Black Community's Flight From Austin Underscores Need To Deal With Affordability Crisis

Mar 24, 2017

While Austin’s overall population has exploded over the past few decades, Austin’s black population has declined the past 20 years. From 2000 to 2010, African-Americans were the only racial group in Austin that saw a drop in numbers. Austin was also the only fast-growing city in the country that had a decrease in its black population during that stretch.

Dr. Eric Tang is an associate professor at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at UT-Austin. After analyzing that data a few years back, Tang wanted to look more closely at why African-Americans were leaving Austin – specifically, East Austin.  KUT’s Jennifer Stayton spoke to Tang about this new research for our On My Block series.

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  Transcript:

Eric Tang: We realize that many of the folks who had moved out of the city limits to outlying suburban areas return on Sundays for church. And this gave us an opportunity to interview them after church services. We interviewed about 100 former residents of Austin who return on Sundays and found that the vast majority of them felt that they had moved not out of choice, but because they felt compelled to move due to affordability, especially housing affordability.

Jennifer Stayton: How then did people rate their quality of life after leaving?

ET: By and large our respondents said that their quality of life decreased. Their quality of life – especially in the eastern reaches of the city – is inferior to what they experienced when they lived in the urban core. So, the defining feature of gentrification isn't so much that neighborhoods turn over and, you know, there are new populations with higher incomes that move in. It's the displacement of longstanding residents from the urban core to areas where they are more vulnerable. What we saw out in the east – the eastern reaches of the city – prove this out: that the majority of people who move there said that they have less access to supermarkets, to health care centers; that they have poor transportation options. And, on the whole, their quality of life suffered.

JS: Did that surprise you at all?

ET: It didn't surprise me. What surprised me more than anything was the fact that many of them also moved, not only for reasons of affordability, but because they also felt that the AISD schools were not giving their children a fair shake. It surprised me to see how many parents who moved to the Del Valle system or the Elgin system felt that their children were getting a fair shake out east. The reason they felt that way was because the schools out there were far less segregated.

JS: Did respondents say anything about cultural factor, or you could also call it systemic factors, as reasons for leaving? I mean I'm thinking of interactions, say, between police and residents, for example. Was that cited very often?

ET: Yes. Many respondents felt that Austin was not a welcoming city for African-Americans and that was the third leading reason that respondents gave for why they moved out and why many of them won't return. They felt that Austin – despite its progressive reputation, despite its reputation as a tolerant city, as a multicultural city –was by and large hostile to African-Americans. In addition to that, the black public sphere in Austin, which used to be on the East Side 12th Street, 11th Street, has over the past two or three decades been decimated owing to gentrification – but also before that, urban renewal efforts. There isn't this draw, this magnet there's a nucleus here in East Austin that keeps many residents here – African-American residents, that is – that continues to draw them back to the urban core.

JS: I think you asked respondents if they would ever come back to Austin. What did they tell you when you asked them, you know, would you ever come back?

ET: A majority of respondents said that they would come back if housing were more affordable, if they could. And this did surprise us especially coming from respondents who moved north to Pflugerville and Round Rock, where their amenities are pretty good and where their quality of life on the whole is satisfactory. And so this points to this ineluctable sense of rootedness that many African-American Austinites have to their old communities. That sense of community and solidarity and rootedness that just can't be replaced once you move somewhere else.

JS: So, what are the bigger picture, long-term implications, when a group of people, such as the folks you spoke to, who moved out not by choice ... They're in their new place. Life is not necessarily greater than it was before, they've still got a foot in their old home. What does that do to a group of people?

ET: Well, it does fragment a community. It does lead to a sense of historical and cultural loss. At the same time there are acts of resilience on the part of community members who try to re-establish these connections in places like Pflugerville. But what it does long term is that, I think, erases the legacy of African-Americans here in the city, and it overlooks the importance of this community historically to Austin. And, I think, what it should flag for all of us is the need to deal with the affordability crisis in Austin writ large. Because what happened to the African-American population, with respect to displacement and out-migration is, on the one hand, singular because it so disproportionately impacted them but not unique, meaning that what happened to them is a bellwether for the rest of the city. Every community in some measure is being affected by the affordability crisis that drove so many African-Americans out of the city.