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Report inspires city leaders to look at gentrification in CodeNEXT

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 by Jack Craver

Two weeks ago, a draft report authored by a city task force accused CodeNEXT, the proposed overhaul of the city’s land use rules, of being a “tool of institutionalized racism.”

The report, which was leaked to media outlets and reported on by the Austin American-Statesman, bemoaned the city’s failure to prevent the displacement of longtime residents of East Austin neighborhoods as property values have skyrocketed in recent years in response to the steady influx of newcomers in search of housing. The changes proposed in CodeNEXT, it claimed, will only increase the pressures that have pushed the predominantly nonwhite, poor and working-class residents out of Central Austin.

In particular, the report raised concerns that the new code will make it easier to construct nonresidential buildings in residential areas, will encourage more construction of housing in the central city targeting well-to-do singles and that the increased residential density it will promote will drive housing prices higher.

The claims made in the report and the responses they elicited display the divide in city politics over how to address Austin’s high degree of economic and racial segregation.

Nuria Zaragoza, who sits on the Planning Commission and is one of the 47 members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequalities, which authored the report, cautioned that what was leaked was only a draft. But she is glad that it has gotten people talking about gentrification, a big subject that she said has been conspicuously neglected in the arguments made on behalf of CodeNEXT.

“People like me think that gentrification needs to be acknowledged,” she said in an interview with the Austin Monitor. “I think it’s unfortunate that with all of the documents that we have on CodeNEXT, there really hasn’t been a mention of gentrification, far less a plan.”

However, Niran Babalola, who heads housing policy for the Austin Justice Coalition, started the Facebook page Desegregate ATX, which blames restrictive zoning laws for the city’s segregated housing situation, said the draft report draws a number of faulty conclusions about how to foster integration.

“The report blames density for making our neighborhoods expensive, but we’re the least dense major city in Texas with the highest housing costs,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Low density zoning was designed to segregate by income and by race as an intentional side effect. The Justice Department warned us last year that our low density zoning likely violates the Fair Housing Act that Martin Luther King fought and died for.”

Babalola also referred to Ed Wendler, a member of the task force who was quoted in the Statesman article explaining its conclusions, as a “sprawl developer” whose business interests align with city policies discouraging density in favor of suburban development. He also highlighted a 2014 guest column Wendler wrote for the Statesman in which he proudly referred to himself as a “NIMBY” in favor of policies aimed at curbing the city’s rapid population growth.

“Homeowners who are against homes for other people have no business on a task force about justice, but here we are,” added Babalola.

Babalola said that he agreed with the report’s call for East Austin and West Austin to be subject to the same land use standards but that the focus should be on opening up West Austin to more housing stock, rather than attempting to close East Austin down to further development.

“I think East Austin should get the same deal (as West Austin), but it should be the same deal of inclusion, not exclusion,” he said.

Asked to respond, Wendler called the “sprawl” label a “cheap shot” and said he works on both sprawl and infill development. More density will not make the city more affordable, he said, because denser developments are more expensive to build.

A number of City Council members who were asked for comment were hesitant to respond to the leaked report or to enter the density debate.

“There are regulations and restrictions that can make us more segregated, and there are regulations and restrictions that can make us less so,” said Council Member Greg Casar. “I think it’s too simple to say that regulations and restrictions prevent gentrification or that they cause gentrification.”

While a lack of housing can play a key role in raising rents, said Casar, simply lifting restrictions on building would not “solve the affordability and integration issues by itself.”

The only thing that is clear, added Casar, is that “the status quo is not working.” For that reason, he said, “It’s critical that we ensure that the new code advances racial integration.”

Council Member Leslie Pool bristled at the notion that Austin’s zoning restrictions have made neighborhoods in Central Austin off-limits to the nonwealthy.

“I’m not wealthy, and I’m living in Rosedale,” she told the Monitor.

Pool also dismissed the claim that easing zoning restrictions was the solution to affordability. She pointed out a new book, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood, in which author Peter Moskowitz argues for more publicly owned land, more regulation of housing and greater public participation in city planning as ways to provide more affordable housing and prevent gentrification.

“There’s so much more nuance to be had in the discussion” than simply allowing more density, Pool said.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo declined to comment on the specifics of the leaked report, saying only that she appreciated the task force’s work examining an important subject and that she is waiting until the final report is published.

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