Rising rents in East Riverside threaten affordability of student housing

Andrew Messamore

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series of stories examining the demographics of two neighborhoods where students live ­— West Campus and East Riverside. The last installment will run Sept. 28.

Students living in East Riverside may soon be forced to find apartments even farther from the University, which could lead to academic and social challenges.

Prices in the neighborhood are on the rise after zoning changes similar to those in West Campus have led to development of more luxury complexes. However, for most students it remains a more affordable option than most other neighborhoods.

Census data shows that many white and Asian undergraduates left East Riverside between 2000 and 2010, while the neighborhood continues to attract many Hispanic and black undergraduates with lower rental prices and a culture perceived as welcoming.

Today rising prices are beginning to push these undergraduates from the neighborhood since the passage of the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan, or EROC, in 2006, said Gayle Goff, co-chair of the neighborhood team which represented EROC during its planning process.

“Students who were looking for and are going to be looking for affordable housing have been displaced,” Goff said. “All of the truly affordable apartments have been razed in order to build more expensive, higher-density complexes.”

EROC is a plan intended to increase available housing near Austin’s urban core. The city changed regulations to allow developers to build taller complexes, on the condition that they make 10 to 20 percent of the units “affordable.” Affordability is based on the median household income in a given city, as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Affordable units must be priced at 60 percent of a median family income and can be as high as $1,000 per month. It is difficult to apply that affordability standard to students, Goff said.

“All of the asphalt that existed in parking areas is going to be massively increased by height,” Goff said. “I know that the places that were truly affordable to older residents were torn down, and I don’t agree with how affordability is being defined now.”

The 2010 American Community Survey estimates that 5,598 undergraduate college students in Austin live in East Riverside. Some of these students may attend Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edward’s University or Austin Community College.

North Campus, Hancock and Far West student neighborhoods have not experienced the same zoning and development changes that West Campus and East Riverside have. Because of urban planning designed to restrict high-rise development, the population of these neighborhoods has not grown in the past decade.

Beginning with the creation of the UT bus system in 1969, a large population of students began to live farther from campus in student neighborhoods around the city of Austin.

City demographer Ryan Robinson said East Riverside has long been one of these neighborhoods.

“Riverside was created in the 1970s as an off-campus location for University of Texas students,” Robinson said. “Since 1975 it has played a few roles, and one role was to become a port of entry for international immigrants. Today that port has remained relatively constant.”

East Riverside has become an immigrant community for Hispanics and some Asians because of the historic availability of cheaper housing, Robinson said.

“Most of the Hispanic and Latino population living in Riverside isn’t students. They are more workforce related,” Robinson said. “They are living in the multi-family stock in Riverside because it is affordable.”

While the median cost of contract rent in West Campus rose from $610 in 2000 to $958 in 2010, the median cost of contract rent in East Riverside rose from $571 to $669, census records show.

During this time period, the Hispanic population in East Riverside increased from 37 percent to 47 percent of the college-age population, and the black population grew from 6.3 percent to 13 percent.

Since the creation of new housing in West Campus, the percent of college-age students in East Riverside who are white declined from 44 percent to 29 percent, and the Asian population declined from 9.7 percent to 6 percent, census records show.

Business and psychology senior Maritza Rodriguez, a Hispanic member of the Latino Leadership Council, said she moved from West Campus to East Riverside because of the lower cost of rent and the more “welcoming” environment.

“I could afford to live in [West Campus] because of a roommate, and when I wanted to get away from a roommate situation I could pay for a single apartment with furniture included in Riverside,” Rodriguez said.

“In Riverside, you went there and you could see people socializing outside, and it felt less uncomfortable than in West Campus.”

Psychology sophomore Casie Clay, who transferred to UT this year from UT-San Antonio, now lives in East Riverside and said she “doesn’t feel out of place” as a white student living there.

“When I tell people I live in Riverside, they are so surprised I live in the east side,” Clay said. “But I don’t think it’s as bad here as everybody seems to think. I’ll take $385 for my own room and a bus that comes to my own door over triple that price in West Campus.”

Earlier this year, the University’s Task Force on Undergraduate Graduation Rates identified commuting to school from neighborhoods across town, like East Riverside, as a problem for academic success that reduced chances of graduating in four years.

Students living farther from the University are less likely to be involved in the social and academic life of the university, said Gilberto Ortega-Rivera, a student member of the task force who now works for the University.

“When you look at the data we put together, you see that the farther you live from campus, the less likely you’re going to be involved in academic activities,” Ortega-Rivera said. “You’re also less likely to attend events like the Hex Rally or the Torchlight Parade.”

With less sense of community, commuter students become more likely to suffer academically, Ortega-Rivera said.

“Some of the friends I had at Riverside, they would be less likely to go to the gym or study at the PCL all night before the test,” Ortega-Rivera said. “I think there’s something telling to that when it comes to grades.”

Ashley Cue, a Hispanic undeclared senior who has lived in East Riverside for four years, said she has experienced these problems as a student commuter.

Cue said because she lives so far from the hub of student life, she sometimes feels out of place.

“These experiences caused me to feel out of place and a bit depressed when I started my first year in the University,” Cue said. “At times, [living in East Riverside caused] my grades to slip up.”

Ortega-Rivera said these problems become more common as the cost of living near campus pushes students farther from UT.

“I don’t know if there’s anything UT-Austin can do about this, but as real estate becomes more expensive, it’s pushing more low-income students away from the University,” Ortega-Rivera said. “I don’t think [students] know where they will end up being pushed to.”

Since the passage of EROC in 2006, the urban landscape of East Riverside has begun to change.

The city envisioned EROC as a way to let more residents live closer to Austin’s urban core, because it expands the amount of land available for taller high-rises and creates incentives for high-density construction.

Karen Paup, vice-chair of Austin Community Development Commission, said development now spurred by EROC has been problematic for students and low-
income families.

“EROC and the area east of it are a real problem area, where you have a lot of students and working-class families living,” Paup said. “The students need to live closer to campus and so does the workforce, and Riverside has some of the last affordable rents in the city.

Paup said the incentive to build luxury apartments since EROC has displaced renters by not creating equally affordable housing.

“EROC and the corridor plan now being considered for the rest of Riverside will not be able to create housing that will match existing affordable units in the area,” Paup said. “The incentives being used keep the prices of some apartments below market price, but grants or other programs will be needed to produce deeper affordability. So far there have already been some residents displaced.”

The housing bubble of 2008 delayed construction of new buildings, but developers are now taking on East Riverside projects, said Malcolm Yeatts, who represented East Riverside with Goff during EROC’s creation.

“There were a lot of affordable buildings that got torn down and then the real estate bust happened, creating lot of vacant land in Riverside,” Yeatts said. “Since the economy has recovered, yes, that construction has started again.”

Yeatts said ongoing development is now concentrated close to I-35, and he is not sure if it would affect student housing prices.

“Generally there’s a trend with higher-density zoning where there’s a whole lot more units in the area, but they aren’t going to be in the price range that most students are going to consider affordable,” Yeatts said.

“Right now it’s further away from the solidly built student housing [that is] closer to Pleasant Valley Drive.”

“THE HAND They Are Dealt”
Jesus Guevara, an associate academic adviser in the School of Undergraduate Studies, lived in East Riverside for four years as an undergraduate from 2005 to 2009 and now advises many students who commute from the neighborhood.

Guevara said he has seen the new buildings rising in West Campus and has heard students worry about being “pushed out.”

“Students are starting to see these new buildings go up and know they are going to be gentrified,” Guevara said. “Down the road, they worry that management is going to raise their prices when other expensive buildings come in.”

The high cost of housing in other parts of Austin has long resulted in problems of another sort for East Riverside residents with limited options because of limited income, Guevara said.

“It feels almost like Riverside apartments know their students have nowhere else to go, and management is pretty bad as a result,” Guevara said. “I’ve had my own issues with stuff not getting done on time, lost checks and all those kind of issues. Riverside complexes know they don’t have to fix this, so bad things happen to the students again because they have to deal the hand they are dealt.”

Latin American studies senior Yadira Ramos Luna, a Hispanic member of the Latino Leadership Council, said she has experienced management problems at her apartment in East Riverside.

“When me and my roommates moved into our apartment, it was infested with fleas,” Luna said. “We had to go together to the management office every day for a week and a half before they agreed to change the carpet and clean the sofa.”

Luna said the complex also lost her checks and billed her multiple times with late fees when she had paid the rent on time.

“People ask me why I don’t change to other places, and I tell them it’s all the same wherever you go,” Luna said. “My roommate tells me that at University Estates, it’s much worse. I only pay $400 for an apartment, so I can’t say much, and I can’t go and pay for a luxury place in West Campus or somewhere else.”

Gavin Short, property manager at University Estates, said he believed there was no difference in service quality between complexes in Riverside and West Campus. The complex is one of the largest in the area.

“There are communities in both markets geared toward various price points and offering various amenities,” Short said. “It may be true that there are communities in either location that are better at operating the communities than others, but that would have more to do with the management companies, site staff, ownership, etc. rather than the physical address of the property.”

The Austin Planning Commission, a program of Austin City Council, is deliberating a plan similar to EROC that would apply to neighborhoods even farther east. City officials said they don’t know where students and low-income families will go if prices in more parts of East Austin spike.