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February 8, 2019

Volume 40, Number 43

No doubt the availability of affordable housing is important inside the Austin city limits.  Check the exploding growth in metro suburbs where less expensive residential units can be found.  Austinites recognized this and voted in last Novembers bond election to raise $250 million toward affordability initiatives.  But, did they realize this expenditure could possibly reduce parking?  This is part of a proposal the Austin City Council will consider 2.21.19.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar has put forth a plan that will be considered in less than three weeks, and it has gained support from other council members.  City staff has been directed to draft a resolution to accomplish his objectives.  Generally, his plan would relax building size and parking restrictions if affordable housing is included in specific projects.

Right now, his plan would apply to the entire city – not limited to areas such as downtown or the West Campus adjacent to UTAustin.  As an example, this could include the high-dollar West Austin neighborhoods where it is difficult if not impossible to find lower-priced living units.

Admittedly, Casar’s plan is aimed at developers who are already specializing in subsidized, low-income housing.  It would allow those developers to make at least 50% of all rental units available to renters who earn 60% or less of the median family income.  For homeowners, income restrictions would be set at 80% of the median family income.

In return, developers would have looser height restrictions.  They could go 25% higher than the current building codes allow.  Also, and this is important, parking minimums would be eliminated.  Casar maintains that waiving these current requirements would allow a significant number of affordable units to be build at little cost to the taxpayer.

Of course, this does not address the additional stress of more vehicles in areas with no parking provided for them.  Don’t forget:  once these regulations are in effect for areas where affordable housing is currently desirable, the plan is still slated to be citywide.  So the devil will be in the details as the language is lockedin prior to the 2.21.19 City Council meeting when it will be up for consideration.  Another factor to consider:  this is planned to stand apart when the City Manager presents an overall code rewrite in the weeks ahead.  Stay tuned. Read more →

January 19, 2019

Volume 40, Number 40

To rent or to buy in the Austin area?  And where?  These are not only important decisions facing newcomersEven longtime residents have to weigh this decision during various stages of life.  A new report analyzed this question for several metropolitan areas in the USAnd, according to the national 2019 Rental Affordability Report, it is more affordable to rent than to buy in Travis, Williamson and Hays CountiesThis is true even as rents are rising, as well home prices.

The report calculated rental affordability as a percentage of wages to rent.  For housing affordability, it was calculated as a percentage of wages and the monthly cost of owning a 3-bedroom, median-priced home, based on a 3% down payment plus mortgage cost, property taxes, homeowner’s insurance and private mortgage insurance.  

In a separate study, rents in Austin ranked highest in the state.  In 2018, rent grew an average of $57 a month, or 4.4%, to yield an average monthly rent of $1,361, according to RentCafe.  So, even though rents are rising at a fast rate in the Austin area, it continues to be more affordable to rent than buy.

The flip side of the equation – home prices – is a major factor.  Even though Travis County home sales are declining, the median home price continues to rise.  In Williamson and Hays County, prices and sales are both rising (as many opt to leave Travis County.)

Rising interest rates, regulatory barriers, higher building material costs and labor shortages all contribute to the increasing cost of housing.  Not to mention, demand.

As long as the Austin area continues to be a magnet for newcomers (many from higher cost areas such as California), the demand for new homes will increase.  And some newbies opt to pay rent until they have time to become established in the area, before deciding where and when to buy a home.

Of course, as home prices rise, many potential homebuyers will be priced out of the market, making them renters.  Its a cycle that keeps repeating itself.  And, it looks like there is no immediate end in sight. Read more →

October 19, 2018

Volume 40, Number 29

UTAustin is without doubt one of the Austin areas most important economic engines.  (Years ago we made a speech titled If you want to stop growth in Austinmove the university to Amarillo!”)  So,how is UTAustin doing?  Especially, how does it compare with other peer institutions?  In the world?  How about this UTAustin rose ten points to be ranked #39 worldwide by one of the most respected global rankers of universities.  Impressive.

The editors of Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THEWUR) singled out Yale University and UTAustin for making major advances this year.  It attributed UTAustin’s leap to “significant increases in its institutional income and research volume.”  The ranking relies on a combination of reputation surveys and quantitative metrics in five areas:  teaching, research, research citations, international outlook and industry income.

It’s difficult to get detailed information on the specifics underlying THEWUR’s ranking but, according to UTAustin, it “correlates with recent expansions in research funding, research reputation and academic reputation.”

UTAustin ExecVP/Provost Maurie McInnis said investments in faculty compensation and interdisciplinary research, combined with the addition of the new Dell Medical School, are enhancing UTAustins research impact.  (If memory serves us correctly, UTAustin’s rankings have suffered in the past because most peer institutions boasted medical schools.)

And UTAustin’s future appears even brighter.  McInnis said “by placing greater emphasis on doctoral programs and strategic hiring, the university aims to become even stronger in years to come.”

Other Texas universities placing in the ranking include Rice University (#86), TexasA&M (#159) and UTDallas(lumped into a range of #201-#250).  UTAustin has done well in several other global rankings:  Center for World University Rankings, #31 … USNews&World Report’s latest ranking of Best Global Universities (#32) and Nature Index’s ranking of #23 in the world for scientific research.

As its stature grows nationally and worldwide (and this growth is expected to continue surging), UTAustin enhances much of what makes Austin, Austin. Read more →

September 28, 2018

Volume 40, Number 26

Dear [MM_Member_Data name=’firstName’],

Within the next few weeks, Capital Metro is planning to unveil an ambitious, longterm plan to bring highcapacity public transit to the Austin metro area.  What form will it take?  Well, thats what will be revealed.  Project Connect could include any, or all, autonomous buses, light rail, extensive expansion of the existing MetroRapid bus service, or other rapid bus service.  It could be a big deal.  And highly controversial.

Big – because the plan would probably propose a system so large it will provide a major alternative transportation mode attractive to motorists who currently drive city streets.  Controversial – because it will likely result in the removal of car lanes.

Underlying whatever is proposed may be the biggest concern of all:  which routes will the system run along, and importantly, what dedicated right of way will be needed?  Remember Capital Metro doesn’t have jurisdiction over roads their vehicles use.  In other words, CapMetro can’t dictate what happens to acquire needed right-of-way.  These roads either belong to the city, county or state.

Why rightofwayWithout it, buses simply line up in the same slog cars get bogged down in.  Okay, what about light rail?  Well, in most cases, you would probably convert vehicle lanes to rail lanes.  You would likely also build boarding platforms in the middle of roadways.  Again, right of way problems.

For a transformative transit system to be successfully instituted, you will need leaders of differing governmental entities heavily involved, making serious decisions – and, in some cases, probably angering some of their constituents.  Complicated?  Oh, yeah.

And cost?  No estimate yet.  But local leaders like to look to Seattle and other similar cities for examples.  Seattle committed several billion dollars to convert a major downtown artery entirely to bus serviceIt runs as many as 200 buses an hour on the roadway.  It worked.  Seattle has seen a major reduction in car use.  But, at what price in dollars and to auto mobility?

What can you expect?  First of all, this is – as we said – ambitious planning and it is very, very long-term.  CapMetro will likely take the first public step within a few weeks to begin a more extensive planning and coordination effort.  The implications are huge.  Stay tuned. Read more →

September 14, 2018

Volume 40, Number 24

The Texas economy especially as it impacts the Austin area is so strong it has triggered an action not taken in 30 years.  State government, so important in Austin, is benefitting significantly from what is happening throughout the state not to mention the impact of the redhot Austin economy.  All this is due to betterthanexpected economic and revenue growth around Texas.

We’ve long maintained the Austin area is uniquely positioned economically.  Steady government paychecks provide a solid underpinning for the area.  In general, these jobs are not subject to ups-and-downs or twists-and-turns of the private sector.  So, add to this, the Silicon Hills of Austin is right now riding the crest of tech-driven private sector job growth, that is the envy of the rest of the nation.

Consider this:  the skyrocketing Austin private sector tech economy is set to get a rocketboost from normallystaid state government.  What?  How’s this?  The Texas Legislature that sets budget parameters for the many state agencies in Austin doesn’t even meet for almost four months.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, by law, is the state official who decides money guidelines the legislature must follow.  He says to legislators “this is how much money you will have to spend during the next two years of the biennium and you cant spend any more than that.”  Last October, he issued his forecast for fiscal year 2019.

For the first time other than a legislative session in 30 years, the State Comptroller has increased his certified revenue estimate he made last October.  And it was a big increase.  Remember, the Texas Legislature meets only once every two years for 140 days.  So its a big deal for setting a twoyear budget.

His reason for saying state agencies will have more money to spend starting in 2019 than earlier predicted are several fold:  sales tax revenue is up 10.5% over FY 2017 … oil/gas natural gas production tax revenue is up 56.1% … general revenue-related revenue, up 9.3%, etc.

The legislature will have more money to dole out.  If state agencies get bigger bucks, it will mean bigger paychecks circulating through the Austin economy.  A nice future boost. Read more →

August 31, 2018

Volume 40, Number 22

Dear [MM_Member_Data name=’firstName’],

The National Science Foundation announced this week that UTAustin will receive a $60 million grant to build one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.  And, it will be the fastest of any university in the nation.  This moves UTAustin to the very top in the field.  And while vastly important for academic disciplines at UTAustin, the recognition also reinforces Austins overall tech economySo, how did UTAustin reach this pinnacle?  It got a rocket boost 35 years ago when it did something it had never done before, nor since.

First a little background:  In 1983, Microelectronics and Computer Technology Company (MCC) was a brand-new consortium composed of 15 of the US’s top tech companies (it later grew to 21).  MCC’s task was to counter Japanese dominance in the tech field, which was supported/funded by its government.  In other words, Japanese companies were beating the butts off US companies that didn’t have that level of R&D financial backing.

With a wink and a nod to US anti-trust rules (later validated by Congress), these companies ponied up big bucks and committed to offering their best and brightest minds to work together for far-sighted tech research.  Then the companies took the research results and competed in their own way in the world marketplace.  MCC’s site location was a prize sought by 57 cities in 27 states.

Bear with us.  We’re getting to UTAustin’s unprecedented role.  But, first you need to know Austin, Dallas and San Antonio were all part of the initial 57 cities.  Following a presentation led by Texas Governor Mark White and UTAustin Engineering Dean Ben Streetman, Austin became one of the four finalists along with San Diego, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham.

Governor White tapped his chief of staff, Pike Powers, to corral the full force of state and Austin resources to successfully lure MCC to Austin.  The governor said “Don’t leave anything to chance, Pike.”  So, a team of mostly volunteers collaborated to prepare a precedent-breaking proposal that involved UTAustin.

Keep in mind, at the time, the university already enjoyed a solid reputation in computer science and electrical engineering.  But, in 1983 it decided to make a quantum leap, and invest heavily and uniquely (with the help of benefactors) to support the bid to attract MCC to Austin.  UTAustins commitment raised Austins proposal above all others.  Check the next item for how UTAustin helped itself, while it helped the city and the state. Read more →

August 17, 2018

Volume 40, Number 20

Mexico is the most important international trading partner for Texas by far.  Austin also benefitsRelations recently have been a bit dicey, especially with the NAFTA trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US under review.  “Review is a soft word.  Soon NAFTA that went into effect in 1994 may no longer resemble its former self.  With a newlyelected president of Mexico starting a 6year term December 1, 2018, lets examine what may happen.

This is not the stuff of everyday headlines.  In fact, many find a discussion of international trade pretty boring.  But this is very important for the future growth of the Austin area and the Texas state economy.  Take Texas first.  Texas has been the nations top exporting state for 14 years in a rowAnd Mexico, by far, is the top country for Texas exports — $97 billion to 2nd place Canada’s around $30 billion in 2017.  All other nations are back in the pack.

Austin takes a big chunk of this dynamic export business.  In fact, the AustinRound Rock area is the 26th largest exporter region in all of the US.  And it is growing.  Exports grew 30% over a 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.  The metro area exports approximately $10 billion in goods and services a year.  More than 2,000 businesses in the Austin metro exported $540 million worth of merchandise to Mexico in 2016.

So what could impact this significant hunk of our economy?  First of all, President Donald Trump has long maintained the US gets the short end of the stick in NAFTA saying the trade agreement favors Mexico and Canada.  He even called for abolition of NAFTA (which stands for North American Free Trade Agreement).

Now Trump is playing Mexico against Canada, saying the US might end up with two agreements, a different one for each nation.  Hes saying negotiations with Mexico started again July 26th and are coming along nicely.” But talks with Canada are on hold.  Trump is even praising Mexico’s left-leaning president.

So, what is likely to happen?  Former USAmbassador to Mexico Tony Garza (who lives and works in Austin and Mexico City) said the new Mexican president has his own man sitting in on current negotiations.  “The new administrations embrace of the talks has sparked renewed optimism for a quick finish, with some negotiators even pointing to completion by the end of August,” said Garza.  Stay tuned. Read more →

July 20, 2018

Volume 40, Number 16

The UTSystem should be nearing the end of its search to replace retired Chancellor Bill McRaven.  There is no stated deadline and former UTAustin President Larry Faulkner is a very capable interim replacement.  But, the Texas Legislature convenes in Austin in less than six months and a new Chancellor needs time to get uptospeed on critical issues.  One question:  what should the Board of Regents pay to attract a worldclass caliber candidate?  Do the Texas Aggies hold the key to that answer?

No doubt about it, the job of UTSystem Chancellor is a tough one, overseeing as CEO 8 academic institutions (including UTAustin) and 6 health institutions that include 6 medical schools, 2 dental schools and 8 nursing schools, among other professional programs.  Consider this:  The UTSystem confers more than onethird of the states undergraduate degrees and educates over half of the states healthcare professionals.  This is a major responsibility.  And, ancillary to this, the newly-named Chancellor will become an influential citizen of Austin.

So, what should the Regent’s search committee pay to get someone of that caliber?  Start off thinking of an amount north of a million dollars a year.  The Chronicle of Higher Education released a 2016-2917 national salary survey this week.  TexasA&MSystem Chancellor John Sharps salary was among the nations highest at $1.29 million for acting as CEO of 11 institutions.

Even the president of the single campus TexasA&MUniversity in College Station, Michael Young, pulls down a $1 million annual salary.  By the way, UTAustin president Greg Fenves turned down a million dollar salary offer when he was hired in 2015 and now makes $762,220.

The precedent has already been set.  When he retired as UTSystem Chancellor earlier this year, McRaven earned just more than $1.5 million in combined base pay, bonuses and other financial perks during the 2017 fiscal year.

The Board of Regents will hire the new Chancellor at whatever salary it takes to attract its chosen candidate.  The search committee is headed by current Regents Chair and Vice Chair Sara Martinez Tucker and Jeffrey Hildebrand.  They are joined by two former chairs, Don Evans and James Huffines and a former vice chair, Paul Foster. Read more →

July 13, 2018

Volume 40, Number 15

Its difficult to keep tabs on the many organizations, boards and commissions that are actively working, one way or another, to determine what Austin is and will be in the future.  But two relatively new groups, composed of some of this citys most notable heavyweights, deserve your attention.  They could have a huge impact on one of the Austin areas most promising future economic underpinnings healthcare research and startups.

It’s understandable they are not all that well-known yet.  Let’s look at the first one, created last year.  And it is growing as we speak.  Its a non-profit organization Capital City Innovation (CCI).  Its purpose is to help coordinate the creation of a healthcare innovation district associated with UTAustin’s Dell Medical School (DellMed).  The makeup of CCIs Board of Trustees is what gives CCI its weight and significance.  Consider these influential board members:

Clay Johnston, dean of DellMed … Greg Hartman, president/Academic and External Affairs, Seton Healthcare Network/Ascension Texas … Kerry Hall, Austin Region president of Texas Capital Bank and former chair of the Austin Chamber’s economic development entity, Opportunity Austin … Stephanie McDonald, chief of staff at Central Health … Dewitt Peart, president/CEO, Downtown Austin Alliance.  Ex officio members are Austin mayor Steve Adler and Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The second organization is also a non-profit, created this year to speed-up revenue generation for expansion of ambitious healthcare development plans related to DellMed.  Commercial real estate powerhouse Sandy Gottesman formed 2033 LP, a limited partnership that will generate millions of dollars for Central Health, the local public agency that connects Travis County low income residents to quality health care.

Gottesmans 2033 LP will serve as UTAustins development partner in the redevelopment of the multi-acre campus area to support DellMed’s clinical and research operations.  (Gottesman, by the way, after graduation from UTAustin, cut his civic/business teeth as young aide to Austin civic titan Lowell Lebermann, before becoming super successful in Austin’s commercial real estate scene.)

Check the next item for a discussion of the problems that led to this unusual move this week. Read more →

June 15, 2018

Volume 40, Number 11

All you have to do is check the skyline to know that downtown Austin is undergoing amazing change.  But, theres more to this change than skyscrapers.  The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) points out that within the last few years investments have also been made in parks and green spaces, a new Central Library, a flood diversion tunnel, roadways and transit planning, and a stateoftheart teaching hospital.  But, what does DAA envision for the future?

DAA took a long-term view toward downtown’s future.  Long-term?  Yeah, they referenced 2039, when Austin will be 200 years old.  DAA went through an extensive process to arrive at a vision.  “We engaged 3,000 people in 75 ZIP codes, using surveys, focus groups, interviews and events to learn their aspirations for downtown,” said Mike Kennedy, Chair of the Downtown Austin Vision Steering Committee.

“The Downtown Austin Vision is the north star to guide the future of downtown toward the communitys values and aspirations for a thriving, welcoming, vibrant and connected downtown,” reads the vision report.  It also calls it “the downtown you will always love.”

Lofty words.  And its priorities seem to cover all the bases, under four headings:  Thriving CenterWelcoming PlacesGrowing Neighborhoods … and Leading Mobility.  All worthy subjects.  But referenced in general terms, with few specifics.

There is some precise language, without detail.  Such as:  “provide a variety of options for people to get to and from downtown, including a robust transit network in central Austin.”  See what we mean.  No mention of what this would look like.  Or “create extremely viable and walkable streets.”

Other phrases:  improve the experience and availability of parking in downtown while planning smartly for the future position downtown for a successful retail futurebroadly address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the associated impactsmake downtown a familyfriendly place to live and visit.

To be fair, this “vision” is not intended to be a blueprint for construction.  All bases seem to be touched.  But, the devil is in the details.  And the details will be debated ad nauseum.  Stay tuned. Read more →