University faculty to conduct city-wide gentrification study

Chase Karacostas

The University is embarking on a year-long study to map the effects of gentrification throughout Austin.  

Through an interlocal agreement with the city, three professors will develop an “equity atlas.” The atlas will be an interactive set of online maps that show the levels and effects of gentrification and low-income resident displacement across the city. The agreement, sponsored by City Council member Leslie Pool, passed during last week’s Council meeting.

Gentrification occurs when low-cost housing is torn down and replaced by high-density and expensive residences, pushing low-income residents out. The city did a study on gentrification in 2003 , but Pool, who represents District 7, said it didn’t provide enough concrete solutions. This study, however, will provide potential policy solutions to protect targeted areas, Pool said.

“We’ve studied the issue a lot, and I know some people noted that again when the contract was approved,” said Elizabeth Mueller, architecture associate professor and one of the faculty members conducting the study. “We don’t need this to be another study that is going to sit on a shelf, so we want this to be information that is really useful to (City Council) in making decisions.”

Mueller said the study will analyze neighborhoods around the city to see if they are gentrified or will be threatened by gentrification soon. Each area will be evaluated for its susceptibility to gentrification, which depends on how quickly it will be turned over from low- or middle-income housing to high-rent residences.

Once threat levels are identified, law clinical professor Heather Way and a team of law students will analyze what types of city policies could help these areas. Way said they will look at the effectiveness of policies implemented in other cities and analyze whether they could work in Austin.

Then, Way said, each area will be assigned a set of potential policy tools, known as “best practices,” that could resist the effects of gentrification.

“We don’t know yet what exactly the city is going to look like 20 more years from now, but we should and we can anticipate that we’re going to continue to undergo this rapid change,” Way said. “Those large changes are going to demand large policy responses.”

After the city receives the atlas, it will be continually updated as conditions change around the city. It will not just be a one-time analysis, a point Pool said is one of its most helpful features.

Pool, a longtime Austin resident, said it has been hard driving around the city over the years and seeing neighborhoods suddenly become unrecognizable.

“We’re losing what makes Austin really special,” Pool said. “It’s like the proverbial frog in the pot of water that’s being heated up while the frog’s in it. You don’t really notice that it’s come to a boil until it’s too late.”

Pool said one of the biggest issues the city faces is market forces demanding more upscale residences, which drive gentrification. With this atlas, however, Pool said they will have a better chance at implementing policies that force high-profile developers to include more low-cost options whenever they build in areas at risk of displacement.

“Frankly, it’s really hard to fight market forces,” Pool said. “We are at a disadvantage … If we have some data from this tool, maybe councils and staff will be more encouraged and willing to hold the line.”