First aid 101: Try to stop the bleeding.
In the case of Austin’s painful struggle with gentrification, planning for expensive surgeries down the road isn’t enough. Tourniquets are needed now.
As University of Texas researchers recently presented a detailed report on gentrification hotspots and potential tools to address them, they also pointed to the fact that Austin could be losing 740 apartments for lower-income residents along East Riverside Drive with nothing in place to prevent further losses, and that an untold number of residents need help securing the homestead exemptions that could rein in their property tax bills, helping them to stay in their homes.
These are areas where the City Council should apply first aid now, even as City Hall launches into a deeper policy discussion this fall on the long-term treatments for Austin’s gentrification problem.
We share the exasperation of Council Member Ora Houston and longtime residents of East Austin who hunger for action, not just talk. Too many families have left their l homes because they could no longer afford to live in an increasingly expensive East Austin while city leadersamassed one study after another and spoke of a desire to do something. The council must summon the political will to act on big ideas as several anti-gentrification efforts converge in the coming weeks at City Hall.
The authoritative report from UT’s Center for Sustainable Development flags the areas where longtime residents, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, are at greatest risk for being squeezed out by rising rents and ballooning tax bills in a city that has the eighth-highest property tax burden on homeowners in the country, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
In addition to a menu of policy tools offered by the UT report, the City Council this fall will receive recommendations from the Anti-Displacement Task Force, and city staffers are analyzing the People’s Plan offered earlier this year by East Austin neighborhood activists.
Weighing all of their ideas is necessary -- and time-consuming -- work that will include important discussions with residents in the affected neighborhoods. The city has limited dollars. Some proposals, such as dedicating millions of dollars to community land trusts or new affordable housing, are promising but pricey and would take years to produce gains.
While officials hammer out those plans, the city can take other steps now to help residents in need.
The UT researchers say the owners of the Country Club Creek, Paradise Oaks and Towne Vista apartment complexes in Southeast Austin are exploring leaving the low- income housing tax credit program that helped finance their construction, paving the way for those complexes to raise their rents to market rates in the next two to four years. Not only will that send hundreds of families searching for more affordable housing, but it’s a costly backslide in the city’s efforts to add affordable housing. Replacing these 740 units elsewhere would cost an estimated $70 million, UT’s report estimated. That doesn't count the 248 affordable units that will be lost when Fort Branch at Truman's Landing, a complex in far East Austin off Techni Center Drive, also converts in the next few years to market rates.
It’s likely too late for Austin to broker a deal to keep those units affordable. But the city’s neighborhood housing department should proactively track the status of other privately-owned, subsidized complexes so officials can intervene before those complexes are eligible to move to market-rate rents.
The council should also pass an ordinance giving the city or a tenants’ cooperative the right of first refusal to buy a subsidized apartment complex before the seller turns to other buyers. The city currently has that right in only some instances.
Finally, the city should create an office that can provide outreach and legal aid to homeowners who are missing out on the tax breaks that come with a homestead exemption. Working about a decade ago with the Travis Central Appraisal District, the East Austin environmental and advocacy group PODER identified about 800 likely homeowners who did not have the exemption.
Some residents couldn’t qualify for the tax break because their name wasn’t on the property deed, a common occurrence when a family home is passed to the next generation without a will. In other instances, residents don’t know how to apply for the exemptions, or they defaulted on their tax bills without understanding the options for seniors to defer payment until they die or sell the home.
A city office dedicated to helping homeowners in these situations could provide significant tax relief now, easing the financial pressures that might otherwise push them out of the neighborhood.
None of these steps fill the yawning need for a substantive anti-gentrification investment by City Hall. But these efforts could help stop some of the bleeding while the larger plan comes together.