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Zoning and Platting looks to pinpoint gentrification

Tuesday, May 9, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

As the only major growth city in the U.S. with a declining African-American population, Austin knows it has a gentrification problem, and the Zoning and Platting Commission took a step toward addressing it on May 2. Commissioners unanimously passed a motion asking staff to develop criteria for what makes an area at risk of displacement and then to use it to create a “gentrification” map of the city.

Commissioner David King made the motion and he emphasized the urgency of the matter. “We need this as soon as we can get it,” he said at the meeting. “It’ll be too late if we wait another year or more to get such a map because then it won’t have informed CodeNEXT.”

The proposed overhaul of the city’s Land Development Code is currently undergoing a rigorous review process. The city has hosted a series of “Code Talks” to inform the public about particular themes in the draft, including a session on affordability held on Monday, May 8. The Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department has also put together a Strategic Housing Blueprint, which is going through its own review process, but King said that displacement was not receiving enough attention in either of those documents. “Fair housing is certainly related,” he said, “but we should be taking actions ahead of time to mitigate or minimize displacement, as opposed to trying to deal with it after the fact or as it’s happening.”

In 2012, the city of Portland conducted a vulnerability analysis of its urban landscape to identify which neighborhoods were in danger of fracturing, and King suggested that city of Austin staff could use it as a template to inform their own study. The Portland report attempts to characterize what metrics make an area at risk with the assumption that displacement is often the unforeseen result of policy decisions. Newly appointed Commissioner Stephanie Trinh, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid who has represented many clients facing displacement, said that the “gentrification map” was the most helpful tool to be borrowed from the Portland report.

“I think generally we all know which areas in Austin are potentially risky,” Trinh said, “but putting it on a map may be useful for making policy decisions.”

Commissioner Ann Denkler supported the creation of the map, but challenged the idea that it was obvious which areas were at risk, citing examples in Northwest Austin. “(Gentrification) doesn’t always follow the paths that people assume.”

The Portland report recognizes several different socioeconomic and demographic changes that are signs of impending displacement, such as a greater than average increase in school graduation rates, housing prices or white homeownership. It also highlights low-income areas where people predominantly rent, but King said that the Austin version should also include middle-income areas as well.

“I do appreciate the formula in the Portland study, but I don’t want to leave out the middle-income families that are struggling too and are at risk whether they rent or own,” he said.

The commission voted unanimously to approve the proposal, in a vote of 9-0. Commissioners Ana Aguirre and Dustin Breithaupt were absent.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Map of African-American population distribution in 2010 excerpted from the city demographer’s map, which can be found here.

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