Local issues

Part 2: Housing segregation in Austin – a community blind to the problem

John Henneberger

Watch my video blog or read the text below.

Austin is a city of intense racial and economic segregation.

Despite a self-image as a laid-back, tolerant contemporary community we have blinded ourselves to problems of race and poverty.

Austin’s extreme residential segregation is not the result of a natural process or solely individual choices. As the data in our report clearly shows it has been brought about instead through conscious governmental actions that continue to this day.

In Austin, it is the affordability crisis, not the geography of exclusion that attracts attention.  Although seldom discussed, segregation lies at the root of many of the problems that challenge our city today. Segregation, as the Supreme Court noted in the historic Brown decision, produces outcomes that are inherently unfair and unequal.

Perversely our city searches for answers to community problems everywhere but at their true source. It is separateness and apartheid that are the root cause of Austin’s problems of income inequality, racial and ethnic tensions, poor police – community relations, crime and youth alienation and violence.

While the burden of segregation falls most heavily on racial minorities and low-income people it affects us all. For minorities and the poor it means higher crime rates, deteriorated physical conditions, lower performing schools, lower home value appreciation, lack of access to good jobs, inferior public services, fewer social connections to use to get ahead.  For white and relatively affluent Austinites, these costs manifest themselves in the form of higher taxes, seemingly intractable community problems, fear and social and cultural isolation.

Segregation hurts the economy of the whole city. It sharply curtails the economic opportunities and educational attainment of low-income people that in turn drags down our local community and makes us less able to compete with other cities.

Most white and affluent Austinites dismiss segregation as the product of individual private choices. Yet, historical facts and an examination of public policy show that this is not the case.  Residential housing segregation in Austin is part of a recurring pattern extending back more than one hundred years. A series of specific government actions have reinforced individual prejudices to produce today’s hyper-segregated Austin.

It is clear from the maps and data presented in our report that ongoing governmental policies at the city and state levels actively promote segregation. Today’s growth patterns reflect a continuing process of segregation first set in place by official city action in a master plan in 1929 in which African-American Austinites were segregated into the Northeast sector and Hispanic Austinites in the Southeast sector. Both of these groups were excluded from any areas west of Interstate Highway 35.

Every realtor knows that location defines the real value of one’s housing. What is more, race and location together make housing one of the most pervasive public policy issues in America.

Many Austin area minority families have been moving to the suburbs or outlying areas of the city since the 1990s. Yet despite this move most did not escape poverty, school failure and job isolation.  Segregation sprawled outward but did not abate.

These historical patterns do not by themselves lock Austin into being a segregated city.  Our city’s population has doubled every twenty years for the past six decades.  This means housing patterns are constantly being reestablished.  Nationally, 49 percent of the nation’s population moved between 1995 and 2000.  Yet, in spite of this potential for change, the segregated housing patterns established in 1929  have remained in place for more than seventy years.

We believe that, just as government housing policies are largely responsible for residential segregation in Austin, government policies must help to undo this situation. It is essential that our elected representatives recognize segregation as a problem and take steps toward correcting it.

This is not Austin’s problem alone but is a problem of the entire Central Texas region. Segregation has extended beyond the city and into the suburbs. These outlying areas now offer people the majority of the housing choices within the region.

We see the problem of minority displacement and gentrification from central East Austin not as a trend which is likely to promote racial and economic integration but instead as another manifestation of an historical process in which the affluent majority pushes out a lower income minority for purposes of economic exploitation. While a short period of transitional economic and racial desegregation may occur, in the long run the areas will become as segregated as formerly minority communities in West Austin such as Clarksville, the Zilker area and the University of Texas area. Gentrification is not desegregation; it is economic and racial exploitation.

The city has acted as a catalyst for gentrification and minority and low-income displacement through the city’s provision of infrastructure, zoning and favorable tax polices to benefit the gentrification process. The city’s failure to adopt policies like the Homestead Preservation District recently enacted by the Texas Legislature is part of a pattern of policy decisions that spur racial and economic segregation through gentrification.

It is the height of cynicism for the city to pursue an “African-American Quality of Life Initiative” solely through the creation of “separate but equal” cultural and residential opportunities for African Americans. While the city definitely needs to strengthen cultural and economic initiatives toward the African-American community it must at the same time attack the core problems of inequality and segregation. Our city leaders instead have taken to relying solely on solutions that emphasize separateness.

As for segregation by income level or social class, the prevailing public view in Austin is even more reactionary and completely encumbered by any sense of public obligation: surely people should be able to live wherever they can afford to live, among who ever they want?  Segregation produces largely homogeneous communities, and certain kinds of homogeneity, is thought to provide a kind of insurance on property wealth, as well as the next generation’s school and career prospects.  In this process there are clearly winners and losers and the poor are the losers. Given these attitudes our community has a long way to go to understand and embrace the politics of inclusion of the poor.

Austin must embark on a program to aggressively use public funds and resources to fuel racial and economic diversity within neighborhoods. Concurrent with this, this city and state must act to ensure that no public funds are used to concentrate housing in existing impacted neighborhoods unless by neighborhood invitation. The ability of segregated white neighborhoods to secure public funding and improvements they want should carry with that a requirement that they accept affordable housing.

Real estate practices, lending and the local development game are hardly textbook examples of a free market. Rather, residential housing development is a competitive, unevenly regulated and highly subsidized regime.  The city should affirmatively move to build subsidized housing in neighborhoods where there is none and to change laws that allow neighbors to block the construction of affordable housing in segregated white neighborhoods. Concurrent with this, Austin should explore opportunities to enact inclusionary zoning and work to repeal existing state prohibitions on this important tool.

Overt discrimination in housing exists in Austin and can only be rooted out with a much more aggressive approach to fair housing enforcement and testing than is being carried out in Austin today.  Current efforts are tepid and inadequate.  Housing discrimination is a crime and must be elevated in importance in our community.

One of the first actions the city council must take to attack the problem of economic and racial segregation is to enact an ordinance that would prohibit discrimination by landlords against Section 8  housing choice voucher holders.  These families already have a tool, in the form of a Section 8 rent voucher, through which they should be able to exercise housing choice.  The data in our report proves that minority families in Austin cannot exercise this option because of discrimination by landlords.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about racial and economic segregation. As much as individual housing preferences, deliberate policy decisions regarding planning, transportation, education, housing finance, land use, taxation and expenditures by all levels of government have determined Austin’s predicament.  We as a community have shaped our city and we as a community must correct the disgrace of residential segregation.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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