After years of few electoral upbraidings, Austin’s elected representatives have absorbed two ballot box blows in the span of four months.
The first came with conservative Mackenzie Kelly’s upset over incumbent Jimmy Flannigan for city council back in December — disrupting the council’s progressive uniformity since 2018.
The second was an over 20,000-vote drubbing Saturday night to reinstate the public camping ban in Texas’ capital city. Proposition B, the ballot initiative, passed with near-60 percent support.
Nearly two years ago, spurred by Mayor Steve Adler and Councilman Greg Casar, the council rescinded its public camping ban. Already with a growing homeless population, recission opened the door for shanty-town encampments to crop up across the city — focused heavily in downtown and other high-traffic areas.
Ever since, the city and its homeless population have felt the consequences. Violent interactions between homeless individuals and the general public increased, some garnering national attention. In the months following the recission, the Austin Police Department reported an increase in violent and property crime involving homeless individuals as perpetrators, victims, or both.
The problem crescendoed last summer when a literal trash flood left neighborhood backyards awash with feces and needles.
As of the latest counts, Austin has the highest unsheltered percentage of its total homeless population among any of the top six most populated cities in Texas.
Out of the gate, the recission was justified by the council as an effort to “decriminalize homelessness.” Homeless individuals couldn’t afford the fines associated with illegal camping, they said, and thus would get caught in the criminal justice system’s revolving door.
But by February 2021, even Mayor Steve Adler began conceding that the city’s policy “wasn’t working.” The mayor stopped well short of endorsing the camping ban reinstatement, and even campaigned against it.
The ballot initiative energized voters on both sides, leading to a massive early voting turnout — nearly doubling the that of the local election in 2016 and far surpassing 2017 and 2018 levels.
When the early vote totals were reported, the vote for Proposition B was up nearly 24,000 votes — a 26 percentage point difference.
In celebration, Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now, the group behind the petition effort, told supporters, “We believed from the very beginning that a strong majority of the residents of this city would be willing to demand that we restore public safety and public health — and that we save our city if we gave them the opportunity.”
“We’re thrilled tonight.”
Once the result became clear, Adler said in a release, “Austin has a real opportunity to lead nationally on homelessness if we band together. I am committed to getting our residents out of tents.”
“I will continue to work with my colleagues and our Summit partners to house 3,000 people in the next three years and accelerate moving people out of encampments and into better, safer places.”
After early voting, Casar told the Statesman, “I’ve found people aren’t exactly as divided as it seems because I think the vast majority of Austinites share one common goal, which is to truly and drastically reduce homelessness in our city.”
“Prop B won’t actually help with that. But after today, we have to come together and house 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in the next three years.”
Governor Greg Abbott, a consistent critic of Austin’s elected representatives, spiked the football on Twitter, stating, “Austin voters sent a clear and stern rebuke to Austin City leaders today by voting in a landslide.”
Results for other notable propositions in Austin include:
- Proposition A, requiring arbitration for the city’s fire fighters if collective bargaining fails: passed 81 percent to 19 percent
- Proposition C, giving city council authority to hire or fire the director of the Office of Police Oversight: passed passed 63 percent to 37 percent
- Proposition D, changing mayoral election date to the November general: passed 66 percent to 34 percent
- Proposition E, establishment of ranked choice voting for city elections: passed 58 percent to 42 percent
- Proposition F, creation of a “strong mayor” system: failed 86 percent to 14 percent
- Proposition G, creation of 11th council district: failed 43 percent to 57 percent
- Proposition H, campaign vouchers voters can use to donate to candidates: failed 43 percent to 57 percent
Since the camping ban ordinance passed, the pre-July 2019 camping prohibition will be reinstated into the city’s charter. Along with it will be a more stringent panhandling regulation. May 11 is the date the ordinance will go back into effect.
Save Austin Now’s victory will not eliminate Austin’s homeless problem, but serves as a clear signal to the city council that citizens found the city’s actions to be a bridge too far — and want public safety to become a more significant part of the city’s equation.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the totals for the other ballot propositions.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.