The Road to Equitable Policy Is Paved with Public Process

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Hundreds of people attend a public meeting regarding the San Antonio housing policy framework.

Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Hundreds of people attend a public meeting regarding the San Antonio housing policy framework.

In the wake of the mixed results of this last election, which many viewed as a referendum on municipal policymaking, it is worthwhile to more closely examine that process.

Could it be that meaningful, lasting, and equitable public policy can be made neither solely behind closed doors by subject matter experts nor through the brute force of direct democracy?

It’s easy to become cynical about government as evinced by the contentious debate over the summer, but if our elected and recruited leaders are willing to listen and we as citizens are willing to educate ourselves and collaborate with them, city government can be highly effective.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked both professionally and as a volunteer on many public policy initiatives such as neighborhood, master, and economic plans. There are two that stand out above the rest due to a sense of, “We, the people, did this.” The result was robust and sustainable policy firmly grounded in the consent of the governed.

The first was the Midtown/Blanco Neighborhood Plan.

At the turn of the century, master plans for collar neighborhoods – areas surrounding downtown San Antonio – were beginning to take shape. My wife and I lived in Beacon Hill at the time, and it seemed our neighborhood meetings were all about crime and organizing alley cleanups of syringes and beer bottles.

When it came time to draft our plan, staff with the City’s Planning Department showed up with a DIY toolkit and rolled-up sleeves. We held meetings to determine what was important to us and what we wanted to focus our efforts on. We then broke out into citizen-led committees that met in people’s living rooms and set about the work with enthusiasm as City staff assisted and provided technical support.

Together, we produced a document that scores of neighbors were proud to sign their name to. The front page read: “Prepared by the Citizens of the Midtown Neighborhoods and the City of San Antonio Planning Department.”

In the ensuing years, I worked on dozens of initiatives and spent countless hours grappling with economic development, affordable housing, and infill issues. I accumulated a good bit of technical knowledge – and maybe some baggage as well.

Serving on the Housing Commission for the last three years, I believed I had the rough outlines of pragmatic solutions to significant structural problems such as economic segregation, suburban sprawl, inequity and disinvestment, systemic poverty, and, lately, gentrification.

The limited policy-making process the Commission was engaged in was over-managed, so many of my colleagues and I became frustrated. At first, citizens would show up in droves to be heard, but over time they became fewer and fewer because many felt their words were falling on deaf ears.

This brings me to my second example of a meaningfully inclusive policymaking process.

I met with Ron Nirenberg during his mayoral campaign because his policy platform acknowledged problems that concerned me. I walked away feeling that with him as mayor, we might enact municipal-level economic restructuring that would result in a more equitable future for all San Antonians.

A little over a year ago, Nirenberg asked if I would serve on a five-member task force to address the housing issues about which so many of us had been sounding alarms. I headed to Galveston the next day with my family for a short vacation. Instead of relaxing, I spent the time jotting down my thoughts in longhand on a housing policy framework. I was ready to convene with my fellow task force members, compare notes, and draft recommendations.

I had forgotten many of the lessons I had learned over the years as I believed my hard-earned wealth of knowledge and experience qualified me to speak on behalf of my fellow citizens. My fellow task force member and former City Councilwoman María Berriozábal reminded me that unless we heard from citizens in a public process, we wouldn’t have the full story. She was right.

Our chair, former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Lourdes Castro Ramírez, led us on a whirlwind of public meetings where hundreds of citizens had their comments recorded and considered. We formed technical working groups of subject matter experts and ordinary citizens, each of which drafted its own report. Paid consultants and knowledgeable City staff lent expertise, helped organize, and provided DIY toolkits. Sound familiar?

Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon gives a presentation on "Housing and Neighborhoods through the 'Equity Lens'" at the first Mayor's Housing Policy Task Force meeting at San Antonio Central Library.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon gives a presentation on “Housing and Neighborhoods through the ‘Equity Lens'” at the first Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force meeting at San Antonio Central Library in October of 2017.

When we finished, we had created an action plan authored by citizens, City staff, and consultants. Scores of citizens were credited and many of them came before Council to speak in favor of its adoption.

Some of the ideas I had jotted down in Galveston made it into the final housing policy framework, but they were hardly recognizable: they had been informed and morphed by a public process in which the task force learned from neighbors and helped synthesize the collective will of the community.

Other great policymaking processes either just happened or are happening now. The Office of Historic Preservation (OHP), working with consultants and neighborhoods, recently finished up the Mission Historic District Design Manual. This yearlong, deeply engaging process saw neighbors define the character of their neighborhoods and map the cultural landscape upon which they are built.

The Development Services Department recently facilitated a process to revamp Infill Development Zoning classifications. Neighborhood representatives and developers together created a set of compromises that Council unanimously adopted, with strong support from the Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition.

The Neighborhood and Housing Services Department currently is providing guidance and expertise to a group of citizen stakeholders tackling critical issues around displacement prevention and mitigation.

Now that we have finished up the housing policy framework, I am back to work on an initiative I wrote about here. The San Antonio Conservation Society, San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the OHP have partnered with Tier 1 neighborhoods and the Historic District Coalition in what is fast becoming a significant effort to address growth in our inner – and not-so-inner – city neighborhoods in a positive manner. It’s a tough conversation, but we’re off to a good start.

A design charrette at the Center for Architecture earlier this year yielded a productive conversation among citizens about density (number of households) versus intensity (size and location of buildings) on parcels of land in different settings in collar neighborhoods.

Courtesy / Alamo Architects

Designers and architects attend a charrette at the AIA’s Center For Architecture.

On Nov. 10, neighborhood representatives from all around downtown gathered to lay out issues and begin to consider solutions. Staff from Development Services, Neighborhood and Housing Services, OHP, and the Office of Equity listened, learned, and took notes.

A series of workshops in 2019 will delve further into potential solutions for some of the issues raised in the initial meeting. The intention of this process is for citizens, representatives from various organizations, and City staff to honestly engage with each another and learn through conversation, perhaps untangling knotty problems through compromise and, in the end, creating consensus on solid policy recommendations.

In this time of strife and polarization at seemingly all levels of government, this process seems a feasible path forward. I encourage you to find and engage with an initiative like the ones discussed here and participate in your local government.

If there is an issue you are particularly concerned about that nobody seems to be addressing, go round up some neighbors and start a public process.

4 thoughts on “The Road to Equitable Policy Is Paved with Public Process

  1. This is all good activity & well intentioned at the grassroots level, but there is no discussion or insights re: the real consequences of the city’s “vision”, which is to continue with its aggressive annexation “economic growth-built environment” agenda, to become a metroplex. All facilitated by “urban planners” but subsidized by the taxpayer, favoring the commercial real estate industry of architects, bankers, developers, title companies, and related professions.

    No discussion about this vision & objective of densifying the city with a million new residents by 2040, as this goal signifies the city’s metric of “success”. This is the city’s “urban planning” model. Instead, we need a socioeconomic framework by which to measure real success, but I don’t see it happening. Physical growth trumps everything, thus, San Antonio ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in economic segregation in 2016 – was this reality addressed in your workshop? Have public officials or the City Mgr. ever addressed it? No.

    Thus there is no discussion re: this long-term plan, leading to artificially increased rates of costs of living, displacement, gentrification, utility costs, fees, & taxes, affecting low-moderate income families, renters, seniors, single heads of households, etc. All affecting our environment, air pollution, infrastructure, and water resources, on our way to becoming “a world class city”.

    BTW, the city has no definition of “economic development” & it doesn’t adopt public policy, it adopts “policy direction”, leaving untouched the “vision” they are implementing, having far greater consequences than citizens nibbling around its edges, leaving the impression they are “engaged” when in fact, they are missing the boat, completely, even by “subject matter” experts.

  2. The housing task force did some great work on creating policies that can start to address housing affordability city wide, but I think pointing to both the Midtown Neighborhood Plan and the Housing Task Force as “examples of a meaningfully inclusive policymaking process[es]” is a bit odd.

    The Housing Task Force used quite a bit of data analysis, research and outside expertise to shape the process, but the Midtown Neighborhood Plan did not. The Midtown Neighborhood Plan relied heavily on neighborhood resident opinion. One example is on p.42 of the Midtown Plan “if a structure was built as a single-family house and currently is used as a multi-family structure, the neighborhoods’ highest preference is for the house to return to single-family use when located within the Low-Density Residential classification. If returning the structure to a single-family use is infeasible, the neighborhoods would support a reduction in density.” The “preference” was/is to downzone from a four plex, triplex or duplex to a single family home – this hardly considered city growth, sprawl, segregation, housing affordability or housing market trends and created policy based on preference not data or research.

    The above example highlights why building a public policy process can’t only rely on citizen engagement and needs to also consider data, research and equitable/expert decision making. Citizens don’t always have the greater good, sustainability or equity at the forefront with their preference.

  3. Like “economic development” & other buzz terms bandied about, we need to add “the greater good”, “sustainability”, and “equity” to the list of terms never defined, with the metrics to go with them. These terms are like using GDP in economics to measure “the public good”, when it fact it bears little relationship.
    In the planning literature, it is strongly recommended that stakeholders such as citizens NOT over-rely upon data, research, and expert opinion, to render the final direction, otherwise you nullify their perspective & opinion altogether.

    • There are already ways to measure and track sustainability, equity, and future impact of policy (greater good) – i.e. equity impact analysis, indicators, Researching impact opast policies, etc.
      Planning and policy certainly do take into consideration research, expert opinion, and data, as well as public input – planning 101. I’d expand on your planning literature.

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