Abe Asher is a staff writer covering Austin news. His reporting on protest, politics, police, climate, and more has appeared in VICE News, The Nation, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.
The Travis County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday afternoon to invest $110 million in COVID-19 recovery funds in homelessness prevention and affordable housing.
The funds, approved contingently pending a forthcoming fiscal analysis, come from the federal government's American Rescue Plan, relief dollars meant to help localities recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
This is how the funds will be used:
- Six to eight affordable housing communities that would serve some 1,000 residents. Half of those communities would be located west of I-35.
- A 200-tiny home expansion of Camp Esperanza in Southeast Austin, along with other services.
- A new housing community called Burleson Village on Burleson Road just minutes from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which would serve around 700 residents.
Similarly, Austin City Council in June set aside $106.7 million through the American Rescue Plan for the homelessness crisis.
"If you're poor and you're in Austin, you're at the gates of hell," Commissioner Jeff Travillion said Tuesday. "We have to make sure that these dollars are an investment for poor people."
Interim Austin Police Department Chief Joseph Chacon said Monday that several factors are driving Austin's record high number of homicides this year and that "we need to do everything we can as a community... to stop that number from growing."
Austin saw its 60th homicide over the weekend at a nightclub on North Lamar Boulevard, breaking a record set in 1984 when 59 people were murdered in the city. Murders are up 74% over last year in the city as of the end of August—for which Chacon blamed the number of guns circulating in the city, as well as the release from prison of people previously convicted of violent crimes.
Chacon said that 49 of the city's murders have been solved and that the department has "very solid leads" on several of the eleven homicides that remain unsolved. APD has increased the size of its homicide unit from 12 to 14 detectives in response to the gun violence, and Chacon said that the department may continue to shift personnel to meet its policing needs.
In general, Chacon, who is a finalist for the permanent police chief job, wants to see more police officers on the streets. But the department's staffing issues predate the pandemic and were further affected when police cadet classes were halted last year (resuming in June this year) and as officers are out after contracting COVID.
In November, Austin voters will vote on a proposition to add hundreds of officers to the department—a measure that opponents say doesn't address the root causes of crime.
But the increase in murders is not specific to cities that cut their police budgets last summer, rather, it is part of a nationwide pattern that experts have linked to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This really is a national phenomenon," Chacon said. "It is something that is being seen by big cities all across the country. We are collaborating as cities to determine what the driving factors are for why that's happening, but it is not something that is unique to Austin."
Getting from Austin to Puerto Rico is about to become much easier—and these resorts will ensure that you never want to leave.
Starting Oct. 7, American Airlines is becoming the first and only airline to offer direct flights from the Texas capital to San Juan—one of 14 new routes the airline is adding at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport this fall.
In San Juan, Austinites will have the opportunity to stay at one of a number of luxury resort offerings from The Condado Collection: the Condado Vanderbilt, La Concha Resort, and the Condado Ocean Club. Each property is set on or within walking distance of Condado Beach, a short drive from the Isla Grande Airport.
For a spa getaway: The Condado Vanderbilt
For a party: La Concha Resort
A romantic getaway: Condado Ocean Club
If you've felt like rideshare trips have gotten increasingly expensive this year, you're not alone—and you're not wrong.
The average Uber and Lyft fare rose consistently through the spring and early summer across the country, with consumers paying nearly 50% more per ride in July than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Much of the pressure on the rideshare market is due to the same set of conditions that drove up the cost of airline tickets and rental vehicles for travelers this summer: a sharp decrease in demand last year followed by a sharp rise in demand this spring.
When the pandemic first shut down the country last year, demand for ridesharing collapsed. In a similar vein, as work opportunities dried up, rideshare drivers who did not want to risk contracting the virus turned to other opportunities or claimed unemployment benefits.
But the economic conditions changed rapidly this spring and summer as Austinites received COVID-19 vaccinations and the country's economy reopened. As more people in Austin and around the country began to look for rides, there were fewer drivers to provide them.
One Austin rideshare driver says there are other factors at play.
Mo, a 52-year-old immigrant from India who came to the U.S. more than two decades ago, drove 80 hours per week for Uber and Lyft for years—refusing to take even holidays off. But lately, he has cut back.
"Driving for Uber and Lyft is a nightmare," Mo said. "It comes with a lot of risks, and really the pay is just enough to keep up with even the operational expenses, let alone breaking even or even taking something home."
Mo, who asked his name not be used for privacy reasons, said drivers' earning power with Uber and Lyft has not increased at all, let alone commensurately.
That, along with quality control and safety concerns, convinced Mo to help organize a strike of Austin rideshare drivers in late June. Austin was one of a number of cities around the country to see strikes that day, with the largest action taking place in California, where Proposition 22, classifying drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, passed last year.
"They will have to increase the mileage rates," Mo said. "It is impossible to survive… You cannot give such bad mileage rates to drivers. That's the minimum thing they will have to do."
But a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a message to Austonia that certain drivers are earning more money driving than they were prior to the onset of the pandemic and that drivers are steadily returning to work.
"As vaccines rolled out and people started moving again, we began to see the demand for rides outpace the number of available drivers," Lyft spokesperson Eric Smith said. "We've added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it's already leading to a better rider experience with wait times down more than 15% nationwide, and down 35% in some major markets."
Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
Mo said that the demand in Austin for rides fluctuates greatly throughout the week, spiking on weekend evenings and slowing during weekdays. Demand is routinely highest during marquee events like Austin City Limits and South By Southwest.
"It continues to be a great time to drive," Smith wrote.
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