While many University of Texas students were busy studying for final exams, senior Allie Runas was thinking about cracks in the sidewalk.
After years of stepping over them in West Campus, she decided to do something and founded the West Campus Neighborhood Association.
“One of the things that I’m hoping [to do] with this is to kind of inspire students to feel like this is their home,” says Runas, who studies electrical and computer engineering. “You’re not just here for school. You’re an Austinite now, and you’re totally able to now advocate for yourself as an adult who lives in Austin.”
Neighborhood associations serve as a voice for residents at City Hall and beyond. They're considered stakeholders and are often points of contact for city leaders in planning and development. The West Campus Neighborhood Association represents the area bordered by Guadalupe Street, Lamar Boulevard, 30th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The neighborhood includes some of the densest housing in Austin and is home to a large population of UT students.
Runas says residents don’t have to be in school to join the group, but it will be tailored to student needs. For example, meetings will be planned around the academic calendar. She plans to hold the first meeting in January, once students return from winter break.
Runas says she wants to advocate for a better quality of life and address the issues residents face every day in West Campus. Though many people walk around the neighborhood and to the UT campus, Runas says, some sidewalks are in bad shape.
“Something that’s bothered me pretty much since I’ve been going to UT is every time I walk to my boyfriend’s place, there [are] cracks in the sidewalk,” she says. “Every time we walk together, we always joke, ‘Welcome to accessible West Campus.’”
Another priority for her is improved lighting. A recent City of Austin study found that out of the more than 1,100 lights in West Campus, about 20 percent were “deficient,” meaning they were either burnt out, vandalized or obstructed in some way. Runas says she wants to see the city invest in lighting and overall safety.
“I was really motivated to make a proper organization to start advocating for stuff like that,” Runas says, “and kind of better organize everybody who was interested and noticing the same things as myself."
Many UT students are living on their own for the first time. They might not know their rights as tenants – until they have to defend them.
Earlier this year, UT sophomore Rylan Maksoud got in a legal battle after his lease with a West Campus apartment complex was abruptly terminated and he had to scramble to find a new place to live. He says the management company ultimately ended up paying him $4,500.
Maksoud says having a group like the West Campus Neighborhood Association could have helped him and other student renters facing similar challenges.
“Most students feel like they’re completely on their own,” he says. “They feel like every time they sign [for] a new place, it’s like a slot machine, just, ‘Am I going to have a good time, or am I going to completely be railroaded by a company that I have no resources or knowledge of how to stand up for myself to?”
Another neighborhood association, the University Area Partners, has represented West Campus residents since 1991. The group helped craft a 2004 plan called the University Neighborhood Overlay, which offered incentives to developers and led to some of the towering high-rises there today. Mike McHone, vice president of University Area Partners, says he sees no conflict with having a student-led group also represent the neighborhood.
“We look forward to this group being able to mobilize student opinion and help us [in] working together to create a better neighborhood,” he says.