City council looks to turn the tide of gentrification in east Austin

Austin

Thursday, the Austin City Council amended and approved a resolution to give the city manager the green light to explore a policy to reverse gentrification in east Austin.

The city’s Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities Task Force recommends that Austin adopt their own version of Portland, Oregon’s policy for bringing former residents back to gentrified areas.  Austin’s policy hasn’t been finalized yet, but it would give priority status to people applying for affordable housing in east Austin who are part of families who have lived in the area for years or who have been forced out by gentrification.

According to city council documents, generational ties to the city wouldn’t be the sole factor in determining eligibility, but they will be given more consideration under this policy. It would only apply in areas that have experienced displacement, a city policy adviser explained.

The city’s efforts here lean on a partnership with researchers at UT Austin who have been documenting and calculating displacement in east Austin. This research will be used to map vulnerable neighborhoods and craft a “right to return” policy.

Their findings show that both families who have been in the area for generations and people of color are being pushed out by changes there. The displacement of these residents is especially complicated in east Austin, which at one point was the part of the city designated for people of color by Jim Crow laws. Many residents who once felt strong communities in the area, now feel that sense of community disappearing, the UT researchers reported.

Those researchers with the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis reported that Austin is the only fast-growing major city in the U.S. to show a decline of African Americans between 2000 and 2010. Within a decade, they found that East Austin’s white population increased by 442%, the black population decreased by 66%, and the latino population decreased by 33%.

“African Americans who were previously so singularly confined to East Austin became singularly displaced by gentrification,” said IUPRA researcher Eric Tang, UT Austin associate professor of African and African diaspora studies. “Few people have been able to hang on, and they aren’t hanging on because the changes are beneficial. Rather, they’re hanging on because they feel a responsibility to black and brown East Austin, a right to the city.”

The researchers also noted a decline in the number of children in east Austin, their findings show that while children once made up 30% of the neighborhood’s population, they now make up less than 12%. While 93% of long-term East Austin residents surveyed for this research said they were concerned about rising property taxes, the researchers said the largest neighborhood concern was that the sense neighborhood community had been shaken.

“The community blended with each other,” said Devren Balancier in regards to what his neighborhood off of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. used to be like. Balancier lives in East Austin, as have his parents and grandparents. “Because most of the community was family –cousins and offsets and they were married into each other’s families — and they were with each other for a long time.”

Balancier has noticed construction and gentrification going on all around him. But he’s also seen services around the neighborhood improve and change.

“Now it’s just more frequency with strangers, with people who are basically touring, if you can call it that,” Balancier said. “Walking through here, I’m amazed at the things you see and [people] taking advantage of opportunities I never thought I’d see in my lifetime.”

While there are parts of all the change he sees as positive, Balancier believes it’s important that the people who shaped East Austin’s history don’t feel pushed out.

“A lot of the things that people have went through and experienced in this area, those are memories you can’t replace by moving somewhere else with a dollar value, these are memories and life long friendships with people,” Balancier said.

Kay Green, who has lived in east Austin since 2000, believes her neighborhood needs more affordable housing.

“There’s just so much construction going on, you just go by a street and two months later it’s totally different, it’s just all the houses are gone, and you just wonder where all those people went,” she said.

Green was able to afford her house back when she bought it thanks to affordable housing assistance from the city at the time. But she’s seen many of her neighbors move away because they can’t afford the taxes, housing, and cost of living.

She can sense that the market for housing developers is active in her area, she said people offering to buy her home contact her at least once a week. Green declines their offers because she doesn’t want to move and she believes those people are not offering her what her home is actually worth.

According to the UT researchers, more than 70% of their survey respondents had been routinely asked to sell their homes to prospective buyers, saying that the offers had been aggressive and “insultingly low compared to market value.”

Instead, Green has gone on her own to get a degree in construction. Her dream is to build an affordable housing community for her neighbors, especially the single moms and seniors who might otherwise be displaced.

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk has been directed to look at the policy for operational and legal issues, then report back to the council by May 25, 2018.

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