How Austin Gentrification Operates in My Neighborhood
Conventional wisdom holds that gentrification is something that a lot of people “feel” but rarely take the time to actually document. Studies about gentrification are often too wonky to influence policymakers, who want a nice, clean definition of the term “gentrification” served to them on a silver platter.
Accordingly, allow me to take you through a brief tour of gentrification in my neighborhood — Montopolis. If you are a regular reader of this blog or have read my book about the neighborhood, you are already aware of much of what is at stake. Montopolis is a historic community that is nearly bisected by the East Riverside Corridor — the plan for which was enacted by the city council in 2010 without formal consultation, much less negotiation, with the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team. Our previously sleepy community was largely left alone by the previous East Austin wave of gentrification between 2000 and 2015, but gentrification has been accelerating steadily since.
Large Lots and the Role of Code Enforcement
According to the 2015 American Community Survey Montopolis, a.k.a. “Poverty Island” has a median household income of $27,273 with a poverty rate of 39.1% However the community does have an owner-occupancy rate of 44%, most of whom live in single family homes, which is a higher percentage than other neighborhoods along the East Riverside Corridor, and a higher percentage than the East Austin portion of City Council District 3 overall.
In addition to owning their homes, quite a few Montopolis homesteaders also enjoy larger lot sizes than in more centrally located Austin neighborhoods. This is because Montopolis was not part of the City of Austin until 1952, with portions still not fully annexed and serviced by public institutions until the 1980’s. For many years the neighborhood functioned as Austin’s poor stepchild — residents would have to periodically bring their longstanding concerns before elected officials at formally convened sessions dedicated to addressing longstanding community needs. The community’s identity has been shaped by its rural and semi-rural character; many of the streets in Montopolis were little more than dirt roads well into the 1980’s.
Our community’s large and oddly shaped lots have now become very desirable. Still, Montopolis residents are not selling at the brisk pace that residents of East Austin did 10-17 years ago (largely because there were more renters). What’s a gentrifier to do?
Answer: start submitting complaints to Austin’s Code Compliance department.
Here is a representative sample of some properties that were reported to code enforcement. All of these properties were compelled to sell.
202 Montopolis Drive
2404 Thrasher Lane
208 Kemp Street
Go After the Churches
Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon has taken place at 6605 Riverside Drive, the location of the former New Jerusalem Baptist Church. A photo of the church is featured on page 87 of my book about the Montopolis community.
In late 2015 Austin code enforcement personnel began citing the church with safety and code violations. Here are a couple of examples:
This church had not been considered a safety hazard for decades. What changed? It now sat on very desirable real estate. I took note of this in a brief video I shot at the end of 2015 (apologies for the sideways perspective).
Does this sort of cynical stuff work? In these cases it has. The owners of 2404 Thrasher, 208 Kemp and 202 Montopolis Drive were all compelled to sell. As for the New Jerusalem Baptist Church? It hasn’t sold yet, but the church building was destroyed. Here is a photo:
Tellingly, the Travis Appraisal District has dramatically increased the valuation of the church property. Churches don’t pay property taxes –I think they should because some of them play the gentrification game every bit as well as some private developers–but that is a different discussion. To give you some idea of the insane upward rate of property valuations along corridors, take a look at what has happened to the valuation of this church in a scant four years:
The church was valued at $136,034 in 2013. By 2017 its value had risen to $1,109,909. That is a 716% increase in four years!
Taxpayer Funded City Planners are Cherry-Picking Imagine Austin
If you consult the backup for these currently active zoning cases, what you will find is studious pro-gentrification bias on the part of city employees in Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department. Staff’s backup for item C-17 on tonight’s Planning Commission agenda — for the former mobile home community located at 2110 Thrasher Lane for instance — scrupulously notes that for neighborhood plans adopted prior to January 2002 “all single family zoning categories are allowed without a Neighborhood Plan amendment” and cites the following neighborhood objectives from the Imagine Austin plan: HN P10 (“Create complete neighborhoods”) and HNP1 (“Distribute a wide variety of housing types”) and concludes as follows: “Imagine Austin policies, the Growth Concept Map, and Montopolis Neighborhood Plan appear to support this housing project.”
Wrong. For instance, what about objectives HN P11, HN P12, and HN P15 in the Imagine Austin plan which direct the city to preserve neighborhood character and to facilitate longtime residents being able to stay in their homes? Newsflash: poor neighborhoods, including and especially mobile home parks, very much have a neighborhood character worth preserving.
On several occasions I have been quoted as stating that the biggest gentrifier of all in the City of Austin is the City of Austin itself. The previous examples are but one manifestation of what I have been talking about.
Austin Needs To Wake Up
The examples furnished here are real world examples. Moreover, I have omitted the fact that the current owner of 2404 Thrasher Lane is seeking to rezone the property to build condominiums, and the present owner of 6507 Riverside Drive does not consider East Riverside Corridor zoning to be to his liking — he is seeking to upzone three contiguous parcels from Neighborhood Residential to Commercial Mixed Use in order to build a 300-plus unit apartment/condominium complex. In a residential area made up of free-standing single family homes that as recently as five years ago was considered undesirable. Will these people build housing that is affordable for people in the neighborhood?* I think you already know the answer.
*Another sign of cynical depravity: the current owner of 2404 Thrasher Lane is named “Octavian” Heresan, and his proposed project is titled “Affordable Dream Homes.” There must be some irony in a neighborhood called Montopolis — the name is Greek for “city on a hill” — being gentrified by a rich immigrant named after Augustus Caesar, the first emperor of Rome.