AUSTIN (KXAN) — A group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin presented their findings to city council Wednesday about gentrification in the city.
These researchers were commissioned by the council a year ago to help the city tackle an increasing problem: that longtime or lifelong residents of the city are increasingly priced out of their communities.
The researchers explained they weren’t giving council recommendations, but rather a framework to figure out where gentrification is happening, which neighborhoods to prioritize first, and what strategies to use. Rather than offering a one-size fits all solution, they encourage council to meet with individual neighborhoods to see what works for them.
Gentrification they define as a process where lower-income residents are displaced, the physical state of the neighborhood is transformed, and the culture of the character is changed. The displacement, they said, is the side effect of changes that are generally viewed as negative.
The researchers acknowledged that since the 1990’s Austin has seen a dramatic rise in housing cost, bringing more affluent residents to the heart of the city and pushing lower-income residents further out.
There is an eastern “crescent where the researchers found the most gentrification and vulnerable neighborhoods. (View maps the researchers created here).
The researchers believe these neighborhoods are most vulnerable because they had historically lower housing costs as a result of 1928 policies which segregated Black Austinites to the eastern part of the city. Those low housing costs have recently been reversed as east Austin becomes more socially and financially desirable for others with more money, the researchers noted. They explained that the people most at risk of being displaced are: communities of color, people 25 and older without a Bachelor’s degree, renters, people making at or below 80% of the median family income, and households with children in poverty.
In the study, they classified 5 stages of gentrification and found that out of 200 Austin neighborhoods, 23 are susceptible but have not yet experienced population changes, 13 are in the early phase, 12 are starting to experience demographic changes, 4 are seeing population loss and newly high-value homes and six are in the final stage of high property values and continued loss of longtime residents.
“It’s happening at different scales throughout Austin, there are some areas where we know a lot of people living in those areas would have trouble remaining if prices went up a lot, and there are signs that change is happening in neighborhoods close to them,” explained Elizabeth Mueller, an associate professor at UT’s community and regional planning program. “So we know it’s coming to them, but then there’s a smaller set of neighborhoods where there is a lot of pressure, a lot of increases in housing prices, and we’re seeing a lot of signs already that people are leaving those communities.”
“It’s not just about whether existing people are being pushed out, it’s whether new people of low or moderate incomes can afford to come into a community,” added Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor of community and regional planning at UT.
The researchers also examined anti-gentrification policies in Portland, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Austin’s Guadalupe neighborhood.
While the researchers aren’t telling the council what to do, Heather Way, a clinical professor at UT’s law school explained that the team of researchers does see the Guadalupe neighborhood as an example for the rest of Austin in being proactive about stopping curbing gentrification.
Way said that Austin’s community land trust, which was established several years ago, has had success in keeping longtime residents in the neighborhood. She also noted the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation has been successful in buying off land for affordable housing over the years in that east Austin neighborhood.
Council Member Pio Renteria has seen the GNDC in action since his youth, as he grew up in east Austin.
“Land value was so cheap then so [GNDC] started buying land so there wouldn’t be that displacement going on,” he said.
Renteria explained that as property values went up, people began selling their houses and GNDC began selling residents expensive homes in their own neighborhoods as long as the residents promised to stay in the community for 15 to 20 years.
When Renteria became a council member, he worked to get Austin’s community land trust to help out his district. The land trust allowed GNDC to keep ownership of the houses they sold in the long-term, keeping taxes stable and making sure the homes stay affordable.
“Two years ago, they were able to sell a house for 110,000 dollars and it was appraised at $650,000,” Renteria said, explaining that options like this help residents to stay in the neighborhood.
Renteria hopes that the council is motivated by this study to create more density along transportation corridors.
During the council work session, Council Member Ora Houston asked the researchers, “In 2000 we had our first study done on displacement, what do you all think is the reason the city has not acted on it?”
Heather Way responded, admitting the question got her tearing up, “We haven’t seen that kind of political push that it will take to get that focus and priority put in place.”
Way noted that in Portland it took community members in the northeast of the city getting organized following a new development to see real changes.
Council Member Delia Garza thinks that there’s a lot of momentum within the council to really address affordability this time around.
“It fits perfectly with these big bonds that we’re deciding on, there’s a lot of great things in those bonds that will help our vulnerable families,” she noted, adding that there are several items on the ballot in November which could shape gentrification in Austin.
Garza said the presentation from UT will inform how she views upcoming policy decisions.
She also pointed out that property taxes are a barrier to affordability and the bulk of Austinites’ property taxes come from the state. Garza hopes the council considers what reform would be needed to property tax burdens many Austinites see.
Council Member Leslie Pool said she hopes this research helps the council to stop talking about displacement generally and begin taking action to help residents.
“[I hope we] use this effort here and have a clear-eyed look into the future, use our valuation app that shows where the gentrification and displacement is happening and then try to preserve [neighborhoods] so that people can remain where they live now if that’s what they choose to do,” she said.
Pool was the council member who led the initiative last fall asking for UT to help weigh in on gentrification.
“This council has since I joined it, we’ve been really really focused on trying to find the reasons for displacement, the market is just going wild in our city,” Pool said.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan was already thinking Tuesday about ways to incorporate UT’s research into policy discussions.
He noted that council recently passed a neighborhood plan for north Shoal Creek, which he noted is neither vulnerable nor gentrifying.
“What that means to me is we spent resources, staff resources and time in a part of town not facing gentrification, in the future, we should focus on areas that are, ” Flannigan said during the work session.