For Some Austin Residents, CodeNEXT Spurs Fears Of Gentrification

Jul 7, 2017

When we talk about gentrification in Austin, the conversation tends to center around rapid redevelopment on the city’s East Side. But residents of other neighborhoods near the city center have their eyes on the changes that Austin’s new land development code, CodeNEXT, could bring.

Martha Cotera is a community organizer and translator who has worked with residents of Rundberg, a diverse group of neighborhoods in North Austin. She said some residents she has spoken to are skeptical about the new code. They worry it could accelerate the pace of gentrification and question whether their input will make a difference in policy.

“Bureaucrats are kind of, like, already set on what they’re going to do, and then they come out and do the outreach to the community, and that’s where the community is hesitant to buy in,” Cotera said.

At the heart of these fears are concerns about increased entitlements. In other words, if the new code allows for more units in these areas, some fear it could accelerate the demolition of older properties. That’s because, as the land becomes more valuable, builders could be incentivized to build larger, more expensive high-rises.

Others say the changes proposed in CodeNEXT don’t go far enough. Melinda Schiera with the North Austin Civic Association sees the code rewrite as a chance to promote affordable housing in new places. Schiera said the proposed zoning in CodeNEXT is not much of a departure from the association’s existing neighborhood plan.

"We actually want to see a little bit of change,” she said. “We want to propose that some of the commercial property is actually zoned for multi-use along North Lamar and 183.”

Jorge Rousselin, a project manager on CodeNEXT, said concerns about gentrification are valid. He said city staff analyzed the existing character of Austin neighborhoods and how they’ve developed over the past several decades to better understand the pace of change and avoid displacement.

Rousselin said the city has done this by combing through what are called neighborhood plans. That process offers residents a chance to set development priorities and shape the future of land use in their neighborhoods.

“The intent is really to offer the community a pathway to implement those neighborhood plans,” he said.

But who exactly do those plans represent? A 2016 audit found that the process of writing neighborhood plans is largely inequitable. The residents most at risk of being displaced may be the least likely to weigh in.

“I think it is true that that community has not had the voice that they should, but I also know that it’s a steep hurdle to capture it," Planning Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said.

In April, she called for the issue of gentrification to be included in more official planning documents. Zaragoza said she has yet to see a clear strategy for addressing gentrification in CodeNEXT.