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Human Rights Commission pushes Council to address gentrification

Wednesday, June 29, 2016 by Cate Malek

Although gentrification is a well-recognized problem in Austin, the Human Rights Commission believes it has reached crisis level and is pushing City Council to take concrete action.

The commission passed a recommendation that Council recognize gentrification as a human rights issue at its meeting on June 27. After months of discussion, in which the commission examined the destructive effects gentrification has had in Austin, the recommendation was passed 8-1 with Commissioner Timothy Miller opposed.

“We are trying to provide the community with ammunition they can use to open a dialogue with the city,” said Commissioner Naiara Leite da Silva, who helped draft the recommendation.

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of gentrification, but it’s generally understood as the effect of people with higher incomes moving into areas where lower-income people live. While the commissioners recognized that gentrification has some positive effects, they said that Council must act quickly to curtail its negative effects.

“This needs to get City Council’s attention because there is a crisis going on here,” Commissioner Ashley Normand said.

The commission is especially concerned about the effects of gentrification on minorities, who have been leaving Austin at dramatic rates. A 2014 study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin found that among large, fast-growing cities, Austin was the only one with a shrinking population of African-Americans. (A recent presentation during Council, drawing from estimates from the annual American Community Survey, suggests that the African-American population in Austin is growing once more.)

The commission’s interest in gentrification was sparked by Fred McGhee, a member of the Community Development Commission and an expert in urban development in Austin. He is concerned about city decisions regarding the preservation of historic buildings, arguing that Council has been more likely to destroy historic properties on the east side of Austin, rather than on the more affluent west side. He pointed to the Rosewood Courts property as an example.

But as the commission delved deeper into the changes happening in Austin, it began to see historic preservation as just one facet of gentrification. Other concerns include low-income people in Austin facing problems with rapidly rising property taxes and lack of access to legal aid, among many other issues. The commission also discussed the effects of city policy on gentrification, going back to 1928 when the city of Austin pushed African-Americans to move to East Austin.

“This is a many-tentacled issue,” said Commission Chair Sareta Davis.

Not all of the commissioners agreed that gentrification should be considered a human rights issue. Commissioner Timothy Miller was the sole opposing voice. While he agreed that gentrification is a problem in Austin, he said, “I don’t believe it’s a matter of human rights. It’s a matter of public policy,” he said.

Commissioner Tucker Royall voted for the recommendation, but he said he was uncomfortable with the commission’s use of the United Nations’ definition of gentrification.

“I don’t know if I would buy in whole-cloth to what the UN says,” he said.

Concerns like these led to the commission’s lack of action on gentrification before this point.

“My belief is that this is a very unambitious recommendation and a very broad and generic recommendation,” Leite da Silva told the Austin Monitor. “But our goal was to break the paralysis of the Human Rights Commission.”

She and other commissioners said they hope that this is just the first step that the commission and Council will take to address gentrification.

“As we continue to discuss and debate and come to understand one another and where everyone’s coming from, we can make more specific recommendations to City Council addressing specific policies that are impacting people in the city of Austin,” Leite da Silva said.

Photo by William Newton made available through a Creative Commons license

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