Exclusive Interview with Mayor Ivy Taylor, San Antonio, TX

Thursday March 19, 2015

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Shelterforce Exclusive Interview With Mayor Ivy Taylor, San Antonio, TX

When Julian Castro, then-mayor of San Antonio, Texas, was picked to be the new Secretary of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development last year, the city council voted in Ivy Taylor from among their ranks to replace him. The first African-American mayor of the largely Latino and Anglo city, and strongly identified as an urban planner, Taylor casts herself as someone interested more in getting work done than leaving a political legacy. However, she has not shied away from controversial positions, and her initial position that she would not be running for re-election fell by the wayside as she announced her candidacy on February 16, less than two weeks after this interview. We spoke with Mayor Taylor, who has a background in affordable housing, about what it's like to move between the community development sphere and city government, some of her difficult decisions, and her vision for stable, mixed-income neighborhoods in the city she is serving.

Miriam Axel-Lute: How did you first become aware of the community development and community planning world, and what have been some of the milestones that have kept you in that world as you've moved along?

Ivy Taylor: I actually came to it a little bit late. I went to college and majored in American Studies, came home and bumped around in jobs in advertising, and didn't really feel fulfilled. I decided I needed to go back to school to study something to put me on a career path that I'd be interested in.

I was looking through the catalog for Hunter College, because I figured I'd just go to school at night, and they had a degree in urban planning. I had literally never heard of it. I started investigating and decided that it combined many of the things that I was interested in, in particular affordable housing. I ended up going to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where within the planning program, we had to select an area of focus, and mine was housing and community development.

Miriam Axel-Lute: At some point you participated in an NCCED (National Congress for Community Economic Development) internship program. How did that play into your career development?

 Ivy Taylor: Well, that actually put me on the path that I'm on. Without NCCED, I wouldn't be here as mayor of San Antonio. They matched up grassroots nonprofits with interns that were either studying planning or public policy. When I looked at the available positions for that summer, the position in San Antonio sounded the most interesting because it was going to be working with a coalition of affordable housing providers. I had never been to San Antonio before.

Miriam Axel-Lute: And what did you do with those affordable housing providers?

Ivy Taylor: I created a housing access directory. At that time, there were several groups that provided various services related to affordable housing, but nobody ever knew what anybody was doing. They saw in my background, which had been in advertising, a little marketing twist. The idea was for me to develop a communications plan for the organizations and also put together a directory of the services that they provided.

Keli Tianga: You were born in Brooklyn, and you lived in Queens. Did growing up in those neighborhoods have any influence on your interest in urban planning?

Ivy Taylor: I don't know. My context was so limited when I was growing up that I really didn't have a framework for planning, for public policy, for a lot of these issues the way I've come to have years later. But wherever you grow up, you think every place else is like that, right? So New York was my frame of reference; when I got other places, it was hard for me to understand the whole sprawl phenomenon, and related issues like lack of transportation options. All those things just weren't part of the context in New York [City].

Miriam Axel-Lute: Do you think you brought any sort of fresh perspective that people in those places didn't have?

Ivy Taylor: Well, no. I'm very sensitive in my role here, that we're not trying to be anyplace else. We have to work within the framework and the context of whatever locale you're in. I developed an appreciation for a different way of living, but also did understand that there were some elements of living in a dense city that made life a little bit easier for people who didn't have a lot of resources than when you got in a locale where things were more spread out.

Miriam Axel-Lute: In San Antonio, you were in local government, and then you were in the nonprofit world, and then an elected official. How is it to move between those different contexts?
Ivy Taylor: Well, when I first came here, I assumed that I would work at some fabulous nonprofit that was doing cutting-edge work, because that's all I learned about at UNC. I didn't really think a whole lot about the role of government other than the funds that HUD provided. I just thought there were all these great nonprofits everywhere that were changing communities.

When I moved here, I found much fewer nonprofits than I had anticipated, and there weren't any opportunities for me at that time, so I started out in local government. I was frustrated because I didn't think there was the level of innovation in local government that there needed to be. I also didn't think there was a commitment to provide funding needed for inner-city revitalization.

So, I left after six years working at the city, [and] went to a nonprofit [Ed note: Merced Housing Texas]. What I found there that was very liberating was the ability to implement creative ideas, to the extent that they could be funded.

But then, after being there for a while, I realized that the life outcomes of our clients were still pretty limited. I had a moment where I was, like, well, affordable housing really isn't the magic bullet here, because we're providing great, safe, affordable housing. We provided social services at apartment communities we owned, as well, and our families were still struggling so much.

So, then I started thinking more broadly, from a public policy perspective, of what else could I do as an individual to help change outcomes for more people, and that's when some community members suggested that I run for City Council, which I thought was absolutely bonkers at first. But then, I said, maybe, given the experience that I've had, I can bring that to the table, being a policymaker.

Of course, in this realm, the frustrating part can be that a lot of times people don't want to do what's right. They just want to focus on what's political. But my perspective has broadened as far as how all these different issues intersect and how, as a policymaker, you have to balance advocating for certain segments of society with the larger society.

Miriam Axel-Lute: We were speaking earlier this week with John Henneberger of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, and he was talking about Texas being ground zero for the fight for fair housing. [Ed note: Look for that interview in a couple weeks in Shelterforce Weekly.] He was describing fair housing as being much bigger than how we usually think about it, not just about mobility and the right to be able to move, but also the right to be able to stay in improving neighborhoods and equalizing treatment between neighborhoods. How are those kinds of questions playing out in San Antonio?
Read the full interview here.

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