Nathan Ryan is the CEO of Austin-based consulting firm Blue Sky Partners, and a commissioner on Austin's Economic Prosperity Commission. As a commissioner, he contributes to strategy related to job creation and construction in the city. Views are his alone and do not reflect the views of Austonia.
Austin is in the middle of a years-long debate about homelessness. Right now, some are arguing that we should go back to the ban we had in place in early 2019 that made camping, sitting, lying and panhandling punishable by fine or jail. That response greatly oversimplifies the challenge we're dealing with.
Austin doesn't need a ban, it needs a plan.
Homelessness is at least four crises in one:
- An economic crisis
- A housing crisis
- A mental health and/or substance abuse crisis
- And a racial equity crisis
If we're going to meaningfully reduce homelessness, we need to acknowledge that it's not going to be as simple as reinstating a ban. We also deserve to know where we are in this process, which is why we're going to have to demand that Austin City Council put together a comprehensive plan with benchmarks and a timeline so progress can be reported on frequently.
That being said, I have some ideas.
Financial Security: According to a Federal Reserve report from 2018, nearly 40% of Americans wouldn't be able to cover a surprise $400 bill. Layoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly made the economic situation more dire for many Americans and has likely pushed many to the brink of homelessness. To address this, Austin City Council should make direct cash assistance programs like 2020's Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) Fund permanent. We should also look at how we can expand economic assistance related to utility bills through Austin Energy and Austin Water.
Housing: Austin is an incredible city, which is why more than 160 new people move here per day. In just the last year, the average cost of a home in Austin has gone up 14%, to $448,406. The reason housing prices are going up so drastically is simple: we don't have enough housing supply to meet demand. Because Texas is a property tax-based state, rising property values make it more likely that people will be pushed out of their homes—and the lack of supply means it's harder to house individuals experiencing homelessness. That's why Austin City Council should continue to invest in Permanent Supportive Housing like hotels and consider creating city-sanctioned encampments with wraparound support services. But on housing, the single most important thing Council could do is to finish the job they started with CodeNEXT to upzone Austin and allow all types of housing to be built all over the city. Upzoning Austin will allow our supply to keep up with demand.
Mental Health: According to Johns Hopkins, an estimated 26% of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression and anxiety are most common, but things like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are relatively common, too. Substance abuse often coexists alongside mental health issues, and both are exacerbated by economic stress, anxiety, and homelessness. Just last week, Austin announced that its 911 call script now includes mental health as a requested emergency service. That's an important start. But any plan to address homelessness needs to include more consistent access to mental health care and better case management as well. One big step Austin could take is to help each of Austin's many homeless service organizations develop a coordinated database so it's clear where the service gaps are so they can be met. We have too much data in too many different places.
Racial Equity: Lastly, Austin has a history of segregation and systemic racism that continues to rear its ugly head. This is true when it comes to homelessness, too: in Austin, even though Black Austinites represent 7.6% percent of our population, they represent more than one-third of our homeless population. As regards criminal justice, Black and brown Austinites are more likely to be stopped, searched and cited by law enforcement than white/Caucasian residents like me.
These crises compound—it's far too easy to see how one can lead to the other, or one slip up could cause someone to become unhoused. I can understand and empathize with public safety concerns on this issue. Everybody should feel safe and everybody should be safe in Austin, Texas.
But this is why it's so important that we don't simply knee-jerk react our way back to a policy that criminalizes homelessness.
Austin needs a comprehensive plan to address the economic, housing, mental health and racial equity crises that undergird this Gordian knot of a challenge. Putting that plan together is going to require City Council to make some unpopular decisions. It's also going to require that we, as residents of Austin, continue to be the compassionate and helpful people I know we are.
Austin City Council did not create this problem, but they hold the keys to fix it.
Read another opinion column:
East Austin restaurant la Barbecue has been robbed a third time in less than three months, according to a post on the restaurant's Instagram.
In the post, the restaurant included photos of what appeared to be a man exiting a minivan from surveillance footage.
"This guy pulled up in a car full of stuff… he ripped our gate open and stole a couple empty kegs," the post said. "The ring system scared him off so he did not venture back into the area. PLEASE EVERYONE ON THE EAST SIDE BE CAREFUL!!! This guy goes back into his car to grab something before he goes in. I am hoping he won’t be back!!"
The robbery comes as many restaurant and food truck owners have been on guard from recent break-ins. East Austin cheesesteak truck R&B's Steak and Fries has also been robbed three times in around three months, according to owner Kris Elliott. Elliot said the truck was last robbed around a month and a half ago.
"When the weather gets cold, it seems like these things start to happen more often," Elliott said. "We're just happy no one got hurt."
Additionally, he said all 5 of the food trucks in their lot have experienced burglaries. The landlord of the space is taking action by investing in alarm and camera systems. "Been very tough dealing with this problem as us small business owners are just trying to survive during the pandemic," Elliott said.
And it's not just in East Austin. North Austin restaurants Eldorado Cafe and Chez Zee Bistro were both broken into and robbed on the weekend of Jan. 8, while over a dozen food truck robberies and break-ins were reported in the latter half of 2021.
Some, like Chez Zee's Deborah Velasco, wonder if the understaffed Austin Police Department's decision to no longer respond to non-emergency calls is part of the problem. Xose Velasco, owner of East Austin's Discada, said owners are keeping their guard up in the wake of the robberies as he was robbed twice within a month of reopening in November 2021.
"We try to keep the lights on," Velasco said. "We're a little bit more careful."
After 12 months, the long-anticipated massive Tesla factory in Southeast Travis County is up and operating and everyone wants a look inside.
Phase 1 of Giga Texas appears to be tied up as production of the Model Y Tesla is underway, the electric car company revealed on Wednesday in its fourth-quarter earnings call. The factory, located on the former Harold Green-turned Tesla Road, sits on more than 2,000 acres of land in southeast Travis County.
Here's a glimpse inside the factory.
Model Ys will be the first Teslas to come out of Giga Texas with an estimated delivery of August. The wait estimate comes after Tesla noted supply chain issues have affected their factories, which have been running below capacity for several quarters. A deep blue metallic like this goes for $1,000 more than a white or silver Model Y, totaling $61,990.
Model Ys began being produced at Giga Texas at the end of 2020. In general assembly at the factory, the Teslas get their major interior components to finish the vehicle.
Workers at Austin's Gigafactory are attaching seats to a structural battery pack. It's been described by some as the biggest difference between Texas-made Model Y's and the current version at the Fremont, California factory. It shouldn't have a major impact on the owner's experience, but Tesla has updated instructions for the jacking procedure, as the lift points are different.
With a sleek, open office setup, workers can take in a view of the factory from their seats. It's a component CEO Elon Musk wanted for what is now the headquarters of Tesla.
On the Austin, Texas public location Snapchat, a photo of inside Giga Texas has appeared. On the left you can see a sneak peek of a Model Y body.pic.twitter.com/N7zliZ5vkL— Sawyer Merritt (@Sawyer Merritt) 1643081462
With Snapchat's maps, anyone can look at everyday activity happening at the factory. To view these geographically-linked stories, click the bottom left "map" icon and search "Tesla Giga Texas." Once you've found it, you can view the Snapchat story of those in and around the facility. While most stories stay up for only 24 hours, Giga Texas is a designated place on Snapchat, allowing users to view a collection of photos and videos from the inside.
Following Model Ys, Texas-made Teslas will include the Cybertruck, Semi and Model 3. But it might be a while before those other models arrive. EV makers have been hit hard by the chip shortage, and it's thought that changing features are contributing to Cybertruck delays as Tesla works to compete in the electric pickup market.
Joe Rogan paid a visit to buddy Elon Musk this week. The two have been seen around town since both moving to Texas. Naturally, Rogan was impressed with the prototype.
If you're dying to get a closer look at this factory, you just might get to. In December, Musk said the factory would have tours available to the community early this year.
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