Viewpoints: New panel could yield insight on zoning, gentrification

When the Austin City Council returns from its July break, it will take up a proposal by Mayor Steve Adler to create a task force to look into the factors that drive residents from their neighborhoods in search of new places to live.

It’s a bold idea, which if done right would help Austin navigate vexing challenges the city faces from rapid growth and the vestiges of segregation and gentrification.

Without a focus on displacement, even well-intentioned policies aimed at helping families stay in their neighborhoods and schools could go awry with unintended consequences that decrease affordable housing stock and force low- and moderate-income families out of the central city — if not out of Austin altogether.

CONTINUING COVERAGE: City’s staff to overhaul CodeNext zones as draft moves to next phase.

Adler’s approach acknowledges a missing quotient in the way the city has done business across various platforms, including zoning, demolition practices and affordable housing initiatives – actions that were taken without the benefit of data that evaluated displacement factors upfront.

The mayor cited recent issues raised about CodeNext, the proposed overhaul of the city’s land-use rules, saying that a discussion surfacing “is the worry about whether increased unit density, increased size density, up-zoning,” and other changes will lead to displacement.

Certainly, it would be wise to have data regarding displacement – who benefits and who loses — prior to the city passing a new zoning code, rather than ignore consequences or let them to play out willy-nilly.

The reasons for overhauling the zoning code have been well-documented by Adler and other city leaders: The city needs a 21st-century, simplified land-use code to effectively manage Austin’s rapid growth. That includes, Adler told us, a code that accommodates construction of 135,000 apartments and homes Austin will need over the next decade to meet population growth.

If evaluated strictly from a supply-and-demand perspective, CodeNext would generate tens of thousands more homes that likely would be more affordable than otherwise might be available. But without displacement data, the city and the public would not know the full impact of such zoning, including new zoning to accommodate more housing on smaller lots. The city would not know the extent of displacement on Austin residents, public schools or the city’s cultural vibrancy.

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Such displacement has a financial cost. When the Austin school district loses students, it loses money. School officials point to the city’s high cost of housing as a primary reason the district is losing enrollment as families seek cheaper housing elsewhere. Will CodeNext drive more of those families out of the school district?

Given those factors, it would be wise to scrutinize much closer the new code’s up-zoning on much of East Austin — and sections of Brentwood, Crestview, Allandale, Rosedale, Bouldin Creek, Hancock and other areas that traditionally have been home to lower- to upper-income families.

Certainly, East Austin, undergoing rapid gentrification, could have benefited from a displacement task force several decades ago, when it was targeted for redevelopment. Building with higher density — and with more housing on smaller lots — there has produced thousands more homes that are affordable compared with their downtown or West Austin counterparts.

But those trends have driven out many working-class and lower-income African-Americans and Latinos as their once-affordable properties have been bulldozed, redeveloped and renovated for higher-income residents. That is evident in skyrocketing rents, property taxes and sales prices for single-family homes.

A displacement task force ideally would prevent the city from glossing over such matters in CodeNext. But the group’s work also could be useful in addressing similar problems in existing policies.

We point to the city’s list of rental properties that repeatedly violate city code, which is aimed at pressuring landlords to repair properties. Despite good intentions, the city’s actions have hurt many low-income families and workers, who are being displaced when landlords sell those affordable apartments because they are unwilling or unable to pay for repairs or fines imposed by the city for code violations.

Consider that the city’s list has become a valuable tool for out-of-state real estate speculators, who use it to identify and acquire central city properties that have stacked up code violations and fines. Once those properties change hands, they are renovated or rebuilt to house higher-income residents. That is what happened last year when low-income Hispanic families with children at Blanton Elementary School were evicted from 5020 Manor Road.

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A displacement task force could find ways to bring affordable rental properties in compliance with city health and safety rules in a way that does not eliminate affordable housing.

It also could address the displacement of Latino and African-American history in Austin that has happened under city preservation and demolition practices. That imbalance can be seen in the dearth of historic landmarks associated with African-American and Latino properties that are formally recognized by the city. As of last year, just 13 of the city’s 599 historic landmarks were associated with Austin’s Latino community and about 40 with Austin’s black community.

Of course, the devil is in the details. And a task force would be wasteful if it’s product sits on a shelf. Adler says it’s time the city had a data-driven plan. We agree.

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