Transformation of East Austin 

[jen-truh-fi-key-shuh n] noun 1. the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

Gentrification has become a common, and divisive, topic of discussion in Austin. Several areas of the city are in the midst of a process of transformation. Emblematic of this is east Austin (such as the Cesar Chavez/Holly neighborhoods).

The east side of I-35 was originally predominantly African American, and then became largely black and Hispanic, and now is being taken over by upper-income condos, apartments, and houses and becoming Caucasian.

East Austin’s roots trace back to the late Nineteenth Century, when two Austin politicians offered land in the area to recently freed African American former slaves. The plan was codified in the 1928 Koch Proposal, which legally designated east Austin as a “Negro District” and prohibited racial minorities from purchasing houses elsewhere.

Starting in the 1960s, as integration took hold across the nation, African Americans began spreading out to other areas of the city. Many remained in the area, however, and Latinos moved in to some of the neighborhoods that were vacated.

For the rest of the Twentieth Century, people of different races lived together in a proud, but blighted community that was largely neglected by the city. Residents enjoyed fewer public services than other parts of the city and put up with noise and congestion from through traffic and industrial activities.

Starting in the early 2000s, however, interest in east Austin picked up. As the overall city population grew, many people recognized the benefits of living in a low-cost area that was within walking or biking distance to downtown. East Austin has gone from blighted to trendy, and developers are eager to cash in on the rapidly rising property values.

Not everyone, though, is thrilled about this development.

Hear some longtime east Austin residents speak about their area and the recent changes:

For one thing, the rising property tax rates have forced many longtime residents from their homes. Ninety percent of city foreclosures have occurred on the east side. The local community advocacy group is adamant that the area be developed to benefit, not hurt, existing residents. The city is working on plans to develop east Austin in ways that will benefit people living there.

The Saltillo District Redevelopment Project is one example. The 11-acre Saltillo District, which includes the area between E. 3rd St. and E. 7th St. and I-35 and Chicon St., is within walking distance to downtown and its value is exploding. Development plans include a commuter rail station, mixed-use office/residential spaces, marketplaces, and a community center.

But there is significant disagreement across the city, and even among east Austin residents themselves, about gentrification and its effects. Many welcome the long-awaited upgrades to the east side, while others are concerned about changes to their neighborhoods and people being forced out of their longtime homes.

Johnny Limon, an east Austin native, says, “I welcome the diversity. I welcome diversity in people and I welcome the diversity of income,” and points out that new developments and residents will benefit local businesses.

However, Susana Almanza, another resident, is concerned the Saltillo District Redevelopment may not benefit locals: “It’s not being built to really make it accessible for the everyday worker, the clerks or the janitors or waitresses.”

There is some evidence that east Austin residents may benefit from the gentrification of their neighborhoods. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found that residents in gentrified areas benefitted from higher home values, incomes, and had higher credit scores than those in ungentrified areas.

There is still the question of what happens to people who are forced to leave their homes. In 2006 the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation had 250 families waiting for affordable housing; in 2014 that number rose to over 600. The local citizens group is strongly advocating for development to include very “aggressive” numbers of affordable houses that even the area’s lowest income residents can afford.

Most everyone agrees with Dianne Mendoza that “People want something good to happen that will be good for everyone. It’s not necessarily affordable housing. It’s…’make something happen so that East Austin, my area, will be better for my children and for those that come later.’” But there are sharp disagreements as to what “something good” should look like.

Watch a video about gentrification in Austin:

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