City Council’s first look at gentrification study

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A group of UT researchers finally came out with a much-awaited study on gentrification in Austin. The great majority of the 200-page report seems to focus on defining and identifying gentrification and displacement in Austin, with maps showing areas that are gentrifying or vulnerable to gentrification and discussion of the factors that lead to displacement.

As for solutions, the only high-impact ideas that stick out to me is acquiring and setting aside land for affordable housing before property values get too high.

The other potential policies that were highlighted did not strike me as likely to make a major difference. Portland’s “right of first return” program aimed at helping people buy homes in areas they otherwise couldn’t afford does not seem likely to help a lot of people. The necessary subsidies are way too high. Similarly, organizing tenants to exercise their rights is also a great goal. In the case of the Cactus Rose mobile home park, it led to the displaced residents negotiating critical relocation assistance. But I don’t see it as preventing rents from going up or redevelopment from occurring.

One factor that was conspicuously absent from the report (at least from what I’ve read and heard): the amount of market-rate housing citywide. Nor did the report seem to address the question of whether boosting housing supply throughout the city might ease some of the cost pressures that cause gentrification.

However, Jacob Wegmann, one of the researchers, noted that allowing people to build small accessory dwelling units (granny flats) on their properties struck the team as a “relatively painless” way to increase housing stock. CM Jimmy Flannigan made sure to repeat that for everyone: “Relatively painless. Did everyone hear that?”

Flannigan also took a jab at the recently-approved North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Plan, suggesting that if the city’s priority is preventing displacement in vulnerable communities, maybe housing staff shouldn’t be spending time crafting neighborhood plans in well-to-do parts of town.

CM Ora Houston noted that the city did a gentrification study 18 years ago and asked the researchers why the city has since done “nothing” to stop displacement. CM Delia Garza pushed back, saying that the city has done things but that city leaders have a hard time agreeing on what needs to be done: “There are some of us who believe the supply side of our housing crisis is something we desperately need to address, and then there are some of us who say supply and demand doesn’t matter.” CM Pio Renteria also said that the city has done good work but not nearly enough; he bemoaned the lost opportunities to buy land and provide affordable housing back when it would have been cheap.

The mayor’s two takeaways from the study were that “we have to be really deliberate about using the right strategy in the right place” and “there’s not a lot of experience to draw from. As for the question of what works, it appears that’s a hard question to answer.”

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