Work in Progress
Where's Solomon When We Need Him?
The earful of vitriol council members and city staff heard Thursday night was certainly familiar enough: A neighborhood association, this time Morningside-Ridgetop, claimed that the city had tried to sneak a traffic-generating, crime-producing menace under their doorstep at the behest of downtown developers. But lest you think this is just some simple NIMBY battle, the men and women who use the day labor program aren't exactly thrilled with the city's plan either. They are none too eager to be shuttled from the convenience of downtown north to a site further from their homes, only to be eyed with suspicion. And so, inevitably, the neighborhood association discovered that, in Morningside-Ridgetop NA chair Mike Steckel's words, "what works for them works for us." At Thursday's meeting, law student Jennifer Bowles, who has worked with the laborers for months and translated for them at the podium, liaisoned between workers and neighborhood leaders throughout the evening. Bowles admitted some trepidation about the process, however. "We recognize we're in an unwieldy position," she said. "If they stop it, the neighborhoods win, but what do we win?"
The complaints about a lack of neighborhood involvement aside, one of the most glaring facts on display Thursday was a widespread misunderstanding about the day laborers whom the new site would serve. A number of residents believe the laborers were chronically homeless and criminal. Some were quite inflammatory, predicting that transplanted day laborers would break into their homes, lay on their curbsides drinking, and menace their children. Advocates for the laborers became rightly defensive: "I don't know how many of us get up at five in the morning to sign a list in the hope of getting a low-paying job swinging a pick and shovel for eight hours a day," said Melissa Garduno-Mason, coordinator for the day labor program. "I am a bit ashamed of our community, about the things that were said about the character of the day laborer. I don't know what builds integrity more than hard work."
The laborers themselves were quite eloquent in their own defense: "I have heard about Mexican workers: Mexican workers are drug addicts, and have problems with mental health," said one laborer, Hector Esquivel, through a translator. "If there weren't people asking for workers there wouldn't be people waiting for work on the street."
The city launched the day labor program last year to try to manage the crowds of laborers seeking to take advantage of the boom in the local construction industry. But the laborers haven't wholly bought into the city-run site encircled by a seven-foot chain link fence at 400 César Chavez. It is often half empty, and laborers still line downtown streets outside the site to compete for work. But city officials say they are not merely taking a bad program from one place to another. There are steps being taken – such as establishment of a day labor advisory board and the passage of an ordinance that prohibits the pick up of laborers outside the confines of the day labor site, wherever that ultimately may be. The city plans to provide transportation from the downtown site to and from the new center. An armed guard would patrol the area, and a police officer would patrol the surrounding neighborhood on motorcycle to make sure there are no rogue labor pickups taking place elsewhere.
In fairness, the city has done a good deal to ease the relocation of the various disadvantaged constituents being disrupted by the impending CSC development. The same night the day labor site was debated, City Council opened a public hearing on its proposal to transfer about $2.5 million in federal block grant funds to build a shelter, resource center, and clinic for the homeless population being displaced from their beds at 411 W. Second Street. Safeplace administrator Angela Atwood said the city has followed through admirably on its commitment to homeless services.
Given its apparently limited options for the day labor site, however, the council will probably choose to use the 50th Street site for at least one year, against the wishes of the locals. However, expect the ANC proposal to move forward in some shape or fashion as well. Morningside-Ridgetop leaders say they'll patiently keep an open mind if the council will explore other options. And the prevailing sentiment last Thursday was that more than one day labor site was needed anyway to adequately serve the laborers and contractors and mitigate neighborhood impact.
But before the council meets again June 3, various stakeholders will have met with Lynn Svensson, coordinator of Glendale, California's Temporary Skilled Worker Center (at press time Svensson was meeting with Morningside-Ridgetop neighbors at the proposed site), which is considered a model of efficiency, organized two years ago with Catholic Charities, the Glendale police department, and the businesses and contractors that most benefit from the program's services. The day laborers also took an active role in creating and supervising the center, developing its rules and overseeing policy decisions.
But in addition to finding a way to better manage its day labor program, the city needs to confront a larger question: How exactly do you get residents to actually want a social service program like the day labor site in their neighborhoods? "Few neighborhoods say, 'Bring them to me'," noted Watson. Even if the council chooses the short-term solution and approves the 50th St. site, council members may be pinning their long-term hope on the ANC to find an answer.
In Other Business ...
Council members approved a contract with Brown & Root Inc. to begin preliminary engineering of the Waller Creek Tunnel, and also broadened the conditional zoning requirements of the East Austin Overlay to include an array of commercial, retail, and light industrial uses. New businesses as diverse as arts and crafts studios, theatres, and (surprise!) methadone clinics will now have to undergo the same Planning Commission review as the dreaded recycling centers that prompted the council to create the Overlay in 1997. The city has likely not yet put the East Austin zoning controversy to rest, however. Business owners who located in East Austin before the Overlay passed say the ordinance has dissuaded new business from moving in, driving the actual selling price of their properties down even as the Travis County Appraiser's Office hikes their taxes to reflect the booming real estate market. Reed Murray, who opened a meat processing plant at 3301 E. Fifth in 1995, told council, "I'm the face of the guy who's getting hurt by this." Murray says his business, White Mountain Foods, is "virtually unsellable" because any new owner would have to deal with additional city red tape. After council voted in the new Overlay restrictions, Gus Garcia noted that Murray's predicament was a prime example of how the neighborhood could be cheating itself out of economic renewal. "I think his concerns need to be addressed. If he's doing all those things to create jobs, I think the neighborhood needs to work with him," said Garcia. The East Austin Overlay ordinance required a commission report on the subsequent economic impact, but that hasn't yet been produced.
This Week in Council:
There's no council meeting this week, but there should be some local action at the Capitol where Lege items are coming to a head in the final days of the session. Council meets again on June 3; expect the group to pick up again on the day labor site.
"One way to define crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." – ANC President Will Bozeman