Member Profile: Isis Lopez

Isis LopezIf you drive through the streets of Austin, you will see juxtaposed living situations—model luxury homes next to homes that are older and in need of maintenance. When the Austin Code Department was initiated, the message for our office was that of awareness – “call Austin 311 to report violations.” But our team realized that we were treating the symptoms and not addressing possible solutions or preventing the violations.

In 2018, we shifted our mindset from “report your neighbor” to learning more about the codes and empowering individuals with resources and information to not only avoid violations but live in a safer environment, which is the end-goal for the department.

Our department is largely complaint-driven. We get a complaint, and our inspector goes out to investigate. We decided to become more pro-active, by creating a “heat map” to see the areas with a high incidence of complaints, and then we focus our outreach on the “hottest” areas.

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?

I have worked in public participation since 2017 for the Austin Code Department in the City of Austin. Initially, my title was Public Information Specialist, Senior, but in 2018, my title was reclassified to Community Engagement Specialist to better align with my work.

Before that, I worked in a small advertising agency in Brownsville, Texas and in the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, eventually as director of alumni relations helping raise funds for college students.


What turned you on to P2 in the first place?

I grew up in Brownsville, Texas, a predominantly Hispanic city (93%) and one of the cities with the highest poverty rates in the nation with the median household income being $24K. As a first-generation college student whose family has Limited English Proficiency, I knew the importance of having a voice in this nation. My career path eventually led me to Austin, and I discovered public service and IAP2 thanks to the recommendation of our director, who had also taken the Foundations course. 

When I took the Foundations training, we talked about how to reach populations that are difficult to reach, and we identified those populations — newcomers, people with limited English skills, over-worked people, new parents – and asked what tools we could use to reach them. 

I took what I learned in Foundations and put it into practice at the Code Department. Sometimes, when you take training, you’re really excited about it for the first couple of weeks, and then it fizzles. I didn’t want that to happen, so we’ve been applying the IAP2 principles to our work.

How does P2 figure in the Code Department?

If you drive through the streets of Austin, you will see juxtaposed living situations—model luxury homes next to homes that are older and in need of maintenance. When the Austin Code Department was initiated, the message for our office was that of awareness – “call Austin 311 to report violations.” But our team realized that we were treating the symptoms and not addressing possible solutions or preventing the violations.

In 2018, we shifted our mindset from “report your neighbor” to learning more about the codes and empowering individuals with resources and information to not only avoid violations but live in a safer environment, which is the end-goal for the department.

After all, if there’s a hole in the roof – that’s a safety issue. If there’s no hot water – that’s a safety issue. When we went into the community with this empowering message, the perspective began to shift. We also know that language access is important – Austin is 13% Latino or Hispanic – so we’ve been providing that, too.

Nearly 60% of the people in Austin are renters, largely because the cost of homes is rising. A house that used to cost $200 thousand a few years ago now goes for $600 thousand. So that means we need a different message for renters than for property owners.

If you own the place and have an issue, you can fix it yourself. But if you are living in an apartment and the landlord hasn’t fixed something, that’s a different story. A lot of people don’t know what their rights are. Property managers and landlords have a legal obligation to maintain their property to the minimum code standards. Either people aren’t aware of that, or they don’t feel comfortable reporting it, for whatever reason. They might fear retaliation, or they run into other barriers like language, culture, their immigration status; so we try to help them through the process, while making sure their homes are up to code.

Our department is largely complaint-driven. We get a complaint, and our inspector goes out to investigate. We decided to become more pro-active, by creating a “heat map” to see the areas with a high incidence of complaints, and then we focus our outreach on the “hottest” areas.

One thing we did, was set up a “Pop-up ATX”, working with other City departments. We’d set up shop near a school or gym where people congregate, in what we call “desert locations”: where there’s no library nearby or is disconnected from other City services. There’d be our department, a mobile library, a place where people can have their blood pressure checked, get bloodwork done, get a tag for their dog, and at the same time they can learn about codes and ordinances. In other words, we go where they are and talk with them. We’ll also set up in parts of Austin where the homes are older and are more likely to need repairs, but their neighbors won’t call on them. Again, we’d talk to the people and let them know about their rights.

What “big wins” have you had?

During my time in community engagement at the Code Department, we saw a 44% increase in our department’s community engagement events in 2018 over the previous fiscal year. We are also trying to have more proactive educational experiences to engage and educate our community on common code violations and proactive compliance, ensuring that the Austin Code Department is visible in all sectors of Austin, specifically those that are hard to reach or have limited access.

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …

I would say that it’s good practice to have an empathetic mindset and never assume anything.

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