Task force draft says CodeNext is a ‘tool of institutionalized racism’

An incendiary draft report circulating among members of Mayor Steve Adler’s Task Force on Institutional Racism describes the city’s high-profile land development code rewrite as “the most recent tool of institutionalized racism.”

Proponents argue that the city’s proposed 1,100-plus-page overhaul of its zoning rules, known as CodeNext, is essential to encouraging and speeding the construction of badly needed housing in Austin. But the draft, by a subgroup of the anti-racism task force, which noted that Austin’s policies dating back to the 1920s pushed Latinos and blacks east of Interstate 35, said the city’s efforts with CodeNext will accelerate the forces pushing minorities out of East Austin.

“It appears the new code will fuel even more and faster displacement of longtime residents and businesses from East Austin,” states the draft of “Housing Group Report Draft 1,” which the American-Statesman obtained Tuesday. CodeNext “is the most recent tool of institutionalized racism,” the draft says.

The early draft, prepared by the task force’s group studying housing and real estate, largely repudiates the city’s long-standing efforts to add housing to its city core. It argues that those policies have led to soaring rents and says the city’s water lines and other infrastructure will be strained by the growth.

Additionally, it argues that West Austin neighborhoods, which are predominately white and wealthy, have not seen the influx of new, mixed-use, midrise buildings that are transforming East Austin’s heavily minority neighborhoods.

“To put the mat(t)er bluntly, concentrated segregation of African Americans led to their concentrated displacement decades later as their historic neighborhoods were coveted by wealthier newcomers and housing developers,” the draft says.

Three members of the group confirmed the authenticity of the draft but said it was still subject to changes. However, it was unclear Tuesday how substantive those changes would be.

“I don’t know exactly how it’s going to look when it’s turned into its final version,” said Jane Rivera, who co-chairs the group that put together the draft.

“To comment on the substance of it right now is a bit premature,” said downtown developer Perry Lorenz, who is also a member.

However, another member, Ed Wendler Jr., a developer and critic of the city’s densification push, said the substance of the draft would probably remain largely unchanged.

“When we went over that draft today,” Wendler said Tuesday, “no one threw up their hands and said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t say that,’ or ‘That’s inaccurate.’ ”

However, affordable housing and density advocates blasted the draft.

“While we appreciate the hard work and effort that has gone into this draft report, we believe many of the recommendations are misguided or may be harmful to affordable housing efforts,” Greg Anderson, the director of operations at Austin Habitat for Humanity, said in a statement. Anderson is a long-standing advocate of infill development and densifying the city’s core.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s office said the task force’s final report is still more than a month away and that “there are still several stages for all the working groups to go through.”

“This writing reflects some of the worst fears about what CodeNext might be,” Adler said in a statement. “My hope is that the final report does not reflect any of our worst fears but rather our highest ideals, which include ending institutional racism, fighting economic segregation, promoting affordability for all, and challenging gentrification.”

The mayor created the anti-racism task force in November in the wake of two high-profile incidents involving police use of force against African-Americans. He tasked it with providing a report in March recommending ways to curtail racial inequality in Austin.

The group’s draft makes a series of recommendations for neighborhoods in East Austin and Southeast Austin, including:

• A one-year moratorium on zoning changes and demolition permits for single-family homes across vast swaths of East Austin (spanning roughly from Interstate 35 to east of Ed Bluestein Boulevard and from Manor Road to the Colorado River) and Southeast Austin (from I-35 to Texas 71 to the south bank of the Colorado River). It also calls for the inclusion of the African-American Cultural Heritage District, which appears to be covered by the East Austin zone.

• Require a supermajority of the City Council to approve zoning changes in those neighborhoods.

• Place a new, mandatory fee on development that would be used to fund affordable housing efforts.

• Enact zoning changes in neighborhoods west of MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) that would allow for smaller lot sizes, manufactured housing and modular homes.

• Lobby against “regressive” state policies that bar the city mandating affordable housing in new developments or establishing rent controls.

“We understand that some of the things that are being recommended could be politically difficult to accomplish,” Rivera said. “But we were told, when taking on this responsibility, that it was going to be difficult … and that we were allowed to think out of the box.”

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