Austin American-Statesman Opinion: City should treat displacement with the seriousness it deserves

By Frank Rodriguez Posted Sep 8, 2019 at 8:47 AM

Last month, the Austin City Council took a series of big steps to address the city’s homelessness problem. They approved a new shelter, hired a homeless strategy officer, and boosted next year’s budget for homeless services to $62.7 million.

It’s time for Austin’s leaders to devote the same sort of resources to our community’s displacement crisis.

Over the past 20 years, gentrification, property taxes, and the rising cost of living have displaced tens of thousands of local residents from their homes. Many have left Austin altogether.

Low-income Austinites of color have been the most vulnerable: From 2000 to 2010, Austin was the only fast-growing city in the United States whose share of the African American population fell, and along with Denver it had the most Hispanic residents displaced from their neighborhoods between 2000 and 2013.

Our city council is aware of the problem. It has issued more than 500 resolutions and recommendations on displacement and low-income housing in the last two decades, and in 2017 and 2018 it convened task forces on the issue. Recommendations made by the task forces and other studies echoed those made by The People’s Plan, an independent initiative by East Austin neighborhood activists. The task forces, studies and The People’s Plan highlighted the need to preserve existing housing in gentrification-prone areas.

The city’s Strategic Housing Blueprint lays out a solid list of anti-displacement goals, but city officials have taken little meaningful action and seem more interested in redeveloping Austin’s neighborhoods for newcomers than protecting the people who live there now.

This social justice issue needs to change—and we can start today.

In August, the Development Without Displacement coalition called for a anti-displacement head, staff and budget to address displacement. It identified $18 million in the city’s 2020 budget that can be immediately reallocated for four key anti-displacement programs. Getting them off the ground will help vulnerable Austinites stay in their homes, and it won’t impact local taxpayers because the money comes from other sources besides the city general fund.

Of that $18 million amount, $10 million should be set aside for the preservation of low-income rental units along transit corridors in the city’s Eastern Crescent, a swath of fast-gentrifying neighborhoods that run from Montopolis to North Austin’s eastern edge. That will help ensure existing residents can remain in housing with easy access to transportation and employment.

Another $2 million should be reserved to preserve businesses along those same corridors, small companies that might otherwise succumb to rising rents and the growing competition from corporate newcomers.

The city should also earmark $2 million to develop and implement plans for 20 Neighborhood Conservation Combined Districts and 20 Historic Districts, all in lower-income, gentrifying areas. An additional $1 million should be set aside for locating historic homes and buildings that haven’t been identified within those neighborhoods. Efforts like these do more than protect Austin’s architectural history: They help stop the destruction of close-knit, multi-generational neighborhoods populated by people of modest means.

And $3 million should be allocated to a new Low-Income Housing Trust Fund, increasing the resources and services that the poorest residents of Austin’s most gentrification-prone neighborhoods need in order to stay in their homes.

Displacement is a dangerous byproduct of our region’s unprecedented growth. It’s fueling our housing crisis. it’s worsening socioeconomic inequality, and it’s tearing Austin families apart. So it’s time for the City of Austin to put its money where its mouth is. Let’s begin treating this problem with the seriousness that it deserves.

Rodriguez is the CEO of Equitable Cities, a nonprofit group that addresses widening gaps in income and equity in U.S. cities. He was a senior policy advisor to Austin Mayor Steve Adler from 2015 to 2017.


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