After months of debate and consideration, Austin’s new student city council district was finalized to include a drastically smaller portion of minority residents than UT’s racial and ethnic demographics are actually comprised of, but supporters of the map claim students will have a stronger voice in local politics than ever before.
The Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which approved the final map Monday night, was charged with drawing 10 city council districts that will each elect a single representative onto the Austin City Council. In an effort to ensure college students in Austin would be represented, the commission included a “student district” comprised of an estimated 45 percent student population. The district is largely white — almost 30 percentage points higher than the portion of white students at UT. The student district consists of the West Campus area, the UT campus and part of the downtown area.
The most underrepresented group in the district are Hispanics, who make up 23 percent of UT’s population but just nine percent of the district.
Commission executive director Craig Tounget said the demographic discrepancy was not an issue in the creation of the student district because it is not a “minority opportunity district.” To ensure minorities have fair representation on city council, the committee drew four minority opportunity districts that are made up largely by African-American or Hispanic residents.
“That district was drawn to group students and the downtown area together,” Tounget said. “It is not necessarily just a student district. There was an effort to group as many of the student areas together to give students an opportunity to have a voice in elections.”
UT students living off campus mostly live in the West Campus, Far West, Riverside and Hyde Park areas. The Riverside area is included in one of the Hispanic opportunity districts.
Tounget said race and ethnic demographics were a top priority for the committee when district lines were drawn.
Joshua Tang, the former co-director of operations for the Students for Equity and Diversity advocacy group, called the racial demographic discrepancy a concern, but likely a result of the exclusion of the Riverside student population from the district.
“It is concerning, not because of the way the commission drew the lines, but because in general it is getting harder and harder for students to afford housing close to the University,” Tang said. “Those issues largely fall on racial lines. The cost of living in West Campus is continually going up, which is pushing students of color to places such as Riverside and Far West.”
Since 2008 rental rates have risen by about 15 percent in West Campus, which makes up about a third of the student district. The area was the center of recent racial tensions when accusations of bleach balloons being thrown at students were made.
Government sophomore Ryan Rafols, the only student who sat on the committee, was not concerned by the racial discrepancy. He said because residents might check both ‘white’ and ‘Hispanic’ when filling out U.S. Census forms, the demographics could be misleading.
“Our big fight was to get all student housing and all the areas that have the highest density of areas where students live,” Rafols said.
Rafols said he hopes the future redistricting committee of 2020 will be able to redraw the district lines and create a district primarily comprised of students.