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Halting Displacement on the East Riverside Corridor Must Become City Priority

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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The City of Austin

The Austin City Council’s vote to rezone 1,308 affordable apartment units gave the greenlight for the largest tenant displacement project along the East Riverside corridor — and one of the largest in Austin’s history.

The 92-acre development, dubbed the Domain on Riverside, will demolish the current affordable housing to make way for high-end homes, office buildings and a hotel. Such a large project is likely to accelerate additional redevelopment in the area, furthering the transformation of the corridor into one in which few low-income households remain.

It did not have to be this way. Last year we presented the Uprooted report to the City of Austin, which included a number of strategies for stemming displacement in gentrifying areas such as the East Riverside corridor.

A clear lesson from our research is that displacement can be meaningfully mitigated only through proactive, multipronged, and sustained efforts that incorporate the voices of renters and low-income residents.

The council’s approval of the Domain on Riverside, however, continues a troubling tradition of shortsighted and ad hoc decision making that has been woefully insufficient to meet the challenges of displacement in the face of gentrification.

The roots of the council’s flawed approach along the East Riverside corridor date to 2010, when the City of Austin adopted the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan.

At the time, the corridor housed more low-income renters than any other part of the city, primarily working class Latinx families and students. The Master Plan called for revamping the corridor into active urban areas with high density buildings, an urban rail line, and greater “aesthetic appeal.”

But the Master Plan did not sufficiently account for the displacement of the area’s existing residents that was sure to result from this large-scale redevelopment of the corridor.

The primary tool for addressing displacement on the corridor has been a “density bonus” program that allows developers to build more than they otherwise could if they agree to dedicate a small percentage of the development for affordable housing.

A density bonus program can be part of a comprehensive approach to preventing displacement, but by itself is ineffective. On East Riverside, the city’s corridor density bonus program has failed to produce any affordable housing so far.

Meanwhile, since the initiation of the corridor planning process, more than 1,000 affordable rental units have been demolished and thousands more are in the pipeline to be razed. Other apartments have been remodeled into higher-end developments with ramped up rents.

The city’s implementation of the East Riverside plan has focused largely on greater density and walkable streets, with the preservation of existing affordable housing taking a back seat.

At the Riverside Domain project, the developers pledged to include at least 400 affordable homes among the 4,700 new planned housing units, but the affordable units will still have rents higher than what many current residents can afford.

And the developer’s pledge to provide such units is not guaranteed, since the commitment is contingent on future market conditions.

The Riverside Domain project has exposed additional flaws in the city’s policies. Part of the developers’ affordable housing pledge, for example, was incorporated into private agreements that the city has no authority to monitor or enforce. The agreements also contained a number of legal defects, some of which were fixed only on the day of the zoning approval.

What would an effective policy to address displacement look like? A critical foundation for success is developing neighborhood-level anti-displacement action plans.

The plans should include specific goals and timelines for implementation and mechanisms for meaningful community input and oversight.

The city should also be acting quickly to acquire and preserve as much existing affordable housing as possible in gentrifying areas.

In large redevelopment projects, the city should intervene with a range of tools, such as tax abatements and tax increment finance zones, which can funnel increased tax revenue back into affordable housing.

Mitigating displacement in the face of larger economic forces is never easy. But our research has shown that the city can have a meaningful impact if it acts proactively, creatively and boldly.

With the Domain on Riverside, the city council missed an opportunity to mitigate the wholescale displacement of low-income residents from the East Riverside corridor.

Heather Way, Elizabeth Mueller and Jake Wegmann are professors on the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin and the authors of Uprooted: Residential Displacement in Austin’s Neighborhoods and What Can Be Done About It.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.

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