January 14, 2014 Engage Recap

January 14, 2014 Engage Recap

By Elizabeth McGuire

In the first of our multi-part series about Austin’s growing divide, panelists set the stage for our ongoing discussions about the economic, demographic and cultural challenges facing our city. Panelists included Ora Houston, Austin City Council Member, District 1; Ryan Robinson, City of Austin Demographer; and Dr. Tane Ward, Executive Director of Equilibrio Norte. The conversation was moderated by Robert Hadlock of KXAN, and questions from the audience were fielded by Angie Beavin, also from KXAN.

Christopher Kennedy, CEO of Leadership Austin, opened the morning by framing the conversation. As Austin continues to make headlines about its vibrant growth and many accolades, we must look at data trends and ask ourselves about the trending divides in our community.

Some key takeaways from the morning:

Austin is averaging 150 new residents daily. Is the growth and its resulting consequences unique to Austin?

Ryan Robinson explained that there are divides in every city, but the fundamental question is, Is the divide in Austin growing? Robinson said absolutely yes. But he also believes that there are so many unique divides (economic, political, education, opportunity) that when community leaders engage in civic discourse, they should specify which divide we’re talking about.

Ora Houston believes that comparing our growth issues to other cities (such as Seattle, Denver or Boston) could diminish what we have to work on in our own community. She is encouraged by the increased discussion and said the community needs to talk about these divides “in the light” despite potential personal tensions. By listening to each other we can find some paths that engages all in the destiny of their own community.

Dr. Tane Ward noted that Austin is indeed unique in its growth. It’s the only major city in the U.S. that is growing in double digits that has a declining African-American population. “However, I think that Austin is unique in having the potential to reverse these trends and becoming a leader and more equitable city,” he said. “We’ve made the first steps toward that by getting representative districts on the city council.”

Is gentrification more than a supply and demand issue?

Houston, who has lived in East Austin her whole life, said her neighbors and constituents have reacted to gentrification with a mix of anger and heartbreak. “There’s no sense of place there now. A lot move to Pflugerville, but they don’t have a sense of place there either. They just have better education and they are able to afford the homes.”

She faults our lack of city policies for not having a plan to help homeowners keep their homes once the in-migration began to gather speed. There was much discussion about developing the urban core, but no clarity of the ripple impact that development would have on surrounding neighborhoods. “We could have talked about homestead exemptions 10 to 15 years ago,” she said. “We’re talking about it now, all over town.”

Ward pointed out that there’s a difference between revitalization and gentrification. Revitalization is when there’s development that is put into a community and meant to benefit the existing community. Gentrification is when there are services and development in an area that are specifically meant for an incoming elite that will displace that population. “We have seen recent trends where once an area becomes at least 40 percent white, then amenities start to come in, but not until that point.”

Robinson agreed there are huge negatives to gentrification and that the two groups who suffer most are fixed-income seniors and low-income renters. “But you have to realistically look at cities as organic, evolving creatures. And I’d rather put up with the headaches and challenges that come with gentrification than with blight.”

Do exclusive policies and behaviors exist that have become so institutionalized we aren’t even aware of them?

Most systems have these in place, said Houston, whether they are businesses or nonprofits. She suggested that employers and leaders look at their systems through an anti-oppression lens to see how their policies affect the people who don’t look like them. “Too often we draft things base on our understanding, our history, our experiences and they have absolutely nothing to do with the people who will be impacted.”

Unending development in the city seems to be something people are taking for granted, says Ward. But that’s unsustainable, he explained. “We live, like everyone else in the world, in an ecosystem that has certain limitations, including limited amount of resources to our water and aquifer. If we get 150 more people a day sucking water out of that aquifer, and we’re covering more area that would fill the aquifer…that’s completely unsustainable. It’s something that people are not going to notice until we reach a crucial point and then we are going to start to see people leaving the city.”

How and why is economic and racial diversity important to the health of a community?

Remembering that cities are organic creatures, Robinson said, think of a healthy city as a rainforest, which is the quintessential example of biodiversity and that equates to sustainability. “To me, sustainability, richness, and economic vibrancy all work together,” he said. “When you look at the set of American cities that are growing, they are diversifying. The cities that aren’t diversifying are dying on the vine.”

Robinson also explained that population growth is the lifeblood of a city, not the enemy. “I would love to be in complete control of the magnitude of the growth,” he said. “We have to figure out how to grow at 1.5 to 2.5 percent. When you grow at 4 percent that’s the origin of the problem. I don’t think the answer is to shut that spigot off.”

Regarding economic diversity, Ward noted that somebody has to make the hotel beds and take out the trash. “Where are these people going to live in this city if all the housing that’s being put into the central city is only for elite people and costs a certain amount of money?” he asked. “It’s like that rainforest metaphor…it needs to have all the working parts, and right now people are so willing to make money off building elite condo residences that they are not building any place to live for the people who will be cleaning those condos.”

Robinson agreed, saying the city wants to change the land development code to steer the development toward something other than higher end condos. This would provide not only density, but a diversity of density. As far as where everyone lives, he believes the missing piece in Austin is high-capacity transportation. That’s how it works in cities that are closer to the rainforest analogy, he said. In the most diverse cities, people can easily get around their communities.

What are your expectations for the new 10-1 council, with council members possibly looking out for their districts alone?

Houston was encouraged by the common threads she heard throughout all the districts during last year’s campaign: property tax relief, employment opportunities, transit, education. “This is why we have to have these conversations, because that’s when we find the common ground,” she said. “I’m trying to be very careful about the language I use, and to talk in civil tones, and to appreciate criticism and differences. Because we have too much negativity in the media, and people are frankly tired of it. People want to work on something that has a common goal and they are willing to get engaged.”

Calls to Action

Dr. Tane Ward: Reflect on what you believe deeply in your heart about what this world should be like and ask how you can make that a reality. Ask yourself if the policies you see are in line with those deep values. If they aren’t, start changing the way you live to fit what’s in your heart. There are constrictions and societal structures that can keep you from acting that way, but I want you to be able to get rid of those and find a way for your heart to connect to your work.

Ora Houston: If you have only been in Austin for a short time, it’s great to understand where you’ve landed. View the DVD “Austin Past and Present,” which was developed by the Austin History Center. Second, become self-aware. Aware of how much privilege you walk around with all day long and you don’t even realize what you have. Read the article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” and keep a journal of what you notice throughout the day.

Ryan Robinson: To me, there are more positives that outweigh the negatives. I think having a new council is going to be really exciting and we need to remember that many of our problems are because of growth and I would take that over flight any day.

Audio of this morning’s event: