On November 14, residents of Austin gathered in Austin Community College – Eastview Campus to discuss access to affordable housing in Austin. This discussion was preceded by a Front Porch Gathering on the effects of Gentrification for those who have remained in East Austin that occurred earlier in the year.
The evening began with a presentation by Dr. Eric Tang, director of the Social Justice Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Tang helped provide context for the evening’s discussion by detailing the Austin housing market and its relationship to Median Family Income (MFI). Home values in Austin have continued to grow for almost a decade due to the tech industry boom as many single, young and wealthy new residents have relocated to the city. In January of 2005, the median value of a home in Austin was about $150,000. By January of 2017, the median value of a home in Austin was hovering around $250,000. The rising values of homes do not just affect the people who purchase them, but also increase the values of the surrounding real estate. These home values increase property taxes and rental cost for both new and old residents.
Along with home values, the Median Family Income in Austin has also risen. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2005 the median income for a household in Austin was $43,731. By 2016, the median household income had risen to $66,697. However, despite increases, median household incomes have not been able to keep up with the rising cost of homes in Austin. For example, a four-person household within the Austin-Round Rock Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) making $62,250 or less is considered low-income by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). That means that almost 60% percent of Austin households are considered low income by HUD. The conflicting nature of the Austin housing market being valued so highly while most of the population isn’t making an income sufficient enough to afford that housing, has caused a large gap in the availability of affordable housing.
Dr. Amanda Masino, director of the Center on Environmental Justice and professor of biology at Huston-Tillotson University (HT) followed Dr. Tang’s presentation with a discussion of an alarming facet of the housing conversation: the affect your neighborhood has on your health. Dr. Masino informed attendees that zip code has a strong influence on one’s life expectancy and quality of life. For example, in the City of El Paso, the zip code of 79906, near the El Paso International Airport had a life expectancy of 71 years, while all the surrounding zip codes, ranging from four miles to six miles away, had a life expectancy of 78-81 years. In the City of Miami, there is a 15 year difference between the life expectancies of two zip codes only two miles away from each other.
Relating to the theme of life expectancy, Dr. Masino’s current research tries to answer the question of how affordable housing affects residents and their social, medical, cultural, economic, and educational resources. Dr. Masino stated that this research will “help align impact of policy to intent of policy, promote accountability and transparency, and support open, centralized, and consistent reporting.”
Dr. Masino continued by bringing the discussion to a local level: the Median Family Income in 78702 zip code, where the Front Porch Gathering was being held. The amount of residents making 100% MFI in the 78702 neighborhood was much lower than what the average amount is in the Austin-Round Rock area, and the amount of residents living at 30% or 50% of MFI was staggeringly higher than the average of residents living in the wider Austin- Round Rock area. Using the information presented by both Dr. Tang and Dr. Masino, attendees were equipped with more knowledge, questions and concerns for their discussion as they moved into their break-out sessions
The biggest question that the four breakout groups discussed was “how is affordability defined?” During his presentation, Dr. Tang informed the audience that the City of Austin does not have a formal working definition of affordable housing. Based on the group discussions, members were confused, but not entirely surprised by this detail. Using the definition given by HUD, attendees discussed how the 30% rule- housing including utilities should not be more than 30% of a household’s income- is not possible for them and those that they know. Some members highlighted that the “living wage” in its current state does not allow for most of Austin’s residents to live and work in the city without being severely cost burdened by housing and transportation.
Residents also brought up questions of who the affordable housing was actually catering to, and what types of residents were falling through the cracks. One member argued that affordable housing should also take into consideration matching the appropriate home to the right person. For example, a single college student may need affordable housing, but they should not live in a unit that was clearly built with a family in mind, and in doing so, take away that home from a low-income family. The groups concluded that affordable housing is not a simple one size fits all problem. Arguing that there should be workforce housing, boarding homes, smart housing for the single person who can’t afford a home in the city limits, housing for small families and housing for large families, affordable housing for the differently abled residents in the workforce and for the elderly.
Some attendees believed that Austin isn’t making accessible affordable housing due to the city’s focus on creating high-end housing for wealthy incoming transplants. The theme of catering to the incoming population traveled throughout the groups leading many to question the effect housing is having on displacing Austin’s community of color, primarily in prominent Central East Austin neighborhoods.
When developing new housing, developers and the city work together to decide what type of housing is needed based on the city’s demographics. However, attendees were skeptical about that process, and wanted to know more information. They did not see evidence of a demographics based approach in their own lives. In their minds, few developments catered to them and those in their communities.
Throughout the evening, groups routinely discussed how they did not feel that using family MFI to predict housing needs was sufficient. The Median Family Income (MFI) in 2016 for a family of four in the Austin-Round Rock area was $77,800. This type of averaging was seen by attendees as a way of diminishing the need of many of the low-income residents of the city, and possibly contributing to the displacement of these communities.
Many attendees used their current circumstances as evidence for how the MFI fails to tell the true story of Austinites trying to stay within the city limits. Many residents from low-income neighborhoods of color have already left the city limits after being unable to access affordable housing. One attendee described her experience of moving out towards the northern Austin-Pflugerville area due to the cost of remaining in the city. She clarified that due to having her own personal mode of transportation this was an option for her, but moving away is not an easy choice for those who rely on mass transit. The City of Austin is losing long-term residents from areas that are being redeveloped, and is failing to come up with long-term solutions. Many of the participants who live in these changing neighborhoods questioned what the city’s real motivation is behind making the city more affordable. Is it a political move or is it more altruistic?
After a thorough discussion of where the City of Austin has made appropriate strides in affordability, and where they have fallen short, participants brainstormed solutions. Attendees focused on how the city can make low income (or fixed income) residents who are endangered of being displaced feel like Austinites again. To that end, the groups created action steps to help make the city more accessible:
Affordable housing literacy awareness and education
- City to address the rampant spreading of development
- Creation of community meetings that would educate residents on property taxes and financing
- Spreading density around the city to five low income residents the option of living west of the interstate
Throughout the evening attendees were primarily focused on keeping current residents, particularly families and the elderly, in their home. Attendees also wanted the city to take a more holistic approach to creating affordable housing, taking into consideration all the different types of people in the city who were struggling to remain in their home. The 1928 Austin City Plan set into motion what we see is happening throughout the eastern portion of Austin, residents are looking towards the city to mitigate the current gentrification and displacement that is occurring.
The Community Engagement Center thanks KLRU’s Decibel for live streaming portions of the event to the community. For those who could not attend, the live stream is available on the facebook page: Decibel ATX.
To learn more about what the city is trying to do make affordable housing more accessible and reduce the effects of gentrification, you can access the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities’ report.
For more information on Dr. Masino’s social justice work in East Austin, learn more about her student activism group, Green is the New Black.
For a deeper understanding of the current displacement of African Americans in Austin, read Dr. Eric Tang’s “Those Who Left.”
The next upcoming Front Porch Gathering will be held on February 20th. Community members will gather at ACC-Eastview to discuss how to best support those reentering our community from the prison system.