AUSTIN (KXAN) — Priced out. Those two words ring true for many longtime Austinites, especially generations of families who grew up in the heart of east Austin.
Picture Austin in 1940. The precursor to Interstate 35 separated west from east — and concentrated the city’s Black residents in the eastern portion of the city.
The story of how the city has grown is, at times, a sordid tale of what city officials now describe as racist policies, soaring home prices and gentrification that pushed entire communities out of the city.
These maps tell the story of a demographic shift in Austin. The purple represents the Black population, fading through the decades.
Changes through the years, like higher home prices and a new, diverse landscape led to a shrinking African-American population in the state’s capital, while other fast-growing cities in the United States saw more Black people moving in.
Bringing displaced families home
In 2021, the City of Austin is unveiling a new plan to bring back displaced families to the place they once called home.
“I’m emotionally connected to east Austin — that’s home,” Ambres Kearney fondly remembers. “Mr. Jones’ Barbershop … businesses all up and down, and you knew these people because you went to church with them or grew up with their kids. It was just a community.”
The east Austin Ambres Kearney and Vickey Wilson James remember has slowly faded away. Streets lined with coffee shops, restaurants and high-priced condos were once home to thriving Black-owned businesses and homes.
“It was home and all the people of my same color were there,” James said. “It was just dirt roads then and that was the only section of town they would allow Blacks in.”
Much of that was by design, dating back to the city of Austin’s 1928 master plan.
The city’s government created what it labeled a “Negro district” in east Austin. The purpose (according to page 57 of the plan): “that all facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities for this area.”
The policy had lasting impacts.
“I remember seeing a sign that said, ‘Black Land’ and we were on the east side of I-35,” James said. “All of that was considered Black land, all the way to Airport Boulevard.”
As the years passed, the landscape changed. Housing costs went up. James says homes on her street that were priced in the $200,000 range almost tripled in less than a decade.
Many families started to move to places like Manor and Pflugerville. Kearney and James did.
“We were priced out,” James explained. “When families die, the kids have the home and they can’t afford the taxes.”
This 2018 city council resolution aimed to address just that: “intense development pressures and gentrification” leading to the displacement of long-time Austin residents.
As part of the resolution, the Mayor’s Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities Task Force encouraged the City to adopt Portland, Oregon’s criteria for bringing former residents back. The resolution also directed the City Manager to propose a preference policy creating affordable housing units based on generational ties to the City.
In 2021, those words are turning into action. Nefertitti Jackmon is the city’s community displacement prevention officer.
“That preference policy, really what it does is it provides preferences for people based upon the household size, based upon whether they have a disability, based upon whether or not they are income-eligible. And then also based upon their generational ties,” Jackmon explained.
If a person applies and qualifies, they could end up in one of 28 city-owned properties that fall under the policy. These properties are owned through the city’s Community Land Trust. Those who qualify could be placed in a rental or could buy a home on one of these properties. KXAN is waiting to learn what those properties are.
The income requirement will vary depending on whether it’s a home or rental property, based on the county’s median family income. The city says anyone who is 80% or below the county’s median family income will qualify. For a family of four in Travis County right now, that would be about $79,100.
One major question is how exactly the city can ensure this policy is sustainable for people who move in.
“It [the policy] will allow families to remain, even as taxes begin to increase — you won’t see that same increase in the value of the land that your home sits on,” Jackmon said.
There are still looming questions:
- We have asked the city to update us when it finalizes all the criteria for the policy
- We have asked the city how it will conduct community outreach and how it will target families for the program
- We have asked the city the exact locations and addresses for these properties
We will update this story when we receive a response.
How it works in Portland, Oregon
Austin’s plan is modeled after the preference policy implemented in Portland, which targets northeast Portland. Leslie Goodlow, the Equity and Business Operations Manager at the Portland Housing Bureau, grew up there and says that area faces the greatest pressures of gentrification.
She says she’s seen that shift through the decades and Black homeownership is lower than it was in the 1960s. She says that’s now changing.
“We implemented the first round (of the policy) in, I believe, in 2015 — late 2015. And it was for homeownership,” Goodlow explained. “So we use it for both homeownership and for rental and we had 65 slots basically for people to become homeowners, and we had 1,000 applications.”
Goodlow says anyone can apply, but they use a point-based system based on criteria like eminent domain and generational ties. Since 2015, the policy has expanded from housing to rental units. It is funded by the Portland Housing Bureau’s various displacement programs, currently sitting at about $135 million.
Even with nearly 6,000 applicants over the six years, the program has come with criticism and challenges.
She said they started in 2016 with their first list of potential homeowners, but people didn’t become homeowners until 2018.
“One of the biggest roadblocks for us was we, as I said, we had 1,000 people apply for these 65 slots. And, most of them were nowhere close to being mortgage ready,” Goodlow explained. “And, so the first two years, we didn’t get our first homeowners.”
Portland uses community partners to help homeowners and create an inclusive environment. They work with former residents, cultural institutions and groups to be a part of the decision-making process in selecting housing locations and criteria. In Austin, the city hopes to work with places like the Carver Museum and historical institutions to help in a similar way. KXAN is waiting to hear how those institutions will help create a welcoming environment for families that want to come back.
“If you talk about someone who faced displacement in the past, is this a correct remedy for them? I don’t know necessarily that they would agree after the hardships and the disruption that they have faced and the experience,” Jackmon said. “But I think it is the right thing for our city to do to try to do some take some corrective actions.”
For some who used to live in east Austin, it’s too soon to say whether they will move back, but sometimes the effort of policies like this and memories alone could be enough.
“Let’s see if we can start all over again — get it back to where it was,” James said.
Photojournalist Andrew Choat, Graphic Artist Rachel Garza, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.