Austin Board of Realtors’ first ever (and youngest) female CEO shares the lessons that have shaped her view of equity in housing.

By Emily Chenevert

Growing up, Sundays were for church and family lunch at Grandma’s house. All the aunts, uncles and cousins would come up the long driveway on Fisher Lane, make a ham sandwich and circle up in the living room. Kids to adults, all of us sat on the big blue sofa or cozied up on a piece of carpet and the conversation began. The afternoon would hold hours of discussion on the topics of the day, primarily centered on politics. Sunday suppers helped shape my understanding of many issues and reinforced the values I hold dear today.

I miss Sunday suppers and the opportunity to be with my family so regularly. But I’m thankful for the many years I had with ham sandwiches and sitting next to Grandma on the big blue couch. I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and the opportunity to use those lessons to help make Austin a better place and home for all. Here are some of the things I learned.

You don’t have to say a lot to say a lot.

My grandmother was quiet compared to the rest of us. She didn’t have the same zest for sharing opinions the rest of us couldn’t keep quiet about. But anytime she did share it was meaningful. She’d keep a watchful eye on the conversation, scoop up a grandbaby that needed a squeeze and listen intently as the family tossed about a topic. She’d let the conversation reach a boiling point. Then she’d quietly offer some graceful and usually simple wisdom that let the steam out of the pot again. She didn’t say a lot compared to the rest of the group. But she was saying so much more than all of us combined.

My work as an advocate for housing has often required me to communicate solutions to an urgent problem clearly and concisely. It requires me to dig into a big and unwieldy knot of issues that impact affordability and access in our city. I watch as Austin tosses about the matters of managing our tremendous growth, while maintaining what makes this place special. What I want to say about it is simple. Everyone deserves a home and a chance to call Austin that home.

Every person matters.

My grandfather was a labor lawyer who built a firm specializing in organized labor at a time it had few friends anywhere in the South. His work representing the civil rights of minority workers and the interests of people who had no other voice left a mark on many of the discussions had around his living room every Sunday. The value I hold highest from the lessons learned from Grandpa’s work is recognizing that every person matters and every voice deserves to be heard. As I look back on it, I think these were the seeds sown that taught me about equity.

Finding opportunities to house every person in Austin is an uphill battle; almost as uphill as representing labor unions in Texas in the ’50s and ’60s. We have a land use code in this city built on the back of racist redlining policies; our growth has only exacerbated these lines. That said, I firmly believe every person can find a home here. I’ll keep calling on elected officials to promote policies that allow for more types of housing, more flexibility in the development process and continued funding of housing opportunities that make this possible because every person matters.

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Little people count too.

One of the distinctions of my family is that even the kids get to weigh in on these hot topics each Sunday. My grandparents, aunts and uncles endured what I can only imagine were some outlandish comments from each of the kids in the room as if we were equals. This meant we weren’t just growing through the exposure to the conversation. We were also shaping our own views on big issues in real time. I try to replicate the same with my two sons today. Allowing them to express themselves as they wrestle with trying to understand a really complicated and sometimes scary world is the most important thing I can do as their momma.

The kids are always listening.

Do you think our kids will inherit the sense that Austin can be a home for everyone? We must teach them to consider the tradeoffs of protecting the character of a community that is so unique and special, while creating opportunities for more. More housing, more community and more access is a win for both Austin and the community I want to make for my boys. These little people are listening to us. I hope mine hear that using your voice is powerful and making space for others is a gift.


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