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.