Project Connect is designed to make it easier for people to get around Austin, but some worry the multi-billion dollar transit initiative may also make it harder for some to stay in Austin. That’s why $300 million of the money voters approved for Project Connect in 2020 is earmarked for anti-displacement efforts, to help residents and businesses near the project struggling to stay because of increased property values and taxes. KXAN Investigators look at how that money will be spent and if it will be enough.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s hard to miss the Rangel family home in east Austin, with its yard full of colorful decorations and flowers.
And inside, it’s impossible to ignore the rich history their house holds.
“We have a lot of memories here,” Margarita Ruiz-Rangel said. “I have lived here for about 56 years.”
There are pictures on just about every wall, displaying generations of family members who have passed through the doors. Margarita’s husband, Ladislao Rangel, proudly pointed to some: “This is our great-grandkids right now.”
But the Rangels said they’re worried about their future here. Beyond their walls, there’s a movement brewing they can’t control.
Their house sits in what the City of Austin calls an active displacement risk area, because it’s about four blocks away from where the Montopolis light rail station will be built, a component of Project Connect that will connect downtown to the airport.
Project Connect is a multi-billion-dollar transit initiative voters approved in 2020. It includes two new light rail lines, a second commuter train, an underground tunnel and four new rapid bus routes.
The city released a map showing communities with neighborhoods experiencing displacement risk that are within a mile of Project Connect. The map splits up the displacement into three categories: vulnerable, active and chronic. Combined, those areas represent 302,000 people and 135,000 households.
The Rangels are among those people. Over the years, they said they’ve been able to hold on to their home when some of their neighbors couldn’t.
“The ones that are no longer living here have sold their property,” Margarita said “because they can’t afford the taxes.”
But the retired couple said the new transit system, and the increased property values the project is expected to cause, may be the final straw.
Latislao said, “If it goes that high, it’s a possibility we might have to…”
Margarita finished his thought: “I don’t think we could afford it.”
When voters approved Project Connect, they also approved a portion of the money, $300 million, to be earmarked for anti-displacement efforts. The fund is designed to help residents and businesses near the project struggling to stay because of increased property values and taxes.
But, the Rangels said they’re not clear how and when the anti-displacement fund could help them.
“By the time that gets here, I might not be around,” Margarita said.
That sentiment demonstrates the task Nefertitti Jackmon has ahead of her.
“I serve as the City of Austin’s Community Displacement Prevention Officer,” Jackmon said.
Big task: Deciding where the money goes
In that role, Jackmon is part of the team responsible for overseeing the disbursement of the anti-displacement fund. It’s a big task, she says, with a simple goal: “To make sure that households are able to remain in their homes and businesses if they desire to,” Jackmon said.
According to U.S. Census and city data, 61% of those areas experiencing displacement risk that are within a mile of Project Connect lines and stations are communities of color, while 67% of the areas are low income.
The $300 million to help them will roll out over 13 years. The Austin City Council has already approved $65 million of that money to be used.
Jackmon says $1 million of the $65 million is for administration and operations, including staffing, marketing and community engagement. The remaining $64 million is split into three groups:
- $23 million to buy land to develop into affordable housing.
- $21 million to help fund construction of affordable housing for renters and owners.
- $20 million to be disbursed throughout the at-risk communities in the form of programs set up by non-profits.
In late September, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation awarded that $20 million portion to 14 non-profits.
Jackmon said state law doesn’t allow the money to be used to help people pay ballooning property taxes, a big driver of displacement.
Instead, the non-profits will design programs to use the money in other ways.
The Workers Defense Project was granted $2 million. The group’s goal is to protect construction workers who live in the at-risk areas and may even work on Project Connect jobs.
“We want to make sure the workers who are actually working on these sites are protected and have basic protections like workers’ compensation, making sure that they’re actually getting paid on the job,” said Juan Benitez, spokesman for Workers Defense Project.
Regarding the anti-displacement fund, Jackmon said, “Voters have considered and demanded that we do something different, so that people are not displaced.”
Preserving home ownership and other strategies
So what does that mean for the Rangels?
“I spoke with a family who has lived in a home for more than 50 years,” KXAN investigator Mike Rush told Jackmon. “They’re about four blocks from the Montopolis rail station. They want to stay in their home. They fear that once the station is built, they won’t be able to stay in that area any longer. How do these funds help people in that situation?”
Jackmon responded, “We have programs to help preserve home ownership opportunities.”
Some of the programs the non-profits will offer include assistance with rent, mortgage, utility bills and home maintenance, as well as financial literacy programs and estate planning.
Jackmon called the fund a “historic investment” because the anti-displacement money was part of the project from the start — and such a large amount — but she has said in the past the $300 million is not enough.
Rush asked, “How do you feel about it today?”
“In addition to the $300 million, the city — we are still working on other strategies, other funding sources beyond just the Project Connect dollars,” Jackmon said.
Jackmon said it will take a few months for the non-profits to organize their programs, so they should start up by February 2023.
She said the city plans to mount a robust marketing plan to get the word out on how people can apply for help.
The spending has already started in other areas. For example, the city bought an apartment complex in north Austin and is in the process of buying another one in southeast Austin for a total of more than $10 million. The complexes will be used for affordable housing.
It is also loaning money to a non-profit to buy a four-plex and investing in developing rental homes and homes to buy. It’s all in an effort to have more affordable housing options in those areas at risk of displacement.
As for accountability on how the money is spent, the city is creating an online performance dashboard so anyone can see where tax dollars are going. That should be available by early 2023.
While all this unfolds, the Rangels continue to take pride in their property.
Over the years, they have added on to the house, building upon their past while wondering what the future will hold.
“And I start thinking about that and it makes me worry,” Margarita said.
Senior Investigative Producer David Barer, Investigative Photojournalist Richie Bowes, Graphic Artists Rachel Gale and Aileen Hernandez, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Photojournnalist Ed Zavala contributed to this report.