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Is gentrification a human rights issue in Austin?

Monday, December 7, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Over the past few months, the city’s Human Rights Commission has been taking a hard look at preservation and gentrification. Though such issues might seem outside the commission’s purview, onetime City Council candidate Fred McGhee has a different opinion.

McGhee’s complaints come after the Historic Landmark Commission rejected historic zoning for the Rosewood Courts in August. After that defeat, McGhee went to the city’s Human Rights Commission, where he is alleging discrimination and gentrification in the city’s historic landmark application review process.

“The allegation is that gentrification is a human rights violation and that practices in the city – namely, historic preservation practices – have played a role in that gentrification,” said McGhee. “We have a human right not to be displaced involuntarily from our homes.”

Specifically, McGhee alleges that the historic preservation system in the city is unbalanced, valuing certain histories above others. During the most recent meeting of the Human Rights Commission, he pointed out that in the Rosewood Courts case, historic zoning was not granted despite the fact that it was the country’s first public housing project for African-Americans. He contrasted that case with the Red River International House, which received historic zoning over the objection of its owners.

Jerry Rusthoven, development services manager in the Planning and Zoning Department, which supervises the Historic Preservation Office, responded to the allegations. However, he tried to steer clear of the general issue of gentrification, which he said is a “national as well as local issue that involves many factors that I am not responsible for.”

McGhee has asserted that there are only eight landmarks in the city that are associated with African-American history in Austin. Though Rusthoven produced a list of 41 landmarks that he felt met that criteria, McGhee later made it clear that he was speaking about East Austin, not the entire city.

McGhee also claims that East Austin demolition permits are “given a more cursory review” than demolition permits in West Austin. That’s something that Rusthoven disagreed with. He assured commissioners that all demolition permits go through the same city process, though not all go to the landmark commission. He said that it may be true that more West Austin homes go through that process because there is a large National Register Historic District in Old West Austin.

Rusthoven further explained that City Council has allocated $300,000 for a survey of historic property in the city, and that money will be spent looking at East Austin.

However, Rusthoven said he did think the city should be addressing gentrification. “I don’t think it’s an issue historic preservation has caused,” said Rusthoven. “We’re told a lot of times that historic preservation gets in the way of economic development, and now we’re being told that historic preservation is somehow contributing to gentrification.”

Rusthoven offered that the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, the Economic Development Department and Council could all have a hand in fighting the issue. As for the Historic Preservation Office, he said, “Our job is to preserve the history of Austin. To the degree that counteracts gentrification, that’s great. It’s also not possible for us to landmark every single property in East Austin to stop its demolition.”

McGhee said that Rusthoven’s testimony made it clear that “he knows nothing about historic preservation planning.”

“I think he really makes a good case for why the functions of historic preservation should be taken away from his department,” said McGhee, who asserted that best practices nationwide locate historic preservation offices as standalone departments that are not tied to planning departments. Instead, he suggested that the preservation office should report to the Parks and Recreation Department.

“The time has come for us to do this right,” said McGhee. “Pick a city, and they pretty much do it better than we do.”

In response to McGhee’s allegations, Commissioner Naiara Leite da Silva is working on a memo that explains how gentrification can be considered a human rights violation. Leite da Silva said she would have a complete draft of the memo by the commission’s next meeting in January.

“My initial findings are that gentrification has serious human rights implications, and they are multilayered. They actually go beyond what Dr. McGhee’s presenting here, and it’s happening in the city of Austin,” said Leite da Silva.

Commissioner Kristian Caballero suggested creating a working group to explore the issue with McGhee and the Historic Preservation Office and to “hash out” McGhee’s recommendations and move them on to Council.

McGhee said he would welcome that process, but he warned that the relationship between the preservation office and those who share his perspective is “adversarial” and that the problems he sees in the preservation program are unlikely to be fixed through reform.

“We need a clean slate,” said McGhee. “I don’t see how this can continue this way.”

Human Rights commissioners will continue to discuss the issue at their January meeting.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes noted that her department had audited the Historic Landmark Commission in both 2010 and 2013, though those audits mostly looked at board procedures. This upcoming year, however, the auditor’s office will be reviewing the historic property designation process.

Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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