Austin-area neighborhood could be violating federal law by not allowing census workers to visit homes, legal expert says

Travis County

Update: Within an hour of KXAN asking questions on Tuesday, Spanish Oaks advised residents it was reversing its policy on census takers. “After receiving feedback on the previous email regarding community access to census takers, the Association was advised by legal counsel to allow access for 2020 Federal Census Takers,” an email read.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A gated community in the Austin area informed residents it would not allow census workers to visit uncounted homes, a potential violation of federal law according to legal experts.

An email sent to residents by the management of the Spanish Oaks neighborhood in Bee Cave said: “Per the Association’s solicitation policy in the Governing Documents, the Census Enumerators have not been given access.”

The email directed residents who have not completed the census to perform it online.

A representative of Spanish Oaks Management Co. told KXAN that the homeowner’s association board made the decision to block census workers from entering the neighborhood.

Built over the past three years, the Spanish Oaks community was not counted as part of the 2010 Census.

The deadline to be counted for the 2020 Census is Sept. 30. Local officials have expressed concerns about an undercount due to the COVID-19 pandemic and lack of support from state leaders.

“Of course, there’s going to be tough scenarios like the one in this particular community,” said John Lawler, census program manager for Travis County. “For every resident we don’t count, that’s up to $1,500 a year we miss out on federal funding, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

The U.S. Census Bureau did not respond to a KXAN request about the legality of blocking census workers from entering a neighborhood. But Chad Ruback, an appellate attorney in Dallas, said federal law is clear about allowing census workers to perform their jobs.

“It sounds like to me that they would be in violation of federal law,” Ruback said. “It would require an act of Congress to exempt an individual homeowner’s association from this federal law.”

Federal law states that an “owner, proprietor, manager, superintendent, or agent of any hotel, apartment house, boarding or lodging house, tenement, or other building” must allow census workers to reach residents. A fine of up to $500 can be imposed for violating the law.

Travis County launched a “10 Day Countdown” on Monday in an effort to reach as many people, through social media, as possible before the census deadline at the end of the month. A federal lawsuit to extend the deadline to the end of October has yet to be decided.

Travis County is encouraging citizens to share the “10 Day Countdown” graphics on social media to drive participation.

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