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Austin Plans Big Investment To Help Stop Residents From Getting Forced Out By Any New Transit Lines

Capital Metro's MLK Jr. rail station is adjacent to the Platform apartment complex in East Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Capital Metro's MLK Jr. rail station is adjacent to Platform Apartments in East Austin.

Austin voters will decide in November whether to raise property taxes to help pay for Project Connect, the transit expansion plan. Leaders promise the construction of new train and bus lines will help ease future congestion and provide much-needed jobs.

In other cities, though, transit expansion has resulted in residents getting priced out of their neighborhoods, so Austin's proposal includes $300 million in funding intended to prevent that displacement.

“Once you add transit into an area, you make it much more desirable because you essentially make, you know, a live/work/walk type of community,” said Steven Pedigo, director of the Urban Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin.

Pedigo said that desirability drives up property values, which can lead to the same type of gentrification and displacement already present in Austin.

“There's absolutely been that appreciation around those assets,” he said. “I think we can expect the same thing here in Austin. The question is, how do you control it and how do you plan for it in the future?”

"What you see is that the core users of transit are being displaced from these new transit-rich neighborhoods. So, that's just a terrible kind of irony, right?"

A number of academic studies have looked at the phenomenon in other cities. In pushing for more displacement mitigation funding, advocates cited one such study by the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University in Boston. It found that “transit investment frequently changes the surrounding neighborhood.”

“Neighborhood residents become wealthier and vehicle ownership becomes more common,” said Joao Paulo Connolly, co-director of housing and community development for the Austin Justice Coalition. “What you see is that the core users of transit are being displaced from these new transit-rich neighborhoods. So, that's just a terrible kind of irony, right?”

Austin officials said they are trying to avoid what happened in those other cities by making a big investment upfront. Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison cited the example of Denver, which established what’s known as the Transit-Oriented Development Fund a decade ago, with an initial investment of $15 million.

“Their fund has only even gotten up to $150 million – that's over time,” she said. “We're starting out at $300 million, which gives me a lot of confidence and optimism for where we can get to when we continue to work on this.”

If voters approve the Project Connect plan in November, the $300 million will be allocated over the next 10 to 15 years. That’s the timetable to build out the entire initial system plan. But Connolly said he believes it’s important to put strategies into place now.

“The key concern is what will patterns of [real estate] speculation do – possibly even before we break ground on new transit infrastructure?” he said. “If this is coming three years down the line, then now is the time to get in early with preventative strategies for anti-displacement. You know, not in three years. It will be too late.”

Staff members with the City of Austin are already beginning to come up with a plan. Some potential strategies included in a contract with voters approved by City Council earlier this month include:

  • the construction or development of new affordable housing
  • preservation, repair and rehabilitation of existing affordable housing 
  • financial assistance for home ownership
  • rental subsidies
  • right-to-return assistance that grants current tenants of affordable housing the option to lease a unit of comparable affordability and size following completion of rehabilitation of affordable housing

Connolly said whatever strategies are developed, the community must have more of a say. He said the process to finalize Project Connect moved quickly, but advocates were able to push for more funding to prevent displacement. And the allocation grew from nothing to $100 million to $300 million in a matter of weeks.
“I think there is still room there ... for more to be done to sort of make that process clearer as opposed to just saying, ‘Look, trust us, you know, and after November, we'll figure it out,’” he said. “Now is a good time to have this conversation and to make sure that we have these mechanisms in place.”

Council members said they are listening. The council and Capital Metro board voted earlier this month to establish a new local government corporation, the Austin Transit Partnership, to oversee the construction and implementation of Project Connect. The board of the ATP would appoint an advisory committee to ensure community members have a voice in the future of transit and the prevention of possible displacement – but only if the Nov. 3 referendum is approved.

“One of the things that's really, really critical and important about this process is it has to be proactive, and it has to be done as part of the planning process for the transportation projects,” Council Member Ann Kitchen, who is also a Cap Metro board member, said. “If it's after the fact, we miss the boat.”

The Council has added a resolution to consider during its Sept. 3 meeting firming up the commitment to work with neighborhoods directly when it comes to anti-displacement strategies and priorities. That would include the tracking of key performance indicators related to equity and displacement, and if enough of those are triggered, a discussion item would be posted on the next City Council agenda or appropriate Council committee.

Correction: An earlier version of the audio on this story incorrectly said Natasha Harper-Madison represents Austin City Council District 4. She represents District 1.

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Samuel King covers transportation and mobility for KUT News.
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