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Houston eyes community engagement in 2017

Tuesday, December 27, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Before taking a look back over the past year, City Council Member Ora Houston wanted to make one thing crystal clear.

“I consider myself a public servant, not a politician,” she said. “So I don’t talk like, I don’t do like, I don’t think like the expectations of a politician.”

Houston starts the conversation where she says she must – her first year in office. During that year, she tried to reach as many people in the brand-new District 1 as she could. “People have been bruised and felt left out, so it was important that I do some healing,” she said. “Now we’re in a better place.” From that place, she explained, she has been able to do things her way.

“The usual way that politicians work is that you pass a resolution. Mine is a different model,” said Houston. “We’ve done a really good job of doing foundational work.”

To illustrate this, Houston described her work over the past year with boarding houses in her district. Though the issue didn’t get much time in Council chambers – it was discussed primarily at the Health and Human Services Committee that Houston chairs – the progress her office made over the past year is one of the things that makes her most proud.

District 1 has almost 230 of these homes and, she said, the lack of regulation for the operation of them has been “a huge concern” in the district. “They weren’t doing that not-in-my-backyard thing,” she said. “They were just concerned about the health and safety of the (residents).”

Houston explained that in 2009, the Texas Legislature gave municipalities more power to regulate group homes for those suffering from addiction or those who have different abilities. She said that after working with the city’s Code Department and partner state and county agencies, “We now are registering and inspecting homes where there are seven or more unrelated people.”

“We got that done. No fanfare, it’s done,” she said. “It took about a year. And we are now going out and inspecting the homes we are talking about.

“You can do things quietly and get things done and help the health and safety of the folks that you are concerned about,” Houston continued.

Houston has also remained focused on equity over the past year. “Equity is a big part of who I am, because I’ve seen the good, the bad and the really ugly of what city policies can do to communities,” she said.

On that note, Houston hopes to be a voice for her community during the upcoming rewrite of the Land Development Code, CodeNEXT. She said she tries to take staff from the city’s planning departments to her district to let them experience what they see on their geospatial maps firsthand.

“They sit up there and they look at those maps and they make decisions about people’s lives,” said Houston. “I want (them) to see what (their) decisions have done to my community. Sometimes they get it, and sometimes they see it as progress.

“We’re cutting through the very part of the heart and soul of the city that we talk about,” she continued. “And we are eradicating those people and those places. Pretty soon it’s just going to be just like any other city.”

Looking forward, Houston said she has prayed that the next two appointees to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission understand preservation from a cultural sense, not just an architectural one. In terms of the impact the East Austin Historic Resources Survey might have, and the prospect of slowing demolitions in East Austin, she’s less optimistic.

“I think it’s too late to save some of those houses,” said Houston, tearing up. “The land development codes were put into place to incentivize development, so there are things in place that will keep those demolitions going on.”

Houston is more hopeful about the promise of more local historic districts but notes that in her neighborhood, and other neighborhoods in her district, that ship has already sailed.

“We didn’t think what the unintended consequences were,” said Houston. “That’s the weirdness of Austin: these neat, affordable little places that people could live (in). Nobody can afford to live in (the new construction) who used to live on that land. Those are the things that hurt really bad. And I don’t think the survey is going to stop that from happening anytime soon. I don’t think CodeNEXT even addresses what is happening, in terms of demolition.”

“We had a perfect example of little homes that were already affordable, and we issued a demolition permit and knocked them down,” said Houston. “There seems to be some kind of disconnect between what we say we want to happen and what we actually do.”

Regarding her intentions in 2017, Houston again looks back to her freshman year on Council. This time, it’s to promise a resurrection. Over the past year, the once-heated debate over a proposed golf course at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park has cooled, after being put on the back burner.

However, she promised that it will soon be back.

“There was an uproar in this community and (the plan) got flattened, because people from another part of town who don’t even know where Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park is … came and said, ‘No, we don’t want that,’” said Houston. “That’s depressing, that you have no power to make any decisions based on what you think is best for your community.

“But I’m about to start it up again,” she said.

In a broader goal for the new year, Houston will continue her outreach and encouraging her district to get engaged.

“I can’t get them to come to City Hall,” she said. “It’s hard to get people who have been left out and left behind to feel like they have the ability to come and talk. … (But) if you don’t show up, they don’t pay any attention to what I say or anybody else says, because you aren’t there.”

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