AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the tech industry rises to the forefront of job growth and innovation, the traditional Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area has expanded to silicon cities across the country, including in Miami and Austin. On Sunday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez sat down during the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals to talk about becoming some of the leading national tech hubs, and how both cities are working to address the affordability crisis challenging residents in conjunction.
“How do you keep both the cultural spirit but also, how do we keep people from falling out of their houses as extraordinary wealth pours into these towns?” asked Jacob Ward, technology correspondent for NBC News and panel moderator. Ward referenced his experience covering encampments comprising thousands of people living near San Jose’s airport, only a few miles from some of the nation’s highest concentrations of wealth.
For Adler, he said a critical response to Austin’s lack of affordability is concentrating efforts on expanding housing supplies within the city to combat the skyrocketing housing market prices. Consulting with cities in Silicon Valley — particularly San Francisco — that have seen a heightened concentration of people experiencing homelessness, those city leaders’ advice was simple: Don’t try and hide the problem.
“The single best correlator with increased homelessness is increased housing costs,” Adler said, adding: “We made it very visible in our community. We have a community now that’s rallied around trying to invest in the services and in the homes and in the entire operating system.”
Adler referenced the Homeless Strategy Division’s $515 million plan to, over a three-year time period, provide housing for 3,000 people in Austin.
“It gives us the capacity, all the way from emergency sheltering up to permanent supportive housing, so that we can house people at the same rate that they find themselves on the street,” he said. “And then we can take people off the streets, because the longer somebody stays on the streets, the harder it is to get off the street.”
For Suarez, he said the affordability crises plaguing Austin and Miami are not unique to either city, but rather a reflection of national trends. Now, he said, many cities are experiencing a perfect storm of factors: urbanization and heightened housing demand, unprecedented levels of inflation and extensive gentrification.
“Gentrification as a phenomenon was real, is real, and it’s happening,” he said. “Prior to the pandemic, there was sort of an emphasis to urbanization by people who, in my parents’ generation, thought the American dream was moving to the suburbs and having a home and having a yard.”
As a response, Suarez said Miami currently has 47,000 residential units in development, along with more than six million feet’s worth of commercial space in the works. He said city leaders have paired that with an intentionality to create affordable housing via a passed housing bond, in the hopes of creating “housing stock for the workforce.”
Within Austin, Adler added the great challenge is concentrating efforts on attracting not only high figure jobs, but also the middle-skilled jobs that can build up Austin’s middle class while providing comfortable, sustainable wages and a more diversified workforce within the tech industry.
He cited Tesla’s impending Austin plant, and the company’s collaborations with Austin Community College for training tracks, as a key example.
“You take a look at what’s happening with tech, and they’re showing that there are a lot of tech companies coming to Austin having $150,000, $170,000-a-year jobs. And that’s great,” he said. “But that’s not the real need of our city. Our city needs the middle-skilled jobs, the middle-income jobs. And there are tons of those in the tech area that you don’t need a four-year degree for — that you need a certificate or an associate’s degree.”
Suarez added there’s also a need to concentrate on more robust, well-rounded affordable housing, with resources focused on increased quality and factoring in community centers, health facilities and neighboring jobs to create a more equitable and balanced system.
When asked what policies both cities should have retroactively considered 20 years ago and what each mayor suggested for city leaders 20 years in the future, each said the situation is nuanced, given both cities are rapidly expanding and evolving at rests previously unpredicted.
For Suarez, his was a two-pronged approach, emphasizing the need for a focus on climate equity and climate change mitigations as well as expanding mass transportation resources to build up sustainability.
Adler said that, for Austin, it’s difficult to have been able to predict 20 years ago the core policy issues of today, just as it’s nearly impossible to anticipate which issues will rise to the surface 20 years from now. However, he said the critical factor city leaders face is identifying what are the key values and guiding frameworks of the city, and to stick to those when making policy.
“To be really clear and definite about what’s important to a city, what does that city want to be? And for us, I think that’s always been the guiding principle. It’s what’s guided the people that have chosen to come here,” Adler said, adding: “I don’t know what you do other than ground yourself in cultural decisions about who you are and then try to stay true to that.”