People With Ties To A Gentrifying Neighborhood To Get A Better Shot At Affordable Housing

Nov 8, 2019

Families affected by gentrification in certain Austin neighborhoods can now get a point in their favor when applying for low-income housing through a new city program.

Roughly 70 units will be available to low-income people with ties to rapidly changing neighborhoods who are at risk of being displaced or have been – not only by rising rent and property taxes, but also by natural disasters and eminent domain.

“I applaud the city for diving into this,” Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, said. “I think it’s kind of on the cutting edge.”

Wegmann co-authored a recent UT study of gentrification in Austin, which the city is using to identify neighborhoods for the program. Residents will have to prove they or an immediate family member lived in these areas as far back as 2000.

These neighborhoods include parts of St. Johns, Bouldin Creek, E. Cesar Chavez and Rundberg, plus a large section of East Austin. The housing available to those who want to stay or move back is primarily in East Austin, including two dozen apartments on East 12th Street.

Those who apply will be prioritized depending on three things: They have generational ties to a neighborhood or were displaced from it, they have a disability and or their family size would fit available units.

“I’m hopeful for our town to leave its racist legacy behind and include everybody, and economics is one of the biggest ways to do it,” longtime community activist Daniel Llanes said when the Austin City Council voted on the policy in March 2018.

It’s often called a "right to return" or "right to stay" program since the hope is residents can go back to or remain in neighborhoods where increasing rents and property taxes have forced people out. The idea has been tried by a handful of other U.S. cities – with varying results.

“I feel really confident that Austin is proceeding with this policy having learned from those examples and really adapting it to what will work here in the City of Austin,” City Council Member Kathie Tovo told KUT.  

A right-to-return program established in Portland, Ore., was criticized when, as of late 2018, only nine families had been able to find housing in a historically black neighborhood under intense redevelopment pressure. The program initially tried to help people move back as homeowners instead of renters, which proved especially challenging since many of those displaced were low-income and had trouble qualifying for a mortgage.

Austin’s program will include 10 ownership units, many of which are kept affordable through what’s called a community land trust; that’s when a nonprofit, in this case the city’s affordable housing arm, owns the land while the homeowner pays for the house.

Applicants will have to provide documents showing they or family members lived in gentrifying neighborhoods. Erica Leak with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department said the city will work with people to find ways to prove this.

“We’re thinking it could be utility bills … it could be tax bills,” she said. “I think we’ll try to be as accepting of various types of proof as we can.”

Tovo told KUT last year that it had taken the city nearly a year to write this policy because of legal concerns; the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department initially objected to a similar program in San Francisco before letting it go forward.

“One of the things that has prevented this sort of thing from happening sooner and happening in more places is that city attorneys and their staff often get quite nervous when these sorts of programs are proposed,” Wegmann said. Lawyers worry that because displacement often affects neighborhoods of color, the program could be seen as using race as a preference, which would be in violation of Fair Housing law.

To hopefully avoid this, the City of Austin has mandated that in most cases only 40% of low-income housing available for this program be considered using the generational ties preference. The program will begin as a pilot until summer 2020 when the city will reconsider it as part of its next year budgeting process.

The estimated cost of the program is $20,000, which will go primarily to process software applications.