Tag: Texas

Housing the Working Class in Austin

minimum wage increase labor business workers defense poverty homeless city government

  BY DYLAN BADDOUR

Record high demand for homes, rapid redevelopment and soaring property tax rates put housing farther and farther out of reach for tens of thousands in Austin.

 

Amidst booming development, a host of government and community organizations push back against market forces to maintain a healthy city.

 

“Market failure is when the private sector doesn’t address a public need and this is a classic example. Without public funding incentivizing developers to build affordable housing they wouldn’t do it because they could make a lot more money building private sector market rate housing,” said Sean Garretson, economic developer and chair of the Chestnut Neighborhood Revitalization Corporation.

  As a record housing market in Austin encourages developers to buy and redevelop older homes and apartments into high class, high dollar units, the cost to live in Austin has risen while service sector wages have stayed relatively flat. Now the working incomes of over 30 percent of the city can’t afford them adequate housing selection, and even as the economy booms downtown almost 20 percent of the city lives in poverty.

Austin Texas housing economy city real estate affordable housing minimum wage salary   In response, government and community organizations in the city spend tens of millions of public dollars each year to subsidize housing costs for Austinites working in retail, food service, hospitality, and maintenance.

  “The free market can’t always create things because of the risk-reward value in those things so government entities or non-profits try to bridge those gaps between what the free market can provide and what’s really needed in the market place,” said David Danenfelzer, manager of development finance at the Texas State Affordable Housing Corporation, and entity created by the Texas Legislature to ensure housing for low income earners.

  Home affordability has decreased steadily in Austin. In 1998 42 percent of homes were affordable to families earning 80 percent of the area’s median family income (MFI), but the portion fell to 28 percent by 2008, when 55 percent of families earned under 80 percent MFI. In 2014, 27 percent of city renters make under $20,000 but just 4% of rentals on the market are affordable, leaving 37,600 households no choice but to taking housing beyond what they can afford, leave the city or rely on publicly subsidized housing.

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New housing supply is increasingly geared towards a high-income market coming to Austin with jobs in the tech industry.

  “The situation’s become more dire. As we see Austin becoming more of a destination city it’s a very hot market, the affordability needs have increased and the affordability gap has increased,” said Rebecca Giello, assistant director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development division of the City of Austin.

  The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing cost affordable at 30 percent or less of a renter of buyer’s income.

  To offset market forces that would push necessary wage-workers from the city, organizations like the TSAHC and NHCD offer incentives like low-interest loans and grants for developers to build more modest units that could be rented or bought with a lower income. The NHCD used city bonds to subsidize affordable housing development by for-profit and non-profit developers against the city.

  In 2006 Austin voters approved the city to issue $55 million in debt, a bond, in order to collect investor money for affordable housing, and over 2,500 units available to lower income brackets have since been built across the city. The “Comprehensive Market Study” commissioned by the City of Austin and released by BBC Research and Consulting in 2009 predicted that “to only modestly lower the current low income rental gap and meet growing housing needs, as many as 16,500 units [priced at $425 and less] should be constructed” by 2020. In 2009 the average rent in Austin was $843 and it has since increased.

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More opulent development raises tax rates in a neighborhood forcing old, lower-income residents to leave.

  It costs between $81,680 and $187,800 to make an urban home affordable to earners making 80 percent the city’s media income, $59,433 according to a 2010 report, “Building and Retaining an Affordable Austin,” created by local groups including the Urban Land Institute, HousingWorks, Real East Council of Austin, and the Austin Area Research Organization. According to Garretson, developers build units that go for the highest price possible because price tags on construction vary little between homes intended for high or low-income people. The per-unit costs of purchasing property, linking to city utilizes and building are almost the same regardless of the class of home being built. The biggest differences come in finishing stages – installing appliances, flooring and interior fixtures.

“Austin is a bit behind the times in offering that wide diversity of housing types throughout Austin that allows individuals of all income levels to have housing choice throughout the community,” said Giello with NHCD.

  Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless and National Chairman of the Committee for a Universal Living Wage, said that taxpayer-subsidized affordable housing has become a crutch for corporations wanting to pay workers less. Even though the minimum wage can’t fund reliable housing, he said, companies like WalMart and McDonalds can pay sub-living wages because the public sector accounts for the rest with subsidies and bonds.

  “We are a capitalistic society. We buy things and we sell things. Anybody who’s selling something tries to cut corners and amplify their profit but sometimes there’s overreach, and that has extended from the business community out into areas where it’s totally inappropriate,” said Troxell.

  Without government offsetting standard housing costs, he said, many companies would have no choice but to raise wages or lose their workforces entirely. In April the Austin City Council directed its lobbyists to advocate a minimum wage increase at the next session of the Texas Legislature in January. Opponents of raising the minimum wage say it will hurt employers, kills jobs, and ultimately harm the economy. According to the City Council, 19.4 percent of current Austin residents, about 170,000 people, lived at or below the poverty line in 2012. The 2014 federal poverty line was an annual income of $11,670 for one person or $23,850 for a family of four.

Older, cheaper properties are quickly being bought and demolished, replaced with expensive housing unavailable to most Austinites.

Older, cheaper properties are quickly being bought and demolished, replaced with expensive housing unavailable to most Austinites.

  In 2010 the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities determined that a family of four without employer insurance needed a yearly come of $56,000 to live in Austin – about $27 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. In 2014 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said a living wage for a single adult with a child in Austin was $19.56, or $8.60 for a single adult alone. The 2009 Comprehensive Housing Market Study determined that 55 percent of Austin households earned under $56,000 a year in 2007.

  In addition to issuing public bonds, TSAHC works with banks and other institutions to fund lower cost housing. Banks loan to TSAHC at a fraction of market interest rates, and the corporation loans that money to developers at a slightly higher but still less than market rate cost.

  “The bank is able to make a philanthropic investment, we’re able to supply a product to our partners and a developer is getting money for a lot less than they would get it on their own,” said Janie Taylor, manager of development and communications at TSAHC.

  Banks also invest in housing subsidies to stabilize the market and reduce foreclosures said Danenfelzer. Without the subsidies, working-class families could be forced to buy housing beyond their ability to afford, setting the stage for a market crash like in 2008 when a rapid influx of foreclosures toppled the housing market and left banks in possession of thousands of homes worth a fraction of what they had loaned buyers to purchase them.

By Dylan Baddour, reporter, dylan.baddour@yahoo.com








Preeminent Country Weirdos

By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg

It’s 2:00 on a Wednesday. Hank Card, Conrad Deisler and Bruce Jones sit in a small, corner room of Jones’ house in South Austin tuning guitars and chatting about the fancy coffee machine in the kitchen. The walls are lined with old records, performance posters, and even an African fishing spear that was given to Jones years before. He turns off the Duke Ellington that has been flowing through the speakers and the men look at each other.

“What first?”

This room, in this house, is an artistic haven. And it is a rehearsal space for the Austin Lounge Lizards.

With their folk-style music, with heavy bluegrass and country influences, the Austin Lounge Lizards have been crooning hits for the politically aware for over thirty years. They have won an impressive five Austin Music Awards, been featured in the Michael Moore film Sicko and even been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The Lizards were born by happenstance when Card and Deisler, both history majors, met at Princeton in 1976.

“We were hanging around with [Hank’s] old girlfriend from Oklahoma City one night and we wrote a song and decided to record it, and I discovered that Hank sang really well, and had a good instinct for harmony singing,” Deisler said.

Conrad Deisler is one of the founders of the Austin Lounge Lizards and plays the guitar and mandolin.

Conrad Deisler is one of the founders of the Austin Lounge Lizards and plays the guitar and mandolin.

The pair, both heavily influenced by George Jones and Frank Zappa, began songwriting and eventually played a few gigs at the university.

“We had a sort of, progressive country they called it, band at the time. We played Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie [Nelson], that kind of stuff,” Card said.

Upon graduation, they headed their separate ways. Eventually though, they would meet up again in Austin in 1980.

“We both moved back here and just started playing on the front porch,” Card said. “Then we met Tom Pittman through a friend and just started playing for pitchers of beer on the drag.”

Initially, the trio performed primarily covers while developing the more humorous, political content they are now known for. Among their song list are gems entitled “Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs,” “Shallow End of the Gene Pool,” and “Gingrich the Newt.”

“We were playing about a quarter of our own songs, and about that many were funny,” Card said. “We were doing a lot of cover songs, but we found that people enjoyed our funny stuff better so we just kind of gravitated toward that and started writing more.”

Their original material was a hit.

“In 1984 a friend of our suggested we make an album which was weird to us because we were like, ‘Why? We play bars,’” Card said. “But he was right and it was a good album and then in 1985 we got a call from some people in California who had heard it and wanted us to come out there and play. So then it was like ‘Oh, maybe now we’re a real band.’”

Darcie Deaville joined the band around 2007 and plays the fiddle and the mandolin.

Darcie Deaville joined the band around 2007 and plays the fiddle and the mandolin.

About thirty minutes into the rehearsal, a woman walks through the front door and makes herself comfortable in her spot in the tiny practice room. She’s Darcie Deaville, the token female in the ensemble who plays fiddle, mandolin, and provides her voice for vocals.

Up until original Lizard Tom Pittman retired in 2011, the band was a five-piece harmony. While Card, Deisler and Pittman remained constants, the other two positions in the ensemble had various musicians step up to complete the group, which Boston Globe once dubbed “America’s pre-eminent Country Weirdos.” After Pittman’s retirement, the Lizards decided that he wouldn’t be replaced on the banjo, and have continued instead as a four-piece harmony.

“We’ve had something like 19 different members,” Card said.  “We’ve run through a lot of bass players and mandolin fiddle players.”

 

Bruce Jones, the bass player, began playing for the Lizards five years ago.

Bruce Jones, the bass player, began playing for the Lizards five years ago.

Deaville and Jones are the newest members, but you couldn’t tell when watching the band perform. During rehearsal, the group performs songs from a variety of their 10 albums (“but one’s an EP”), without a hitch.

In addition to their obvious musical abilities, all of the members of the band are accomplished songwriters. Bruce Jones, the bass player, even won first place in the 2008 “Singer-Songwriter” category of the ASG song contest for his tune “I Miss You.” But Card is the main songwriter for the Lizards, “unless you don’t like their songs, in which case he is not.”

And some people don’t. In the audio clip below, Deisler and Card discuss one of their most memorable interactions with a fan who reacted to one of their songs in a unique manner:

While all the Lizards’ songs are now humorous, and many are politically motivated, Deisler says that the band’s songs most often are born of creative spurts in “lyrical moments.”

“Sometimes when we’re touring around and Hank and I are sharing a rental car, we’ll be listening to those satellite country stations and they’ll be playing one of those old songs, some of which are too corny to abide and that will give us an idea,” Deisler said. “The world is a big playroom.”

The Austin Lounge Lizards have been in business for 34 years, since 1980.

The Austin Lounge Lizards have been in business for 34 years, since 1980.

In addition to personal pieces, the Lizards’ unique style of songwriting has attracted the attention of more than just bar-dwelling fans and festival attendees; it has won over consumer advocacy groups.

In the early 2000s, the Lizards were commissioned by the Consumer’s Union, to write three songs for the socially conscious. The Consumer’s Union would give the band a topic, and they would all work together to write a song.

“The first one we did was ‘The Drugs I Need’ and it was an aid the Consumer’s Union had at the time to try and make the legislation more transparent about the pharmaceutical companies and the money they spent to develop drugs and the prices,” Deisler explained.

Henry Card, who goes by "Hank," is the other remaining founder and lead singer. He plays the rhythm guitar.

Henry Card, who goes by “Hank,” is the other remaining founder and lead singer. He plays the rhythm guitar.

The Consumer’s Union would typically also turn these songs into cartoon videos, which they would spread to further the message of their political purposes.

According to the band’s Facebook page, a national consumer-advocacy group has commissioned another hit from the Lizards aimed at car manufacturer’s reckless retail habits.

“Origi-lizards Hank Card and Conrad Deisler are already in the final stages of fine-tuning the song, which urges the automotive industry to “Turn It Over Again” – referring to a new leaf, as well as one company’s recent high-profile ignition-switch issues,” details the page.

But getting this song out to the band’s many fans may prove to be more difficult.

Now, in a time where aspiring artists are seemingly forced to resort to reality competitions or YouTube videos to attempt to have their voices heard, Card said that getting records played on the radio, even local niche stations, is shockingly more difficult than when the band first began in the early 1980s.

“There used to be more independent radio stations, now it’s so corporate that it’s hard,” Card said. “If you can break into the corporate playlist that’s great, but if not it’s very difficult.”

Card credits local deejays like Larry Monroe, a former beloved KUT and KDRP deejay who died earlier this year, with the band’s ability to make it to the air waves at all.

“The best way for us is if there is an individual DJ that still plays you on whatever radio station. Instead of sending it to the station, send it to that DJ and he’ll play it,” Card said. “Sometimes we’ll send it to the station and they never see it, but if you can target someone like Larry Monroe you have a chance.”

While the band may not have as much support from local deejays, they maintain the adoration of fans nationwide and in Canada. They just returned from a four-stop tour in California.

“It seems like the strongest turnout has been in Northern California for a long time,” Deisler said. “We’ve done really well in Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Davis, Sacramento, Reno, etc. So we’ll keep going there.”

Card said that he hopes fans of the Lizards continue to be amused and uplifted by the music he helps create.

“We had one guy come up to us who had been in a chronic depression for five years. And he came up to us and said ‘This was the first time I’ve laughed in five years’ and that was really nice to hear,” Card said. “I want [our fans] to come out feeling better than they came in.”

Some members are nearing their 60s, but it is clear in the record-lined rehearsal room that the Austin Lounge Lizards are here to stay. They still tour, play local gigs, and even sometimes will treat the lawyer friends from Card’s day job to a performance.

Card and Deisler are even working on new songs.

“As far as I’m concerned, retirement would just be going around to festivals and playing music,” Deisler explains. “So you can’t really retire from this.”

 

The Omelettry says goodbye to Burnet Road after 36 years

By Chris Caraveo and Taylor Prewitt

Flipping omelets under the same roof for 36 years never got old for Kenny Carpenter. Come this fall, he and his crew will have to whip up eggs somewhere else.

The Omelettry, a breakfast restaurant located at the tri-street intersection of Burnet Road, Woodward Avenue and 49th Street, will likely close its current venue in October and move to a new location two miles away on Airport Boulevard near In-n-Out Burger. Its lease expires in 2015 but Kenny Carpenter, The Omelettry’s owner, wants to get a head start at the new spot.

However, Carpenter is not ready to bid the current location adieu. His son Jesse basically grew up there. When Jesse was small his mother set up a crib in the office and read to him. Carpenter’s daughter, now a doctor in Galveston, also worked there. Jesse has since become a co-owner with his father.

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Kenny Carpenter may not have made the memories he did without advice from friends when he first though of opening a restaurant.

Prior to opening The Omelettry he had spent six months in Santa Barbara, California cooking omelettes. When he came back to Austin something was missing.

“There’s no place like that in Austin,” he said.

 

The only breakfast places were Denny’s, IHOP and a little venue called Flapjack Canyon.

He originally wanted to start up in Denton, but his girlfriend—and now wife—was headed to school at the University of Texas in Austin. His friends recommended that he go to Austin too.

“They told me if you open a restaurant and you’re going to be anchored someplace for a long time, it ought to be somewhere you like,” Carpenter said. “I said ‘yeah I like Austin.’”

So he settled on the Texas capital and found the Omelettry’s location on a whim.

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One day in 1978 he drove down Burnet Road and came across the building he now calls his second home. He saw a “For Rent” sign on the window. He approached the place and looked inside.

“Cool man! It’s got dishes and equipment and everything!”

Satisfied with the property he called the landlord and rented it.

That same year The Omelettry opened, serving traditional omelettes like the Vegetarian or

Mushroom. Since then, Popeye’s Favorite, a mixture of fresh spinach, crisp bacon and sautéed onions inside a cheese omelette, has become popular among customers.

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Hot food has always been the priority at The Omelettry. Waiters team up at every table.

“We don’t have sections,” Carpenter said. “If someone needs their order taken one of our waiters runs over and takes it.”

Tips eventually even out among workers despite sharing customers.

Carpenter started some of his own competition. A year after opening he bought out the owner of the old Jolly J restaurant on Lake Austin Boulevard for $10,000. He found partners in Kent Cole and Patricia Atkinson–who were married at the time–at that location. They renamed the place Omelettry West.  One year later, however, the couple divorced and the Atkinson opened Kerbey Lane.

“But I stayed partners with her ex-husband for six or seven years and finally I got tired of having a partner,” Carpenter said. “He bought me out and changed the name to Magnolia Café. So I ended up creating a lot of my own competition.”

Spending 36 years in one city, Carpenter has seen the change in Austin. Back then there was a lot to do in Austin. But at the same time it was very simple, laid-back and affordable, unlike today.

“That’s what I miss, the simplicity,” he said.

Carpenter has tried buying the building for 25 years. But the owner refused to sell it.

Now, development along Burnet Road has caused property values to double in the last three years at an amount Carpenter cannot afford to purchase the place. After the owner passed away five years ago, his daughter took ownership and is ready to cash in on developers who can purchase the lot.

“It’ll sit here and probably get covered with graffiti until it gets bought and demolished.”

Carpenter has repaired electrical and plumbing issues nearly every week. Seeing this place torn down will not be easy for him.

The new location will give The Omelettry a more diner-like look with curved, glass windows.  But Carpenter wants to maintain its funkiness.

“And that’s the trick,” he said. “How do you keep it really simple and have that funky stuff in a newer building.”

They will bring the same equipment they have right now in order to keep it that way. Some of the pictures plastered on the walls will go up in the new building, especially family photos and the Omelettry’s early days.

The Carpenters, their staff and customers will soon say goodbye to The Omelettry’s 36-year-old home.

Regulars who reside near the current restaurant won’t have the luxury of proximity.

“We have to get the cars out. We got to ride our bikes. We used to walk there.”

Those who live around the new location will finally get the breakfast diner that has been absent in their area.

“Cool, you’re moving closer to us!”

Despite the move, Carpenter has no doubts The Omelettry will continue to thrive.

“We’re feeling pretty confident that most of our customers will come over there.”

Austin Gets Exotic with Local Pet Store

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

A chameleon hangs from a stick in its tank at ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in North Austin.

By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg

“There’s something magical about a pet shop.”

Daniel Keeper sits in his office, walls lined with artifacts and oddities like dinosaur eggs, metal antlers, and a plastic monkey head that starts screeching as it senses the wave of his hand. Outside his office door a fluffy black chicken runs around his store, ZooKeeper Exotic Pets, clucking as children laugh. One couple looks adoringly at their Swoop, their five-week old yellow bird, and another girl smiles as her pet chameleon climbs up her arm and attaches itself to her sweater. Most pet stores are magical, but this one is more. It’s exotic.

Daniel Keeper opened ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in 1988, the first exclusively exotic store in the state. The current location, his fourth, is located on the corner of U.S. 183 and Burnet Road in North Austin.

At the store, Keeper and his staff care for and sell many different types of exotic animals including snakes, tropical frogs, scorpions, hedgehogs, bearded-dragon lizards, a bird-eating spider and Sophia, a two-toed sloth who hangs out in an enclosure near the door.

Even though his passion for animals was always present, Keeper didn’t begin his professional life in the pet business at all.

“I grew up and became interested in other things as well and tried to make a vocation of conventional things, so I ended up as a service manager at a rental car company in Austin,” Keeper said. “But after ten years of employment I realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and I started thinking ‘I wonder if I can make a go of my interests.’”

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

ZooKeeper owner Daniel Keeper in in his office.

So he looked around Austin and realized there was only one pet store that carried exotics, and only in a small closet in the back of the store, Keeper decided to “make an entire store of that closet” and open his own store for $80 a month in rent.

Originally, Keeper maintained his conventional job from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and operated his store from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but decided after a few years to go all in.

“My wife was so scared because we had a mortgage and a kid, but I told her it’s kind of like going off the high board for the first time,” he said. “Once you’re up there you just hold your breath and go. You do the best research you can do, you just go and put your head down and start working and don’t look back up until you’re sure it’s safe again. And that’s what I did.”

Keeper describes his store as primarily service oriented and hires only staff members who he thinks will get along with others and contribute to the store’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere.

“The average person that comes in here is happy to be here. They’re excited,” he said. “It’s not like going to the dentist; there are fun things in here. So when someone comes in its easy to strike up a conversation with them, because you have something in common.”

With such unfamiliar animals housed within its walls, ZooKeeper staff attracts a wide variety of customers and seeks to educate them while providing a fun experience, especially the children.

“Sometimes we’ll take them to the back where we are feeding the baby animals or take them to the incubators and show them that,” Keeper said. “If you’re a parent there is nothing better than walking into a place and having somebody treat your kid like they are a little person. I remember being a kid and people didn’t treat me as a human. So I try to get down on their level, and some of them are really smart, it’s just amazing to them.”

While Keeper says he enjoys educating all customers about the creatures in his store, owning an exotic pet can be a tough task.

“I’m good about helping people look into the future and get past just being excited about the animals they’re interested in and trying to show them the high points and the low points,” Keeper said. “We want them to be successful, and we want it to be a good fit for both [the animal and the owner]. We always try to show them the ups and the downs of everything.”

For some animals require exotic diets, nontraditional living quarters, or expensive regimens, Keeper said he has had to intervene in the sale of the animal.

“There’s a fine line in the pet industry about making decisions for people. When I was up and coming consumer in the pet store, I didn’t want somebody telling me I wasn’t fit for an animal. I didn’t want someone making that decision for me,” he said. “Now that I’m on this side of the counter I try to find the right animal for the right person. In a few circumstances I’ll put my foot down and say this is not the right animal for you and I’ll try to make something that’s a better fit.”

As Austin has gained popularity as a host for movies and television shows, Keeper has received callers with strange requests that might not be a good fit for the average consumer.

“We’ll get a call out of the blue saying they need 10,000 roaches or something like that. A lot of the time they’ll also need a wrangler, or someone to manage the animals while on the shoot,” he said.

The store has provided roaches and scorpions to the television show Fear Factor, and had National Geographic photograph their animals for a series on arachnophobia, or “fear of spiders.”

“We just ask that we get some legal promise that our name will get mentioned in the credits,” Keeper said. “Usually that’s what we’d like, some acknowledgement and a little PR for our efforts.”

Last year, ZooKeeper was approached with an offer for its own reality television show highlighting the culture of the store, its customers, and the exotic pet “lifestyle.”

Keeper and his staff met with the prospective producers, who also work with the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. The staff got a contract from New York and shared tales of store pranks and fun times, but ultimately decided against participating.

“A lot of my staff was freaked out about being on camera, and every customer that came in (about 100-200 daily) would be required to sign a legal agreement to be on film,” Keeper explained. “It seemed like a lot of hassle for not much money.”

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Spiders like this one are bred in the store. Some spiders will hatch up to 1,500 eggs at one time, each needing its own separate food and habitat.

Along with just selling animals, the store also has its own breeding program. Keeper began breeding animals before he opened up at his first location. Currently, the store is incubating eggs for a batch of red-bearded dragons and tortoises.

“The breeding just came out of an interest in seeing if I could be successful in it,” Keeper said. “Most of the time when animals feel comfortable enough to breed its because you’ve done a good job making them feel comfortable. If you get something to breed its kind of an assurance that you’ve done something right.”

While most of the pet breeding is just for fun, the store also breeds “food animals,” such as crickets, worms, and mice, to help supplement the store’s income. Breeding these animals in-house allows Keeper to avoid relying on vendors for the mass quantities of these animals sold. On average the store sells 500 to 1,000 mice (many of which are frozen into what employees call “Mice Pops”) and between 20 thousand and 50 thousand crickets weekly.

Whether it’s to buy some of these food animals or to just browse, there are always people poking in and out of ZooKeeper. And they like it that way.

“I think our enthusiasm for what we do is contagious,” Keeper said. “My favorite thing is dealing with kids of all ages–not necessarily just physiological kids– you can just tell when someone has that ‘Wow!’ when you see that whole amazement of having a close-up one on one experience with nature. “

What exotic pet would you want to own?

The Stars at Night

The tips of sprawling tree branches are silhouetted against an early evening sky as the sun sets in Dripping Springs, Texas, on March 1.

By Katie Paschall, Matt Reese and Taylor Prewitt

For those who have experienced it, few sights can compare to a true Texas night sky. The vast open space coupled with the twinkle of thousands of stars provide a view that can move the soul, that can give peace of mind and that can inspire awe beyond belief.

For those who haven’t, you are missing out.

This is why the town of Dripping Springs, Texas takes the subject of light conservation so seriously.

“We want people to immediately notice our environment when they visit,” said Mayor Todd Purcell. “The beauty of the Hill Country is not lost on our, people. Yet, it is celebrated and preserved.”

The small town of 1,900 people is located only 25 miles southwest of Austin, but the setting could not be more different. Where Austin has tall skyscrapers, Dripping Springs biggest building is the HEB.

In the city, lights are on 24/7. In Dripping Springs, most lights are required to shut off by 2 a.m. And where the Austin sky is clouded with light pollution, the Dripping Springs sky is as clear as the spring water from which the town is named.

Because of this, in February, the International Dark Sky Association named Dripping Springs a “Dark Sky Community,” one of only six in the entire world, and the only community in Texas.

“Dripping Springs joins a select club as the world’s sixth Dark Sky Community,” said IDA executive director Bob Parks in the award announcement. “They’ve embraced smart lighting through effective controls that improve visibility, while preserving the night sky.”

The IDA was founded in 1988, in Flagstaff, Ariz. They were the first organization to call attention to the growing amount of light pollution produced by humans. According to their manifesto, the IDA promotes one simple idea, “Light what you need, when you need it.”

“We know some light at night is necessary for safety and recreation,” Parks said. We work with manufacturers, planners, legislators, and citizens to provide energy efficient options that direct the light where you want it to go, not uselessly up into the sky.”

Translucent clouds gently float across the night sky as calm winds roll through Dripping Springs, Texas, on March 1.

Translucent clouds gently float across the night sky as calm winds roll through Dripping Springs, Texas, on March 1.

Their biggest goal, however, is to raise public awareness about light pollution.

“Many people don’t know what light pollution is, let alone its negative effects,” said Cindy Luongo Cassidy, President of Green Earth Lighting. “It’s a shame, really, that more and more cities are succumbing to high pollution levels.”

Light pollution can be defined as the excessive growth of obtrusive artificial light produced by man-made light sources. Most light pollution occurs in urban areas, though, the problem has started to spread to a number of rural areas according to an IDA report in 2012.

There are several types of light pollution, including light trespass, over-illumination, glare, light clutter, and skyglow. Each of these can negatively affect the area where light pollution is present. The loss of the natural night sky, though, is not the only negative consequence of light pollution. The biggest effect pollution has on the environment is energy waste.

That same IDA report showed that each year during daylight savings, Terna — Italy’s biggest energy provider — saves nearly 650 million kWh in electric consumption, due to the lesser need to light the city during sunlight. This equates to roughly $300 million saved in energy bills.

A large Oak tree is softly illuminated as the moon hangs above in the night sky in Dripping Springs, Texas, on March 1.

A large Oak tree is softly illuminated as the moon hangs in the night sky in Dripping Springs, Texas, on March 1.

Recent studies have shown that over-illumination can have a negative effect on human health and psychology. Exposure to excessive light pollution can increase headaches, cause worker fatigue, medically defined stress, increase anxiety, and even decrease sexual function.

In June 2009, the American Medical Association created a policy in an attempt to control light pollution, due to its negative health effects. Humans, though, are not the only affected. When light pollution is destructive of natural ecosystems and animal habitats, it’s called ecological light pollution. Delicate ecosystems from a zooplankton colony of algae to sea turtle hatchings have been destroyed because of artificial light, suggests a 2009 study by the Ecological Society of America.

There have also been studies suggesting anxiety growth in animals who are exposed to over-illumination. As light pollution begins to spread, these negative effects are starting to become a more serious problem.

“We know the problems that light pollution causes,” Cassidy said. “It’s our job to prevent these from growing. To preserve not only the night sky, but our entire environment. Our sights are now set on San Antonio and Austin. Big cities are just as capable of light conservation as the small towns.”

The IDA is currently working with Austin legislators to create city ordinances that prevent light pollution, and promote light conservation.

“The night sky, in its purest form, is one of the most surreal natural wonders of our universe,” Parks said. “It’s up to us as humans to preserve it.”

Cheer Up: Charlie’s Reopens its Doors

Zane Xena performing during the Drag Queen Mortal Combat. Photo by Jessica Duong

Zane Xena performing during the Drag Queen Mortal Combat. Photo by Jessica Duong

Drag queens lip-syncing to Brandy and Monica, live psychedelic music reverberating against a rock wall amphitheater, and a crowd of hundreds of people with a line extending down Red River Street. The grand reopening of Cheer Up Charlie’s was such a success that it’s hard to believe the former location closed only a month prior.

 

By Alexis Chastain, Jessica Duong, Caroline Khoury, and Joan Vinson

Photo by Jessica Duong

Photo by Jessica Duong

Tamara Hoover and Maggie Lea, partners and co-owners of the bar and venue Cheer Up Charlie’s, sat side-by-side on a retro-style olive-green couch in the artsy and colorful space of Cheer Up’s new location on 900 Red River St. The two seemed to be in high spirits after their successful grand reopening event and spoke to us frankly about the closing of their old location on East Sixth Street.

It was near the end of November 2013 when Hoover and Lea received a call from their landlord that the land where their beloved bar stood for more than three years was sold to make way for a hotel development. They were given 30 days to vacate the premises.

Photo by Jessica Duong

Photo by Jessica Duong

“When we first went in to rent the space, we were told by the landlord that they were intending on developing a hotel,” Hoover admitted. “So we went into it knowing that something would happen to the space eventually because the property was too valuable. Something would happen.”

Cheer Up Charlie’s opened into their first brick-and-mortar location back in April 2010 — formerly a vegan raw and cooked food trailer. As the years passed, Hoover and Lea were told by their landlord that the hotel development was proving more difficult than they had originally thought.

“We were getting excited and starting to feel comfortable in our space there,” Hoover said. “We had always been told ‘don’t worry, you’re fine, you’re going to have plenty of time heads up… at least six months you’ll know in advance when we’re going to do something.’”

Of course that wasn’t the case when the La Corsha Hospitality Group, the company responsible for projects such as Bar Congress and the Driskill Hotel restoration, bought the land to make way for a new bar, which will later have a hotel addition after the trailer eatery space nearby also closes.

At the time of their closing, Cheer Up Charlie’s had already gained popularity as an LGBT-friendly spot with an all-inclusive attitude towards anyone who wanted to be a part of the space. The venue also provided a space for artists, musicians, filmmakers, and even literary connoisseurs to gather and share their work. The news of the closing triggered many sad reactions among the community, which didn’t surprise Hoover or Lea, but the overwhelmingly personal responses did.

“There were a lot of people who had identified very much with what we had created,” Lea said. “There were people who were very heartbroken. I saw a lot of people say like ‘oh I woke up this morning and I saw that Cheer Up Charlie’s was closing and now I’m going to have a bad day over it.’”

Kim Thurman and Aaron Smith, tour guides at the state Capitol, frequented the old Cheer Ups location almost on a daily basis and were at the grand reopening by 5 p.m. — well before the festivities began. When asked how they felt about the closing, the two friends burst into laughter and admitted they were extremely devastated by the news.

“We went into mourning the week we knew that they were closing. It was basically like every night lets go [to Cheer Ups],” Smith said. “And we’ve been counting down the time until they reopened.”

While Cheer Up Charlie’s is seen as a popular LGBT spot, Thurman and Smith commented on how it’s more laid back compared to the gay bars on Fourth Street, like Rain or Oilcan Harry’s, which can be “super dance-y” and make the LGBT clientele “the main thing.”

“It’s a mix. When you’re [at Cheer Ups] it never really comes up, you just know it’s around,” Smith said. “It’s comforting.”

Thurman added that in the wake today’s male-centric news coverage of gay rights, Cheer Ups was a place where she commonly saw lesbian couples hanging out and going on dates.

“Cheer Up Charlie’s was the only place that I would ever see girl couples, which I thought was really cool,” said Thurman. “It was always the guys that everybody had a problem with and nobody was paying attention to the fact that there were girls out there who liked girls. And that’s okay!”

Coincidentally, Cheer Up Charlie’s new space was formerly a lesbian bar named Chances that opened in 1982. Julie and Jeane Nielson, twin sisters and former bartenders for Chance’s, were among the bunch that came out to the grand reopening to remember Chance’s and to celebrate Austin’s queer culture.

“Of course I think Cheer Ups is a younger crowd, but I still would see people my age there,” said Julie. “Anybody’s welcome and I think that’s the similarity.”

“It’s like a reborn Chance’s feel almost. Like I can see us back then, here now,” added Jeanne.

Fortunately, the new Cheer Up Charlie’s continues to cultivate the same all-inclusive attitude Hoover and Lea had created in the original location. Similarly to the last location, the new space features murals and artwork from local artists, books local bands to perform, and hosts a number of interesting attractions such as last Friday’s Drag Queen Mortal Combat and the upcoming Girls With Gunz event, an all-female arm wrestling tournament.

“Regardless of sexual preference, or gender identity, I always wanted a place that I could hang out with people that were so diverse and I could learn so much about the world and what I wanted to do,” Hoover said. “That was the intention. Was to no matter who you were, what you were, how you identified, what your preference was sexually, you were going to be okay here and you were going to find somebody who maybe wasn’t maybe like you who you could maybe create a new friendship with.”

The closing of the old Cheer Ups was a shaky experience for Hoover and Lea, but now with a secure lease and a supportive landlord, they can breath a sigh of relief, knowing that their haven is safe for the many years to come. And though the process of finding a new place and preparing the venue for the reopening happened faster than they thought it would, Hoover says that she didn’t feel the space was complete until the eclectic mix of people that made Cheer Up Charlie’s what it is today filled the building.

“We weren’t expecting that many people. It was wonderful,” Hoover said. “This space is nothing without the people, the smiling faces, the diverse crowds, the different factions of our community. It all arrives here and that’s what makes this good, it makes it fun, it makes it important.”

Longhorns Having a Swingin’ Good Time

Behind the Scenes: How The College of Communication Became Moody

By: Caroline Manning, Rachel Marino, Monica Zhang and Rachel Perlmutter

The crowd sings The Eyes of Texas to close the Nov. 7 naming ceremony.
Photo Credit: Monica Zhang

Students, faculty, alumni and other spectators crowded outside the College of Communication Nov. 7, honoring the Moody Foundation for their $50 million donation to the school. The gift will make the now Moody College of Communication the largest endowed communications school in the county.

The Moody Foundation, began by W.L. Moody Jr. in 1942, was created to benefit the success of present and future generations of Texans. Known for their philanthropic work, including funding public higher education around the state, the foundation originally granted UT’s RTF program $2.1 million dollars for curriculum in 3D film production earlier in the year. Dean of the College Communications Roderick Hart decided to build on this initial investment.

“They have historically supported programs that deal with brain injuries, such as hearing and speech communication, so we developed a relationship with them, which ultimately led to the $50 million gift,” said Hart. “We put together a 50 page single space proposal that laid out all of the details of what the money would be for and how would we use it.”

“Extraordinary work is taking place at this college, it was an easy decision to invest in the college and it’s academic programs,” Ross Moody, Moody Foundation trustee and UT graduate, told the attendees of the celebration.

According to Dean Hart, one thing that attracted The Moody Foundation was that most of the money gifted would be used as endowments. 95 percent of the $50 million will be put in the bank as principal. They will later use the interest generated from the principal, making the donation a long-term investment.

“By giving us endowed monies, The Moody’s don’t just believe in us for 2013,” Hart said, “they believe in us for the long haul.”

Video by: Rachel Marino

According to Mike Wilson, Assistant Dean for External Relations in the College of Communication, the gift by in large will be centered around an innovation fund. He believes one of the key issues surrounding the college is the rapid pace of technological change.

“We need to be ahead of the curve and be able to teach things that are relevant to a changing market place in both the industries we serve and the way in which consumers want to receive information,” Wilson said.

The innovation fund is designed to create curriculum, lectures, and programs that are able to keep students prepared for the jobs of the future.

Why Are YOU Moody?

 

“The Moody Foundation believes it’s commitment to this college will inspire students to achieve extraordinary heights in their own careers and to reflect well upon this university,” Ross Moody said. “It is vital for the university to prepare students for the shifting media landscape revolutionary technology and new forms of communication.”

Money from the endowment will also go to the nine centers within the college. According to Dean Wilson, each center will be given a $1 million endowment.
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One of the centers receiving an endowment is the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. The Strauss Institute conducts research on civil engagement and runs outreach programs to middle and high school students.

“Most of our income comes from donations and grants because state is limited and hard to get,” said Regina Lawrence, Director of The Strauss Institute. “The money we will get from the endowment is valuable. We can count on on it year to year and it will help fund our array of educational programming along with the research we do.”

Another center receiving part of the endowment is the Knight Center, an outreach program that helps journalists in Latin America and creates online courses benefiting journalists all over the world.

“Although there is no immediate cash flow, the endowment will grow and we will be able to spend half of that revenue every year,” said Knight Center Director and UT professor Rosental Alves. “It will help our center to become permanent and allow us to receive more donations.”

moodyinfo2

Though most of the money is going towards student and faculty, $10 million dollars of the Moody donation will be allocated to build a sky bridge that will stretch over Dean Keeton Street and connect the Belo Media Center to the CMA building. According to Dean Hart, there is a big safety concern with students crossing Dean Keeton Street. Hart also felt that the two buildings being split across the street made the college as a whole seem split.

“Along with being aesthetically pleasing, the bridge will connect the buildings not only physically, but psychologically as well,” Dean Hart said.

According to many faculty and staff, the best part of the $50 million endowment is the name that comes along with it.

“Being the Moody College of Communications is branding our college with a great name,” Dean Wilson said. “It will join other great Texas names on this campus like McCombs, Jackson, and LBJ.”

Wilson explained that having a well-known name linked with the college gives the school enormous benefits, making it recognized nationally and internationally and attracting new talent and more people to the school.

“We are delighted to give this gift and we are in awe to have the Moody name on this campus,” said Ross Moody. “May the Moody College of Communications teaching and programs continue to inspire a desire for excellence and be a positive influence in all that enter our doors.