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Thursday, December 28, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Houston stays true to her district

Council Member Ora Houston sums up this past year as “very interesting.”

Speaking to the Austin Monitor, Houston started her review of 2017 by stressing her continued commitment to outreach in her district, which informs the work she does downtown at City Hall.

“When I ran, I said I was going to represent all of the people in the district and all of the people in the district are not necessarily progressive. They are not necessarily people who are engaged in city politics,” said Houston, who continues to make it her mission to get out to the “far ends” of her 46-square-mile District 1 to remind people that they “have an advocate in City Hall.”

To reach people, Houston visits houses of worship, holds town halls to connect city staff with residents, and holds “coffee chats” at fast-food restaurants in her district where she hears concerns and tries to convince people to come back to City Hall to participate in the conversations that will impact them.

“People don’t really engage with the city until there’s a problem. I’m trying to help people understand engagement is possible before there is a problem and if you engage early enough, you know how to start fixing your own problems,” said Houston, who explained that she is working through the legacy of the at-large system, where a lack of representation was taken for granted.

This past year, Houston has worked on fixing a number of district issues that may have escaped the notice of the city but were important to her constituents. These include a year spent replacing the bridge at Bluff Bend Drive that was washed out in a storm, playing intermediary between worried residents and city staff.

Houston also rattles off a list of safety improvements in her district. These include a left turn lane on Johnny Morris Road at Loyola Lane and new pedestrian beacons at Springdale and Rogge roads and 12th Street at the entrance to Givens Park. She explains that she brings her firsthand experience from her district back to city staff, asking for repairs on urban trails near the Boggy Creek Greenbelt and Lake Walter E. Long (also known as Decker Lake) that did not have designs that have endured, and her work with the community has her up to date on where sidewalks are most needed in District 1.

In the upcoming year, Houston is looking forward to restarting the conversation about Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, and creative ways to make it more viable. “It’s coming back up again,” she promises. She also looks forward to talking about the Travis County Exposition Center and how to position it as a venue for the city of Austin with the upcoming absence of the Frank Erwin Center, as well as plenty of soccer stadium talk on the horizon.

“This is the perfect opportunity in Austin sports and entertainment,” she said.

Other topics are more of a mixed bag. Houston describes her office’s engagement with the Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority as “ongoing.” She worries that the transit authority “does not understand the impact of lack of transit on communities that are transit dependent.”

“They just don’t listen,” said Houston.

She said she has sent several letters explaining that her district doesn’t need fewer routes, but rather it needs more efficient routes that are designed to get people quickly from the far east of town to the central city. To help with this, Houston said that she has been working with Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion to get funding for eastern transit. And last year did see some progress: Working with Capital Metro, city staff and the Texas Department of Transportation, Houston managed to improve four bus stops on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard so that passengers on the north side of the road no longer have to “stand in the mud,” exposed to the elements.

As for this year’s budget, Houston expressed concern and disappointment that City Council didn’t take up her idea of putting more money into reserve, especially given uncertainty about the federal budget and how it might impact the city.

“I’m very conservative in those matters,” she said. “I’m worried because now we’ve even dipped into the reserves. … I’m not a fiscal hawk, but I’m very concerned financially about how we sustain the finances of this city.”

Despite these overarching concerns, she was glad to report that she found funding for the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex theater (which is the only movie theater in her district) as well as funding for an Asian American Resource Center master plan.

Though she notes that she talked against it, Houston was also a co-sponsor of the resolution that created the Anti-Displacement Task Force. She explained that the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities had just concluded, and its recommendations remained on the table. “So why did we need to go do another one?” she asked, though she was hopeful that some of her input on people who had been displaced would be included in the group.

The topic of displacement is an emotional one for Houston, and it leads directly into concerns about rising property taxes, and a lack of tax exemptions that is forcing people to sell their family homes.

“We were sold a bill of goods that property was the American Dream and we now find ourselves in a situation where that generational wealth is leveraged. … My kids can’t live in their home, and they were all born right here in Austin, Texas,” said Houston. “That’s sad to me, because only the rich can pass that down to their children. … It’s bad for a community, because the next generation is going to be displaced.”

In terms of land use, Houston is glad that the repeal of a few corridors of the central urban redevelopment (CURE) combining district in East Austin took place without much incident. “I was shocked,” said Houston. “I was prepared for a big fight.”

Houston, however, does not angle for “big fights” in general. She expressed disappointment with the resolution of the Montopolis Negro School case, which she believed could have had a similar end result of preservation at less cost to the city if there was more compromise. Similarly, Houston tries to observe the technically nonpartisan nature of City Council and votes her conscience. “That’s what I think is so wrong with this country now,” she said. “Let’s listen to one another.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

District 1: District 1 is one of the largest districts by area created by the commission, being bounded by Interstate 35, bumps up against Pflugerville on the north, SH 130 on the east and reaches down into the eastern parts of downtown and the University of Texas campus. It includes a variety of neighborhoods, such as Copperfield, Harris Branch, University Hills, Colony Park and Rosewood. It also contains Decker Lake Park and some of the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Ora Houston: Austin City Council member for District 1

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