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Austin City Council takes first step toward creating a 'Black Embassy,' expresses support for reparations
Austin City Council directed staff to devise a plan to create a Black resource and cultural center in East Austin as part of the consent agenda for its Thursday meeting. Members also voted to formally apologize for the city's participation in the enslavement of Black people, segregation and other institutionally racist practices, such as urban renewal programs, and to express support for a national program of financial reparations for descendants of slaves.
"We cannot move forward unless we recognize the city's role in creating the Black and white wealth gap," Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison said during the meeting. "Gap isn't even the right word. It's a chasm."
Council members cited racial disparities among Austinites when it comes to life expectancy; homelessness rates; median family income; the likelihood of being stopped, searched and arrested by police; college graduation rates; and health insurance coverage.
"These statistics reflect not a deficit of ability, ambition or effort, but rather a shameful combination of racist policy compounded by decades of inattention and disinvestment by Austin's privileged, mostly white leadership over the ensuing generations," Mayor Steve Adler said.
The resolution, which was drafted with help from the Black Austin coalition, directs City Manager Spencer Cronk to return to council by Aug. 1 with a plan and funding recommendation for a new, centrally located "Black Embassy," geared to success and cultural promotion of Black-led businesses and organizations.
"The live music capital of the world will continue to fall short of that name until we have a proper music and art hub that promotes and celebrates East Austin's rich cultural legacies—past, present and future," Harper-Madison said.
Black Austinites are on the wrong side of a wealth chasm created by deliberate policies enacted by all levels of government, including Austin City Council. Today, we will take a big step towards closing that chasm. (1/5)
— Natasha Harper-Madison (@NatashaD1atx) March 4, 2021
A bill to "Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act" has been introduced in every session of the U.S. House since 1989, but it has never made it onto the floor for a vote. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced her support for a commission on reparations in 2019. President Joe Biden also supports the study, his press secretary said during a White House press briefing last month.
"I am proud our city is adding its voice to those calling on Congress to develop and execute a national program of restitution for descendants of slaves in this country to address the yawning chasm, as the Mayor Pro Tem said, of the wealth gap between Black Americans that began with slavery, widened over generations through Reconstruction, through the shameful scourge of Jim Crow, that remains insidious to this day," Adler said.
Members also expressed the limitations of this resolution and promised to continue to address racist policies at the city level.
District 3 Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria spoke about his childhood in East Austin, where he "lived through this episode of seeing 'colors only' and 'whites only' signs at the Greyhound, going to Woolworth's and seeing the counter separating people." But he also expressed his frustration at the limits of what the city can do without the full support of the state, which prohibits, for example, inclusionary zoning programs that allow cities to require developers to provide affordable housing in exchange for zoning changes.
"We're going to be putting Band-Aids on it to stop the bleeding until the state gets behind the cities and gives us the resources and support," Renteria said. "I hope that I can see that within my lifetime, but I haven't seen it so far."
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After Austin voters passed Proposition B, reinstating a ban on public camping, City Council directed staff to look into possible sanctioned campsites where homeless residents could live legally. Now two members are asking to shelve discussion on the controversial topic.
Staff presented dozens of possible sanctioned campsites across each fo the 10 council districts in late May, following the election. But members mostly pushed back on the proposed locations, citing cost, wildfire risk and lack of transparency as concerns.
With updated criteria, staff recommended two sites—one in District 1 and the other in District 8—for further review last week. After being briefed on the options during Tuesday's work session, Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents District 1, and Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents District 8, issued a joint statement proposing "a pause" on further discussion of temporary sanctioned encampments.
"We are not convinced that these sites would be a cost-effective solution, but rather a band-aid tactic when we need to be supporting the long-term strategy to get folks off the street permanent," they said. "It is our responsibility to look at the situation holistically and objectively, and to spend out city's limited resources on solutions we know can work."
Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey noted that the two locations were imperfect and would require a lot of time and money to outfit as sanctioned campsites during the briefing.
City staff and homeless experts have previously raised concerns about sanctioned encampments, saying they are expensive to maintain, challenging to manage and hard to close, even when intended to to be temporary.
In 2019, staff declined to make recommendations for such sites despite being directed by council to do so, citing 2018 guidance from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. "Neither authorized encampments nor parking areas provide housing for people experiencing homelessness," staff wrote in a memo. "Rather, each option detracts from the staff resources assigned to addressing this moral imperative."
But with Prop B being enforced and too few shelter beds and affordable units for the estimate unsheltered homeless population in Austin, the city is facing the same predicament that prompted District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo to pursue possible sanctioned campsites in the first place: "When individuals in encampments ask where they should go, we need to have places to suggest," she said at a May 6 council meeting.
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Don't lose your mask just yet—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it is now recommending masks in areas that are surging as cases rise nationwide and the Delta variant looms.
The CDC announced Tuesday that even fully vaccinated individuals should mask up indoors if their community is experiencing substantial transmission—defined as areas with more than 50 cases per 100,000 people. Travis County is sitting at an average of 94.59 cases per 100,000 over the past seven days, falling into the highest risk category, according to the CDC.
#DeltaVariant surging in U.S. New data show Delta much more contagious than previous versions of #COVID19. Unvaccinated people: get vaccinated & mask until you do. Everyone in areas of substantial/high transmission should wear a mask, even if vaccinated. https://t.co/tt49zOEC8N
— CDC (@CDCgov) July 27, 2021
After two COVID-19 recommendation stage jumps in the last two weeks, from Stage 2 to Stage 4, Austin-area cases are the highest they have been since February. The seven-day average for cases is on an upward trend, reaching 226 on Tuesday.
The CDC is also recommending that all students K-12 wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status. A May executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott prohibits schools from requiring masks, regardless of vaccination status. Austin ISD is "strongly" encouraging students to wear masks.
Although vaccinated individuals are still protected against the most severe symptoms of the variant, infections are spreading rapidly and now make up 83% of confirmed cases in the U.S. At least a dozen cases of the delta variant have been confirmed in the Austin area, though there are likely more since testing for it is limited.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that hospital admissions are "almost exclusively" coming from people who are unvaccinated but those who are vaccinated can still catch and spread the virus.
"Unlike the alpha variant that we had back in May, where we didn't believe that if you were vaccinated you could transmit further, this is different now with the Delta variant," Walensky said. "That leads us to believe that the breakthrough infections, rare that they are, have the potential to pool and transmit at the same with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person."
Research suggests those who become infected carry 1,000 times more of the virus than other variants and could stay contagious for longer.The announcement comes on the heels of the Biden administration ramping up cautionary measures in the face of the Delta variant. Just last week, the CDC said it had no plans to change its May guidance of vaccinated not having to wear masks unless there was a significant change in the data. Officials met on Sunday night to review new evidence, according to reports.
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The Moody Center, a $338 million, 530,000-square-foot multipurpose arena at the University of Texas at Austin, celebrated its topping out on Tuesday.
With the final beam placed, the arena's steel-frame structural phase—which involved more than 5.3 million pounds of steel—is complete.
"This past year has been full of unprecedented events, not to mention weather challenges, and yet the women and men working on this project continue to deliver," Moody Center General Manager and Senior Vice President Jeff Nickler said in a press release.
To celebrate the topping out Oak View Group, the development and investment firm behind the Moody Center will affix a tree to the final beam in keeping with the time-honored tradition.
The practice dates back to ancient Scandinavian religious rites, which involved placing a tree atop new buildings to appease tree-dwelling spirits displaced during the construction process, according to the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers in Washington D.C.
After the steel-frame structure phase, the development will move on to enclosing and finishing the interior of the Moody Center.
The arena is set to open next April and already has some major acts scheduled for its inaugural year, including The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, John Mayer and The Killers. It will replace the 43-year-old Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center and serve as the home of UT's men's and women's basketball games, among other sports and community events.
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