Staying HOME: Community group flexes muscle to limit Austin zoning displacements

Community Powered ATX’s Celine Rendon.
Community Powered ATX’s Celine Rendon. Image credit: Celine Rendon.

The same community leaders who convinced the Austin City Council to add modest affordability measures to their recent market-based, land-use ordinance now are fighting to implement anti-displacement protections for Austin’s most vulnerable communities. 

Community leaders say they are focused on turning those amendments into action for marginalized Austin residents, who otherwise would be left out of the land-use plan called Home Options for Mobility and Equity (HOME).

“We have to keep pressure on the city council and city staff to actually take action to initiate a community-based process to create an equity/anti-displacement overlay,” said Celine Rendon, a member of Community Powered ATX. The amendments are just a first step in instilling affordability measures in the two-part HOME ordinance, she said.

The two amendments, added at the 11th hour, weren’t part of the original HOME package. They didn’t originate with city staff or the council. In fact, some Austin City Council members – José “Chito” Vela and Natasha Harper-Madison – expressed skepticism about equity overlays, declaring that they haven’t worked here or elsewhere. Nonetheless, both amendments passed as part of the HOME package. Vela and Harper-Madison ended up supporting the equity overlay amendment, saying they wanted to see a study of it by city staff.

Community Powered ATX, an umbrella group representing 40 Austin organizations, is credited with drafting the two measures and persuading council members to sponsor them as amendments.

One HOME amendment is based on the equity/anti-displacement overlay pushed by Rendon and other community leaders. It directs Austin’s city manager to investigate the feasibility of an equity/anti-displacement overlay for communities that are at increased risk of gentrification and displacement because of the HOME ordinance. City Council Member José Velásquez, who represents District 3, sponsored it. Community Powered ATX had pushed a stronger version that would have immediately set up an equity/anti-displacement overlay but compromised to win passage.

Ideally, an equity overlay would require that a certain percentage of homes be affordable at rates that lower-income homeowners could afford. But it also aims to stabilize prices for houses and rents within the overlay area and preserve existing affordable housing. Those measures might require subsidies, tax abatements, and private or public gap financing to achieve deeper affordability.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes of District 2 sponsored an amendment that incorporated another Community Powered ATX goal. That amendment delays implementation of the new HOME 2 ordinance for six months in active-displacement census tracts identified in the 2018 “Uprooted” report. The city of Austin commissioned that report from the University of Texas School of Law.

Delaying implementation provides the city time to study — and potentially implement — an equity/anti-displacement overlay before HOME 2 takes effect in at-risk neighborhoods. It provides community leaders with time to help families in their neighborhoods understand the new land-use code. It also buys time for other measures the city council is examining to create a more even playing field for working-income and lower-income property owners to participate in HOME’s new density entitlements.

“What I heard very loudly and clearly from our community throughout the extensive community conversations we’ve had in meetings that there is a need to ensure that we have the financial component tied with this subdivision of lots and reducing our minimum lot size standards,” Fuentes said at the May 16 meeting, which continued into the following day.

“The subdivision of lots is a recommended strategy that comes from our “Uprooted” report and our Anti-Displacement Task Force as a way to allow families to age in place and stay in their neighborhoods,” Fuentes said.

To that point, the city council last week directed the city manager and staff to identify lending institutions open to low- and middle-income businesses, potential tax rebates for homeowners, low-interest or forgivable loans, and fee waivers to reduce building costs.

Under HOME’s new entitlements, property owners can build three homes on lots that previously were limited to one home. There will be substantial fees and costs associated with subdividing lots and building homes, fueling criticism that developers or more affluent property owners will benefit most from HOME. Meanwhile, middle- or lower-income property owners who are unable to afford new construction costs might face higher property taxes as nearby properties soar in value.

“The reality is that there are significant costs and hurdles associated with building an additional unit,” Council Member Velásquez said. “That is why we’re being proactive in trying to make this opportunity accessible to homeowners at all income levels and try to mitigate displacement of longtime Austinites from their communities.”

Council passed the controversial land use ordinance at its May 16 meeting. Along with the second part of HOME, the council also changed Austin’s compatibility standards and rezoning for the so-called Equitable Transit-Oriented Development corridor that aligns with the first phase of CapMetro’s $7.1 billion Project Connect. The vote was 9-2 with Council Members Alison Alter, District 10, and Mackenzie Kelly, District 6, voting against it.

Looking forward, Community Powered ATX leaders are rolling up their sleeves to ensure their amendments are turned into action – before the six-month delay expires. They want the city to form a task force of community members, city staff, researchers, and other experts to recommend tools, such as an equity/anti-displacement overlay, to keep African Americans, Latinos and other lower- and moderate-income residents in their long-time communities.

Given Austin’s history of racially discriminatory land-use policies, dating back to at least the early 1900s, community leaders said the amendments – while not enough – are essential to reduce the numbers of African Americans and Latino residents being pushed to Austin’s outer limits, and beyond, in search of affordable housing. Research shows that East Austin is among the most gentrified places in the nation.

The work to put anti-displacement measures in place is urgent. Several community leaders pointed to displacement risks in Austin’s Eastern Crescent, which may be the last frontier of concentrated Black and Latino residents in this city. This area includes central East Austin, Del Valle, Montopolis, Dove Springs, Colony Park, and Rundberg. 

City figures back that up, showing that East Austin’s population of White, older adults is increasing, as its share of older, Black and Latino people decreases.

Alexia Leclercq speaks at a Community Powered ATX HOME equity press conference.
Alexia Leclercq speaks at a Community Powered ATX HOME equity press conference. Image credit: Alexia Leclercq.

“We already know that these zoning policies without any affordability requirements lead to displacement,” said Alexia Leclercq, an organizer with Community Powered ATX. “We don’t need more Band-Aid solutions. We need something that will actually address the root of this displacement, which includes the market-driven luxury developments, the demolition of affordable housing, speculation, and rising property taxes and rent, all of which are accelerated by these up-zoning policies.”

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series on the land-use revisions that the Austin City Council passed on May 16, 2024.

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