Residents see a change, but what will happen when the $1 million grant program ends?
Officer Taber White was fresh out of the police academy when he responded to his first call on Sam Rayburn Drive. It was the summer of 2008, and a man had been stabbed in the stomach in an open space between two apartment complexes just south of Rundberg Lane.
“This was a really, really rough place,” White said, pointing to a small set of stairs where he said crack addicts used to gather to do drugs.
Now the sun is setting. Kids are just getting out of school for the weekend, and they ride their bikes through the grass by the street.
“It’s just changed so much,” White said.
The change is evident to other people who live in the area, too. In a 2014 survey of Rundberg residents, 40 percent told the Austin Police Department they felt their neighborhood was a safe place to live. In 2015, that number increased to 74 percent.
Residents point to a mix of things: the increased police presence, the community meetings, the neighborhood cleanups — all components of a $1 million U.S. Department of Justice grant program known as Restore Rundberg.
The goal of the four-year project was to break the cycle of crime and build a sense of community in the North Austin neighborhood around Rundberg Lane. Over the past decade, that 5-square-mile area has hosted about 12 percent of the reports of violent crime in the city.
With grant money winding down and research wrapping up at the end of September, officials are now taking stock of project — what has worked, what hasn’t worked and how much of it will be continued.
Pounding the pavement
On a recent Friday night, a young man stopped to shake hands with White and officer Ray Kianes and thank them for their service.
Four days a week, they walk a beat with six other officers in Rundberg, concentrating on “hot spots” along Interstate 35, Sam Rayburn Drive and Northgate Boulevard.
Austin police officer Ray Kianes checks in with Omar Quintanilla on Feb. 24. The Restore Rundberg project has improved crime rates in four of its targeted high-crime hot spots. "We used to have a homeless camp behind the shop with people shooting up, doing drugs, prostitution," said Quintanilla, who owns Shell Rapid Lube on East Rundberg Lane. "Since the foot patrols started, it's all been cleared out." (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)
Since April 2014, they’ve abandoned traditional policing — only reacting to 911 calls and tallying arrests — in favor of the mobile walking beat. Their presence helps deter crime. But they say the interaction with the community also builds trust and encourages people to share information about problems, which they can then tackle, one issue at a time.
There is progress: In the Rundberg corridor, arrests for violent crime are down 4.5 percent since 2012, when the grant was first awarded (the goal is a 5 percent reduction by the grant’s end). The University of Texas researchers involved in Restore Rundberg say the drop has been even more pronounced in hot spot areas, where officers employed the walking beat.
Carlos Leguizamo has lived in an apartment complex on Sam Rayburn Drive for seven years. His backyard is part of the area that UT researchers describe as high-crime hot spot 2.
“It used to be bad,” he said. “Right now, we live a lot more peaceful.”
Leguizamo listened to the children playing outside. He said that never used to happen here.
“On the surface, at least, you can see that there is a difference,” added neighbor Manuel Diaz.
Antonio Mancinas shakes hands with Austin police officers Tuhwan Kim (right) and Jacob Ballisteros, who are part of Restore Rundberg's mobile walking beat, on March 5. Mancinas, an employee at Sunrise Mart, says he has seen a recent drop in crime in the area. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)
He pointed to a laundry room outside his door that used to be frequented by prostitutes. Months ago, once the offenders had drifted away, the building manager finally felt it was safe enough to keep the room unlocked.
Cecile Fandos, a community organizer hired by the city, goes door to door, enlisting residents to form a neighborhood watch. On the other side of the complex, in a grassy space between another row of apartments, the city plans to build a park.
‘Like an onion’
Restore Rundberg is more than just a crime project, Monica Guzmán said.
Guzmán is part of the Restore Rundberg Revitalization Team, which has representatives from various neighborhoods, minority groups and faith-based communities. It was formed at the beginning of the initiative to help determine the most pressing needs, and it continues to act as an advisory body for programs going forward.
What began as a five-member group expanded to 15. They look at issues like homelessness and prostitution and partner with relief organizations like Goodwill Industries and Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to provide housing and a hand up.
But it has been hard to keep seats on the team filled (although there are no vacancies now) and to engage the refugee and immigrant population — 64 percent of Rundberg residents speak languages other than English.
Still, grant coordinator Kyran Fitzgerald described the team as the “future” of Restore Rundberg, the catalyst for good that will remain when the grant money runs out.
Earlier this year, at the team’s urging, the City Council agreed to fund the Latino HealthCare Forum’s Health & Wellness Initiative, which will train residents in the area to serve as community health workers, free of charge.
According to Guzmán, Restore Rundberg is “like an onion.”
“A lot of people only see that outside layer,” she said, referring to the anti-crime efforts that draw the most media attention. But with other parts of their $570,000 share of the grant, Austin police have planted trees, cleaned up graffiti, set up gang intervention programs in schools and collaborated with apartment and motel owners — efforts that have yielded varying results.
A complex picture of change
On a Monday afternoon, a woman sifted through her luggage and plastic bags in front of the Red Roof Inn along I-35. Front desk manager Matt Franklin walked over and asked her to leave. If she continued to loiter, he told her, he would call the police.
“Most of the criminal element in this area has been that way for a while,” Franklin said. “You have to show that you mean business.”
Franklin has worked at the motel since 2012 and said he used to call the police three or four times a day for problems like prostitution and drugs. Now he only calls once or twice a week.
He attributes a lot of that to the police presence in the area. But the Red Roof Inn also hired a security guard, started checking visitor IDs and added nighttime staff.
Officer Ray Kianes mows the lawn while residents paint the outside of a house that was being restored by the community as part of Restore Rundberg on Feb. 27. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)
Franklin attended early meetings the Police Department hosted for Rundberg motel owners, where officers handed out paperwork about frequent offenders and attempted to organize “do not rent” lists. They stopped meeting several months ago, shifting their focus to other areas. Franklin said now he doesn’t communicate with most of the motel owners, just his neighbors.
He still sees a lot of people walking from property to property along the interstate, where a total of eight low-cost motels sit just between Rundberg and Powell lanes. It is an area that was once so bad neighbors marched in protest along the highway.
The city filed a lawsuit against the Budget Lodge in 2008, declaring it a public nuisance and forcing owners to renovate and upgrade the motel. After basic improvements, 135 police calls in 2008 became just 31 in 2009, based on reports compiled by krimelabb.com. That number ticked up some in 2015, with 51 reports.
While the first UT sociologist on the Restore Rundberg team suggested that same approach in dealing with problem properties, Austin police and other project leaders decided to focus their efforts instead on community policing.
But a code-enforcement pilot program — called NET, or the Neighborhood Enhancement Team — did take shape at the same time as Restore Rundberg, with code officials empowered to proactively cite properties instead of waiting for complaints. Between February and September 2015, they identified 88 blighted properties they will work to bring into compliance.
Abel Lopez grew up not far from the strip of motels. He understands as much as anybody that change requires perseverance. As a boy, he said, he was afraid to sleep near the windows, because he often heard gunshots at night. But he grew up idolizing gang members and for many years sold and used drugs.
One day Lopez realized he’d lost too much. In 2012, he asked God to mend him. He took jobs cleaning office buildings and waiting tables. And he started mentoring kids. Now, as a member of the revitalization team, he tells Spanish-speaking residents about upcoming meetings and makes sure immigrants feel comfortable calling the police.
These days it’s rare to hear gunshots, he said, but there are still problems. He has painted over graffiti on fences and school buildings only to see the walls marked again. He cleans a street, and the next week trash piles up.
“I’m not saying I’m satisfied with it,” said Lopez, 28. “But I’m not disappointed.”
Neighborhood organizer Lisa Hinely questions whether other activities, apart from the Restore Rundberg efforts, could have contributed to lower crime numbers. Last year the W.K. Kellogg Foundation directed $330,000 to Rundberg schools, and Hinely noted the city has extended hours at local libraries, police installed High Activity Location Observation surveillance cameras, and the North Lamar/Georgian Acres neighborhood planning team has organized efforts to build sidewalks and improve parks.
“We don’t know why precisely crime has gone down and why people feel safer,” said UT professor David Springer, the principal investigator of the Restore Rundberg effort. “We have theories about it. We think it has a lot to do with the mobile walking beat, but it also might be a result of the activities of people in the area.”
He hopes to have a clearer picture from the latest survey of Rundberg residents, expected to be released this spring.
That research also will examine whether crime is merely being displaced. A few months ago, researchers identified a fourth hot spot adjacent to Sam Rayburn Drive. Springer said it is possible crime might have shifted there or into other neighborhoods.
When the grant money runs out in September, the four Austin police walking beat shifts will be reduced to three. The community organizer position will be phased out, unless city officials decide to fund it themselves.
For those invested in Restore Rundberg, these next few months are about pushing for programs that have staying power and getting the money to back them.
“A lot of the sustainable solutions we are putting in place will hopefully continue on,” said officer Kianes, who hopes to stay on the walking beat.
Some of the residents here are hesitant. They don’t want to get involved. They move in and out of the area and don’t form an attachment to its future.
Others have stuck around long enough to see both the good and the bad. Irena Vera, who has lived on Sam Rayburn Drive for a decade, said the police presence here has pushed out a lot of the criminal types.
Even so, she heard gunshots on a recent night. She said if the police leave, the criminals will come back.
“They stop seeing them around, it’ll go back that way,” Vera said. “It’ll get worse again.”
In addition to the community policing, the work of the revitalization team and research provided by the University of Texas, the plans for Restore Rundberg included other ideas. Here’s what became of them:
RESTORE RUNDBERG MARKETPLACE
The idea: Austin police would provide a place for residents to meet, discuss issues, obtain information about social services and meet with officers and public safety representatives in a nonthreatening space. Meetings would be held at 6 p.m. weekly, with one meeting per month focused on a particular problem.
What happened: Marketplace meetings took place at a YMCA for about a year, but after attendance fell to one or two people, the marketplace was eliminated in November 2015.
What’s next: There are no plans to reinstate marketplace meetings.
The idea: Austin police representatives would organize apartment/landlord coalitions within the three hot spots to address criminal activity, maintenance problems and social service needs.
What happened: The Rundberg Apartment Coalition, consisting of 14 apartment complexes within the hot spot in the Northgate neighborhood, began its quarterly meetings in 2013. Apartment managers, owners and staff are able to voice concerns of their residents, including prevalence of family violence, crimes against immigrants, drug dealing and prostitution. They also have taken concrete action, such as installing parking signs and towing vehicles. Last year a second group, called the Rutland Apartment Coalition, sprung up. It also meets quarterly, at one of the seven apartment complexes around Rutland Drive that make up its membership.
What’s next: The coalitions, which do not rely on grant funding, will continue to meet after the Rundberg grant period ends in September.
Austin police officer Tuhwan Kim stops Feb. 27 to give stickers to (from left) Johana Vargas, 9, Quieres Aleman, 3, Daniela Gonzales, 11, and Jose Gonzales, 6 (not pictured). (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST/ORGANIZER
The idea: A city-employed specialist would work 40 hours a week for 95 weeks to plan youth programs, leverage community support for projects and act as a liaison for code compliance and nuisance abatement cases, among other responsibilities.
What happened: Two different people have held the job since August 2014. The first organizer helped connect residents with city services and introduced Restore Rundberg to area businesses and nonprofits. The new coordinator has helped develop the city website for Restore Rundberg and the Rundberg Educational Advancement District, worked in the individual hot spots to form neighborhood watch groups, publicized events related to the initiative and provided some translation services.
What’s next: Funding for the position runs out with the grant, but the Austin Police Department is working with city officials to create a permanent, full-time position for community engagement in Rundberg and other neighborhoods.
JUVENILE JUSTICE AND YOUTH SERVICES
The idea: Establish early intervention programs to prevent juvenile crime. Initial ideas focused on after-school programs, methods to keep low-risk offenders out of the juvenile justice system, coordinating social services for struggling children and setting up classes that deter kids from joining gangs.
What happened: CARY, which sponsors juvenile crime prevention programs in 13 schools, received $127,800 of the $1 million Restore Rundberg grant. The funding went toward individual and group counseling programs CARY already had at Lanier High School and Dobie Middle School as well as an expansion to Hart and Barrington elementary schools. Among the roughly 1,000 students served over four semesters, behavioral incidents were reduced by 85 percent and school attendance and grades improved by more than 50 percent. In 2013, Austin police officers implemented a gang resistance program that meets weekly at six Rundberg schools. They also rebranded the neighborhood’s school system as the Rundberg Educational Advancement District, which includes efforts to clean up the neighborhood and connect at-risk kids to area resources.
What’s next: The gang resistance program and educational advancement team meetings will continue after the grant period. CARY is seeking funding from the city and Austin school district to continue its programs.