How do you keep improving a neighborhood after $1 million in grant money runs out?
It's a warm Saturday afternoon in May along Little Walnut Creek in North Austin, and a bunch of Austin ISD school kids are painting. It doesn't look like much: a little concrete pedestrian bridge, no more than two feet tall. They're laying out scenes of farms, handprints, and abstract figures dancing. But to the population of Rundberg, arguably the most benighted, beleaguered, and overlooked part of Austin, it's a sign. It means community. It means involvement. It means somebody's paying attention.
The young artists were there as part of Rundberg Rising, one of the slate of nonprofits, city and county agencies, and volunteers brought together under the banner of the Restore Rundberg initiative. That's a federally funded endeavor, intended to turn the tide in an area ignored by policymakers for decades, and dismissed by many Austinites as "up there," the part of Austin that really doesn't count.
But now that grant just expired, and the groups and volunteers that have poured effort and energy into helping build a real community are wondering – what next?
In 2013, the Austin Police Department received a three-year, $1 million Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant from the Department of Justice to fund the Restore Rundberg initiative. The purpose of that program, according to its own mission statement, was "to improve the quality of life, health, safety, education, and well-being of individuals living and working in the Rundberg neighborhood."
APD Commander Donald Baker got his first insight into what an uphill struggle this was a couple of months into the job. He'd moved from APD's Organized Crime Division to take charge of North Austin's Region 2, inheriting the position of program manager. (Baker left his Region 2 post in early September.) It immediately became clear this would be a big endeavor. The grant area covered six square miles. (For context, most Byrne recipients are tackling one apartment complex, or a single block.) It enveloped some of Austin's most densely populated areas, with the greatest economic distress, and highest crime rates. It also spread across three neighborhood planning zones.
"And that in itself means conflict," said Baker. "What is a priority for one, may not be a priority for another."
For all that, it seemed like things were going well. The community revitalization team was expanding from five volunteers to 12, and community outreach was beginning. Then a resident at one community meeting stopped him in his tracks. "She holds up a bunch of newspaper articles on 'APD does neighborhood cleanup,' 'APD goes after the Budget Inn,' 'Community members do a walk in support.' She says, 'Look at all this,' and then she holds up a freezer-size Ziploc baggie with a large jar of Vaseline, and some condoms, and says, 'This was in my yard last night. What's changed?'"
That poses a deeper question: Why does Rundberg need this intervention in the first place?
What is Rundberg?
It sounds like the setup to a gag, but AISD Trustee Ann Teich really does remember when the Rundberg area was all fields. In 1966, she was one of the first students at the newly opened Lanier High School. Decades later, as vice president of the North Austin Civic Association, she was also one of the first community members to sign up in support of APD's original grant proposal. She's stayed involved as a team member, currently serving on its Housing Affordability Work Group. She called it "the most frustratingly organic process I have ever been involved in. It's like somebody threw seeds, and finally we're getting some plants coming up, but not because anyone had a plan."
The Rundberg neighborhood is her home, which she called "a rich, wonderful area ... a community of hardworking people who don't take anything for granted." Yet even for all that, and even though it is the second most populated area of Austin (after Downtown), she said, "This rich, wonderful area is being completely ignored."
It's not a new problem. Ask North Austin activists and residents, and they'll say there are solitary heritage trees in Zilker that have received more council attention than Rundberg ever got. For years, the perception was that, like the list of council member and staff home addresses, city policy stopped somewhere around 45th Street. Arguably, with the advent of the 10-1 system of single member districts, that may have shifted a little north, maybe to U.S. 183, but Teich still sees policymakers turning a blind eye. "Downtown's like, you don't matter. What matters to us is the University of Texas, Realtors, and what I call the cult of hipsterism attraction."
Moreover, the Rundberg-Lamar area never attracted the policy attention that East Austin managed. Teich put much of that down to one reason: the presence of a strong NAACP branch east of I-35. "They were better organized, and had better connections with the Travis County Democratic Party."
Whereas Rundberg has a web of issues preventing that kind of organization. It's a much younger, less established community, mostly built in the Sixties and Seventies. It's also incredibly diverse: While Austin is often seen as a mixture of white, Hispanic, and black residents, Rundberg has large Asian, Middle Eastern, and African populations, many of them recent migrants to the U.S. There are so many residents from North Africa and the Middle East that team members often carry leaflets in English, Spanish, and Arabic, and that's just scratching the surface: At Hart Elementary alone there are 50 languages spoken at home. "You can't be Spanish-only up here," said Teich.
Those families move to Rundberg because it has some of the city's cheapest accommodations, but that translates into a large transitory population, including a disproportionate slice of the city's refugee population. If a family moves into the area, knowing they're going to move out, it's hard to get them really invested.
Between lack of community engagement, and willful ignorance from City Hall, Teich summed up Rundberg's plight in three words: "Sloppy, dangerous, unhealthy. ... What used to be beautiful farmland became sloppy, overgrown rental properties. What used to be nice apartment complexes, duplexes, fourplexes, eightplexes, are now dangerous places where people are doubled up, tripled up. And then there's the code violations."
Now Rundberg suffers from a series of blights: high accident rates, high suicide rates, and high crime rates. How was a million dollars supposed to fix that?
Whose Problems Are They Solving?
With only three years of grant money, APD's Baker described the program's early days as akin to building a plane while taxiing down the runway. "There was no template," said Baker, so the first task was to set realistic expectations. That $1 million wasn't going to open new parks, or build health centers. Moreover, it wasn't even going to provide new services. Instead, it was about focusing what already existed: Bring agencies, nonprofits, and residents together to channel existing services, create new collaborations, and reduce duplication. In short, to create a whole lot more than the sum of its parts.
The first hurdle was community buy-in. When people heard "cleanup initiative" and "Department of Justice," Baker said, "it seems like, well, here comes APD again." But ironically, the grant came with one significant piece of buy-in – from the police themselves. In other communities, where the initiative came from community groups or nonprofits, "the community did not have to get the buy-in from the police department." That's a bullet that Austin dodged, said Baker, "but the hard part was having the legitimacy and support from the community."
The biggest fear was that this was just backdoor gentrification. Monica Guzmán, the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team representative for the North Lamar/Georgian Acres Neighborhood Planning Area, was an early proponent of the project, but saw a dark side. She said, "What happens when you have a high crime area and crime goes down? Property prices go up, forcing people out, and all the developers come in."
For Baker, that would be the worst result. He said, "I heard it clear from the community. 'We do not want gentrification. We want this to be a safe environment to raise our kids, to have a life, and to not be driven out.'"
There's the old saying that, if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. However, the grant was supposed to use every tool in the box. So while APD's name is on that big check from the feds, Baker knew that he had to get other agencies involved. He said, "You can't arrest your way out of the problem. We're not the best tool for most of these problems. We're not the best tool for homelessness. We're not the best tool to address mental health. We are designed to help to keep the public safe."
Yet there were changes he could implement. Before he came on board, the policing approach was "100 percent enforcement. Let's take the area, let's bring in officers on overtime, and let's go after everything." But not only was that increasing tensions between residents and police, it wasn't actually reducing crime. So out went 100% enforcement, and in came walking beats: two days a week, officers out on patrol, getting to know the neighborhood, getting to know the neighbors.
But changing staffing patterns wasn't enough. Baker had to change the metrics by which policing is gauged. He said, "I came around and said, for this grant, I don't care if you make a single arrest. I don't care if you write a traffic citation. Your job is to go out, meet people, talk to people, and more importantly listen to them say, 'Here's the concerns, here's why we don't feel safe, here's the things we wish were better in the area.'"
In the last two years Baker said his officers managed an astounding 16,000 face-to-face contacts with residents, a massive listening process that let APD reconsider its perspective. Baker said, "We may think that the robberies, the homicides, the gangs are the top priorities. We started talking to people and no, it's simple nuisance problems. It's the graffiti that's on walls. It's the people that are hanging around on this one corner, so every time their kids or their spouses walk by, they get harassed, so they don't want to walk to the corner store."
Then there were simple civic issues like trash pickups, park access, and streetlights. For Baker and his team, that meant pivoting from communicating with other parts of the criminal justice system to forging links with seemingly unrelated entities. "Are we coordinating with Code? Are we coordinating with Public Works? Are we getting with other agencies that already provide services that we can get in?"
For Guzmán, shifting from enforcement to collaboration is key. Failing to do so curtailed success by the project's Neighborhood Enhancement Team project, a 19-agency collaboration intended to target housing issues. She said, "No matter what I told them, it's 'Well, they don't want us there.' I said, 'They do want you there. They just want you to take off the enforcement hat, stop going after the low-hanging fruit, and teach them. Show them where the resources are. They didn't get a permit? Did they even know they had to have one?'"
She voiced frustration that too much effort went into targeting individual renters, and not enough into targeting bad actor landlords. Moreover, she would have preferred that the city focused more on educating landlords about programs that could help improve their properties. She also argued that some violations happened just because refugees and migrants have no idea there are rules to violate. "There's no 'Welcome to Austin, here's all the codes you need to know' package when they come in," she said. "You're talking about a lot of people who had to leave their home country in fear of their lives. How do you think they're going to respond when they see a badge, or someone in uniform?"
Sometimes the outreach meant literally discarding the uniform: Baker noted that he would often wear a suit or khakis in community meetings, to put residents more at ease. With residents increasingly calmed by his style of policing, he consulted with the program's research partners at UT to see where to concentrate law enforcement efforts. Four locations, dubbed hot spots, accounted for the majority of crime. These were usually vacant lots that became centers for prostitution, drug trafficking, and the resultant accompanying violent crimes. To disrupt that pattern, Baker simply deployed four officers for evening patrols. He said, "You've taken the community policing concept, and they just have a smaller district."
Yet even these weren't simply nails for law enforcement to hammer down. Take just one of those hot spots, a homeless camp at Rundberg and Lamar. Rather than just giving residents – some of whom had been there for two decades – half an hour to bundle up their lives, the project assembled what it called the care team, with representatives of Austin Travis County Integral Care, Goodwill, Caritas, Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Veterans Affairs, and Travis County EMS. They went in as a group and assessed what the camp residents needed. By the time they had finished, they had put all but five or six of the roughly 40 residents of the camp on the path out of permanent homelessness. That was key for Baker, who couldn't just worry about Rundberg. As Region 2 commander, he said, "I [was] responsible for 77 square miles of city. If I just take a spot and move it, then I'm just chasing a problem."
It's an incremental change that had a huge impact, exactly the kind of research-driven, interagency collaboration the grantees intended. Now with grant money having run out Sept. 30, the Restore Rundberg team is taking stock of what they have achieved, and where they go next.
Money Well Spent
There have been undoubted successes. Both Guzmán and Teich laud Restore Rundberg's health care group, which worked with Latino HealthCare Forum on a health assessment and work plan used to train 24 community health workers – including two Arabic-speaking staff. One volunteer produced a multilingual smartphone app, which will direct residents to medical professionals, services, even healthy eating options. Teich said, "They understood the integration of housing, transit, language access, healthy food, how that's all wrapped into health."
That health assessment was paid for with money from the city leveraged because of the Byrne grant, and that's key. In the world of nonprofits, money follows money, as donors like a track record, especially one that proves community engagement. Those kids painting the Little Walnut Creek bridge weren't just making the place look pretty: The city counted their effort as sweat equity toward the community component required to trigger sidewalk improvements in the neighborhood.
The revitalization team tried to make sure that as few projects as possible depended on grant cash. However, some spending was inevitable. For Shana Fox, executive director at the Council on At-Risk Youth (CARY), the end of the Byrne grant means one thing: Her team's vital job of reaching out to the most vulnerable students has been severely curtailed. Two years ago, they were allocated $128,000 to be what Fox called "boots on the ground" for youth engagement. With 30% of the population in the area under the age of 18, that's a top priority. The grant allowed them to put licensed mental health clinicians at four AISD campuses (Dobie Middle and Lanier High schools, and Barrington and Hart elementaries) to "work with kids that are in the disciplinary system, for gangs, weapons, violence, things like that. It's the kids that are always in trouble, always in the office, always getting sent home." It was an uphill struggle, yet Fox argued that they were making headway, even after just two years: "We were seeing a 60 percent increase in academic achievement, a 55 percent increase in attendance, and maybe most notably an 85 percent decrease in serious behavioral offenses."
Fox argued that the program provides a remarkable return on investment, since CARY spends about $1,000 per year per client – as opposed to $120,000 a year if they end up in a state juvenile corrections facility. However, while the group is in discussions with Council and APD about possible replacement funding, she said, "The government doesn't have a big line item for intervention."
Yet not all the money or energy has gone away. Michelle Wallis, AISD's executive director of Innovation and Development, said that the work done by Restore Rundberg was part of the reason that the district chose five Rundberg-area schools for a new initiative. She said, "We already knew there was a lot of effort in that community, and there were a lot of willing partners." Now AISD has a three-year, $1.75 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, aimed at providing the same support and intervention for children and parents as the Byrne grant. Wallis saw their work as an infrastructure for the district to build upon, and that they plan to stay engaged with them. "They've been doing it for so long, with all of the partners at the table."
However, without the grant, Rundberg's revitalization team has new administrative headaches ahead, starting with rewriting its bylaws, and taking stock of its volunteer base. Guzmán admits that, without the money to pay for a full-time community engagement officer, volunteers will be more important than ever. It was tough enough even with staff help: At her first meeting, Guzmán said there were 150 people. "I haven't seen that kind of crowd in three years. Sometimes it's two, three people, sometimes it's 20 or 30."
Moreover, with the grant gone, there will be a whole bunch of people at City Hall for whom helping Restore Rundberg will no longer be part of their job description. Yet Guzmán remained upbeat that they will want to stay involved. She said, "I may not get as fast a response, but I'm not going to assume the worst, because I already have a lot of contacts."
The team all look for the positive side of the grant's end. After all, each individual knew it was going away, and they all knew that $1 million would barely scrape the surface. Baker described its purpose as being to "prime the pump," to start the interagency communication that can lead to real change. For Guzmán, it's even slightly liberating. She said, "Now the grant's going away, now we really get to control what we do." With health care doing so well, she plans to push harder on housing and economic development. After all, she argues, if residents are earning more money, even if housing costs rise, they'll still get to stay in their homes.
So now the team goes back to doing what it's done since day one: knocking on doors, talking to people, organizing events, breaking down silos. Guzmán said, "The outreach can never stop. Even though the grant period stops, we want to keep things going. Because three years isn't enough to make drastic change."