Audit of Neighborhood Planning and Contact Teams Released

The city just released a pretty harsh audit on contact teams and neighborhood planning, confirming what a lot of people have been saying for a long time - mainly that they don’t represent the people that live in our neighborhoods and don’t allow people that live in our neighborhoods to participate in the process. People familiar with contact teams throughout the city have probably already been aware of these issues.

The full report can be found here:

Finding 1: The City’s neighborhood planning efforts are inequitable and have lacked robust and representative participation.


Finding 2: Neighborhood plan contact teams create barriers to public engagement and representative decision-making.


Finding 3: Neighborhood plans are not regularly updated, implementation of plan recommendations is incomplete, and plans are not consistent with some elements of Imagine Austin.


Finding 4: Fair housing choice has not been specifically considered in most neighborhood
planning efforts


"Planning efforts for Austin’s neighborhoods are inequitable and have lacked robust and representative participation. Neighborhood plans cover 26% of the city’s area and 45% of its population. Land use processes differ for areas with neighborhood plans than for the rest of the city. In addition, the plans were developed with low overall levels of public participation, and particularly low representation from renters. The current pace of planning efforts is unlikely to extend neighborhood plans to the remainder of the city in a timely manner.

As a plan approaches adoption, the City initiates the formation of a neighborhood plan contact team. The contact teams lack transparency, have inconsistent bylaws, and create barriers to public engagement and representative decisionmaking. The bylaws for all but one contact team create barriers to voting eligibility for neighborhood stakeholders. The maintenance of contact team information does not facilitate compliance with the City’s Code or provide accurate, accessible, and complete information to the public. Community members seeking to attend contact team meetings would have difficulty doing so in 58% of neighborhoods tested.

The City and the contact teams are not conducting periodic updates to ensure plans remain current. The median age of the plans is 14 years and all but one plan was adopted prior to the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan in 2012. No plans have been updated since, and 59% of plan recommendations are incomplete.

Fair housing choice has not been specifically considered in most neighborhood planning efforts. Only one neighborhood plan mentions fair housing and no current bylaws reference it. Planning and Zoning has not provided trainings on topics related to fair housing. Current land use policies and practices that do not incorporate fair housing concepts, if unaddressed, could create a risk of litigation against the City or a risk of losing federal grants."


Note that, as incumbents attempt to “protect” their neighborhoods, it sometimes results in zoning policies that are exclusionary and run afoul of fair housing concepts. I hope we can all think about how more housing, and greater housing type diversity, can enable us to move beyond protectionism and actually improve our neighborhoods by welcoming new and diverse people.


I don’t think NPCTs are a great idea, but I think I have an idea that may help some. The stated aim of NPCTs is to give local residents a say in decisionmaking, but, as the audit points out, they’re frequently tiny groups of people, with serious difficulties in participation through a combination of rules that discourage participation and poor communication.

There have been a lot of talks about mandating that groups follow certain rules, and then how will we enforce that, etc. I think we need to flip it on its head and, instead of policing micro-rules about giving notice, just mandate that they demonstrate participation. For example, NPCTs could have a minimum quorum of 50 members to hold a meeting and a minimum of 2 meetings per year. If they can’t maintain that, then the plan will go into receivership, and it will be city council’s prerogative to amend the NP at any time they see fit. While this is vastly more participation than many NPCTs currently have, it’s not an unreasonable number at all–any NPCT worth its salt could get 50 people from their rather large areas out for a meeting, if encouraging participation was a goal.

The idea is that a NPCT isn’t just a locus of power where connected people make a decision but a truly participatory body or nothing.

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That’s a great idea. Although I’d like to see 1% of residents for a quorum. My area has 44k people so 50 still feels like way too few. I’d also like to hear of anyone who has seen positive change happen through one. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater if there is something positive Contact Teams can accomplish. Personally I’ve only seen them slow down or kill projects and make them inferior.

1% or a certain percentage seems like it might be the best way to do that since contact team sizes vary greatly. Contact teams could allow online voting and easily reach that goal. Otherwise, we would have to require a lot of little changes like online voting, no waiting period to sign up to vote, and specific notification requirements, which the contact teams might not follow and they still might not reach a participation goal because they might purposefully hide the announcements, make announcements confusing, or not include everything in their agendas to discourage participation, which we’ve seen in Hyde Park.

Since we now have 10-1 representation, do we have a need for contact teams? Isn’t local representation now solved through how we elect the city council? Contact teams seem like they might be a relic of the past.

I agree contact teams might be a relic with 10-1. But the idea of a minimum quorum is to discourage things like purposely hiding announcements, making announcements confusing, or any other discouragement by making the NPCT prove that it actually has enough people in order to function. A team that only has 10 people show up isn’t allowed to stay in existence; they’re required to show an ability to get people out in order to stay the steward of the NP.

As somebody who worked on writing one of the earliest neighborhood plans (OWANA), I would caution you that in some cases, the plan is actually more progressive than the implementors who followed. In our case, for instance, the plan was all that kept Laura Morrison (on the OWANA implementation team long before she joined the council) from opposing all development on 5th and 6th. Note how many apartments have gone in there. Without the plan, we’d not have gotten them, IMO (she was very effective at fighting development in areas where the NP didn’t establish that baseline first).

However, in many areas, such as Hyde Park and NUNA, the plan was actually nothing but “don’t do anything, please”. A net decrease in housing units once demolition/replacement of older structures was taken into account.

Rather than argue for a wholesale elimination of all plans, I’m leaning towards the best approach being an analysis of whether they offer sufficient additional housing units (and if not, they are amended or eliminated).


Though I like these ideas about quorum, I think they embrace a fundamentally flawed assumption that incumbent residents are the only stakeholders that matter.

Even if you get 100% participation from incumbents (renters, homeowners, business owners and tenants), it still ignores the fact that:

  1. People who aspire to live in a neighborhood are important stakeholders.
  2. The interests of the citywide community are important factors to consider in neighborhood planning.

Is there a bolder and more creative way to include this larger and important set of stakeholders?

This is a letter that I personally wrote to Council and have reposted here (I made the qualification in that letter that my opinions expressed are my own and not that of FAN):

I’m absolutely ecstatic that City staff has finally taken stock of just how little input they actively seek from renters (and most any demographic outside of current home-owners) in this audit they’ve just published:

“Voting on neighborhood plans was not reflective of neighborhood demographics, with renters being disproportionately under-represented. More than half of all Austin residents rent their homes, but all plans that detailed this information had greater voter participation by homeowners. Rental units accounted for 82% of the housing stock of one area according to its neighborhood plan, but the two renters that voted on this plan made up only 10% of the participation in its approval. A separate plan received participation by only a single renter. As a result, neighborhood plans may not be a reliable reflection of current or historical community will.”

Conversely, I’m thoroughly disappointed by a number of the Council comments in the Finance & Audit Committee meeting reviewing this document.

In this meeting, Council Member Leslie Pool tries to claw back the unequal representation found in this audit by stating the future efforts to increase participation should be directed at long-term renters who’ve not moved in a while and are supposedly the ones capable of representing “a part of the neighborhood,” and additionally suggests trying to identify “older folks” as potential participants, and if people are new they can be included too, but we should only do so perhaps if they’re using renting as a stop gap between owning properties because they have just moved to town.

Why are you trying to identify the demographics of neighbors other than to specifically discriminate against certain subsets of them?

I find it offensive to insinuate that because a person or family may move between housing options, or because they are young, that they don’t have valid input to offer the neighborhood they have just moved to. It is likely that regardless of how long anyone has resided at their current address they have experience of what has and hasn’t worked in other n’hoods in which they’ve lived, or they have aspirational ideas of what their ideal neighborhood could look like, or that they’d like to speak up in way that ensure someone like them could be involved in neighborhood development.

And the language I find most troubling is any kind of insinuation that renters don’t have “institutional value” to a community because of their lack of continuity - this sounds dangerously close to “institutional discrimination” from my vantage point.

This continual emphasis on home-ownership and/or aspiration for it as the end-all-be-all signal for being a valuable and contributing citizen has to stop.

These purity tests to filter for those you deign to have authority over the "voice of the neighborhoods" have to stop.

You are advocating for methods of disenfranchisement and it has to stop.


In addition to these effective literacy tests that Council Members are suggesting in that Audit & Finance meeting, (despite their stated political party allegiances), I also find it short-sighted how comments made attempt to offload the responsibility of housing costs onto “the banks” by falsely equating large down payments as the cause and barrier to entry for being a valuable community stakeholder.

Down payments are in reality a component of the large dollar values being stored up in Austin’s large lots where zoning minimums require lot sizes of 5000-7000sf of land on which to place any kind of dwelling, but most often require it to be a single family dwelling.

What’s causing increasing housing costs is an increase in demand for access to the economic prosperity which Austin provides to it’s residents, demonstrated in the amount of jobs and education available in our urban core. The consequential increases in housing costs are due to restricting housing diversity near to that prosperity. These lack of housing options is what results in a barrier to entry for ownership, or in the case of the renters which were again left out of these considerations, disproportionately increases the cost of rent in these areas.

Ideally, the City would come-to-jesus and realize that this process of citizen engagement in Neighborhood Plans via Plan Contact Teams means assuming a lot of responsibility and risk for managing compliance of organizational volunteer leaders all across the city with incredibly disparate resources and participation barriers. It’s a beast of a process to undertake that would equate to paying for extra man-hours and numerous resources from the City out of an already strained budget. I’m not convinced that mitigating the risks of these oversights found in the Audit of Plan Contact Teams is fully worth that amount of investment by our tax dollars if there are no mechanisms to guide inclusive practices at every meeting and over every discussion.

I think Council Member Renteria’s comments about the N’hood Plans in his District and difficulties in participation get to the heart of the problem with just how cumbersome participation can be even when people want to be included.

I’m hoping that if City Council continues to let Plan Contact Teams exist in the context of deciding how CodeNEXT gets rolled out, and to also rely so heavily on their input to the planning & zoning processes in the interim, that they are serious about 1) including more voices in these planning processes - and not just by just “encouraging” participation and creating a positive experience but mandating it for a Neighborhood Plan to be considered a guiding document, 2) that they provide robust training and resources for all members and leaders of Plan Contact Teams around inclusion and the implications of it’s absence in this process 3) that these Plan Contact Teams have no weight behind their voice that is stronger than any other advocacy group or potential stakeholder over which the City has no regulation.

FAN has proven that it’s possible to create a space that allows for diverse participation from across the city on discussions and also to provide non-contentious voting practices. If the structures of PCTs will remain in pace, I hope that they take a cue from us here at FAN and implement accessible online discussion and remove the potential intimidation of voting in meetings by instead implementing anonymous records of votes.

And MPT Tovo, in response to your question at minute 44 of the above linked video about which NA’s require dues and are consequentially then required as participation in Contact Teams - one of which is your NA, Heritage Neighborhood Association, in which you reside and attend meetings, and includes a number of the other 6 specifically named NAs in that plan area which are enumerated as the only allowed members in the Central Austin Neighborhood Plan Contact Team.

I’m seriously questioning your ignorance to that fact given that some of the reps to CANPAC, are living in your n’hood, working on your election campaigns, and are also your own appointees to Boards & Commissions. You you personally know these reps, and I know that you meet and interact with them in these capacities and at these regulating bodies, because I also live in Heritage and I see you do just that.

Your B&C appointees, from their experience in those City positions, and which are also members of the CANPAC most certainly know the importance of Meeting Announcements, and publishing Agendas & Minutes as part of the public participation standards of the Open Meetings Act, are aware of the NPCT standards that align with those of B&C and consideration of all perspectives, specifically for these plans for inclusion of businesses and renters and participation which doesn’t require payment, yet they’ve eschewed those responsibilities for their Plan Team - The city’s official land-use teams don’t need to be notified of non-compliance by NPCTs as you requested, because the same members of the land-use teams that you put into that power are also those members of the CANPAC NPCT perpetrating these violations. I can’t help but question the intent of your B&C appointees given their knowledge of city protocol, and believe that these oversights at the NPCT level are in actuality a purposeful, obstructionist tactic.

I’m calling for you to at the very least have a serious talking to, if not flat out reconsideration of your B&C appointments who have also sat on CANPAC in the past 6 years while their organization ignored every directive of Plan Contact Teams and took advantage of this lack of oversight outlined in the audit. If they can’t be trusted to uphold their duties to these plan teams and the intent of formation despite their personal knowledge of public standards, I’m leery of their ethical intents on B&C which have more visibility and weight in official planning processes. It will be your duty to restore the public’s faith in your appointees given their oversight of these standards.


@mdahmus, it almost feels like being on the titanic and the ship hands are asking for a do-over to turn the ship 15 seconds earlier. Let’s look at it from the perspective of those on shore.

We live in the most segregated city in the country. Affordability / Mobility are problems, Segregation and the worsening trend line for same are an embarrassment. All four issues are closely interrelated. Someone just diagnosed with cancer is not given an aspirin and sent home.

Having said that I do not fault City Staff or Management, it’s years of different agenda’s trying to take things in different directions, and now the dam has burst. Perhaps a new neighborhood planning approach should be turned over to the City Staff / Management, are they not accountable to people who are accountable to others, including us? Are they not professionals who specialize in this field? The same can not be said for the “citizen led” neighborhood planning processes in place today, it’s like the wild west, only worse.

Part of the challenge is that everyone of us lives in a different “neighbourhood”, and the effort to simplify life by creating labels and “one size fits all” boundaries often does not lead to fair or equitable outcomes. The mere act of creating artificial borders in this type of exercise often creates a set of of winners and losers - we may elect to do that in some cases to organize group communications (like here), but that is very different from then arbitrarily using it to determine if “sufficient” housing is planned for that same area.

@rcauvin, my neighborhood is “Austin”, I have 11 council members to ensure broad representation of views, and I would suggest that if the City had a freer hand in land use planning, all the stakeholders you mentioned would be represented.

Or we could keep doing what we have been.

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I’ve put down a few thoughts on what a FAN recommendation for Contact Teams might be, if this is the direction that we’d want to go. I’ve included that below. If anyone wants to help fill in the details and help come up with the wording, please let me know.


@Pete_Gilcrease I think we’re on the right track.

In addition to being representative in terms of renters and homeowners, I think the demographics of the contact team in terms of race, income, and age, should have to mirror the areas they represent. If a contact team in East Austin is all old white people, it is not representative of their planning area, even if 50% of the old white people are renters.


@cevangill That’s a great addition. I’ve included that in the document.

FAN grew quickly through being a positive inclusive voice for change using simple readily understood messages. I would ask that we consider again following the rule of 3 in messages here, and believe it can be done combining / simplifying content all have contributed to in the above discussion thread.

The audit findings should be a reason for all FAN’s to celebrate!!! Or do you think ANC is?

First - FAN’s was created with a vision that citizens needed to organize and contribute to fixing this stuff, the audit team is now saying we clearly need to fix this stuff - big time (inclusive neighborhood planning). Supporting the audit findings further validates FAN.

Second - what elements should an inclusive neighborhood planning team PERHAPS have vs. today and are we excited to work towards the goal of developing and implementing a new methodology with the City?

Third - as the neighborhood plans today are old, not updated, pre-Imagine Austin should they need to be validated per inclusive neighborhood planning team description above, or updated / discarded if not supporting Imagine Austin goals?

Then I would thank the Audit team for their work, & CM Renteria for supporting it.

In my opinion if we throw a laundry list of XX things we have decided need to be done it will be missing the point, and a precious opportunity, recognize the impulse to do so…

Know this can be like herding cats - thanks all! @Pete_Gilcrease, @rcauvin, @alyshalynn, @dkesh, @mdahmus, @tthomas48, @cevangill

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This is a bit of a tangent, but how daunting would it be to create one of these neighborhood plan things for Triangle State, assuming the old process? As it is, it seems like other NPs (especially Hyde Park’s) could interfere with dense development whenif the State Hospital is relocated, being the only NPs nearby. I think it would be useful, in addition to reforming how neighborhood plans are made, validated, and used, to also have one designed by Triangle State residents that calls for, say, capacity for a population of 10,000 in the where the State Hospital is by 2030…or some such thing that could push back against HPNA claiming ten-story buildings on the Guadalupe side aren’t consistent with their neighborhood plan or something.

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@Phil_Wiley Thanks! I think that might be a good approach. What is currently there does need some work and that would simplify things.

@josiahstevenson I’d suggest you contact Margaret Valenti (512-974-2648). She’s the Contact Team and Education Coordinator for the city and she should be able to go through what that process would be like. Until then, you could easily setup a new neighborhood association for that area that could also join FAN. If you’d be interested in doing that, please let me know and I’d be more than happy to help you do that and walk you through everything.

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I’m extremely interested in doing exactly that, yes. Would also be interested in discussing pros and cons of Triangle Area Neighborhood Association joining ANC as well

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@josiahstevenson The ANC has kicked neighborhood associations out for joining FAN and won’t allow any neighborhood associations that are FAN members to join the ANC, but FAN is perfectly fine with any group being a member of both.

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I made some changes and hopefully this takes into consideration some of the suggestions and improves on what was there before. Please feel free to look it over and let me know!

Which neighborhoods got kicked out?