Defend East Riverside

There are 1,308 units in the Town Lake, Ballpark North, and Quad East, West and South apartments on East Riverside. Sixty percent of them house students -— and much of the rest house working class Austinites. On Sept. 19, Austin City Council will vote for the final time on whether or not to rezone this affordable housing community to make way for a luxury mixed-use development. 

In other words, Austin City Council will vote on whether to destroy this community.

If the rezoning is approved, developers will tear down the current student housing complexes and replace them with luxury apartments, hotel rooms and commercial space. Riverside as we know it today, one of the last affordable housing options for students, will cease to exist. 

Resisting the predatory forces of gentrification is always important, but with many UT students now directly in the crosshairs, the student body must stand united against threats to our peers.

As Austin’s population boomed over the past few decades, communities have been forcibly relocated by the interests of developers. The cultural fabric of East Austin, the epicenter of this phenomenon, has been disappearing. These “up-and-coming neighborhoods” are not coming out of nowhere. Their construction furthers a legacy of cultural violence that people who champion how progressive Austin is would prefer to forget. 

Beginning in the early 20th century, Austin was deliberately segregated. Black and Latinx people were forced to live on the east side of the newly-constructed Interstate 35, and their communities were systematically denied basic resources — quality education, health care, food — by racist city planners. Austin remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States. 

Today, developers have found these neighborhoods convenient for a new project — housing a new and wealthy population of tech workers and transplants. 

UT has participated in this pattern of predatory development by purchasing cheap land to expand its campus across the highway. Now, many of its students face the same threat that the University has contributed to — the loss of affordable housing options near campus, the loss of community.

The developers, Presidium Group and Nimes Real Estate, have promised 400-565 affordable units if the redevelopment happens. City Council members in favor of the project use this as a selling point — that this project is “friendlier” to current residents than a hypothetical alternative.

The additional compensation the developers advertise reads more like a slap in the face than a charitable gesture: $500 to help move out of an apartment you’re being forced out of, $1,200 toward a new lease inevitably in a part of town more far-flung than this one. A few lucky residents, however, would have first choice of units in the new development and get a chance to watch the rest of their community vanish.

So what will happen to the UT students and working class people on East Riverside if the aptly nicknamed “Domain on Riverside” is built? Lacking affordable housing options in the city, they will be forced to relocate farther away. 

Two decades of Austin gentrification provide a meaningful case study. Although Austin’s population grew by over 20% between 2000 and 2010, the city lost black residents, primarily as a result of gentrification. Communities such as Pflugerville and Del Valle have become new homes for many working class families, but they are much farther away from downtown, from peoples’ jobs and from the communities they have long called home.

For students, the continued destruction of affordable housing will likely exacerbate the debt of those already here and force future students into housing situations that are either too crowded or too far away from campus.

In anticipation of the upcoming City Council vote, UT students who will be affected by this redevelopment, as well as those who stand in solidarity with their peers and fellow Austinites, have little choice but to protest, or at the very least to make their voices impossible to be ignored.

Ensuring that our voices are heard has been difficult. Much of the debate — and all previous votes — that have occurred at City Council took place over the summer, when most UT students weren’t in Austin.

Couple this with the fact that those directly affected by this development — like so many in the past — are attending school, working one, two, three or more jobs, and the idea of the “democracy” behind these decisions — of making everyone’s voice heard — seems even more laughable. This is why those who don’t call East Riverside home must stand behind those who do to ensure that City Council knows where the people and students of Austin stand.

Public hearings on Item 113, the rezoning initiative, are closed. That doesn’t mean your opportunity to make your voice heard has to be, however. Austinites directly affected by gentrification and those who stand against it have long demonstrated against this destruction of community, and aiding these efforts or starting your own is incredibly effective at making our stance clear. 

Although it’s often a hollow call to action, you can also call your City Council member to let them know where you stand. The most recent vote to rezone East Riverside, which took place Aug. 22, saw City Council split 6-5 in favor. Only one more vote now needs to be flipped to put an end to this project, at least for the time being.

Council Members Pio Renteria (512-978-2103), who represents East Riverside, Natasha Harper-Madison (512-978-2101), Ann Kitchen (512-978-2105), Jimmy Flannigan (512-978-2106) and Paige Ellis (512-978-2108) all voted in favor of rezoning East Riverside on Aug. 22. Although Austin is growing, it is still small enough that enough pressure would let your City Council member know that this vote could cost them their job.

Resisting gentrification, the destruction of the fabric of the city of Austin, is not a one-time event. As the city continues to grow, new neighborhoods will inevitably come under threat. Civic engagement and defending your communities mean a lot more than voting and demand much more action than a single stand. Regardless of where in the city you live or how long you plan on living here, we must fight to ensure everyone has the agency to stay in and protect their communities.

The editorial board is composed of associate editors Emily Caldwell, Angélica López, Sanika Nayak, Abby Springs and editor-in-chief Spencer Buckner.