Welcome to town!
This week, you'll see stories useful for someone new to Austin in anticipation of Austonia's "How to Austin" event. To attend, sign up here.
Although the pandemic rages on and many of Austin's most iconic attractions—live-music venues, honky tonks and long lines outside of barbecue joints—remain closed, people continue to flock to the city.
Based on 2018-19 population estimates outlined in an October report by the Austin Chamber, the metro is now growing by 168 net new residents each day, mostly thanks to people who relocate here. And there are already indicators that suggest Austin's growth has continued amid COVID-19.
Being new to town is something of a common experience among Austinites, with natives sometimes referred to as "unicorns" due to their rarity. Still, recent arrivals may find the city foreign in unexpected ways. Here are eight things to know while settling in.
1. Where are people moving from?
More than half of new Austin residents come from other parts of Texas, according to the Chamber report. Californians, who are sometimes blamed for Austin's growing pains, made up 8% of migration to the Austin metro between 2014 and 2018, followed by New Yorkers (3.3%), Floridians (3.1%) and Illinoisans (2.3%).
In more recent news, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Austin a magnet for new corporate jobs last month, thanks to its lower costs (and taxes) compared to San Francisco and New York City. Between April and October 2020, for every one person who left Austin for the Bay Area, almost three people moved in the opposite direction, and for every one person who left Austin for New York City, more than two New Yorkers came to Austin.
LinkedIn also reported that Austin gained the most newcomers of any city in the country in 2020, based on an analysis of its 174 million U.S. users.
2. Is it really a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup?
(Charlie L. Harper III)
(Charlie L. Harper III)
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once likened Austin to a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup because of its liberal politics in a red state.
Texas hasn't voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1976. In that time, Travis County—which includes most of the city of Austin—went blue in all but one race, in 2000, when then Texas Gov. George Bush was first elected.
Today, Austin is governed by an 11-person council, with 10 members who are self-described Democrats, and the county is governed by an all-Democrat Commissioners Court. Its elected officials have voted to support paid sick leave, police budget cuts, affordable housing investments and immigrant protections, often facing pushback from state officials and lawmakers.
But Austin is no longer the only blueberry in this unappetizing metaphor. Bexar, Dallas and Harris counties—home to Texas' three largest cities—also vote reliably Democratic, as do as an increasing number of suburban counties.
3. Where does Austin stand in terms of affordability?
Austin housing costs have risen dramatically since the late 1990s as an increasing number of affluent residents moved into urban core neighborhoods, displacing low-income residents, according to a 2018 report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.
This trend has been most pronounced in the city's Eastern Crescent, where historically low housing costs drew in affluent residents. One reason these neighborhoods were relatively affordable is because of segregation codified by the city's 1928 master plan, which limited public services for Black residents to a "negro district" east of I-35.
Austin City Council has made significant investments in recent years in an attempt to address the affordability crisis, including approving a $250 million affordable housing bond, which voters approved in 2018, and earmarking $300 million in anti-displacement funding as part of Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit plan now in the works.
But housing—and especially affordable housing—remains limited in Austin. Council has spent nearly a decade on a land use code rewrite, which urbanists say could help address the dearth of so-called missing-middle type housing.
4. What is CodeNEXT and why do I keep seeing signs about it?
CodeNEXT refers to an attempt by the city of Austin to rewrite its land use code, which determines how land can be used throughout the city, including what can be built, where it can be built and how much of it can be built. The code was last rewritten in the mid-1980s.
The CodeNEXT process began in 2012 and aimed to streamline local zoning rules and allow for denser and more affordable housing in accordance with population growth. But in 2018 Austin Mayor Steve Adler scrapped the effort, which he wrote had become "divisive and poisoned," and asked the city manager to create a new process.
The second attempt at a rewrite began in 2019 but is currently on hold due to a lawsuit.
But signs declaring "CodeNEXT wrecks Austin" and "CodeNEXT is BACK" remain posted in many yards around town. Multiple community groups organized in opposition to the rewrite, which members claim is exclusive, panders to developers and will destroy neighborhoods. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that single-family zoning stands in the way of a more equitable, sustainable Austin, at best, and is racist and classist, at worst.
5. What are some of the other major policy issues I should know about?
In addition to housing, which ties in the related issues of affordability, gentrification and zoning, the city of Austin is also focused on:
- The pandemic, including an equitable vaccine rollout and preventing evictions
- Police reform, including revamping its training academy amid reports of racism and hazing
- Public transit and traffic congestion
6. How bad is the traffic situation here?
Austin is the 18th most congested city in the country, according to the latest traffic scorecard from analytics company INRIX in 2019, with the average driver spending 69 hours in congestion a year at a cost of $1,021.
Rapid population growth has led to longer commutes and more traffic. But local and state officials say that Project Connect and a forthcoming expansion of I-35 will help address the gridlock.
Austinites overwhelmingly approved a property tax rate increase last November that will help pay for Project Connect, a 15-year, $7.1 billion plan to overhaul public transit and bring light rail to town.
The Texas Department of Transportation similarly touts its $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to widen the highway up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard, as a salve for congestion. Critics, however, dispute this claim, arguing that similar expansion projects in other cities have led to induced demand.
7. There were some major Black Lives Matter protests in Austin last summer. Did anything change?
After mass protests against police violence and racial injustice last spring and summer, Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the Austin Police Department budget by around 5%, becoming the first city to do so amid activists' calls to "defund the police." The main impact of this decision was the cancellation of three planned cadet classes at the department's training academy, which has raised concerns in recent years due to its "paramilitary" culture.
Council members also approved moving 32.5% of the department's budget into transitional funds that will allow several of APD's traditional duties to continue while officials work out which to move from under police oversight.
Criminal justice reform activists also called for the resignation of APD Chief Brian Manley, who remains in his position.
8. Why do I keep hearing about homelessness?
As the city becomes increasingly unaffordable, homelessness grows more acute. It has also proven to be a political lightning rod, dividing city residents and incurring criticism from state Republican lawmakers.
The point-in-time count, an annual census conducted by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition each January, found a 45% increase in the city's unsheltered population between 2019 and 2020, which the organization attributed to increased volunteerism and better counting methods.
But many disputed this explanation, blaming it on the City Council's controversial 2019 decision to overturn a ban on public camping.
9. Is it just me or are there a lot of elections here?
It can sometimes feel like there is an election every other month in Texas. Last year, there were five: a March primary to determine who would run in the November general election, May local elections, a July primary runoff for those March races, the November general election and a December runoff.
One reason for this is the runoff elections, which tend to have lower turnout. Texas, like some other former Confederate states, still holds primary and general runoff elections for those races in which no one candidate earns at least 50% of the vote.
The next election is on May 1. City officials are in the process of reviewing two citizen-led petitions. If validated, they will be placed on the upcoming ballot, where Austin voters will determine their fate. One, submitted by the political action committee Austinites for Progressive Reform, aims to increase voter turnout through a series of charter amendments. The other seeks to reinstate the camping ban.
More information on how to register to vote as a Travis County resident can be found here.
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What would Austin be without its City Hall, Central Library or iconic 360 Bridge?
For 50 years, Austin developer Hensel Phelps has shaped Austin with city-focused landmark developments across the metro, gracing the top spot on Austin Business Journal's best general contracting list for years in a row.
In 1972, the company broke ground for the first time in Austin with the Town Lake, or Mopac Bridge project, connecting the developing areas of West Austin to the rest of the city.
Hensel Phelps broke ground for its first project, the Mopac Bridge, in 1972. (Texas Freeway)
The Town Lake Bridge was one of eight available bridges in Austin at the time of construction. (Hensel Phelps)
Since then, it's headed several projects, including:
- The Pennybacker (360) Bridge: After the Town Lake Bridge success, the company set out to build the world's second cable-supported bridge. Newcomers and native Austinites alike take to the nearby 360 Bridge Overlook Trail to see sunset views of the cliffside, copper-colored landmark.
- Dell Diamond Baseball Stadium: Since it opened in 2000, the Round Rock Express, the metro's Triple-A- Minor League baseball team, has held countless games at this 85-acre, 11,000+ capacity stadium.
- Samsung Fab 2 Chip Fabrication Facility: When Hensel Phelps helped Samsung with its second semiconductor project in the area in 2007, the grand opening ceremony was commemorated with the University of Texas Longhorn Band, UT Cheerleaders, pop singer LeAnn Rimes and a bald eagle to boot.
- Austin Central Public Library: With six floors, a rooftop garden and plenty of window views of downtown, Austin's Central Library project quickly became a central hub for the city when it opened in 2017.
- Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium: The company has had a hand in all major expansions of the Texas Longhorns' longtime football stadium.
Austin's new Central Public Library first opened in 2017. (Hensel Phelps)
Through dozens of projects dotted throughout the region, Hensel Phelps' Southwest district manager and Vice President Brad Winans said the company's focus has always been the public sector.
"That's where we think we support and develop the city, from truly grassroots, truly local support and involvement in the community," Winans said. "Our job is to develop things that truly support the city, not specific to one business."
Austin's City Hall was constructed with native Texas limestone and built with sustainability in mind. (Hensel Phelps)
A University of Texas graduate and 30-year employee, Winans said that the company's 2004 City Hall project felt most impactful to the community. The building, built from both native limestone and recycled materials, embraced sustainability and high-tech qualities, including solar panels in its garage, while maintaining a classic Texan identity.
"It's a very hard industry to be a part of, but it's also very rewarding," Winans said. "For me, City Hall means a lot because the back in the day, we called it 'The Jewel,' and so it's great to be part of that."
The company has constructed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in the past and will continue to help expand the airport. (Hensel Phelps)
With 50 years under its belt, Winans said the company will continue to work on the "endless" development opportunities coming to the city, from expansion of the rapidly-growing Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to projects in the tech sector.
"Everybody seems to want to come to Austin," Winans said. "It'd be nice if things did kind of spread out a little bit, but right now there's still a very eager push to develop in and around Central Texas and I think (Hensel Phelps) will be a major part of that."
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Starting the next season for the San Antonio Spurs, you’ll see an Austin-based financial tech company on the team’s uniforms.
Self Financial announced a partnership with the Spurs this week, in which a patch with their logo will replace where Frost's was on the jersey.
RC Buford, chief executive officer for Spurs Sports & Entertainment released a statement on the partnership, which will involve community engagement. The organizations are launching an annual $10,000 award that will be presented to a leader of a local nonprofit or community impact organization.
“Self builds credit, the Spurs build talent and both build dreams,” Buford said.
“Our partnership will draw parallels between people looking to build credit and a talented young group on the basketball court committed to building a championship team. We believe the Self-branded Spurs jersey will become a symbol of this mission—self-improvement in pursuit of building dreams.”
This trails another announcement earlier this year from Self as the official credit building sponsor of the Moody Center.
At the beginning of the year, the team of nearly 300 employees switched to a new office at 901 E. 6th St. to accommodate the growing team.
Priding itself on helping people build their credit, Self launched in 2015 after CEO James Garvey went through his own credit mishap. Automatic payments on his credit card weren’t set up correctly. Months passed, causing his credit score to dip.
The Self team set up credit builder plans to help people budget and meet their financial goals. Here’s how it works: plans range from small to extra large, with the small requiring $25 a month for two years and the largest $150 a month for a year. With that, users can track their credit score and automate payments with the option to cancel anytime.
Currently, Self has more than a million active customers, and Texas is its top market.
Self is working with Spurs guard Josh Primo as a brand ambassador. In 2021 at 18 years old, Primo moved to the U.S. from Canada and became the youngest San Antonio Spurs player ever.
“As a young international player, Josh has no credit history in the US, and represents millions of young people who need to build credit and are working hard to achieve their dreams and goals,” Garvey told Austonia via email. “We’re excited to work with him as he gets started building credit and he continues to build his career.”
On Thursday, Self will be the presenting partner for the Spurs 2022 NBA Draft festivities, which will include official watch parties in both San Antonio and Austin.
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