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Houston plans to be strong advocate for District 1

Friday, January 2, 2015 by Mark Richardson

District 1 Council Member-elect Ora Houston says that while her new office will be downtown at City Hall, she does not plan to become a stranger back in her Northeast Austin district.

“One of the things I have found is that while we’re in a district system, the city has not shifted much toward a district orientation,” she said. “On the campaign trail, I told people that rather than them coming down to what I call the People’s Hall, I’m going to be out there with you. Once a quarter, we’ll have a town-hall meeting … and once a month, I and my staff will be out at a location where people can come and ask questions.”

Houston, who will be sworn in to her first elected office next week at the age of 69, has a resume with four decades of public service as an employee of the former Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, a caseworker with Child Protective Services and as an aide in the office of former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. She has also been involved in numerous civic and community boards, commissions and organizations.

She grew up in what is now District 1 — attending Blackshear Elementary School, Kealing Junior High School and the original L.C. Anderson High School and earning her Bachelor of Arts in psychology and sociology from Huston-Tillotson University, according to her campaign website.

Houston said she has a lot of preparation to do before City Council’s first meeting Jan. 29 and that she is glad that city officials will be providing orientation sessions for new Council members to help prepare them for their new jobs.

However, she said her first priority will be to improve the economic outlook in District 1.

“In my district, we have a 25 percent poverty rate and a double-digit unemployment rate, especially for our young teens,” she said. “There have been no economic development actions placed in District 1. So instead of placing all the economic drivers downtown, I think it’s time for the city to start looking at those places where jobs are needed.”

She said the emphasis on downtown over other parts of the city has caused a number of problems.

“Instead of putting businesses and other economic drivers in all parts of town, they have been focusing them on downtown,” Houston said. “And then we wonder why downtown is so congested. You don’t need to be downtown to be an innovator. You can be an innovator anywhere.”

She said that while she wants to see jobs created, she is skeptical that using economic development agreements are the best way to do that.

“They haven’t been useful to the people I’m concerned about up to this point,” Houston said. “All of the economic incentives we’ve given out have developed job opportunities, but the people who live in District 1 can’t really get to where Apple is — there’s no transportation. So that may be a good economic driver for someone, but it doesn’t help the people in this geographic area.”

Houston said she would consider incentive deals if they bring jobs into the parts of the city where the most people need work.

“I would certainly consider economic incentives, but it would have to be really concrete, and they would have to be not just bringing in people from the outside, but training and placing people here in the districts that have the most need,” she said.

She adds that there is a great deal of value to the new 10-1 district system for the Council because she believes it will help the city focus on the areas with the most needs.

“People can begin to voice some of the discrepancies in the city,” Houston said. “They talk about what is the low unemployment rate for the metropolitan area, as opposed to what the reality is on the ground in some of the districts, which never gets talked about.”

She said there are issues that the new Council will be able to approach on both a citywide and local basis.

“If we talk about transportation, most people would say that’s an issue for the city,” she said. “But it’s also localized, depending on where you live and what kinds of options you may have in those areas. But how we move people, to jobs, to the store, the dentist and the primary care physician — I think that’s a citywide issue.”

She said skyrocketing property appraisals is another issue she hopes to broach.

“There are people who have lived in their homes for generations who now have to move because they can’t afford the taxes because of the escalating land values,” she said. “I think other people are beginning to feel that, not just people in District 1. People across the city are having very serious concerns about the property tax increases.”

Houston said she has been spending her time since the runoff election hiring her office staff and getting ready to move in to City Hall. She said that although the first Council meeting is almost a month away, “That really isn’t very much time. I have a lot to learn before then.”

Photo courtesy of The Hall Monitor

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