Eddie on the East Side: HB 525

A young politico works to preserve an old neighborhood

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez talks to an Eastside constituent.
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez talks to an Eastside constituent. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Eddie Rodriguez didn't grow up in East Austin, but he moved there as soon as he could – although not necessarily for the reasons that have attracted a growing number of other transplants to the area. The District 51 representative settled in six years ago to resume his place in the Mexican-American community culture he was raised on in the South Texas town of McAllen, in a neighborhood much like this one tucked neatly between East Cesar Chavez and Fiesta Gardens. "It feels homey and familiar, and keeping it that way is important to me," he says. "People in the neighborhood see that slipping away."

Fortunately for Rodriguez, the second-term Democrat is also in a position to try to reverse the unintended consequences of young professionals like him showing up on East Austin's doorstep with moving vans. He has filed legislation that would give cities the tools to preserve the character of low-income neighborhoods suffering the economic side effects of downtown expansion and revitalization – the process commonly known as "gentrification." The bill seeks to prevent the inexorable displacement of existing homeowners while providing new housing opportunities for low-income residents.

In Austin, ambitious housing plans come and go like so many pages on a calendar. But if House Bill 525 becomes law this session (a similar Rodriguez bill died in 2003), Texas cities would have the state's blessing to explore different economic and development options. "This is a little experiment to see if the city is really serious about affordable housing," Rodriguez said. He expects to file a revised bill when the proposal goes to a hearing before the Urban Affairs Committee, where Rodriquez recently gained a seat. In its current form, HB 525 would grant cities greater authority to:

• Create a homestead land trust – a nonprofit organization that would acquire land for affordable housing development. Residents who meet income requirements of 80% or below the area's family median income would be eligible to buy or lease the homes, while the trust would maintain ownership of the tax-exempt land.

• Establish a tax-increment financing zone – revenue from the TIF fund would go to a land trust or another city-certified nonprofit for land acquisitions. Under this plan, residents would be eligible at 60% or below the median income.

• Create a homeowner land bank program – a quasi-government nonprofit that can acquire foreclosed land and resell it to another nonprofit or private developer for affordable housing purposes.

The plan isn't perfect, Rodriguez says, but it's a start. Even so, there's no shortage of suggestions from Eastside activists on how to improve on the proposal. Rather than a land bank program, asks East Cesar Chavez neighborhood activist Lori Renteria, why not a program similar to what Chicago has in place? The Chicago model allows moderate-to low-income homeowners to borrow the funds needed to pay their tax increases and avoid foreclosure. Additionally, payment on the loan doesn't come due until residents are ready to sell their homes, on their own terms.

But as Rodriguez points out, there are only so many things the state can do to eliminate some of the barriers between affordable housing and those who need it most. The median income requirements for eligible housing participants are set at the federal level, for example, so if a family of four makes 80% of the median income, that's $56,000 a year – not exactly chump change. "How is that helping the working poor?" asks Susana Almanza, executive director of the grassroots nonprofit PODER. "When you're bringing in higher incomes to the area, all you're doing is gentrifying." In traveling across the country to learn how other cities tackle the affordability issue, she says, she's only seen two programs – one in Colorado and another in Vermont – that come close to serving the needs of the truly needy. The federal government is largely to blame, she says, "But I don't see the cities challenging those standards."

Last fall, Austin City Council members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas introduced an affordability proposal that would establish an East Austin Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone, or CP&R, that seeks to limit the adverse side effects of East Austin's renaissance. Alvarez sees Rodriguez's legislation serving as both a welcome economic tool and a complement to the city plan. As Alvarez and Thomas have proposed, the CP&R plan would provide economic incentives – mainly to developers who build mixed-use projects that include affordable housing opportunities within the proposed boundary area, which would take in I-35, Riverside Drive, SH 71, U.S. 183, and Manor Road. The council is expected to consider the plan in April.

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