had polluted El Paso’s air for decades, and fought for better funding for public schools and teacher pay increases.

 

Citations:

[1] City of Austin, Planning & Development Review Department, Selected Demographic Trends in Austin

[2] Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population, May 2014

[3] Travis Central Appraisal District, Public Information Request

[4] City of Austin approved tax rates, FY2006-FY2015 Budgets

[5] Comparison of rise in utility rates to average home as reported in FY 2006 and FY 2015 approved City of Austin budgets

[6] Rent Trend Data in Austin, Texas, Rent Jungle (rentjungle.com)

[7] Business Insider, The 15 US Cities Where Poverty is Soaring Fastest (businessinsider.com)

[8] Travis Central Appraisal District 2014 Tax Roll

[9] Williamson Central Appraisal District 2014 Tax Roll

[10] U.S. Census, ACS Profile Report, Austin City, Texas 2013 (census.gov)

[11] U.S. Census, ACS Profile Report, Austin City, Household Income in the Past 12 Months, Black or African American Alone Householder (census.gov)

[12] Austin Board of Realtors, Home Sales Remain Strong in 2005 (abor.com)

[13] Austin Board of Realtors, Austin Area June 2014 Housing Statistics (abor.com)

[14] American Community Survey, 2012 Profile Report for Austin City, Texas

[15] U.S. Census, City of Austin Demographic Profile-1990, 2000, 2010 (census.gov)

[16] Austin Independent School District, AISD Fact Sheet 2013-2014 School Year (austinisd.org)

[17] U.S. Census, ACS Profile Report, Austin City, Texas 2013 (census.gov)

[18] U.S. Census, ACS Profile Report, Austin City, Per Capita Income in the Past 12 Months, Black or African American Alone, (census.gov)

[19] City of Austin, African American Quality of Life Final Report (austintexas.gov)

[20] Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, Community Health Assessment Austin/Travis County Texas, 2012