City unveils report on racism in housing, health and education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A special task force designed to study and create a plan to address racism throughout Austin unveiled its months-long report Tuesday.

The Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequalities task force looked at a slew of issues ranging from education, healthcare and housing. Mayor Steve Adler put the group together in November.

Adler’s decision was fueled by two controversial use-of-force cases among city police officers, namely the Breaion King arrest and the deadly shooting of David Joseph.

“There have been opportunities that have been available to me that would be different if I was coming in as an African-American or Latino,” Adler said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I appreciate that in this place you have pulled together majority and minority views.”

The anti-racism task force talked with experts in those fields and people who call Austin home. The report also offers a long list of recommendations that include ways to make housing more affordable for low-income, minority families.

Gilbert and Jane Rivera bought their east Austin home back in 1983. The 1,400 square-foot, three bedroom home cost them $39,000. This year, the home was appraised at more than $1.5 million. But, the retired couple doesn’t want to sell it. And, they can’t.

“Where are we going to retire in style? Where can we buy what we have now?” said Mrs. Rivera. “Where can we recreate the community that we retired into? Why would we want to move to a place where we don’t know anybody?”

They are not alone. Many of their Latino and African-American neighbors have already left. They were forced out by high property taxes from newly-build larger homes, that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Every time I see a home bulldozed down, I see a grave. A fresh grave,” said Rivera, who grew up in east Austin. “And my history, my culture, my family is being buried underneath there.”

Councilwoman Ora Houston says it is a dilemma the city has been locked into for decades. And, some of the discrimination is backed by city policies. The report supports her claim.

“They don’t understand the system has put in place to inhibit their abilities for them to be successful,” Houston said. “Sometimes, you hear me talking about taking people on drive out into District One, so they can see the inequities. They can see we have little homes that were affordable and we have three-story homes on the same lot.”

The task force recommended:

  • starting a fund to create at least 400 affordable housing units. City leaders in Denver are doing this.
  • use public-owned property to build homes for low-income families
  • offer tax-payment assistance to senior citizens homeowners like the Riveras

“The council and everybody says we’re providing affordable housing. Affordable for whom?” said Rivera.

The report also looks at the challenges facing the city’s school district and barriers to higher education. The task force was spearheaded by Huston-Tillotson University President Colette Pierce Burnette and Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz.

Cruz said he first looked at the opportunity to head the task force as a superintendent and a former teacher. Then, it took a personal meaning for him.

“There was a seriousness that came over me,” Cruz said. “These are very real issues that we deal with every day. It’s not just number. These are students and it’s real.”

On Thursday, the city council will vote to adopt the task force’s recommendation. Then they will send it to the city manager, so she can look at ways to implement those recommendations.

Some of the recommendations for the Austin Police Department include mentoring at-risk children and hiring more officers from minority communities.

But Austin police say they’re already doing that. One program is the Police Activities League, which hosts after-school programs to help children have a positive impact with officers in the community.

The sergeant over that program says they work hard, but need the community’s help. “We’re always looking to grow our programs, as much as we can,” Sgt. David Boyd says. “I’d love to see us expand and just some more sports, getting track involved, I’d like to see baseball, football, in there, it’s just a matter of we need some more volunteers to help coach these things.”

Other areas of recommendation for the department were to make public information records more readily available, increase deescalation and implicit bias training and work towards a goal of having officers spend 35 percent of their time focusing on community policing.

While the department has emphasized community policing in the past, some officers say it’s a nice thought, but more resources are needed. Ken Casady, the Austin Police Association president, says, “It’s going to require more police officers, because we’re all very aware that our officers run from call to call now and it’s one more outside external source that has told the city council and city management, you need to hire more police officers.”

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