Public Notice: “Uprooted”
New gentrification study asks city to “think big and act boldly”
At a Tuesday work session this week, City Council members got their first look at a yearlong study they commissioned last September, when they asked UT researchers to conduct "a study of gentrification, displacement and mapping of vulnerable neighborhoods" in the city.
The report, "Uprooted: Residential Displacement in Austin's Gentrifying Neighborhoods, and What Can Be Done About It," outlines a wide variety of conditions on the ground, and tools the city can use to effect changes, though on Tuesday the author/presenters – professors Heather Way of UT Law and Elizabeth Mueller and Jake Wegmann of the Architecture School's Community and Regional Planning Program – were at pains to state and reiterate that they aren't necessarily recommending any particular actions. As it says in the report's very first paragraph: "Rather than recommending the blanket adoption of the tools described in this report, we advocate working with residents to dig deeper into their neighborhood conditions and to craft neighborhood-specific solutions." And that theme ran throughout the presentation, and through the study itself: Every neighborhood is different – the demographic mix, housing stock and market conditions, built and natural environment, and more – and each needs to be evaluated and treated according to its unique conditions. To that end, the study looks at some 200 specific neighborhoods in the city, and finds some 58 of them to be somewhere on the gentrification spectrum – from those that have already experienced rapid economic and demographic change, to those in mid-process, currently "experiencing appreciation" and "exhibiting demographic change," to those rated "Susceptible": "High-value/high appreciation areas not yet experiencing demographic change."
"To be effective, city actions will need to focus on solutions tailored to neighborhood conditions," said Mueller.
But alas, that in itself appeared to be a red flag for at least a couple of the CMs, for whom the whole idea of neighborhood planning and small-area plans seems inextricable from neighborhood obstructionism and restrictive zoning. That's a phobia Council can no longer afford to indulge. For three years, planning professionals were telling city leaders that we needed comprehensive small-area planning to bridge the gap between our aspirational master plan (Imagine Austin) and a detailed land use code rewrite (CodeNEXT). That planning was never done, and CodeNEXT finally collapsed under the weight of this insistence on a one-size-fits-all solution.
Now, "without intervention by the City," the report's cover letter warns, "Austin's gentrifying neighborhoods will become enclaves primarily for white and wealthier residents." Said Way: "To address these disturbing changes, the city of Austin needs to think big and act boldly."
Meanwhile, it's now been over six months since a group of East Austin activists introduced "the People's Plan," a six-point action plan, several parts of which Council could institute at any time without additional funding, and on which the drafters demanded action within 60 days. So, six months later, Council has dusted off "The Plan" and declared its commitment to "urgently addressing displacement" (see "As Long as There's a Plan," Sept. 21). I guess "urgency" is in the eye of the beholder.