Austin’s declining number of African American residents represents a huge loss for our community as a whole and one of the top challenges facing our city. I am familiar with the UT study referenced above and also with the 2016 follow-up study, which found the majority of these residents left due to increasing unaffordability. Not surprisingly, these losses have been most pronounced in East Austin, where gentrification, rising property taxes and increased rents have combined to displace many longtime residents in recent years. According to the city demographer, District 1 saw a 14.5% loss of African American residents from 2000 to 2010.
As mayor, I will continue my record from my terms on the City Council (2008-2014) of strong, action-oriented support for the African American community. In addressing health disparities, for example, I promoted resources for Sickle Cell Anemia, HIV, the Huston- Tillotson Wellness Center, and a maternal and infant health program directed specifically at serving African American women. In addition, I was a successful supporter of funds to assist AISD programs including after school care, parental support specialists, and family resource centers in high needs areas. Lastly of note, I led the initiative to partner with Reagan High School to create a PE program that certifies students as life guards, resulting now in jobs for hundreds of high school students.
Also as mayor, I will promote real action on the 300 acres that the City owns currently leased to the County for the Expo Center, which holds huge potential for development that has the potential to be of great benefit to the community.
Because rising housing costs are a primary driver of displacements, I would also focus immediate attention on ways to maintain existing market affordable housing and minimize further displacement of residents, as recommended by the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and the People’s Plan. Strategies could include ensuring that any zoning changes or code revisions provide strong disincentives against the demolition of housing valued at $300,000 or less per unit, as recommended by the Zoning and Platting Commission. We must also consider existing tools such as Local Historic Districts and Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts to maintain affordability and combat gentrification in Austin’s remaining African American neighborhoods.
In addition, I would work to adopt the following policies to stem gentrification and displacement:
- Ensure appropriate zoning to deter large-scale luxury development in neighborhoods at risk for gentrification. The city must ensure that zoning in rapidly gentrifying areas is designed for small- and medium-scale, mixed-income housing, deterring the large luxury developments that drive higher housing costs and displacement. Smaller scale base zoning can also help cities drive better bargains when a larger project is proposed. As an example, in Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying Pilsen neighborhood, developers who want to build more than 8 units are now required to set aside 21 percent of those for affordable housing, and buildings with ten or more units that receive a zoning change, city land or city financial assistance must set aside a minimum of 10 percent of their units as affordable. To be clear, I am not advocating downzoning of existing entitlements, which would constitute an illegal taking under state law; but the city should be extremely cautious and deliberate in weighing any requests for upzoning in areas at risk for gentrification and displacement.
- Adjust MFIs for density bonus programs or other city-subsidized affordable housing to reflect the median income where the project will be built. Under most of the city’s current density bonus programs, a unit is considered “affordable” if a household if a household earning 60-80% of Travis County’s Median Family Income (MFI) pays no more than 30 percent of its income on housing (downtown density bonus programs are calibrated at 80-120% MFI). However, the current MFI levels for Travis County are substantially higher than the median income levels in many historically African-American or Latino neighborhoods, areas currently facing the greatest gentrification pressures. This means when housing is demolished and replaced in these areas, even the few density bonus affordable units that may be realized in a new project will not be within the financial reach of displaced residents.
Let’s look at the numbers. The current Median Family Income (MFI) for a family of four in Travis County is $81,400 – yet according to the city demographer, the MFI levels for Council Districts 1 through 4 are barely half that. In District 1, the MFI is $42,150; in District 2, $42,650; in District 3, $36,185; and in District 4, $39,200. Clearly, affordability metrics based on the countywide MFI will not produce housing that is actually affordable to residents of these districts.
To ensure true affordability, the MFI levels should be recalibrated based on the median income level of the area in which a proposed project will be located, particularly in gentrifying areas. The MFI levels should apply to any project in which the city plays a role through density bonuses or other subsidies.
- Ensure anti-displacement policies are a key part of growth planning. Large luxury complexes may increase the number of housing units available in a given area, but their rents are likely to be unaffordable to displaced residents. For an example of what happens when displacement is not considered in city planning, look no further than East Riverside where hundreds of lower-income families and individuals were displaced in the wake of the city’s East Riverside Corridor Master Plan. Similarly, access to rail transit is related to rising housing costs that often push out lower-income households. This is doubly unfortunate as low-income residents are far more likely to depend on
transit than their wealthier counterparts with ready access to personal vehicles or ride- hailing services. Though the answers are not simple, we must ensure that anti- displacement efforts are a key component of every city planning effort moving forward.
Another area besides housing that the city and the mayor should be involved in is supporting and nurturing all opportunities and organizations that strengthen and bring together all facets of the African American community in Austin. It is critical, while the numbers are decreasing, that the African American community remain tightly bound.