Phillips: How an environmental deal led to Austin’s gentrification

Updated Nov 16, 2017

Austin environmentalist Robin Rather is apologizing for a deal heralded as historic 20 years ago when it was endorsed by business groups, developers and environmentalists as a solution to pitched battles over development of the Barton Springs watershed.

Rather didn’t envision that the agreement would spur the gentrification that continues to oust African-Americans and Latinos from their East Austin neighborhoods.

She is warning that CodeNext, the city’s proposed overhaul of land-use and zoning regulations, will result in similar unintended consequences to neighborhoods across Austin.

“I apologize,” she told about 100 people who gathered Sunday at Memorial United Methodist Church to discuss CodeNext. “It sounds naïve now, but we created something called ‘the desired development zone’ that would go east and we would buy up and protect lands that were west to conserve and protect the aquifer.

UPDATE: Austin to delay releasing next draft of CodeNext.

“I blame myself and all environmentalists at the time. We didn’t understand they were talking about gentrifying neighborhoods and displacing people.”

In 1999, Rather was chair of the Save Our Springs Alliance, which along with the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce signed an agreement that ended wars over development of the watershed in West Austin.

Barton Springs pool’s clear waters, fed by the Edwards Aquifer, needed protection from rain runoff and lawn watering, but solutions collided with private property rights. Then-Mayor Kirk Watson helped hammer out an agreement that aimed to limit further pollution by restricting construction in the watershed and using public dollars to buy and protect tens of thousands of acres.

The deal gave rise to the city’s “smart growth” strategy that steered development eastward to the desired development zone that had no such environmental restrictions. A land rush by developers ensued. But to the dismay of Rather and others, they focused on existing black and Latino neighborhoods close to downtown instead of undeveloped or underdeveloped areas farther east.

When combined with other factors, including the closure of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, shutdown of the Holly Power Plant, the upgrading of neglected infrastructure, East Austin – once considered by Austin’s white community as perhaps the most undesirable place in the city to live – suddenly became fashionable.

VIEWPOINTS: Push pause button on CodeNext until concerns are addressed.

Hipsters seeking urban living spaces closer to jobs, entertainment and other amenities flocked in groves to neighborhoods that began sprouting coffee shops, sidewalk cafes, yoga studios, condos and bike lanes.

But smart growth also brought soaring home prices and property taxes. Some East Austin residents sold their homes for big profits. But other homeowners and renters who lived there for generations were priced out. They moved to Austin’s far-flung communities or out of the city to Pflugerville, Manor, Cedar Park and other suburbs with lower housing costs.

Rather says CodeNext would trigger a similar trend citywide.

“CodeNext just doubles down on all of that, not just in East Austin but across the city — except in the areas that are protected — which generally are the more affluent areas,” she told me. “That is fundamentally unfair and wrong. And it is just worsening systemic racism instead of fixing it. It will worsen affordability instead of fixing it, too.”

She has a point.

Aside from up-zoning several Central Austin neighborhoods, CodeNext would steer more development to City Council Member Ora Houston’s District 1 than any other district. Houston notes that would further displace African-Americans and Latinos by driving up housing costs and property taxes.

COURTS: Group asks district attorney to investigate CodeNext Planning Commission.

CodeNext aims to streamline the city’s 30-year-old zoning regulations and address Austin’s rapid growth and housing demand — about 130,000 units over the next 10 years, according to city officials. The new code, if approved by the City Council in April, would determine what could be built and where, replacing a current code that while cumbersome, provides protections for residential neighborhoods.

Most Austin neighborhoods are zoned for single-family use, which permits one home and a garage apartment or other such dwelling on a single lot, or a duplex. CodeNext would permit additional units on a lot, such as a duplex and another unit, offering more opportunities for housing in places people want to live.

Supporters of CodeNext applaud zoning that increases density in central city neighborhoods, saying it creates more walkable communities and housing for the “missing middle” — residents who earn more than low-wage workers but less than Austin’s top earners.

Density would increase Austin’s housing stock, though more units on a lot drives up the value of that lot.

Already, home ownership is out of reach for many people who live here. As of September, households earning $71,000 — the median income for the Austin metropolitan area — could afford a home of $217,680. That was well below Austin’s median home price of $289,086, according to Zillow’s affordability calculator.

I don’t have a crystal ball, though common sense tells me that a new zoning code that doesn’t address how to keep longtime residents from being priced out of their neighborhoods certainly will result in similar consequences. Only this time they won’t be unintended.

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