Friends Like These
New neighborhood group views diverge from established NA
There's a new kid on the block of Austin neighborhood organizations, and the longtime residents don't quite know what to make of the newcomer. The Friends of Austin Neighborhoods (www.atxfriends.org) began organizing in the spring, and their interim board members expect to hold formal elections this month. Their founding members say they're primarily interested in "inclusiveness" and bringing a wider range of city residents into the public "neighborhood" conversation. "We want to reclaim the name 'neighborhood' for what it originally meant," says FAN Board President Roger Cauvin. "A community within a given city area, and all the voices within that community."
Although FAN is still fairly small in raw numbers – as of Sept. 9, seven neighborhood associations and about 100 individual members had joined – they've been reaching out with presentations to existing neighborhood associations, and expect to grow. However, they haven't exactly been greeted with open arms by more traditional neighborhood organizations, most specifically the Austin Neighborhoods Council (www.ancweb.org). Asked about FAN, ANC President Mary Ingle said, "I don't know who these people are, or what they're up to, or why they exist." She accused FAN members of being "disruptive" of ANC general meetings by attempting to live-stream or live-tweet the discussions – both practices now apparently banned by ANC bylaws.
Cauvin – who's also a delegate to ANC [*see correction below] from the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association – says FAN members generally have a different perspective on some issues from the older NAs, some of whose members he describes as CAVEs: "Citizens Against Virtually Everything." But he insisted that the main purpose of FAN is not to counter established NAs, but to bring more people into neighborhood representation and public discussions. "City officials reflexively speak of 'the neighborhoods' – 'What do the neighborhoods think?' – as though there's only one voice for the neighborhoods. We all live in neighborhoods, but we all don't necessarily feel represented by the neighborhood organizations around town. That's why we began to organize FAN."
The brief history of FAN was preceded by a localized version: the Friends of Hyde Park (www.friendsofhydepark.com). According to co-founder Ricky Hennessy (also a board member of FAN), he and a few other Hyde Park residents formed FoHP in early 2015 in response to what they considered the insularity and restrictive procedures of the existing NA, the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association (www.austinhydepark.org). "You couldn't vote if you hadn't been an active member for 30 days," Hennessy said, "but votes were often only announced seven days in advance." FoHP opened membership to all Hyde Park residents and business owners, and conducts online balloting on neighborhood issues – notably, a resolution in support of "accessory dwelling units" that won by a 91-65 margin. Hennessy argues that secure online voting involves many more people than traditional meetings of "10 or 20 people," and enables FoHP to counter the notion at City Hall that HPNA's perspective represents the entire neighborhood.
There was some early tension between the two groups – FoHP meetings scheduled in conflict with HPNA's, each group wondering what the other was up to – but that seems to have at least somewhat subsided. HPNA co-president Lorre Weidlich said that in her 40 years in Austin, every organization she's ever belonged to – including a quilting group – eventually developed dissident factions that came and went in time. "I'm just waiting to see what's going to happen," she said. Although Weidlich herself works in high-tech, she doesn't place much faith in FoHP's digital democracy, and like Ingle, says that if people really wish to have influence on neighborhood decisions they need to attend meetings and get directly engaged, not just vote or comment online. She also noted that HPNA does much more than hold neighborhood issue meetings, and listed the annual fire station festival, ice cream social, holiday party, and newsletter. "We're about trying to bring neighborhood people together," Weidlich said.
The FoHP has begun to hold social meetups at neighborhood restaurants, and co-founder Pete Gilcrease (also a FAN board member) noted that the two groups – or at least mutual members – are working together on the campaign to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School. "We're trying to be more inclusive. They [HPNA] were going to the city and saying, 'We represent the entire neighborhood.' We just had a suspicion that a majority of the neighborhood might have the opposite view."
That the differing opinions flashed over ADUs – and more recently, stricter regulation of short-term rentals – is no coincidence, as the "Friends" groups tend to be younger and include more renters than traditional NAs. Their websites emphasize housing diversity, density, and affordability, and the need to increase Austin's overall housing supply. Weidlich says Hyde Park is already sufficiently dense. "We're already the second-densest ZIP code in the city," she said. "I don't see why we should further densify when there are all these other-less-dense neighborhoods out there." She suggested additional density should go "where the jobs are."
Gilcrease – who owns and manages several Hyde Park short-term rentals – said a central focus of FoHP is: "How do we make Hyde Park affordable for everyone?" But some of his Hyde Park neighbors say Gilcrease and his fellow commercial STR owners are in fact removing affordable rental properties from the housing supply and thereby driving up prices. Chronicle publisher and Hyde Park resident Nick Barbaro suggests FoHP's real agenda is defending commercial STRs, and that the "Friends" groups are "operating in support of those who 'see Austin as a commodity, not a community.' I think they're master-planned for a specific agenda, I think they're anti-democratic, deceptive, and, oh yes, wrong on the issues."
ANC's Ingle simply doesn't buy it either. She says bluntly, "I don't think they are our 'friends.' That's really a misnomer." She said FAN and ANC values are in conflict, pointing to the presence of Frank Harren, active in the Real Estate Council of Austin, on the FAN board (one of nine board members), and insisted the group is "closely aligned with RECA if not funded by RECA."
"We get zero funding," said Cauvin, in response to the RECA or "developer" funding charges. "Two people – I'm one of them – have paid out of pocket for a certificate of filing [with the state], and the website. That's it." (FAN doesn't yet charge membership dues, but plans to do so next year.) Ingle insists FAN, like RECA, is targeting single-family zoning with the intention of eliminating it from the urban core. "They want our homes, they want our land, they want our zoning," she said. "That's offensive to neighborhoods."
Ingle didn't stop there, saying she had "heard" that FAN is "funded by the Koch Brothers," the fossil-fuel billionaires underwriting much national right-wing politics. Does she have any evidence for such an outlandish charge? "It's a rumor that I've heard," she said. "I'm just passing it along." Nevertheless, she concluded, "I just wish people could get along a little better."
Cauvin and Hennessy say the ad hominem attacks do not discourage them, and they believe FAN can become an ally to other neighborhood organizations and, they hope, a force for change in the city at large. "We do view ourselves as complementary to other organizations," Cauvin said. "We just want to make sure that other voices are heard. We welcome the neighborhood associations that belong to ANC to also join FAN."
*Correction: The story originally reported in error that Roger Cauvin is a "sector rep" at Austin Neighborhoods Council; he's a delegate to ANC from the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.