Hundreds of people attend a public meeting regarding the San Antonio housing policy framework. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

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 in October of 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

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.

Designers and architects attend a charrette at the AIA’s Center For Architecture. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Architects

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.

Jim Bailey is a senior principal at Alamo Architects where he leads the housing studio. He is an inner-city native, guerrilla planner, and policy wonk who spends his spare time thinking about issues like...

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