The Austin Chronicle

PODER vs. H-Zoning: Ready for Round Two?

By Brant Bingamon, November 1, 2002, News

To Eastside activist Susana Almanza, historic zoning in East Austin -- and the tax breaks to property owners that go along with it -- are directly linked to gentrification. The City Council found Almanza's argument valid enough to create a special committee to consider the issue. But when the Gentrification Implications of Historic Zoning in East Austin Task Force released its report last month, it signaled the beginning, not the end, of an ongoing debate.

To get tax breaks, an owner must restore rundown parts of his or her building, which raises its value, which raises the values of the properties around it, which means rising taxes, Almanza says. "That's the main thing that is displacing people and making them feel that they have no choice but to sell out -- the astronomical taxes that they're having to pay now." To Almanza and her group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources), the solution was obvious: Eliminate the tax incentives. The task force did not agree; in fact, it recommended that more, not fewer, Eastside properties be eligible for historic protection and tax incentives.

That doesn't mean the task force -- composed of members of the Planning, Zoning and Platting, Historic Landmark, and Community Development Commissions -- didn't agree that gentrification is really happening in East Austin. The 25-page report confirms that property values are rising so high that lower-income families are at risk of being pushed out of the neighborhoods. But unlike PODER, the report stops short of equating gentrification with Anglo migration east of I-35. While the black population of the area bounded by the interstate, U.S. 183, Town Lake, and Manor Road has declined by more than a third since 1990, the report says, it's Hispanics, rather than Anglos, who have taken their place.

On the key question before it, the task force report falls in the middle. The task force concluded that historic zoning does speed gentrification, just as Almanza argues, by increasing the property values of surrounding homes. But it also concluded that historic zoning forestalls gentrification in other ways -- by preventing the demolition of existing buildings and their replacement by larger-scale structures, by providing tax benefits to resident property owners, and by preserving neighborhood character.

What to do about it? Before getting to the specifics of historic zoning, the task force offers in its report broader strategies for dealing with Eastside gentrification -- both repeating proposals from earlier city studies (in 2000 and 2001) and adding new ideas. One significant recommendation, endorsed by Almanza and PODER, is to change the city's SMART Housing criteria to encourage developers to create affordable housing for families making 50% of median income, instead of the current 80%.

The report includes other ideas suggested by PODER (including rent control and freezing the tax value of properties in rapidly gentrifying areas) and by the city's Historic Landmark Commission. Once it takes up all three of the variables in its mission -- East Austin, gentrification, and historic zoning -- the task force in its report comes down more squarely on the Landmark Commission's side. Its major recommendation is for the creation of local historic districts: block or multiblock areas where more than half of the buildings are 50 years old or older and in approximately original appearance. Residents in these districts would get tax breaks similar to those now granted to the owners of individual properties; in this way, the whole neighborhood, and not just selected owners, could use the tax breaks to offset rising property values.

The Landmark Commission and city Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin have been working on an ordinance to create local historic districts for well over a year. Another task force recommendation -- that the Travis Central Appraisal District remove historic buildings as "comparables" when determining the values of the homes around them -- has already been accomplished. Some other ideas may see City Council action soon, says Council Member Raul Alvarez. The current report, Alvarez says, will probably be taken up by the council in mid-November.

Almanza isn't happy with the report, she says. She distrusts its demographic evidence, saying that the numbers hide the ethnic change taking place along Cesar Chavez. She says the final recommendations should have included rent control and tax freezes. She is still adamant that owners of historic properties should stop receiving tax breaks. And she has doubts about historic districts. "It could even increase the displacement of people because when developers see an opportunity for getting any abatements or waivers or incentives, you know, that's where they sort of get magnetized to," she says.

Stocklin believes just the opposite -- that historic districts will slow gentrification. Her office has identified at least six small areas east of the highway that would qualify for designation. She believes that such a patchwork, laid over the neighborhoods and businesses, could create stability for entire areas by limiting new development and retaining neighborhood character, which would slow the upward rush of appraised values. "In a way it provides a message to developers and people coming in -- 'These are the areas where we don't want the high scale,'" she said.

Stocklin, who expects the Landmark Commission's local-district ordinance and recommendations to go to the council next spring, is eager to work with the East Austin community. "I don't think we're as far apart as some people would think."

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