Point Austin: Our Neighbors' Keepers

More than one way to save a neighborhood

Raul Alvarez
Raul Alvarez (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This Friday morning, groundbreaking will be celebrated on what is intended to be a groundbreaking effort: the first "Com­mun­ity Land Trust" home in Austin and, according to its founders, the first such effort in Texas. The last legislative session (not exactly distinguished for progressive lawmaking) enabled nonprofits like the Guad­a­lupe Neigh­borhood Devel­op­ment Corporation (www.guadalupendc.org) to establish community land trusts as a way of preserving affordable housing for low- and moderate-income homeowners. The trust owns the land and grants a long-term lease to a prospective homeowner, thereby reducing both the mortgage costs and the property tax burden on the "improvements" – i.e., the house itself – allowing people who would otherwise not be able to afford a home to do so.

The first beneficiaries of the GNDC project will be Mary Ybarra and her two children. Ybarra has lived in the neighborhood all her life; after more than a decade as a GNDC renter, she looks forward to moving into a home that will replace the dilapidated one she once rented at 1313 Willow St. According to GNDC Project Director Cas­san­dra Ramirez, this home marks the beginning of a larger project centered in the Guada­lupe-Saldaña Net Zero subdivision, an 110-unit endeavor that gets its name from the neighborhood and the sustainability features under which 60 of the homes will produce or conserve enough energy to have a "net zero" consumption over a year's time, thus combining several Austin community values. Sustainability in this case not only means environmental conservation but "community preservation," said Ramirez, enabling residents who would otherwise be priced out of the inflating real estate market to stay in the neighborhoods where they have built their lives.

All the homes in the subdivision will have a 99-year affordability restriction; they can be passed on to heirs, but any potential sale would still be directed to low- or moderate-income families.

Disturbing Trends

Coming at the neighborhood preservation target from another angle is the nonprofit East Austin Conservancy (www.eastsideguardians.org), which in April issued a report in partnership with People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources titled "Land of Broken Dreams & Land of Op­por­tunity," describing homeownership trends in two Eastside neighborhoods, roughly Chest­nut/Rosewood and East Cesar Chavez/Holly. EAC board president and former Council Member Raul Alvarez presented the report to City Council June 14; it focuses on two presumably related trends: an apparently accelerating departure of longtime homeowners from those areas, and increasing numbers of current homeowners delinquent on their property taxes. In brief, the study reviewed the county property records of 622 "longtime homeowners" (who had owned a home in the neighborhood since 1992) and found that "34% of these homeowners who owned their home in 2002 no longer owned their home in 2012." More alarmingly, of the remaining homeowners, "31% (125 of 408) currently have tax delinquencies," raising the risk of foreclosure and enough concern for the report to call it a "crisis."

Some questions have been raised about the study area's statistical uniqueness – changeover in home ownership, in itself, is not uncommon across Austin – but the combination of longtime homeownership, recent abrupt transition, and the tax delinquencies certainly suggest something beyond simple wanderlust, or even decisions to take advantage of rising prices and move on. I asked city demographer Ryan Robinson for his impression of the report's perspective, and he said what's particularly interesting about those near East Austin neighborhoods is that even while undergoing a "high level of changeout," they are also "on the top of the list for greater owner longevity" – that is, people who have lived in the neighborhood a very long time, establishing deep family roots and indeed creating the multicultural character of the larger neighborhood.

The EAC's initial response is to provide financial help and counseling to residents having a hard time meeting those rising tax assessments, who might otherwise lose their homes or have to sell under pressure. Alvarez acknowledges the project's targets – currently trying to raise $50,000 to begin helping a few families a year with dollar-for-dollar tax payments – are both short-term and modest. But as the report notes, over a 10-year term, helping 100 homeowners stay in their homes would cost roughly $420,000, and "if we try to build 100 affordable units in East Austin during that same period of time, the total cost would be approximately $17 million." It seems an extremely prudent investment in neighborhood preservation.

A Community Interest

In Austin we talk a lot, officially and unofficially, about "affordability" in a town that, relative to the rest of the country, is doing quite well. By the latter, we mean official unemployment is closer to 5% than 10%, although we only occasionally acknowledge that the job market is radically split between those making out like cyber-bandits and those living paycheck to paycheck and hanging on in between.

In housing, neither land trusts nor property tax assistance, nor even mandating affordable units in luxury developments, are a silver bullet that will singly resolve the affordability problem. (It's also worth noting that single-family detached homes are not the only kind of "neighborhood," and that the central city can bear quite a bit more multi-unit density.) All these together will be necessary, plus working much harder at the other side of the equation: establishing living-wage incomes for families that shouldn't be charity cases in the first place, because a full-time job should be, by definition, sufficient to support a family. Mean­while, the whole city has a common interest in not turning longtime homeowners into financial exiles – in finding small and large ways of keeping our neighbors, neighbors.

Follow Michael King on Twitter@PointAustin.

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affordability, affordable housing, Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, Guadalupe-Saldaña Net Zero subdivision, Guadalupe-Saldana net zero subdivision, living wage, homeownership

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