Local health officials have issued an emergency order for the growing number of monkeypox cases.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Andy Brown and Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes made the announcement at City Hall on Tuesday, where they said they requested more resources from the state and hope to raise awareness about the virus.
Monkeypox, a smallpox-like virus that causes a rash that looks like pimples or blisters, as well as fever, muscle and body aches, headaches, chills and swollen lymph nodes, was declared a public health emergency last week by the federal government. The first case in Travis County was reported on June 23 and as of Tuesday, there are now 68 probable and confirmed cases of the virus.
Officials said APH and other local clinics are ready to distribute monkeypox vaccines but are in need of more doses. Austin Public Health has received 3,154 of the 56,000 doses of vaccine available nationwide, Adler said. Currently, only those that have been exposed to the virus are eligible for the vaccine.
The public is urged to avoid direct skin-to-skin contact and for those sick or with a rash to stay home.
"With colleges, universities, schools and festivals happening this fall, it's imperative for everyone to know the symptoms of monkeypox and do our part to slow the spread," Brown said.
By Jonathan Lee
Since the pandemic began, most Austinites have felt the effects of increased rent, higher property taxes, or home prices growing increasingly out of reach. With rising costs forcing people out of their neighborhoods (or out of the city entirely), candidates hoping to become Austin’s next mayor in November agree that something has to be done – and with urgency.
Here, we’ll break down how mayoral candidates Celia Israel, Kirk Watson and Jennifer Virden say they’ll make housing more affordable.
While housing affordability has been a salient issue for many years, the problem has only recently become a top priority for candidates for local office. Watson and Israel told the Austin Monitor that affordability is the biggest challenge facing the city – in line with what respondents said in the recent Notley/Monitor Poll.
“I think affordability and cost of living in Austin right now is the number-one issue, and the biggest part of that is the expense of housing,” Watson said, calling the situation an “emergency.”
“It’s an emergency from the standpoint of pure need, and it’s an emergency from the standpoint of it’s something we can’t waste time on.” Watson released his housing platform on July 21 and a broader affordability platform early last week.
Watson stressed that his plan will “get us out of the old fights that have been an all-or-nothing, winner-take all, zero-sum-game fight for the last decade.” The plan details six strategies as well as 10 other policies that will “make it easier and cheaper to bring new housing online while protecting our existing neighborhoods and environment.”
Israel called Austin’s housing predicament a “crisis.” When she launched her six-step Home for All platform in May, she said, “This election is about who can afford to live here and who gets to decide.”
For Israel, rising housing costs are personal; her rent increased $300 this past year. “I didn’t need to do a poll to tell me that this was the number-one issue and that people are hurting,” she said.
Jennifer Virden, who works in building and real estate, told the Monitor in an email that housing affordability is “a major challenge” that is exacerbated by city policies.
In Virden’s housing platform, released in February, she wrote, “The different stakeholders must realize by now that an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach hasn’t worked, and that we must all work together to cut a path of compromise.”
All three candidates say the city’s slow and expensive permitting process needs an overhaul.
Watson suggests an immediate audit conducted by experts, with a goal of implementing the audit’s recommendations within nine months of taking office – an ambitious timeline by City Hall standards. Watson also wants to temporarily cut permitting fees in half and create a new type of site plan for “simple projects that need less oversight.”
Similarly, Israel suggested creating a “site-plan light” option to speed up approval of projects with six to 12 units. She also proposes allowing three- and four-unit projects – anything “house scale” – to participate in relatively short residential review, which currently applies to single-family homes and duplexes. Another solution to long review times is the creation of a “development ombudsman” in charge of streamlining development review.
Virden proposed similar changes. She said fees should correlate to the size of a project and that all development permits should be housed in one department instead of many separate departments with competing priorities.
The city’s permitting process has come under fire from builders for being too expensive and time consuming. A recent report shows that fees for multifamily residential development are higher in Austin than any other city in Texas. While the city has known about the flaws of the process for years – a scathing several-hundred-page audit came out in 2015 – builders say not much has improved.
In the first moment of confrontation in the mayoral race, Israel attacked a proposal by Watson to encourage zoning changes at the City Council-district scale.
Watson’s plan would allow individual Council members to propose land use changes that would just apply in their district, an approach Israel attacked as “a return to redlining” that would allow wealthier Council districts to avoid change.
Watson clarified his proposal in an email to supporters, saying no Council member would be able to unilaterally veto or adopt zoning changes in their district and that all districts should adopt some reforms.
“The criticism is all premised on the idea that somehow somebody gets a veto,” Watson said. “That’s not in there.” He explained that the approach could be a way to break the gridlock that mired the effort to rewrite the entire land development code.
“I think it’s a sign of leadership that you try out new ideas, especially when you’ve had a decade that it hadn’t worked,” Watson said.
For her part, Israel said her criticism still stands. “If you can read that walked-back explanation and see anything different, I welcome that,” she said.
While nothing is stopping current Council members from suggesting zoning changes just for their district, no member has done so.
Watson also proposes rewarding Council districts that adopt pro-housing reform. While the details still need ironing out, the basic idea is to redirect some of the increased property tax revenue from new development to fund district-level priorities like parks, displacement prevention or rental assistance.
Virden advocated for small area plans as well, though not necessarily at the Council-district scale. “Tackling zoning map changes at a smaller scale with small area plans has a better chance of being done well,” as opposed to a citywide rewrite, she said.
Israel said she hopes the opportunity will arise to finally rewrite the entire land development code. “We’re in a different political time now where we can recognize the crisis, come together and be proud of our city instead of wringing our hands over what we cannot achieve,” she said. “I refuse to accept that the status quo is part of our future.”
Both Watson and Israel support increasing density along major streets and transit corridors, as well as making accessory dwelling units easier to build.
Israel also supports allowing more “missing middle” housing. The term refers to types of buildings between single-family homes and large apartment buildings that zoning typically doesn’t allow or incentivize. Watson’s platform does not mention missing middle housing.
Following court rulings affirming the right of property owners to petition large-scale zoning changes, both Israel and Watson say they support passing land use changes with less than a supermajority – unless a valid petition is present. City Council has been wary of passing such zoning changes without a supermajority for fear of legal action. Virden said she respects the court rulings.
Compatibility and parking requirements
Minimum parking requirements and compatibility, a rule that limits the height of buildings within 540 feet of single-family homes, have been top of mind recently. In June, Council resolved to relax the rules for properties along transit corridors. Compatibility in effect prevents multifamily housing on many properties along major streets, where Council agrees dense housing should go. Housing advocates and developers say parking requirements are another barrier to making housing cheaper and easier to build.
Virden, Watson and Israel all support reducing parking and compatibility requirements. Watson suggests “reducing compatibility and reducing or eliminating parking requirements in targeted areas,” though he did not say exactly where and by how much.
Virden proposes a compatibility compromise similar to what Council has discussed. She also supports reducing parking requirements for single-family homes and buildings within an eighth of a mile of public transit.
Israel supports reducing parking requirements everywhere, which she said would allow for “improved response to the market” and “more housing space on certain lots.” Israel said she has publicly backed compatibility reforms sponsored by Council Member Chito Vela.
Housing on publicly owned land
Israel’s and Watson’s platforms emphasize another idea that has been kicked around for years though not quite acted upon in earnest: building affordable housing on publicly owned land.
Watson proposes creating a Central Texas Housing Partnership in which public entities would plan for housing on the land they own, as well as finding other solutions to a housing crisis that extends beyond Austin’s city limits. Watson also proposes turning part of Walter E. Long Park into a dense, mixed-use community similar to Mueller.
Israel said “we should be doing public good with public land” – but without Council’s penchant for delay. “(Council) will study and analyze something to death,” she said, pointing to the proposed affordable housing project on former Austin Energy property at 6909 Ryan Drive. “The city has been thinking about housing there for over 12 damn years. I think that’s a sin. It’s especially a sin now that people are hurting.”
Watson agrees it shouldn’t take years to decide what to do with city-owned property. “We can’t let the fact that we have thought about some of these things for 10 years create the impression we can’t get this done,” he said.
Is the key to a new Sixth Street making it more like Broadway?
In Nashville, Tennessee, the mix of bars, restaurants and honky-tonks playing live music on the major thoroughfare of Broadway keeps the city’s downtown lively even as other parts of the area bring in office workers and residential units.
Crissy Cassetty, director of economic development with the Nashville Downtown Partnership, says she thinks Nashville has always kind of compared itself to Austin, and that Broadway is their Sixth Street.
“That's where the majority of our live music is. We have several artists and venues downtown,” Cassetty said, noting music spaces from country stars Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
“Over the years, our smaller, local honky tonks have kind of transformed into bigger entertainment venues that take multiple floors, and levels,” Cassetty said. “The growth and the attraction of Broadway hasn't slowed down forever.”
In Austin, the pandemic took a toll on Sixth Street and other parts of downtown. A recent report by the Downtown Austin Alliance noted that pedestrian foot traffic has started to return to downtown nightlife districts, including East and West Sixth. Total monthly visits surpassed 200,000 on West Sixth in October 2021, beating out the visits in that month in 2019, though East Sixth slugged behind the 2019 total. On the progress of recovery for downtown entertainment districts, the report says, “the live music economy continues to suffer as ticket sales and attendance at shows remain depressed,”
Public safety concerns haven't helped with a revival of Sixth Street. Sunday marked a year since a mass shooting that led to 14 injuries and one death. On the last day of SXSW this year, another shooting left four injured. To address incidents like these, the city has moved forward with a Safer Sixth Street initiative to tackle gun violence, ensure EMS can care for patients quickly and look into more seating and dining in the area, among other practices.
But investments from commercial agency Stream Realty aim to transform the district by adding improvements between Neches and Sabine streets. Caitlin Ryan, the head of the Austin office says Sixth Street is the city’s special tool in the center of downtown.
“If I can fast forward 10 years, I think we look back, and we've made a significant change and Sixth Street is not only a place for night, but also the day,” Ryan said. “But it's evolved from not only our city council preservation asset, historic landmark, but everybody in our city, the music commission, coming together to form a street that our city can be proud of.”
For Broadway’s public safety approach, Cassetty says groups like the mayor’s office, police department and the convention and visitor’s bureau have the common goal of making the street feel clean and secure.
Still, she described the matter of keeping nightlife alive while also keeping the area safe and friendly as an “ongoing battle.”
“The more successful an area becomes, you just have to figure out how to balance all of it. Especially when you're in a downtown footprint, that balance of the play, along with the residential population and the workforce population,” Cassetty said. “And making sure you don't upset the residents or the employees because they're a big part of the downtown culture. You don't want to lose that because you have a successful entertainment district.”
Aside from that, improvements also involve infrastructure. Julie Fitch, chief operating officer of Downtown Austin Alliance, said they’d like to see investment from both the private sector and the city in rebuilding the infrastructure of Sixth Street. Part of the vision from Stream involves introducing wider festival sidewalks, only three lanes of traffic and the construction of four- and five-story buildings.
The entertainment elements will remain, which Fitch said is fantastic.
“I think that with the opportunity that comes with this level of investment, it really has a chance to expand Sixth Street’s appeal to a wider variety of audiences,” Fitch said.
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