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Equity proponents push developers for better feedback in housing projects

Monday, March 15, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

As Austin continues to rapidly grow, developers and community advocates from across the city see a need for more engagement with marginalized communities when planning housing projects intended to reduce gentrification.

The need for door knocking and face-to-face involvement was one of the central takeaways from a recent panel discussion organized by the Urban Land Institute Austin that looked at how to better engage communities around the issue of equitable development.

The discussion followed a recent 21-day challenge organized by ULI that pushed its members in the real estate, planning and development sectors to employ more effective communication methods for reaching populations of the city that could benefit from affordable housing projects.

Housing equity and community preservation advocates said for many years developers and local leaders have underperformed in reaching out to all groups that could have an opinion on how residential and commercial projects near them are designed. While online forums and digital tools can help with gathering feedback, interactions with neighborhood leaders often reveal segments of the community that are hard to reach.

“The city or a private entity is thinking in terms of how they communicate, and they don’t always know their audience or know the community. … You cannot assume that residents can log in to some internet site to watch you or have the means to get to your office downtown,” said Monica Guzman, policy director for Go Austin/Vamos Austin. “You need to come off the dais to meet them where they’re at – that means putting the info in a community newspaper because that’s where they’re getting their news from.”

Sean Garretson, president of Pegasus Planning and Development, said his group has had to adjust its plans while completing the phases of the development known as the Chicon because the makeup of the East Austin neighborhood around it has changed over the past 15 years. While the project is still heavy with affordable units, Pegasus has been mindful to serve longtime residents of the area as well as newcomers with different needs.

Garretson said the city’s community feedback process in planning and zoning often tends to favor the squeakiest wheel, rather than the consensus of input around a project and what could most benefit the community.

“One of the elephants in the room is the city of Austin’s development and review process and how City Council will listen to the loudest and last person at the end, and everything else gets thrown out,” he said.

“Developers need to go beyond just the neighborhood planning contact team and whoever is associated with that. How can you be sure the neighborhood planning contact team has your best interests in mind? You have to show up, go to the meetings and provide your feedback.”

That sentiment was echoed in part by Shoshana Krieger, project director for Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA). Krieger said traditional feedback programs favor property owners’ opinions, and renters living near housing developments should have the chance to give their input.

“There isn’t ‘the community’ – there are a whole bunch of communities. And so pay attention to who has a seat at the table, and who is the loudest voice at the end of the day who is getting their way and oftentimes doesn’t represent the community, or even a substantial part of the place-based community,” she said. “Oftentimes they’re the folks who have the most access or have historically been the loudest voices. And probably aren’t the loudest voices for renters because renter issues have not been at the forefront of conversations in Austin – probably since Austin’s inception.”

For many residents, the engagement process can serve as an opportunity to have long-standing community needs addressed. Laura Cortez, CEO of Cortez Consulting, reminded the audience that those involved with a development project need to become stewards for the overall area.

“When you come into a project, (residents) aren’t so preoccupied with what you want to develop or what survey you want them to complete,” she said. “The first thing we were hit with many times when we would go to meetings is community members saying, ‘We need you to fix this street,’ or ‘This sidewalk is incomplete,’ or ‘We don’t have bus stops like everywhere else in Austin.’ You realize that as an organization you have to be an advocate of all resources because the community is going to come to you and want to know you can build trust with them.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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