Complete Communities: AJC’s Response to the Land Development Code Revision
AJC is working to develop a Complete Communities Initiative, focused on two central questions:
1) How can we undo the legacy of segregation in Austin?
2) How can we heal as a community?
This initiative will involve a sustained effort to listen to those in our communities that have been most impacted by segregation and displacement, equipping them with the tools needed to engage in the ongoing housing conversation, make informed choices, and hold elected officials accountable. Through this process, we intend to provide the city with policy proposals that can move us closer to resolving the above stated questions.
We believe the new Land Development Code provides a key opportunity to open a citywide conversation about the legacy of segregation. We do not see the new Land Development Code as a solution to all the housing inequities in Austin — it alone will not address the scale of the need for affordable housing, or the many ways a long history of racism has shaped our communities. We do, however, see an opportunity to face our historic inequities and approach the future from a place of collective honesty. We choose to engage with the Code as an initial step towards a broader goal; this is a chance to ask ourselves what commitment are we willing to make, as a city, to undoing structural racism.
A Call to Action
We call on the city to take seriously the findings of UT’s Uprooted report on displacement and protect Austin’s most vulnerable communities. We understand that segregation and displacement are closely intertwined. Vulnerability to displacement was engineered through a sustained history of disinvestment and neglect. Our standards for recognizing and defining what is worth preserving have too often reflected our historic prejudices and reinforced our structural injustices. The result is an emergency period for people of color in Austin, who, even amidst unprecedented economic growth, are being forced out of the city. We believe the city owes a historic debt to the communities it first segregated then turned its back on again and again. In order to begin to rectify this, the city must commit to a policy that provides room for growth without displacement.
We call on the city to take the pressure off neighborhoods that have already sacrificed so much. We are calling on the city to take extra precautions to protect the communities most vulnerable to displacement. This means that neighborhoods which have historically exempted themselves from the impacts of growth should now be called on to create space for housing equity in Austin. All too often, in attempting to preserve “the character” of their own neighborhoods, those benefiting from historic privilege have been willing to sacrifice the character of the larger city itself.
Recommended changes to Austin’s New Land Development Code
We recommend movement of all transition zones out of the census tracts marked as ‘Vulnerable,’ ‘More Vulnerable’ and ‘Most Vulnerable’ by the UT Uprooted report, shifting them over to high opportunity areas.¹ We do not see transition zones themselves as negative, and understand they are important components in the plan for a growing city. We are, however, concerned about the impact they will have at this moment in areas already deemed vulnerable. We believe that creating Transition Zones along streets like Montopolis Drive, E. St Johns Avenue, E. Rundberg Lane, or parts of Airport Boulevard — all places which fall squarely within the most vulnerable census tracts marked by the UT report — will only exacerbate the displacement of working class communities of color. We ask the city to consider why corridors such as Spicewood Springs Road, Southwest Parkway, Far West Boulevard, Windsor Road, Exposition Boulevard, Justin Lane, and Woodrow Lane, were not deemed worthy of receiving transition zones. We also call on the city to explain why Transition Areas were zoned so deeply in places like E. St. Johns Avenue, despite the staff report stating otherwise. In all, we encourage the city to create transition zones along well-defined roads in high-opportunity areas that often support transit access. Shifting these zones to places where they will not exacerbate the displacement of people of color is an important step towards planning our city more equitably.
We recommend changing the affordable units requirement in the city’s Density Bonus program, to channel redevelopment into the city’s high opportunity areas and away from tracts most vulnerable to displacement. Currently, the percentage of affordable units required by the density bonus creates a disproportionate incentive to develop in vulnerable areas. The downtown density bonus program requires 15% of affordable housing units in a development to take advantage of the program’s entitlements. As one moves away from the city center, the affordable unit requirement decreases to 3% to 5%. In East Austin neighborhoods, a developer is not required to provide a substantial number of affordable units to serve the current population. This requirement does not provide a pathway for working class families to afford housing closer to their jobs, schools, or their selected communities. Equitability requires us to correct for historic injustices and balance the scales. We recommend that the percentages of affordable units required for the density bonus should be higher in areas that are mapped as vulnerable to displacement, and lower in areas that do not create displacement.
We recommend the elimination of Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts (NCCDs). NCCDs are zoning overlays that override the base zoning designated by the city’s land development code, allowing neighborhoods to set their own standards for community development within the specified district. In the City of Austin, there are six existing NCCDs — Hyde Park, North Hyde Park, North University, Fairview Park, East 11th Street, and East 12th Street. Together, these NCCDs make up 926 acres of desirable real estate located within a 5-mile radius of Austin’s Central Business District. These communities exist within the transit priority network, defined by the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, and are located near jobs, quality schools/universities, and social services that support a complete community.
Comparable to restrictive covenants used to prohibit specific groups of people purchasing property in certain neighborhoods, these NCCDs restrict growth and bar lower income residents of color from the ability to rent or own due to a lack of available housing. The intent for their formation was to create whites only neighborhoods through direct discriminatory marketing and the refusal of banks to lend and the refusal of real estate agents and landowners to sell property to non-whites. Today, people of color can reside in these neighborhoods without the contingency of being a domestic worker, but only if they can afford to do so in a seldom available house or unit for rent. It is true that not all NCCDs were created for the same reason, and that the purpose of the 11th and 12th Street Districts is distinct from that of the other neighborhoods. However, we still do not believe that they serve the interests of communities of color; they have not stalled displacement on the east side. On the whole, the existence of NCCDs continues the propagation of segregation among Austin’s residents designed by the city’s 1928 Master Plan.
Finally, we recommend a joint effort between the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department and the Equity Office to establish Corridors of Equitable Opportunity. Corridors of Equitable Opportunity² should target existing corridors located in specific city neighborhoods, like NCCDs and other high opportunity areas, where people of color were forcefully removed or have been barred from accessing due to discriminatory actions or artificially inflating the property values by private and public actors. Increasing housing stock in these neighborhoods with a mix of market, affordable, and deeply affordable units (at 30% MFI or below) will contribute to the goals set forth in the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint. This recommendation aligns with the Anti-Displacement Task Force’s Recommendation for Action Report. Specifically, from this report, “The task force recommends the adoption of neighborhood “fair share” goals and plans in order to stabilize the supply of affordable housing and dismantle patterns of racial and economic segregation.”³ Communities in all parts of the city should strive to achieve the economic and cultural diversity envisioned as part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.
“[…] the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kind of social relations we seek, [… and] what aesthetic values we hold” — David Harvey, The Right to the City
The Right to the City
Will the Land Development Code move us towards a more just and equitable city, or will it solidify and reaffirm historic patterns of injustice? All too often, Austin’s black and brown communities have been asked to pay a heavy price in order to maintain the comfort of white residents. If we are going to challenge the racist legacies of this city, we cannot preserve the character of neighborhoods that have been long defined by exclusion. We believe there is an important difference between fighting to be able to stay in one’s own neighborhood, and fighting for the power to control who else will be allowed to live in one’s neighborhood. So long as we continue to protect those we have always protected and sacrifice those we have always sacrificed, we cannot truthfully call ourselves a just and equitable city.
¹The areas designated as “Vulnerable, More Vulnerable, and Most Vulnerable’ are congruent with the gentrification stages, “Susceptible, Early: Type 1, and Dynamic, and Late” as defined in the UT Uprooted Study. The gentrification stages consider vulnerability, demographic change, and housing market change.
²This proposed idea is adapted from a Minneapolis/St. Paul’s initiative called Corridors of Opportunity. Their goal was to establish “two kinds of change: equitable transit-oriented development and system-level change in how transit-related planning and development are done in the Twin Cities.” Shelton, Ellen, et al. Corridors of Opportunity. Wilder Research, Mar. 2014, metrocouncil.org/Communities/Projects/Corridors-of-Opportunity/Corridors-of-Opportunity-Final-Evaluation-Report.aspx.