Saturday, July 08, 2017
Why we can’t blame gentrification on the real estate market
As we continue to debate the meaning and consequences of the displacement of East Austin’s indigenous population, it is important for us to become cognizant of some of the lessons our steroidal real estate markets should have taught us by now.
Lesson No. 1: The main cause of gentrification is government, not the real estate market. Gentrification is not a phenomenon of nature or of the invisible hand; it is the logical consequence of political determinations made by elected politicians and other public officials.
Efforts to cast gentrification as primarily a matter of supply and demand are mostly efforts to evade responsibility. As are deterministic claims that we are somehow enslaved to gentrification and are powerless to stop it. At root, gentrification is a human rights violation.
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: Our Viewpoints page brings the latest commentaries to your feed.
Lesson No. 2: Austin hasn’t just grown unaffordable and unsustainable; it has done so unequally. In addition to the well-documented demographic collapse of the city’s African-American population, Austin’s Gini index — which economists use to measure income inequality — is about .49, a number higher than the United States at large, higher than Mexico’s, and higher than every country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Wealth inequality is even worse. As a point of comparison, Seattle — a city that is also experiencing gentrification — has a Gini index of about .45. Two important factors in Seattle’s higher level of equality are the fact that the city has embraced a $15-per-hour minimum wage and levies an affordable housing tax — not just a bond — that will raise hundreds of millions of dollars.
Lesson No. 3: The city of Austin and other governmental entities have steadfastly refused to measure the impacts of gentrification. For example, a major consequence of gentrification is eviction — both formal and informal.
According to Travis County data, 7,745 eviction petitions were filed in Travis County in fiscal year 2015. Approximately 55 percent (4,235) of the petitions filed resulted in an eviction judgment. Thirty-five percent (1,477) of eviction judgments resulted in a writ of possession. Of the ZIP codes analyzed, 78741 in Southeast Austin contained the most eviction petitions (1,037), judgments (592) and writs of possession (150). Note that these numbers only refer to formal eviction proceedings, meaning that a landlord filed an eviction petition. These numbers do not include informal evictions, where a tenant left voluntarily after being told to vacate, or where a landlord changed the locks, removed a front door or placed a tenant’s furniture and belongings on the curb.
How many evictions take place in Austin per month? We have no official statistics, but the Austin Tenants Council has stated that it fields about 50 phone calls per month from concerned Austinites seeking help and information. When combined with people seeking assistance in person, the number is even higher. Add to this the accelerating displacement of families from mobile home parks — a population often not reflected in official real estate statistics — and the scope and scale of involuntary residential displacement in Austin begins to look unsettling and alarming.
ALBERTA PHILLIPS: Why East Austin article inflamed, hurt Latinos and African-Americans.
You cannot fix what you refuse to properly measure. Do our elected officials receive monthly reports or briefings on the number of evictions in Austin? Are they made aware of the number of individuals and families that are made homeless by our real estate practices? What impact are high utility bills and property taxes having on people and families, not just the economy? These are questions for which there are answers. A refusal to ask them or to ask them properly is to continue to evade responsibility.
A final lesson: CodeNext should be seen in historical perspective. Our city’s recent history has been characterized by large-scale residential displacement of the pigmented and poor — and neoliberal worship of market economics. Over this recent history, identity politics and charity have covered up what should have been a sober discussion about who the actual political winners and losers are in our city that would have gone well beyond facile “quality-of-life” concerns.
If we are to truly defeat gentrification, we must have that conversation.