¿No Habla Land Use?
One thing about CodeNEXT: It’s definitely in English
One to one-thousand-one-hundred-thirty. That's the ratio of Spanish scripted pages to English scripted pages held within the mass of CodeNEXT documents that are accessible today by the public. In a February op-ed in the Statesman, Mayor Steve Adler wrote of the current land use code: "It's a mess, but we can fix it if we work together." But the current code is only available in English.
When the deadline for public comment on the proposed code's first draft passed Wednesday, June 7, all Spanish speakers had to consult was a single page on the city's website titled "CodeNEXT en Español." The page offers visitors a one-and-a-half minute introductory video and a link to a one-page overview of what will go on through the rewrite process. Notably missing is a link to the CodeNEXT online public comment portal, where citizens are invited to peruse an interactive version of the draft code text and post notes on specific passages – as well as view other residents' thoughts – in English. (The page does include a link to the interactive CodeNEXT comparison map, which does provide space for comments, though that page too is not available in Spanish.) With the city's Hispanic population already representing more than 35% of all residents – and on pace to become the majority demographic by 2020 – any monolingual call for collaboration among all Austinites may be unrealistic.
That concern first arose in public forum during the joint meeting of land use commissioners in January, when Zoning and Platting Commissioner Ann Denkler asked staff about the availability of draft translations. "We don't have the resources," CodeNEXT spokesperson Alina Carnahan said in response. "Some of it's a budget issue. Some of it's a time issue. We're doing as much as we can with the resources we have."
Speaking Monday with the Chronicle, Carnahan noted that the city "want[s] to hear feedback from the Spanish speaking community. All of our office hours are available in Spanish if [someone] requests them. Additionally, we have Spanish speaking staff" at all CodeNEXT open houses. But interpreters are not always available at other CodeNEXT-related talks, like commission meetings. At the May 17 meeting of the Environmental Commission, for example, a Spanish speaking resident from Dove Springs came to share her opinion during public comment, but had to rely on a fellow attendee who volunteered to translate in order to properly convey her point.
EC Chair Marisa Perales remarked during that meeting that more needed to be done to accommodate Hispanic participation during the review process. "It seems like community engagement efforts regarding CodeNEXT are not robust enough to include those voices," she said. "We need to be prioritizing these voices and these concerns." Part of the letter of recommendation the commission adopted that night was a proposal that City Council make Spanish interpretation more integral to CodeNEXT discourse and to put more energy into reaching the Hispanic communities throughout the city.
Ana Aguirre, another Zoning and Platting commissioner, suggested that the lack of accessibility is a product of city inequity. "Everyone should have an equal opportunity to be informed," she said. "If they don't have that opportunity to be aware of what's going on, then they cannot be engaged in the process."
Mayoral spokesperson Jason Stanford told the Chronicle: "We always can do better, but I think the city's doing a pretty good job as far as including Spanish speakers in this process." The city will host a Spanish-language open house to discuss CodeNEXT on Wednesday, June 28, from 7-8:30pm at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, but it may take more than a 90-minute event to reduce the disparity in political efficacy between English speaking residents and everyone else in terms of contributing to the final CodeNEXT document.
See “CodeNEXT en Español” at the very bottom of the page at www.austintexas.gov/codenext.