Tuesday, January 28, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

A heated ZAP tackles displacement

Nearly two years to the day citizens debuted the People’s Plan on Martin Luther King Day 2018, the topic of displacement mitigation came before the Zoning and Platting Commission for an update.

On Jan. 21, commissioners listened to a report on how the city’s strategic initiatives aimed at mitigating displacement are progressing. Under the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department there are 15 priorities that are designed to guide the development of programs combating displacement.

These strategic priorities, according to Nefertitti Jackmon, NHCD’s displacement mitigation program manager, came out of 612 community-based displacement mitigation strategies the department reviewed. After sifting through the proposals with the city’s Innovation Office, Jackmon said they settled on short-term strategies that were “high-impact.”

Commissioner David King, who is a member of the Development Without Displacement Coalition, said the high-impact programs that are implemented by the city are not explicitly geared toward preventing displacement. He argued that the terms “displacement mitigation” and “anti-displacement” are not synonyms.

“Displacement mitigation does include some anti-displacement programs, but it also does include the mitigation of the displacement that is occurring,” he said.

Jackmon told the Austin Monitor that the terms can be used interchangeably and do not affect the goals of the department. “We’re basically implementing a displacement mitigation strategy and people are critiquing the name of the effort,” she said.

King pointed specifically to the department’s Tenant Relocation Assistance Program as evidence that the terms are not equivalent. The program supports vulnerable renters with community services and legal referrals. It also requires landlords to give tenants early eviction notice.

Fred Lewis, a local attorney, told commissioners that the program does not prevent displacement. “Tenant relocation money says you agree on displacement, you’re just going to make it easier to be displaced.”

Other community members came to the commission to express their concern that these displacement strategies are not sufficient either in preventing the current displacement of Austinites or deterring future displacement resulting from the Land Development Code revision.

“If you want to address mitigating displacement then we have to put a stop to the Land Development Code and create a real displacement strategy,” local activist Daniel Llanes said.

Susana Almanza, one of the authors of the People’s Plan, and Frank Rodriguez, a former aide in the mayor’s office and a member of the Development Without Displacement Coalition, also offered their similar views that upzoning properties across East Austin will serve to worsen the rate of displacement.

“We’ve got to put that anti-displacement program in place before we adopt the Land Development Code,” Almanza said.

The People’s Plan and the Development Without Displacement Coalition push for anti-displacement rather than displacement mitigation. There is significant overlap in the leadership of the coalition and the group that forwarded the plan. Both proposals call for the city to directly engage residents in vulnerable areas when designing housing strategies as well as amending the current density bonus programs to prioritize affordable units.

Jackmon told the Monitor that NHCD’s goals and strategies to address displacement in Austin were designed directly in response to community input, including the People’s Plan. “Because of their efforts, this is why we’ve gotten where we are,” she said.

Both citizens and commissioners agreed that some of the most vulnerable populations are those under 60 percent of median family income. However, fewer programs are targeted at these populations.

Part of the problem, according to King, is the way the median family income is measured. He cited a study from Gabriel Amaro at UT Austin, which showed the median family income for black and Latino households in Austin is $44,352 and $45,199 respectively, whereas for the city as a whole, MFI is $81,400.  

The Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department recognizes there are varying levels of vulnerability within the city and uses a vulnerability mapping tool to identify specific households based on demographic data. The department’s Jonathan Tomko told commissioners that the overall approach to renter and homebuyer assistance programs is becoming more data-driven and targeted. “We’re becoming more intentional instead of marketing our programs citywide and seeing who is coming in the door first,” he said.

For those who do arrive asking for assistance, Austin’s displacement mitigation programming has $7.4 million in funds to help.

King contextualized that figure using the University of Texas study. In Austin, there are just over 232,000 households that are vulnerable to displacement. King performed some math on the dais, saying that if those homes each required $5,000 annually, then the funding need for anti-displacement is $1.16 billion per year.

With a current displacement mitigation budget at 0.64 percent of the estimated need, King said, “It’s like using a spray bottle to put the fires out in Australia.”

Jackmon agreed, telling the Monitor, “The city’s resources are not enough to address the enormity of this problem.”

ZAP Chair Jolene Kiolbassa noted she was disappointed not to see the financial breakdown of programming in order to understand “how much bang for your buck are you getting for your programs.” Breaking it out in this fashion, she said, will help identify some “low-hanging fruit” to help residents stay in their homes.

The commission’s affordable housing working group will further discuss the city’s displacement mitigation strategies and how they fit into the overarching Land Development Code discussion at the next meeting. Following that, the entire commission will broach the subject again in February, at which point it will make recommendations to Council.

Commissioners Nadia Barrera-Ramirez, Ann Denkler and Jim Duncan were absent from the discussion.

This story has been changed since publication to correct an error that appears in the report. The median family income for Latinx families is $45,199, not $25,199 as originally reported. Photo of the Development Without Displacement MLK press conference courtesy of Facebook.

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City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission: The City of Austin's Zoning and Platting Commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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