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District 3 and the Soul of Austin

The park by my house has been fenced off all summer; now all Fall too.  As thousands of new residents flood into my neighborhood, the parks are being updated to serve them.  Unable to sit and think I drove to another park in another part of town – this one too was completely fenced off with Viking brand fences and No Trespassing signs.  Private companies are making millions bringing boulder and concrete to our quiet neighborhoods and creeks. The feeling of the place, the trees, the noise, the spirit is changing.  Austin’s soul is buckling under its incremental growth.

 

The dominant political narrative around urban development in Austin pits an urbanist mantra that equates density with affordability against calls for neighborhood preservation; one favors market-based solutions, the other focuses on culture. The material side of the story is that East Austin is probably best example of Gentrification in the country.  Nowhere in the city is this more visible than in District 3, where houses that cost 50K in 2000 are now selling for 500K and up. Here lies the most meaningful election for Austin in 2018 – A rematch of the foundational seating of City Council District 3 with Susana Almanza challenging now incumbent Pio Renteria for the council seat, the solution to gentrification and the soul of Austin.

Pio is CodeNext – Susana is the Peoples’ Plan

The current development situation in Austin is untenable and unjust since there is essentially no low-income housing being built anywhere in the city.  The term “affordable housing” sounds like a joke when the Austin standard for affordable is 80% Median Family Income. This means that families making 85K or more annually will have access to “affordable housing”, but those making less will most likely be out of luck. The recently passed Affordable Housing Bond offers no reprieve from this conundrum.  

 

What’s to be done about housing and gentrification has created a deep division in Austin politics. CodeNext, a now-defunct re-write of the city’s land code, has served as an ideological compass, and Pio has been solidly behind it.  Backed by RECA, the Chamber of Commerce, Homebuilders Association and other Austin-based development organizations that routinely stand in the way of the working class, CodeNext is primarily an investment tool for land speculation. The City Planning Commission outsourced the rewrite process to Opticos a private design firm for 8 million dollars, making CodeNext the most expensive land code rewrite in world history.  A preemptive strike against reviving CodeNext, called Prop J, was voted down this election.

 

Mayor Adler tried to brand CodeNext as a solution to gentrification by focusing on the land code as the source of inequity in land policy.  However, the majority of displacement, and the fights to stop it, have had very little to do with the code. “Look at the gentrification” we are told by developers, “the code is broken and needs fixing” – this reminds me of Jeff Sessions using the immigration crisis as a justification for changing citizenship laws. In practice it echoes the trending logic that more luxury condos will help the working poor.

 

The same groups pushing CodeNext have not differentiated those fighting for neighborhood preservation in relatively stable areas from those literally experiencing displacement, and have labeled them all NIMBY (not in my backyard), pro-sprawl and anti-environmentalist.  In the city with some of the worst displacement in the world, to speak of neighborhood preservation as negative seems painfully out of touch.

 

East Austin is probably best example of Gentrification in the country.  Nowhere in the city is this more visible than in District 3, where houses that cost 50K in 2000 are now selling for 500K and up.

The main issue in D3 is displacement of the longstanding Chicano community replaced by a wealthy neoliberal gentry. Pio’s record could not be worse.  D3 has suffered the most displacement through evictions, the highest increase in taxes, the highest increase in house values and the most closures of schools anywhere in the city.    While the dismissal of the displacement of communities of color is not surprising coming from RECA and Adler, and seems beyond the sophistication of someone with the political experience of Greg Casar, it doesn’t make sense for an Austin native like  Pio to toe this line.

 

A closer look shows why and how D3 has emerged as the loser in Austin Monopoly. 90% of the money funding Renteria’s campaign is from outside of D3, mostly coming from real estate interests.  The funding for this assault also funded the campaign to stop prop J, which would have extended decision-making about land code re-writes to the public. Adler and RECA are running the campaign to re-elect Pio as an extension of the real estate establishment in order to complete their designs on the East Side.

 

Pio doesn’t just passively agree with RECA, he adds something very important to their narrative.  As a native he represents a specific segment of Eastside residents, those selling out. Renteria recently promoted the literal selling out of homes; he sold out the Pueblo Network East Austin neighborhood plans in 1999; and of course he supported CodeNext and opposed Prop J.  He has accepted the rationale that East Austin is already gone. In his words “you’re not saving us from displacement. You already displaced us”, even adding:

 

“A lot of people in this neighborhood are seniors, and I don’t blame them for selling. You know the big dream is you raise your family and they move out and you downsize to a smaller house – so if that’s what they want to do (that’s OK). I’ve seen some sell their house and buy one of the condos over there by Barton Springs. There is no maintenance.”

 

Despite the widespread public rejection of CodeNext, several East Side Council members have aligned with land speculators on this issue and against their constituents.  The democratic stability of Austin, still fragile from drastic rearrangement only a few years ago, is breaking under the mad dash at land reform. Instead of flipping houses, the developers have planned on flipping entire neighborhoods with schools, churches and all.  This gentrification has been met with resistance for decades, in what has been an ongoing series of battles to protect land and culture. A key figure in this tension has been the longstanding community organizer and founder of PODER, Susana Almanza.

 

Susana has been labeled a troublemaker by the establishment, often to distract from the fact that she outperforms Pio in nearly every way: as a leader, activist, organizer, public speaker, researcher, writer, collaborator and in her character and demeanor.   Indeed her service record amounts to more than the entire sitting council combined. Her record on fighting displacement is uniquely incredible. It is difficult to demonstrate successful resistance to gentrification anywhere in the world, which is why Susana has been recognized internationally for her work in East Austin.  While it is important to cite her record, it is little compared to the well of community activism that Susana is connected to and the communities she has worked alongside for over 50 years. This race is important not just because of the immediate debate over development; it is not just about policy, it is about the legacy of the work, the community engagement, the values and the people.

 

Over the decades there has been an immense amount of work undertaken by community members, city officials and organizations to document and resist gentrification: task-forces, quality of life commissions and independent studies have made recommendations for years.  Experts with countless hours of experience have weighed in with creative ideas and solutions. Neighborhood plans, community organizers and housing rights advocates have led processes of community engagement. CodeNext has captured none of this community’s legacy. Not a single recommendation was adopted from East Side activists. Mayor Adler had not even the basic respect to cite any of the previous COA-led initiatives on the issue.  Instead he sought to establish yet another task force.

 

East Side community members, used to being ignored, decided not to wait and came together to create a Peoples Plan.  Finally a counter-proposal to CodeNext was on the table. The Peoples plan consists of 6 policy fixes to respond to gentrification that do not focus on code:

 

§  Establish interim land restrictions in East Austin to limit the degradation of the  natural and cultural environment

§  Establish a Low-Income Housing Trust Fund that would make public investments exclusively in low-income housing

§  Use city-owned public land to create 2,000 low-income housing units on eight city properties

§  Implement an East Austin Neighborhood Conservation Program with Conservation and Historic Preservation Districts to restrict land use

§  Enact Right to Return and Right to Stay programs to help seniors and low-income residents stay in and return to their communities

§  Enact a local Environmental Quality Review Program to ensure environmental justice

 

The knowledge guiding these policy recommendations is part of the countless hours of community organizing that has sought to resist displacement.  Susana is one of the authors of the plan, and also embodies the spirit of the work – it is resistance to the neoliberal outsourcing of our city and refocusing on community-based activism.  The values embedded into the Peoples’ Plan resonate beyond issues of planning and development. This election is about transparency, justice and democracy; it is about whether decisions about land should be made by the people who live on it or California-based development consultants.

Cultural Conflict: Class Warfare

 

The issue of growth and culture has become a wedge in Austin Politics, with one often seen as oppositional to the other.  In a recent Op-Ed on housing Dr. Elizabeth Mueller brings these ideas together. She writes:

 

But gentrification is not only about historically disinvested neighborhoods. It is also about the ongoing lack of access those displaced have to other neighborhoods”.

 

Her second point on whether or not poor people have housing is an important issue, and I think we can do a lot of work together in this city to find solutions.  However, gentrification is the separate but related issue regarding neighborhoods – the key distinction is that neighborhoods are cultural territories, not merely units of housing.

 

Culture is constantly being created.  We make our culture by the words we speak, the art we make and the way we pray.  Culture is also what we do, what we produce, how we live – it is our political economy.  When culture is lost, it is not always growth, but often something being destroyed by something else.  The evolutionary framework of progress has justified the colonial destruction of indigenous cultures for centuries with the logic that modernity, the culture replacing them, is superior.  The underlying worldview that promotes urban density is the same one that produced capitalism, white supremacy and manifest destiny – it is the culture of colonialism.

Pio represents the patriarchy, the disconnected extension of power and violence; Susana represents the matriarchy, people organizing in defense of the Earth and her resources.

The divisions amongst Austinites on matters of development are unfortunate, and I want to be careful not to paint too broad a brush over the ideas and feelings of our urbanist brothers and sisters.  I believe that their vision for a dense, affordable city has been constructed with the best of intentions. Culture is not what you believe though, it is the material power you are entangled with; and in the case of Austin gentrification, it is a violent displacement of some and a reaping of land and profit for others.  This is not done with malice, but with a rational crunching of numbers.

 

In any political system, some people benefit and some people lose.  It’s not just developers who benefit from displacement in East Austin, it is also people who get to live in beautiful places like the Cesar Chavez or Holly Neighborhoods.  New residents overwhelming supported Pio in the last election, while those likely to be displaced supported Susana. While policy elevates the power of the new residents, they in turn expand this privilege by being more likely to vote.  They didn’t invent capitalism, but they sure benefit from it.

 

Capitalism is about rich people becoming richer.  Texas has always been a good place to make money. Neoliberal economic policies created a global pandemic of gentrification by focusing on numbers instead of people.  This has allowed Austin’s developer class, ruthlessly out of touch as they are, to get away with anything. Recently constructed condos called “the Chicon” on 12th and Chicon sounds like a joke to anyone who has lived in Austin for more than 5 years, until you see that they are priced at over 200K.  D3 has condo developments starting at 400K upstairs from a Whole Foods. This real estate was not carved up by accident – it was Adler and RECA with Pio in tow that allowed these foxes into our hen house.  

 

When the will of the rich is seen as a foregone conclusion, the entire city becomes hostage to a culture of displacement.  In the neoliberal economy, Austin outperforms Conservative Republican strongholds like Dallas.  Adler recently boasted Austin as the number one city for venture capitalists in Texas. Property values are going through the roof making millionaires millions more. This is not just about the price of land, though.  There is a cultural difference between Austin and Dallas; one that is being sold.

 

People say Austin is Liberal.  It is not. It is Libertarian. Mayor Adler, himself a development lawyer and member of the 1%, might be progressive on issues like abortion and immigration, but when it comes to economic policy, he is a Republican.  Tech from California comes to Austin for the weird, but they stay for the low, low prices. Venture capitalists party on West Sixth and invest on East Sixth with no social or economic morals to obstruct the liberty of profit.

 

When the issue of values has entered into public discourse it has done so by ignoring these material realities.  Despite the Real Estate funded add claims, Prop J was never tied to Trump. It is sad to see so many committed activists whom I respect, even several whom I know do research professionally, share such suspect information especially in these times of deceptive corporate media.  RECA is more tied to Trump and Republican politics than Austin’s Liberal image will readily concede, and their policies of displacement are colonial and racist.

 

Down-ticket from Beto, Pio has been promoted as a feel good candidate for gentrification complicit liberals.  Black Lives Matter signs in once Black neighborhoods and appropriation of Mexican culture do not soften the racism imbedded into the material displacement of peoples and cultures.  Similarly, propping up an image of a subservient indigenous man shining shoes, supporting a token POC who is obviously mediocre at his job, and carrying a banner opposed to neighborhood preservation while entire neighborhoods of Color are being displaced are all racist.  These are all established tropes of colonialism upheld by Pio and his supporters.

 

Regardless of where Pio is from, he supports the culture of yuppies buying expensive houses, frat boys drinking downtown, millionaires flipping real estate and condo living urbanists – no shade, but that is not the culture of Austin.   That is the culture of neoliberal capitalism that is replacing genuine land-based culture everywhere in the world. For decades Austin has resisted this turn, and this has been the battle for Austin’s soul. This process is a form of colonialism. and so we must remember that the resistance to colonialism has always been indigenous – land-based peoples who build relationships outwards from matriarchal family structures.

 

While Pio represents the patriarchy, the disconnected extension of power and violence, Susana represents the matriarchy, people organizing in defense of the Earth and her resources.

 

Almanza’s record of cultural and territorial defense is exactly what is needed to combat the real estate interests.  It is people who carry the culture that refuses to be replaced. We need someone who will work for the people – and we need the people to work for our city, our society and our world. Millionaire money and outside interests create cynicism in voters.  Instead of sitting out this election, why not plug into the grassroots campaign to elect Susana Almanza and to work alongside her to represent the people of this city. We need accountability as much as we need representation; we need humanity and much as we need good sense.  The Peoples’ Plan, as well as the legacy of cultural resistance promotes solutions rooted in community, land and sanity. Susana Almanza is the candidate of the people of East Austin, upholds our history and supports our vision for the future.

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