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Near 12th & Chicon, Rising Land Values Mean a Tension Between New and Old

Jorge Sanhueza Lyon

Eight years ago, homebuilder Daniel Reeves visited the corner of 12th and Chicon for the first time and happened upon a street brawl. These days, instead of street brawls, there are people walking dogs and parents pushing baby strollers. Wealthier — and whiter — residents are moving in.

Today, Reeves lives in the neighborhood himself and builds homes there. But what does that mean for the residents who have long called this place home?

For custom home builders like Reeves, the East Side is desirable.

“East of downtown area is especially an attractive area because [it’s] so close to downtown and … there has been a lot of reasonably priced land,” he said.  

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Local resident and builder Daniel Reeves at the corner of 13th and Leona where he is building four new homes.

His company, Verde Builders, builds around 30 houses a year in East Austin. They range in price from the mid $400,000’s to the mid $700,000’s.  He has four houses coming up just one block north of the 12th and Chicon intersection that he first visited eight years ago.

Recently one of the future homeowners came by to check out the progress on his house. He was friendly enough; but didn’t want to be interviewed. Gentrification, he said, is a sensitive topic.

The houses around the construction site are a mix of large new modern styles and smaller wood frame ones. Estela Hernandez lives in one of those older homes. It’s a wonderful, peaceful neighborhood, she said. And she hopes she and her family can live here a long time.

“The new constructions are pushing rents way up. And I think people can’t pay such high rents,” she said in Spanish.

That new construction usually means tearing down older houses to clear the land for the new ones. East Austin’s 78702 zip code had the third most demolitions of single family homes last year.  City records show there were permits to demolish 128 single-family homes in East Austin. That’s actually down from the 143 in 2014.

Daniel Reeves says his company has never coerced anyone to sell their property.

“We never really banged on anybody’s door and asked them to sell,” he said. “They all came to us. Most of this property is worth four times what it was worth ten years ago.”

Real estate agent and property manager Willis Hunt grew up in the neighborhood — and he agrees with Reeves. Many of his clients are eager to get high dollar for their houses. Hunt, whose office is on 12th Street, said longtime residents get criticized for giving in to the market. Critics charge them with “selling out,” he said, and giving up East Austin’s history.

“Be very sensitive when you're telling somebody who needs a financial windfall what they can do with their property,” Hunt said.

But, Hunt says, the changes in the neighborhood means a sense of closeness has been lost.

“Even though people are friendly and walk their dogs and jog, you don’t really know them,” he said. “You try to get to know people recently, but it’s not as neighborly as it was when I growing up. You knew everybody down the street, even though you might be different -- we called 911 on issues back and forth: ‘We don’t want to have that in the neighborhood.’

“We knew each other, we knew each other’s ebbs and flows,” he said. “And right now, it’s not that same close-knitness, to a degree. But change is change and hopefully everybody get a chance to know their neighbors and get to appreciate each other because that’s what a community is about.”

Everyone here recognizes this: by and large the new population is different racially and socio-economically from the longtime residents. And that raises big questions in East Austin today. Will there be enough housing available for working class people, or will the new squeeze out the old?  Will the newcomers and the old-timers find common ground?

The particulars may be different, but the same questions are being asked in other parts of Austin, too.

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