East Austinite’s Plan to Sell Home Nearly Thwarted

CM Houston's historic lack of compassion

Reedy Spigner and daughter outside their home on East 22nd Street (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Reedy Spigner almost lost the right to demolish the home in which he was shot twice in the abdomen last summer. It was July 21, 2015, during a burglary that went awry, when two men burst into the corner lot home on East 22nd Street and fired two bullets at Spigner's stomach and a third at his girlfriend's arm. Both would survive and make a complete recovery (the two assailants were arrested), but the trauma only reinforced Spigner's intention to cash in on the property.

The longtime state worker had already been trying to sell the house his grandfather, James Murphy Holloway, brought to Austin from Waco in 1946. At the time, Holloway was one of the few black physicians in Austin. His wife, Mildred Coleman Holloway, further burnished the family's bona fides by helping found the Black Austin Democrats. Though the location they selected for their home back then was guided by an explicitly segregationist city plan, it would in 70 years benefit from soaring land prices courtesy of the gentrification that is driving so many longtime black Austinites out of the city.

Facing the allure of a sizable payout that he could put toward his kids' college fund, Spigner decided to join the diaspora and hoped for a quick sell. However, potential buyers repeatedly balked after taking a closer look at the crumbling conditions of his old home. "We know what people want," Spigner said over lunch at a newer Eastside restaurant that caters to the neighborhood's new throngs of students and young residents. "They want the land, not necessarily the structure."

That futility led Spigner to apply for a demolition permit, a move that triggers an automatic review by the city's Historic Preservation Office for any structure older than 40 years.

Then Spigner got shot. While he was recovering in the hospital, he learned through his listing agent that city staff, in light of his distinguished grandparents, were eyeing his home for landmark designation, a move that would prevent demolition and sharply limit any future renovations. Landmarking his home would provide Spigner generous tax breaks to offset maintenance costs, but also very likely ward off any potential buyers in the market for another Eastside teardown.

"That is a slap in the face of his grandparents," said Trent Spears, a friend of Spig­ner's and the son of former Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears. He explained that black Austinites like the Holloways overcame innumerable barriers to provide their children with opportunities not afforded to them.

As he fought the potential designation, Spigner encountered a larger city effort that he worries could entrap hundreds of other unsuspecting black homeowners in East Austin. At the Sept. 26 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, Spigner's case and 11 others were postponed upon the request of Council Member Ora Houston, who lives two doors down from the house Spigner would like to sell. (Houston's office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

Houston had apparently wanted the commission to hold off on any decisions pending the completion of the East Austin Cul­tur­al Resources Survey, a sweeping inventory of 6,600 houses, shops, swimming pools, and even garages. Last November, the city hired architectural historians from Hardy·Heck·Moore Inc. to catalog these "resources," determine which ones could qualify as landmarks, and also map out potential historic districts.

Emily Payne, an architectural historian with HHM, said on Monday that the survey is complete and its recommendations are now on their way to City Council. (The city released the survey to the public on Tuesday.) She described the process as a "proactive" step to collect oral histories and archival information on Eastside properties for guidance in future preservation discussions. The vast scope of the survey – bordered by I-35 to the west, Lady Bird Lake to the south, Pleasant Valley and Capital Metro's Red Line to the east, and Manor Road on the north – guarantees more consistent and accurate results, Payne said.

Houston's interest in the survey aligns with her opposition to rampant redevelopment. However, her use of it to postpone a decision on his demolition permit rankled Spigner. His outburst at the September commission meeting attracted media coverage which may have played in his favor at the most recent meeting on Oct. 24. This time, Houston did not intervene and the commission approved the permit on its consent agenda.

Even with his permit in hand, Spigner is sounding the alarm about the implications of the survey. He and Spears both criticized HHM for not doing enough to notify residents about the ongoing study. Payne said the firm sent two separate letters to all residents in the survey area, once in January and again in August. Spigner suggested many recipients may have thrown away the envelopes with the rest of the junk mail. He also pointed out that older residents may not have had the wherewithal to visit the internet address listed in the letters.

In any case, Payne stressed that the survey recommendations would not directly lead to the historic zoning of any properties. For individual homes, that process would only get started when a property owner seeks the landmark designation or applies for a demolition permit. The decision must then be cleared by the Historic Landmark Commission, the Planning Com­mis­sion, and ultimately City Council. "They can use the survey results as an informational tool to help guide their votes, but it doesn't circumvent the public process," said Payne.

But residents could still find metaphorical amber pouring over their buildings without their consent. Of the 6,600 resources included in the survey, 2,611 could be eligible for inclusion in a historic district, which requires the support of 51% of property owners inside its proposed boundaries. Any contributing structure in a district would have to be maintained. Noncontributing structures could be torn down, but their replacements would have to be built to comply with rigidly defined design standards.

Spigner painted the attempts to preserve homes in the name of Eastside culture as misguided. The narrative legacies of past residents are lost in the faces of silent structures. Plaques, memorials, or other storytelling devices, Spigner said, are more appropriate for keeping alive the flame of Eastside history. Instead, he challenged, the city is using preservation in East Austin to overcorrect for years of benign neglect that came after years of codified isolation.

Spigner compared it to the pre-war city plan that drew racial boundaries in Austin and only allowed blacks to live east of Downtown. "The city has to give you approval to do what you'd like to do," said Spigner. "It's the same unfairness as 1928. It's ironic."

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Reedy Spigner, James Murphy Holloway, Mildred Coleman Holloway, Black Austin Democrats, Trent Spears, Ora Houston, Hardy Heck Moore Inc., Emily Payne, Historic Landmark Commission, Planning Commission

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