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Ora Houston recalls challenging but rewarding year

Monday, December 28, 2015 by Jack Craver

In an interview with the Austin Monitor, City Council Member Ora Houston called her first year on Council “extremely rewarding” but said that the job had a “steep learning curve.”

In addition, the changes to city government that 10-1 promised may take much longer to materialize than advocates of the new system expected. Certain advocacy groups, said Houston, still have outsized influence at City Hall, and city staff is often reluctant to change the way it operated for years.

Houston said she was happy with the effort her colleagues put into listening to one another and considering each other’s perspectives and priorities, even if quorum rules prevented her from taking fellow Council members on a tour of her district, which she offered to do shortly after being elected.

“It’s like being married for the first time,” she said. “That first year is one where you really try to get to know each other in a different way. There are 11 very distinctive personalities on the Council. Each brings a very different skill set – different interests, different passions.”

She nevertheless credits city staff for the rapid transition to 10-1 that took place last December.

“The transition from being Ora Houston candidate to Ora Houston council member was incredible,” she said. “Staff did an amazing job. I know sometimes we don’t give them enough credit.”

She cites among her accomplishments a fulfilled pledge to be visible in the district, an effort that has included hosting twice-a-month coffee meetups and quarterly town hall gatherings. But sometimes her constituents perceive her influence to be greater than it actually is. She recounted the story of a woman from her district calling her late at night to complain about police lights flashing outside her house. Houston drove over and asked the officer to turn off his lights but also asked the constituent not to call her over similar concerns in the future.

The “Spirit of East Austin” forum co-hosted by Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court in September, which focused on boosting economic equality in East Austin, was a similarly important achievement, she said. She is concerned, nevertheless, that future growth in the area will lead to more gentrification. She said there should be more focus on creating $50,000-a-year jobs for current residents rather than getting people with $150,000-a-year salaries to move into town.

“Just having rich white folks move into the community is not economic development,” she said.

Her greatest disappointment from the year was her failure to get $400,000 into the budget for a group – Minorities for Equality in Employment, Education, Liberty and Justice, known as MEEELJ – to help people who have been incarcerated get job-training and employment. Tearing up, she said it was her own misunderstanding of the budget schedule that prevented the funds from being included in the final budget, an oversight that she said still keeps her up at night.

“I had to call (MEEELJ) and say, ‘That’s my fault, I have to own this, I was not paying as much attention as I should have been,’” she said. “That was my worst error from my freshman year.”

The only African-American on Council, Houston also expressed concern about the lack of social and cultural centers for Austin’s black community, whose share of the city’s population declined from 12.4 percent in 1990 to 8.1 percent in 2010.

“If you go to Houston you know where to go; if you go to Dallas you know where to go. There’s no place to go in Austin – that’s all been obliterated,” she said. As a result, she said, she often walks into bars or restaurants in her own district, and “people turn around and look at me.”

She hopes, therefore, that by the end of her term she will be able to facilitate the creation of a place of social gathering – a bar or restaurant – that will be associated specifically with the black community. She’d like to see it happen on 11th Street, where she spent much of her childhood.

In general, Houston said, Austin needs to have more conversations about race relations and racial biases that even its citizens carry. “We’re so progressive in Austin that we deny that those things even happen,” she said. “And until we talk about it, we can’t fix it.”

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