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Austin City Council voted to double the city's property tax homestead exemption to 20%, the maximum allowed by state law, on Thursday. City staff estimate that the median homeowner would save $141 in Fiscal Year 2021-22 under this new rate.
Homeowners pay property taxes to multiple entities, including Austin ISD, Travis County, Central Health and Austin Community College District, in addition to the city of Austin. The city's tax rate accounted for less than a quarter of the combined tax rate levied by these five entities.
Supporters say the increased homestead exemption provides necessary tax relief as home values continue to skyrocket—and after council approved approximately $50 million in pandemic-related rental relief. But opponents raised concerns about the percentage-based exemption, which they say disproportionately benefits high-value homeowners and shifts the tax burden onto commercial property owners, who could push it onto renters.
"I know this doesn't come, as with all things, some measure of concern, especially with respect to renters," Adler said. "I think the impact is negligible, but in any event we're doing focused things for renters."
Costs and benefits
Most council members supported the 20% homestead exemption, which they say will provide tangible benefits to their constituents. It is also more palatable thanks to a new state policy, which means an increased homestead exemption would no longer affect the city's total property tax revenue.
Just now: #ATXCouncil unanimously approved increasing Austin's homestead exemption to 20%! We will also be approving millions of dollars in rental assistance, and a huge investment in housing for the currently homeless. We are using all the tools we have to keep Austinites here.
— Paige Ellis, City Council District 8 (@PaigeForAustin) June 10, 2021
District 3 Council Member Sabino "Pio" Renteria said last Thursday that his East Austin constituents would welcome such tax relief given that home prices have risen sharply in recent years. He purchased his own home 42 years ago for $21,000; it is now valued for $668,000.
District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, whose district has the highest median appraised home value, said the measure was a corollary to recent rental assistance, eviction moratoriums and other tenant relief programs. "We have provided something around $50 million in relief for renters through the pandemic but have been unable to find ways to do the same for our homeowners," she said during a June 1 work session.
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar raised concerns that a 20% homestead exemption would only deepen inequity by offering the greatest benefit to the highest-value homeowners at the expense of commercial property taxpayers, who will be required to make up the difference. But he ultimately supported the measure. "Unfortunately too small a benefit to working class homeowners is still a benefit," he said last week.
Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison a worried that it would provide too little relief to the typical homeowner. "I think to say that this strikes me as the opposite of equitable might be an understatement," she said at the same meeting. "I don't know that $12 a month is worth it."
Community activist Julio Gonzalez Altamirano criticized the 20% homestead exemption as a "capitulation to wealth and innumeracy" in a tweet last week.
City Council is prohibited by state law from implementing a flat rate homestead exemption, even though some council members and residents would prefer it.
"This is not perfect," Adler said during the June 1 work session. "There are some people who are not getting the benefit we would want them to get or are going to get burdens we don't want them to get. But, on balance, I think this is providing really important relief to people that need that relief."
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Fortune 500's 2021 list is officially out, and the Austin metro saw two companies crack the list this year, with two others making the top 1,000.
While the Texas capital doesn't boast as many Fortune 500 headquarters as some other cities, its reputation as a tech hub and a Californian's paradise is still well-represented.
Oracle, which uprooted its headquarters from California to Austin last year, made the top 100 in the 80th slot this year, while Round Rock's own Dell was No. 28. Companies with large ties, including Tesla, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google all cracked the top 100. And despite a tumultuous economic year, each of the Fortune 1,000 companies HQ'ed in Austin saw growth in 2020.
Here's a look at Austin companies that made the Fortune list:
28. Dell Technologies
Dell thrived during the pandemic by helping employees across the country adjust to remote work (Dell/Facebook)
Dell, which has been rooted in Austin since Michael Dell started the company as a University of Texas-Austin student in 1984, made the top 30. The computer manufacturer moved up six slots this year, is listed on the Global 500, and is one of the 100 most profitable corporations in the Fortune 500.
Dell is the second-largest non-oil company in Texas and the sixth biggest company in the state by revenue. As a global power, it is the largest shipper of PC computers in the world.
To cope with the pandemic, Dell decided to double down on work rather than hit the pause button. Dell gained 8,000 more employees in 2020 and employed a record of 165,000 worldwide as it shifted to push 90% of its employees into remote work. The company's emphasis on digitization and mobile technology for consumers during the pandemic paid off—the company had record revenue in 2020.
Dell, with multiple local offices, currently employs around 13,000 people in Central Texas and plans on keeping most of its employees in a remote or hybrid work format.
Oracle's Austin campus, which is now the company's headquarters, opened in 2018. (Oracle/Facebook)
Oracle, a global corporation that sells database, software and cloud technologies, was one of the major tech companies to announce its relocation of its headquarter to Austin from Southern California in 2020, after establishing a half a million-square-foot facility on East Riverside in 2018.
The corporation rose up two spots to No. 80 on the Fortune 500 in 2021 and is one of the 100 most profitable on the list. Oracle also cracks the Global 500 and is one of 71 Fortune 500 companies to have a female CEO, Safra A. Katz.
During the pandemic, Oracle faced big changes. Aside from moving its headquarters across states, the company began using artificial intelligence, augmented reality and voice commands (instead of "Hey, Siri", think "Hey, Oracle") to help companies move into the cloud.
According to Shailesh Singla, Country Head & Senior Director, Employee Experience/HCM Business at Oracle, the pandemic actually sped up digital technology, especially using AI as a human resources function, by many years.
Tesla's newest plant, Giga Texas, is set to be completed by the end of 2021. (Tesla Owners of Austin/Twitter)
While electric car giant Tesla hasn't moved its headquarters to Austin (although teased last year), its CEO Elon Musk, has already made the move. The man who called Austin a "boomtown" has plans to manufacture the company's Cybertruck and Model Y products out of the Giga Texas plant, set to be completed later this year in southeast Travis County.
The electric vehicle company just reaches the top 100 in the Fortune 500 list, rising 24 slots in the rankings. The company has seen job growth as Tesla works to employ nearly 10,000 Austin-area residents at the new Texas plant.
Musk famously had run-ins with COVID policies in California, where he was originally located, spurring him to join the California migration in the summer of 2020. Tesla famously struggled in its first decade of existence, but the EV entity grew more than a cult following during the pandemic. In April, the company reported its third consecutive profitable quarter for the first time, and Musk's net worth swelled to $155 billion.
Musk's former company PayPal also cracked the list at 134 on the Fortune 500. Musk used the funds from when the company went public to create the companies for which he is now famous, including Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink.
523. Resideo Technologies- Fortune 1,000
Resideo Technologies streamlines home security and climate control worldwide. (Resideo Pro/Facebook)
While not quite cracking the Fortune 500 list, Resideo Technologies nearly made the list as a rising star in smart home technologies. The company is the No. 1 global distributor of home security products and employs over 14,000 worldwide. Resideo combines home necessities, including air conditioning, security systems, and water and energy conservation tools to give consumers a holistic product.
The company saw job growth in 2020 despite the pandemic as more consumers spent time at home. Over 15 million systems were installed last year, accounting for $5.1 billion in sales. Resideo bottomed out at the start of the pandemic but saw revenues rise by 10% from January to November 2020, surprising Wall Street investors.
627. Digital Realty Trust- Fortune 1,000
Digital Realty Trust owns two data centers in Austin and has influence worldwide as a real estate investment corporation. (datacenterdynamics.com)
Digital Realty Trust is another global giant that made its way to Austin during the pandemic. The real estate investment entity, which provides data center services worldwide, moved its headquarters to the Texas capital in January 2021 and has since seen revenue grow 32.4% to $1.1 billion just this year.
Only 5% of the company's investments in retail, energy, travel and lodging were at serious risk due to COVID. Although it only employs about a dozen at its Austin headquarters, it has a major footprint in Texas and owns 30 data centers in the state.
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The final residential house on Rainey Street—once a quaint neighborhood and now a boozy strip on the National Register of Historic Places—has been cleared for demolition by the Historic Landmark Commission "due to life safety concerns."
The home, located at 71 Rainey Street, had been in the family of John Contreras, also known as the "last man on Rainey Street," since the 1940s. Contreras lived there on and off as a child and then from 1989 to September 2019 until he sold the property, tired of living among the chaos of modern Rainey Street.
While most of the homes on the street have been restored to open as businesses, Contreras's home fell into disrepair and received code violations for lack of general maintenance and structural integrity after he sold.
The house leans to one side due to disrepair and old age. (City of Austin)
The house was listed for $2.65 million and sold for an undisclosed increase a few months later, according to KUT. Contreras said he sold the home to Bob Woody, who owns several bars including Blind Pig Pub and Shakespeare's on 6th Street. Woody told him he intended to turn it into another bar.
Rainey Street District has been in a constant cycle of change for several years. It was first rezoned as part of Austin's central business district in 2005, and despite its classification as a historic area, some of the bars on the strip have been threatened by even newer developments.
It was rumored that bars Javelina and Craft Pride might be displaced for construction of a new apartment highrise, River Street Residences, in October 2020, which may be in the works. Deed history from the Travis County Appraisal District shows both bars were signed over to River Street Partners LLC on April 12, 2021.
Similarly, bar Lustre Pearl was displaced from the corner of Driskill Street for Camden Rainey Street Apartments in 2014. The bar reopened a second location across from Rainey Street in 2016.
It's safe to say, Rainey Street is not done changing yet.
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If you've lived in Austin long enough to get stuck in rush-hour traffic on MoPac, you're probably familiar with Camp Mabry.
Named after Adjutant General of Texas Woodford H. Mabry, the military installation was established in 1892—in what was then a rural area—as a training facility for the Texas Volunteer Guard. The original site, which comprised roughly 90 acres, expanded to 400 acres by 1911 as a result of government land purchases and various land gifts. It now functions as the headquarters of the Texas Military Department, Texas Military Forces and Texas Military Forces Museum.
Soldiers build military vehicles at Camp Mabry during an unknown year, anywhere from 1877-1939. (Austin Public Library/Austin History Center)
These days, Camp Mabry also serves to confuse commuters who are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, gazing forlornly out their car windows and wondering, "What is that place even used for?" Indeed, such a large plot of sparsely populated land situated directly off the highway feels like a relic from a bygone era when compared to the rest of Austin, which is becoming more tightly packed with office buildings and high-rise apartments every day.
It's a stark contrast that raises a worthwhile, yet hypothetical question: What would it take for the state to sell Camp Mabry, and could the development of that land help mitigate Austin's housing crisis?
Developing Mabry would take State and City cooperation that's in short supply. Because Camp Mabry is state-owned, it would need to be authorized for sale by the state legislature or deemed "under-utilized" by the Texas General Land Office and approved by the governor. Circumstances it does not meet today.
Aerial shot of Camp Mabry. (Austonia)
Nevertheless, if the state were to ever sell Camp Mabry, its development would raise two fundamental questions, according to Steve Drenner, founder of Texas land use law firm Drenner Group, P.C.
1. Would the state sell the land outright or ground lease it, allowing a tenant to develop it for a period of time before turning it over to the owner at the end of the lease?
Drenner thinks the state would likely opt to ground lease it so it would retain the right to redevelop that land to achieve maximum density as Austin continues to grow and evolve. He cites the Central Market at 40th and North Lamar as an example of an effective ground lease.
"You could argue that whatever the time period is left—30-40 years—that if Austin keeps growing, that it would have a different highest and best use. Maybe taller office buildings combined with multi-family, much higher, denser development. And in that case, the state would have the opportunity to profit from the new circumstances that the market would drive to make that a denser project."
The Camp Mabry sign in 2005. (David E Hollingsworth/CC)
2. How would the city of Austin determine the land usage?
It could go one of two ways, explains Drenner.
"They might say, 'Well, we'll let it go through a zoning process.' They also might say, 'Well, it'll go through a special board of review that is (made) up of a combination of state and local officials, and that's the group that determines the land use.'"
If the former, the zoning process is ultimately "a discretionary decision by the City Council," which means that an applicant cannot receive zoning approval simply by following a set of instructions.
For an example of how the zoning process might go with Camp Mabry, one can look to the Grove at Shoal Creek, a master development off 45th Street and Bull Creek Road that was built on land that formerly belonged to the Texas Department of Transportation. The previously undesignated land was rezoned as a Planned Unit Development, which is not subject to conventional zoning requirements. Instead, PUDs work with the local government to create developments that preserve the environment, promote innovative design and provide ample public facilities, along with a mixture of single- and multi-family housing. The Grove also "carries a 10% affordability requirement" that "yielded 92 affordable rental units and 46 affordable homeowner units," according to nonprofit design organization CoAct.
Surely, the prospect of developing a 400-acre plot of land adjoining 35th and MoPac is enough to make even the most successful commercial developers in Austin misty-eyed.
With Austin's median home sales price ballooning to an all-time high of $550,562 in April, a 31.7% year-over-year increase, and the average monthly rent in the Greater Austin area exceeding pre-pandemic levels at $1,335 that same month, to call that land desirable in today's market would be an understatement.
"Can you imagine: hundreds of acres, literally dead in the middle of probably some of the most valuable real estate in Texas?" said Tim Hendricks, senior vice president and managing director of real estate investment firm Cousins Properties. "It's enough land to create a true midtown Austin."
Hendricks says the expanse comprising Camp Mabry is comparable to the Domain in size, and the land would probably be allocated similarly if it were ever developed—2 million square feet of retail, 3 or 4 million square feet of high-rise residential, and 3 million square feet of office.
The Domain could be the type of development Camp Mabry's land mirrors if ground leased. (Shutterstock)
While the prospect of a mixed-use residential and retail mecca in central Austin might appeal to locals who are tired of trekking to the Domain, Hendricks predicts it would face pushback from people who live in the neighborhoods adjacent to Camp Mabry—particularly a mature, high-income neighbor like Tarrytown, whose quaint, locally-owned businesses and single-family homes lend to a much slower pace of life than the hustle and bustle that a sprawling, mixed-use development would invite.
"They're not going to want the density," Hendricks says. "With density comes congestion." He adds that even if the people of Austin wanted the Camp Mabry land to be developed into single-family homes, "the economic drivers would tell you that it should be much more dense than that."
If the state ever sold or leased the Camp Mabry land out for development, Austinites could expect some knock-down, drag-out City Council debates over how the land should be used.
For now, the prospect of developing Camp Mabry remains either a pipe dream for local developers or an affront to certain Austinites' way of life.
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