Sprawling stacks of paperwork are the first details Jeff Wilson and I notice as we walk into Ora Houston’s cheery, yellow-shuttered home in East Austin with apple pie in hand. In January, Ora was sworn into office as an Austin city councilmember, but her work clearly doesn’t stay at City Hall. It follows her home and spills into every room of the ranch style house her parents built in 1954.
The kitchen table is a checkerboard of envelopes and notes, neatly arranged. Star spangled banners from her campaign sit in the foyer, still awaiting a permanent resting spot in the busy aftermath of the election. In her home office—a room that used to belong to her mother—she chuckles as if to say “I’ll never catch up” and points to a row of bright folder-filled crates that line the wall like a fence. “This one is for my racial reconciliation workshops, this one is for the church and Huston-Tillotson, and these are my files from working in the city.”
But Ora’s home isn’t just an office. Among the stacks there are many reminders that this house has deep roots in East Austin. Her father, O. H. Elliott, was an active African-American civic leader in Austin—his favorite recliner still sits in a corner of the living room. The shelf behind Ora’s favorite chair holds a black and white photo of her mother, Thelma Elliott, one of the first African-Americans to earn a Master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Texas.
After a round of warm apple pie, Jeff offers to do the dishes. Ora exchanges a wordless look with her daughter, Gina, who’s visiting for the afternoon. There’s a pause. They both know what’s coming next. “Let me show you how we do it,” says Ora firmly. “We try to save water.” She turns on the hot tap at the kitchen sink, catches the initial cold water in a pitcher, and then transfers it to a teapot she will later boil for tea.
But with Austin’s water levels at historic lows, her sustainable habits extend beyond just washing the dishes. When her son came home for her City Council inauguration a few months ago the rules were same. Ora and Gina both laugh and Ora explains, “I told him, ‘You got to catch water in the shower. Get the pitcher. Catch the cold water.’ And he said, ‘So you want me to stand in the shower, butt naked, and catch cold water?’”
Ora clearly walks her talk. Advocating for her community is the reason she ran for office. For her, there’s little divide between her role as city councilmember and her role as East Austin neighbor. “I’ve lived here so long,” she laughs at the kitchen table. “We’ve had the same number for as long as we had telephones. So everybody knows what my phone number is. The other morning somebody called me at 7:30 in the morning about taxicabs. That was my morning to sleep in!”
Ora's face turns resolute, "But they call me and that's what I was elected to do. People need to have access to their person."
Photography by Jasmine "Bobby" Oliver
Ora Houston is the first of 99 homes that will be explored during the 99 Nights ATX project. On every blog post, we’ll also include a link to a set of “behind the scenes” photos from Jeff’s sleepover.