Zone Up—or Push Out
Citywide Upzonings Ease Gentrification & Displacement Pressures
Once upon a time, decades before the Civil Rights era, the City of Austin forced its black population into a ghetto on the East Side of town. There, it provided separate but unequal schools and city services, allowed noxious chemical plants to be built, and eventually confiscated acres of land and houses to build a highway that would make tangible the barrier that previously existed only in law. With life limited to a few square miles on Austin’s East Side, a vibrant black community nevertheless developed and flourished behind a wall of concrete and asphalt.
Today, only vestiges of that community remain in the neighborhoods that used to comprise the core of black Austin.
Amidst new condo developments and skee-ball bars, McMansions and bougie brunch spots, a few holdouts persist: Sam’s Bar-B-Que, some barber shops, a sprinkling of churches. On Friday and Saturday nights, the side streets near the bars fill up with the cars of twentysomethings as they head out to drink and dance, play pool and pub trivia. On Sunday mornings, the side streets are again filled with cars from other neighborhoods, but these occupants are dressed in church attire, their Sunday best.
Once upon a time in Austin, this used to be their neighborhood.
Today, no more. East Austin’s churches, where they still remain, have become pilgrimage sites for congregations displaced, like the freedmen of nearly a century before, by a sad and sorry century of land use abuse.
As land values in Austin have risen, the East Side’s poorer black and Hispanic communities have been pushed farther out to the more affordable fringes of the city, leaving behind historic homes and buildings to be replaced with people and businesses that represent the modern—wealthier, whiter—face of Austin. What was once a straight racial line along the interstate highway now bows out toward the east, the shape of a pattern of gentrification and displacement referred to as the “Eastern Crescent.”
Austin recently adopted reforms that could help make this pattern less of an inevitability. The reforms, called HOME (Home Options for Middle-income Earners), allow three housing units by right on a residential lot, incentivizing more and smaller units instead of the large and expensive McMansions perpetuated under the current code. For a city in which up to half the cost of a new home is due to the land alone, reducing the amount of land required per home should likewise reduce average prices.
It’s worth noting what has been happening in Austin prior to these reforms. Despite Austin’s first-in-the-nation rate of housing construction, new households are still forming faster. Simply put, when there are more people trying to buy or rent than there are places to live, prices go up—and home prices, which have outpaced income growth by more than 4x, reflect that. As people get priced out of the most in-demand locations like downtown and surrounding neighborhoods, they start looking in neighboring communities, bidding up prices in neighborhoods that were until quite recently relatively affordable. This has all been happening under the current land development code—and this is what has happened in the Eastern Crescent.
The flip side of the end of segregation was that home values long suppressed by white supremacy no longer had the weight of racist law to keep them down.
Importantly, HOME is a city-wide initiative that does not discriminate between East and West Austin. By increasing the number of houses allowed per lot, these reforms will help alleviate the burden of growth that has typically fallen on low-income communities of color in the Eastern Crescent. Increasing the number of housing units allowed per lot in tonier neighborhoods like Tarrytown and Zilker will give well-off folks who want to live in those neighborhoods but can’t afford an actual mansion more options in the places they want to live—which means they are less likely to build a McMansion in East Austin.
This is not just wishful thinking. Data from Houston, which introduced similar reforms more than twenty years ago, supports this. In a report from the NYU Furman Center, UT Austin professorand fellow researchers found that the type of development initiated by HOME:
[d]isproportionately took place in somewhat advantaged tracts near the urban core and helped those neighborhoods grow their advantaged populations. Compared to the typical pattern in most growing U.S. cities, such as nearby Austin, where land use regulations largely shield advantaged neighborhoods from infill development and housing unit densification and instead shunt it to historically marginalized (and less heavily regulated) areas in the urban core, thus fueling gentrification, Houston represents an entirely different trajectory.
The researchers conclude that there is good reason to think that citywide upzonings actually reduce gentrification by channeling new development to more desirable, wealthier neighborhoods. In other words, zoning up prevents marginalized people from being pushed out.
Other data from Portland, which in 2020 launched a similar set of reforms, shows that the reforms incentivized the construction of smaller, more affordable homes that cost on average 14% to 21% less than the type of single-family home built under the old rules, an average savings of $117,000.
To be sure, HOME is not an affordable housing program; it is intended to help address the dearth of homes available to middle-income earners in Austin, so-called “missing middle” housing. And it is also only the first phase of a suite of reforms Austin has been pursuing to free up some of the most restrictive regulatory barriers to building housing here. But HOME applies citywide, and the evidence of Houston and Portland suggests that this type of broad-based upzoning can be a net positive for the entire city.
I live in Central East Austin. My house, along with five others, was built in 2017 on a subdivided lot that had previously contained a small pentecostal church. All six houses were larger and more expensive than the older houses nearby, and they were soon followed by many others. Most of us who have moved in do not look like the people who have moved out. Up the street, meanwhile, congregants of a black baptist church drive in every Sunday from other parts of town, dressed to the nines while the neighborhood’s newer residents trudge by in sweatpants on their way to grab coffee from the vegan café—raw cane sugar with a splash of oat milk, please.
Once upon a time in Austin, the city’s leaders did a terrible thing. Subsequent generations of city leaders punted on the land use changes that could have helped East Austin communities better cope with the jarring economic changes wrought by the end of segregation. By the time the city did act, for many former East Austinites, it was already too late.
The reforms Austin is now undertaking, and those yet to come, will not undo the wrongs of a near-century of bad land use policy. But citywide upzoning will ease the pressures of gentrification and displacement, and give all Austinites a better shot at being able to continue to call Austin home.