Opinion: No Home Sweet HOME for Austin’s Black and Latino Communities

A member of the Planning Commission argues that Austin’s proposed new land use plan would result in another major forced relocation of Austin’s Latino community and its dwindling Black community

Opinion: No Home Sweet HOME for Austin’s Black and Latino Communities

As a new appointee to the Planning Commission and as an African American mother who suffered the consequences of previous land use plans implemented by the city, I feel it is necessary to be on the record about the HOME initiative: As originally drafted, it's a plan that has written out Austin's Black and Brown communities, crafted without meaningful consideration of the unintended consequences to Communities of Color.

How could that be, I've repeatedly asked, given the tortured history of Austin regarding land use plans that discriminated intentionally (1928) and unintentionally (the 1990s policies that displaced Black and Brown residents from East Austin)? How could it be that once again the city is considering a major land use overhaul without prioritizing the interests of Communities of Color, which still are suffering the fallout from systemic racism of past land use policies, such as Jim Crow zoning, redlining of Black and Brown communities, and racially discriminatory restrictive covenants?

As a planning commissioner, I put these questions to my colleagues and was heartened that they took some initial steps in the way of unanimously approving what I refer to as "Morally Imaginative Amendments" to improve the HOME initiative. We passed the plan, 11-2. It's a good start, but not enough to adequately write in Black and Brown communities to a land use ordinance that would govern single-family zoning in Austin.

The HOME initiative (Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment) aims to address Austin's housing crisis by generating smaller single-family homes for "middle-income" households by allowing up to three housing units to be built on a single-family lot instead of the current two.

But HOME's "middle income" language fails to recognize the wealth gap between Black and Brown families and their White counterparts. In 2021, median income for White households was $93,012, according to city-data.com. By contrast, it was $57,894 for Hispanic households and $48,350 for Black households.

City of Austin 2019 figures show the median Black household earned just 54 cents for every dollar of income the median White household earned, while the median Hispanic household earned 60 cents. Black and Brown residents are written out.

That conclusion is further bolstered by the absence in the original HOME plan of any criteria, or requirement that additional density zoning be linked to affordable housing that serves those who fall between 50% and 85% of the MFI.

And nowhere in HOME is there any mention of anti-displacement interventions (such as the $300 million in Project Connect) for what few if any are denying would happen under HOME's market-driven approach. We're written out.

There're also the political ramifications regarding the ability of Black voters to elect an African American to the City Council or Austin school district under single-member district systems that carve seats for Black representation, as their numbers would dwindle faster and more significantly under HOME.

How do we write in Black and Brown communities? To accomplish that the City Council must add teeth to all the Planning Commission's amendments, but especially to those that create access to capital via low-interest or forgivable loan opportunities for participating homeowners who want to build an additional unit on their property; incentives, including low-interest loans and density bonuses, for developers who build three units of which one is affordable; and requirements that HOME be implemented in accordance with Austin's Climate Equity Plan to ensure environmental justice for underserved communities.

Along with that the city must develop anti-displacement initiatives for historically underserved homeowners and renters.

Having been one of the families displaced in the 1990s by redevelopment initiatives targeting East Austin, this is a pain point, which clearly strips away whatever veneer Austin presents as a racially progressive city. It might as well be 1928 (creation of the Negro District) or the 1930s (redlining) or the 1960s (a double-decker Interstate 35) or the 1990s (East Austin designated as the "Desired Development Zone").

Sadly, it's 2023 with the HOME initiative, which, if approved in its current form, would spur another forced relocation of Black and Brown residents as we approach the 100th anniversary of 1928.

Alberta Phillips is a former reporter and editorial writer for the Austin American-Statesman and now is a member of the Austin Planning Commission.

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HOME initiative, affordability, Home Options for Middle-Income Empowerment

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