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Council gets update on Rundberg Project

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The work of restoring the Rundberg neighborhood is well underway. A briefing on the Restore Rundberg Project’s progress at City Council’s Tuesday work session prompted at least one Council member to ask: Could it be better?

The Restore Rundberg Project is a result of a $1 million, three-year grant to fund innovative solutions for areas facing public safety problems. Austin is one of six cities to receive the grant, which comes from the U.S. Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program.

Police dedicated the first year to planning, getting a plan approved by the Department of Justice, establishing a revitalization team of 14 and identifying four key priorities for that team. Those priorities are the revitalization of four key properties, development of a community and health center, and establishing after school program support in the North Austin neighborhood.

The fourth priority, which focuses on accountability for housing and property code violations, was of particular interest to Council, which has spent some time on that issue already.

The project has spawned a coalition of 14 property managers and landowners, and police officer Donald Baker said they have already seen some progress in terms of that group cleaning up its properties without raising rents. That progress has inspired other property owners who have asked to join the group.

“The property managers and owners have realized the broken windows theory,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. “If I take care of my residence, I am going to keep those residents, and if I take care of their living space, they are going to take more pride and take care of my property. It’s almost a cyclical benefit to everyone involved. I think we are getting more and more buy-in.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said she was “a little surprised” at a recent update on the repeat offenders ordinance that was established in an effort to crack down on problem properties that have repeat code violations. (See Austin Monitor, Nov. 21, 2013)

“We only have eight registered repeat offenders,” said Tovo. “That doesn’t seem to jibe with the numbers that we had.”

Though Rundberg was intended to be a focus for the program, Tovo was informed that of those eight properties registered, zero were in the Rundberg area.

“I think it’s time to re-evaluate,” said Tovo.

Baker said the process had been a learning one and that they had made some progress on that front, with more to be made.

Restore Rundberg Place 5 Team Member Ann Teich explained that, as the current system is set up, Code Compliance officers have to manually extract information about offenders in order to move forward on citing problem properties. She said the process takes hours. The eight properties that have been listed so far have over 200 violations. In her neighborhood, she said, none of the problem properties had nearly that many violations.

“One, it was a complex where the owner’s son was cremating animals in his (fireplace),” said Teich. “Let that sink in.”

Teich went on to list a number of outstanding needs for the project, and asked that Council members follow up with community volunteers for a separate update from their perspective.

APD has collaborated with the community, other departments and the University of Texas Austin for the project. UT is participating in researching the root causes behind the area’s problems, taking a particularly deep look at three hot spots of crime and their characteristics. APD is also honing in on these three areas, each of which comprises a few city blocks.

“Within these three, small geographical areas, 12.5 percent of the city’s crime occurs,” said APD assistant chief Brian Manley.

The Rundberg neighborhood encompasses 2 percent of the city’s geography, and 4.5 percent of its population. Despite this, 11 percent of the city’s violent crime and 7 percent of its property crime occurs there, explained Manley.

About 30 percent of Rundberg residents live below the poverty level, and according to the Austin Independent School District, 95 percent of students from the area are considered economically disadvantaged.

Tovo said she was glad to hear of the collaboration between departments and suggested that collaboration be expanded to include the Health and Human Services, Library, and Parks and Recreation Departments to help turn the focus to children in the area. Acevedo said that, with 30 percent of the population under the age of 17, the “point was well taken.”

“The level of engagement that we are having on this grant is like none that I’ve ever been involved with in the department,” said Manley, who stressed that community engagement would be the key for continuing improvements after the grant had run out.

Weekly meetings allow residents to talk with the police department about concerns. Manley said they were hoping to expand that program to include other city departments, like Code Compliance. He said that, on average, attendance was 30 to 50 people each week.

APD is already looking toward establishing two new priorities. The first, which they have already started working on, will focus on prostitution diversion and homeless intervention. The second, announced at the morning work session, will look at affordable housing in the area.

Council Member Bill Spelman said he was thrilled with the project so far, which he said represented his “brightest hope” for what APD could do more of in the future.


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