Wednesday, November 25, 2020 by Jasmine Lopez

City leaders and Cap Metro get to work crafting Project Connect anti-displacement plan

In November, Austin voters approved a tax increase to support Project Connect and the expansion of public transportation throughout the city. Now, local leaders need to figure out precisely where and how to spend some of that money, including $300 million allocated for anti-displacement strategies.

On Nov. 11, City Council and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched the public application process for the Austin Transit Partnership, one of two committees designed to bring public input and oversight into decisions about how Project Connect funding is spent.

The ATP committee, which will include community members alongside representatives of City Council and Capital Metro, will help craft, implement and oversee strategies for spending the anti-displacement funds.

Community leaders said the decision to reserve three of the five committee slots for qualified local residents would help reshape public involvement and oversight, helping guide not just Project Connect as a whole, but also the smaller, on-the-ground work it will entail.

“What we are aiming to do is not just increase funding for anti-displacement along transit corridors around the city, but also transform the communities’ relationship (with projects) and include communities in the decision-making process for major projects down to various, minor localized projects as well,” said Kendra Garrett, a member of the Austin Justice Coalition’s Housing and Community Development board.

The city is in the process of forming another committee, the Community Advisory Committee, to guide various aspects of Project Connect, that will provide feedback for the broader program. That advisory committee will be composed entirely of community members who are “core to the folks who will actually be riding the train,” Garrett said, to ensure dialogue between community members and the committees.

“We want to make sure when we talk about inclusion and voices at the table, that they all have a seat to really engage and provide insight and then go back to their communities and talk to them about it,” she said.

Feedback from the communities most affected by the specifics of Project Connect spending could prove especially critical because strategies for anti-displacement are not one-size-fits-all, said Awais Azhar, a member of the leadership committee of the group Planning Our Communities.

“The neighborhood-level strategies have to be developed within that (specific) neighborhood,” Azhar said. “Advocates, grassroots folks, organizers, even the city, government and policymakers don’t make decisions for these communities. Communities really do get to decide what fits best for their needs.”

Potential anti-displacement strategies funded by Project Connect could include acquiring land for portable and affordable housing, rental assistance and home repairs, Azhar said, but it will ultimately depend on the needs of each different community. For example, the residents of Montopolis, which includes more working-class homeowners, will have different needs than East Riverside, which includes more renters.

“That’s partially why you’ll see that there’s not a lot of detail yet” with the strategies, Azhar said. “That will be decided in a much more collective way with community input.”

In many cases, the communities that might benefit most from Project Connect will feel the most pressure from the 4 percent tax increase that voters approved to fund it, said Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor of Community and Regional Planning at the University of Texas.

And while the tax increase will increase the cost pressures that challenge many Austin residents, Wegmann said, “there are costs to continuing the status quo.”

With jobs, entertainment, restaurants, and the Capitol all located downtown, he said, there’s a social equity imperative to give all Austinites equal opportunity to live in Central Austin.

“There is a real problem with only increasingly wealthy and white people getting access to everything that Central Austin has to offer,” he said. “Ideally, (Central Austin) would be an amenity for the entire region that everyone could take advantage of.”

Rendering courtesy of Capital Metro.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Capital Metro: The city’s urban transportation system.

Project Connect: This project brought together a series of Central Texas transportation agencies looking to build high-capacity transit options in the region in the wake of CAMPO's 2035 regional transportation plan. The City of Austin's much-discussed 2014 Urban Rail plan was part of Project Connect's efforts.

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