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East Austin: Upscale gentrification worsens affordable housing crisis, avoids bona fide TOD

29 June 2017

Rendition of southeast portion of Plaza Saltillo development, now under construction. Higher-density gentrification is replacing affordable housing and business locations under guise of “TOD”. (Graphic: Plaza Saltillo project via Austin Chronicle.)

Commentary by David Orr

David Orr, an Austin community activist involved with transportation issues, is a longtime environmental justice and transportation advocate.

Appropriate increases in density can be beneficial, but in the case of East Austin increasing density has become a major contributor to the expanding economic (and racial) segregation recognized by the Census Bureau and others as the worst in the U.S. Notably, the primary locus of the new construction is along the city’s only light railway commuter route (MetroRail), which uses abandoned the abandoned right-of-way (ROW) of a freight-rail spur into downtown.

Rapid changes in certain neighborhoods today are accelerated by rapid growth and massive investment in upscale development in and near downtown. What’s been billed as the tallest residential skyscraper between the east and west coasts is going up in downtown right now. East Austin is separated from downtown by I-35 which was built in that location to keep the black and Latino populations on “their” side of town. But downtown is hemmed in, and the real estate values are through the penthouse roof, so the Eastside is obviously the prime target for massive development.

The biggest redevelopment project in the city’s history is centered around a rail station (Plaza Saltillo) in a former railroad marshaling yard that for many decades has been surrounded by public housing, homes built in the 1920s and 30s, and funky old bars and auto mechanic shops. These are systematically being razed – entire city blocks every month or two – to make way for newly arrived, millennial code warriors who work downtown and want the dense urban streetlife environment. Small groceries, trendy bars and restaurants, and lots of parking garages for those shiny BMWs (“transit-oriented development”!) are going in block by block. From an environmental policy standpoint this is progress, as it will reduce auto commutes (not necessarily the number of trips) … but it’s mostly aimed at new residents moving in from places like Silicon Valley, with all that cash, and does little to address the need to increase densities in other areas near major employment centers.

For example, Apple’s huge complex is out in the boonies and not even on a bus route. But they have a huge parking garage that serves only their own staff. So much for Apple’s commitment to environmental concerns. There’s plenty of space around Apple’s complex for high-density development that could support transit, but so long as their well-paid staff drives in to work (and parks for free) and lives miles away in gated communities, there’s little incentive to the company to “think different” about their transportation situation.

In other parts of the city, especially in older neighborhoods, there is resistance to more density because folks want to maintain the quiet and quaint character of their ‘hoods. I appreciate that, especially in the case of Austin being one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S., and the desire of folks to stay in their (often historic and) well-maintained homes.

Meanwhile there are large swaths of lower-cost, low-density land in the “old” sprawl zones that should be targeted for high-density redevelopment, but were leapfrogged by developers building upscale projects in the fast-disappearing ranch lands in nearby rural areas. These older urban fringe areas are disdained in part because they’re near lower-income neighborhoods that were middle-class subdivisions only 20 years ago, and in part because the employment centers were allowed to build in the hinterlands, leaving these low-density, affordable areas largely bereft of investor interest. At least there are still some areas where low-income people can still afford housing, even if it is half their monthly income.

Property taxes in Texas are high, especially in high-income counties like ours, as the state has no income tax and deals with funding for poor counties’ schools by taking from the rich counties (i.e. forcing them to raise property taxes to support other counties) and redistributing the wealth to those counties with low tax bases. Thus property taxes in our (relatively “wealthy”) county are high – even for poor people – exacerbating economic pressures to sell private homes (many of which are paid off and/or rented to low-income residents) for big redevelopment. We might call this a Texas-Style 21st-century Urban Renewal program (a.k.a. “Negro Removal,” as the old urban removal programs were known to activists of the mid-20th century).

What does all this mean for transit development? It means real estate interests aren’t interested in it because they’re focused on adding Lexus Lanes to area freeways to accommodate (in their minds) wealthy commuters and tourists going downtown.

In addition to auto-oriented development, the state and anti-transit activists have made it difficult to build light rail at all, much less in areas where it’s needed most, but where redevelopment investment is low. Dallas now has more miles of light rail than any urban area in the U.S., and the so-called “green” city of Austin has only one piddling DMU two-car commuter line that can carry only a few hundred riders per hour at peak time, often leaving riders standing at the station to wait for the next train (headway around 1/2 hour). Bus routes offer infrequent service in most areas if they’re served at all, and provide few direct connections to two new express routes billed as “bus rapid transit” (BRT) but which operate almost entirely in congested auto traffic lanes. The city just passed a $750 million bond issue that will benefit road projects but provides near-zero funding for transit improvements.

Bottom line: Austin’s reputation as an “innovative” city is belied by its failure to implement effective, bona fide transit-oriented development (TOD) projects in areas that are ripe for redevelopment and that don’t negatively impact the limited supply of affordable housing stock (disproportionately occupied by people of color). The injustice is not only economic and social, it’s environmental.

It’s a joke to think of Austin as progressive when you see developers dictating land use to the city, and the city addressing the affordability crisis by allowing these developers to avoid incorporating affordability into new projects even as they demolish existing affordable neighborhoods. The powers that be control the transit agency’s board, dictating policy to Capital Metro, ensuring the agency won’t put up a fuss or make “unreasonable” demands – such as pushing the city to require redevelopment of the older sprawl zones before permitting new sprawl. Austin lags far behind many other cities in terms of equitable, environmentally sensible transportation services, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change any time soon.

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