The city of Austin’s Eastern Crescent area doesn’t look like it used to. Streets formerly dominated by Black and Hispanic families in the Texas capital are rapidly gentrifying, with rising home values steadily altering the makeup of the neighborhood.

While displacement is an issue in many cities, the City Council is taking an aggressive approach, not only working to prevent it, but also actively helping former residents and their descendants move back.

Following more than a year of discussion, the council is implementing a program granting residents with ties to gentrifying areas a leg up in securing affordable housing.

“We’ve seen housing costs increasing, and many longtime residents have been forced farther away from the central city, and in many cases outside the city limits,” said council member Kathie Tovo. “The goal here really is to provide opportunities for individuals with generational ties to the community to stay in the city of Austin, and potentially to return to the city of Austin if they’ve been displaced.”

Redress for gentrification

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Cherelle VanBrakle, 32, poses for a portrait in the historically Black yet quickly gentrifying St. Johns neighborhood in Austin. VanBrakle, who grew up in St. Johns, is hoping to move back to the neighborhood if the city implements a program that would secure affordable housing to residents with ties to gentrifying areas. (Montinique N. Monroe/For The Washington Post)

Initially, roughly 66 units will be available to low-income citizens who can prove they or an immediate family member lived in certain city neighborhoods as far back as 2000. The targeted areas include portions of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood south of downtown and the Rundberg and St. Johns neighborhoods north of downtown.

Ten of the new affordable housing units in Austin will be owner-occupied using a land trust, while the rest will be rented.

A pilot version of the program is currently being implemented, with full implementation coming later this year.

The coronavirus may be putting displacement on hold, with the Austin City Council approving an anti-eviction policy that went into effect April 1 and is set to expire Sept. 30. But with the country slowly reopening, change in the housing market is likely to return in full force.

Austin’s policy represents a novel approach to affordable housing, and only a handful of similar programs exist across the country. The policies grant residents who have been forced to move a chance to return to their old neighborhood after leaving for certain reasons, including rent hikes, natural disaster or seizure through eminent domain. Thus, there’s a unique chance to repair gentrification even after the fact.

“Cities have a legitimate interest in helping residents be able to stay in their communities, where they have ties to schools, social networks, their jobs and transit,” said Heather Way, a University of Texas law professor and one of the authors of “Uprooted,” a study of gentrification in Austin.

The study found that Austin went from being one of the nation’s most affordable cities in the 1990s to one of its least affordable today, with a resulting loss of diversity and sense of place. Disadvantaged citizens have moved farther from downtown or outside of Austin altogether.

The generational ties portion of Austin’s program is similar to one in Portland, Ore., titled the North/Northeast Preference Policy, which gives priority to anyone who can prove they or their parent, guardian or a grandparent once resided in historically African American neighborhoods which have also gentrified. Portland’s version has no cutoff date, so anyone who can prove one of the designated family members once lived in the targeted neighborhoods, even several decades ago, could get priority.

Both preference policies are just that — a preference. There’s no guarantee for any applicant. Both also include other factors along with generational ties, including household size, disability and, in Portland, government seizure.

“The preference policy helps ensure we’re not just building affordable housing in a neighborhood and not necessarily knowing whether we’re serving the populations who had been impacted by generations of displacement,” said Martha Calhoon, communications director of the Portland Housing Bureau.

Portland’s policy has proven controversial. It includes owner-occupied homes, but finding qualified applicants hasn’t been easy. The city’s first application round included funding for 65 owner-occupied houses. As of January, Portland had received 1,100 applications, but only 33 homes had been sold through the program. Some former residents have said they feel insulted at having to provide extensive documentation proving where they used to live.

Affordable rental properties have been more successful. Calhoon said Portland has 500 rental units either already open or in development, and that all of them are expected to be filled as soon as they open. Still, the number of applications far exceeds the available supply.

To qualify for Austin’s program, applicants seeking to own homes must make no more than 80 percent of the city’s median family income of $95,900 for a family of four, and renters must make no more than 60 percent MFI. Those who are accepted will pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward housing.

The 10 owner-occupied units available are owned by the Austin Housing Finance Corp., and if needed the city will also provide down payment assistance with zero percent interest. In turn, buyers agree to restrictions on resale to ensure future affordability. All of the housing, both owned and rented, is located in census tracts identified as gentrifying in the University of Texas study. A lottery will be held for each development, with disability, household size and generational ties factoring into which applicants get housing first.

The biggest challenge for implementing affordable housing preference policies is often passing legal muster.

The Fair Housing Act prevents making race a basis for housing preference. Even if the intent is to bring people back to where they used to live, cities have to be careful in how they design the programs.

“One complication of fair housing is you can acknowledge a problem is caused by racial discrimination, but you can’t design a solution that is racially specific,” said Lisa Bates, an associate professor at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning.

Cherelle VanBrakle said she feels Austin’s policy is more than fair. She grew up in the St. Johns neighborhood in a house her parents bought in 1987 for $60,000. Now in her early 30s and working for a federally qualified health center in Austin, she said her parents’ house and most others on the block would sell in the $400,000s, which is out of her price range. VanBrakle instead bought a house in suburban Manor for $165,000 but misses the old vibe of her street and wishes she could move back.

VanBrakle said she feels the distance from urban conveniences even more amid the pandemic. There are limited dining options and only a Walmart in town for groceries. Instacart doesn’t deliver to Manor, so she’s had groceries dropped off at her mother’s house and then driven to pick them up.

“I remember crying one day, thinking, ‘I don’t want to leave Austin, I was born and raised here and I should be able to stay,’ ” said VanBrakle, a member of Austin’s African American Resource Advisory Commission. “For me, as a Black woman, it’s about the culture. It’s not just about gentrification and the moving in of other people who were not there before. When we lose the culture, we lose the history of the neighborhood.”

Some of that culture is now more present in Manor, and even while missing home VanBrakle said she is proud of her adopted city’s Black mayor and Black schools superintendent.

According to the Census Bureau, Austin’s population was 10 percent Black in 2000; it fell to 8.1 percent in 2010 and to 7.6 percent in 2017. Many former residents have moved to suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, which don’t always have strong public transit.

Austin council member Greg Casar, who represents the St. Johns neighborhood where VanBrakle grew up, is working on a project to build affordable housing on a city-owned site that used to be a Home Depot. He said Austin will try to reach former residents who have moved elsewhere through churches and community groups they may still be involved in.

“The land this neighborhood sits on was originally owned by the St. John Regular Baptist Association, one of the largest associations of Black churches in Texas,” Casar said. “Many of those churches still exist and are very active. So while members maybe left, they are still connected or still in touch with friends who are connected.”

VanBrakle, who is eligible because both she and her parents lived in Austin, would like to apply for an owner-occupied home once she’s able to get more financially stable.

“It’s a potentially powerful policy, particularly in the context of gentrification,” said Bates. “Here in the West and in places with serious displacement, this policy is anti-segregative. The market by itself was resegregating our city.”

With displacement and gentrifying continuing to play out across the country, it could be a topic in the 2020 presidential election, and it’s possible that generational ties policies could be rolled out in other cities if they prove successful in Portland and Austin. Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a $640 billion housing plan that aims to, among other things, protect tenants from eviction, ensure that no one pays more than 30 percent of their income on housing and creates a renter’s tax credit.