The nation’s economic recession dealt a blow to many cities, but Austin wasn’t counted among them. From the outset, Austin has been among the most successful cities at dealing with the recession and recovery. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, Austin is tops among four major metropolitan areas in Texas responding to the recession, along with Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio.
By surface appearances, Austin is a city on the rise with programs successfully providing citizens government assistance, education, housing and job opportunities. If one looks closer, however, they will uncover a whole other truth.
According to the 2010 American Community Survey data, 66,564 of 193,801 lower-income households across the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos region lived in majority lower-income neighborhoods, a share of 34.3 percent. A similar share of the region’s 121,632 upper-income households, 42,850, or 35.2 percent, lived in upper-income neighborhoods, making the RISI score for the region in 2010 total 69.5. The score defines Greater Austin as more economically segregated than any other metropolitan region for which Pew published RISI calculations.
Paul Saldaña has spent the last two decades assisting residents from underserved communities in Austin, as his dedication and commitment have helped give individuals a voice. He finds many have been hindered by poverty and lack of empowerment, failed by the city’s leadership. Housing is one area where Austin’s shortcomings are most pronounced.
“City governmental involvement and leadership is vital to addressing affordable housing needs, regardless of the stage of gentrification,” said Saldaña. “Local government plays a key role in creating regulatory policies that support, and sending a message that affordable housing is an important component of the broader community.”
Though affordable housing is not Austin’s strong suit, “attentive management of regulations and city programs can help create opportunities to affect neighborhood revitalization/gentrification and displacement, or hinder them,” continued Saldaña. “If a city does not proactively support the provision of affordable housing and become involved in efforts to manage gentrification, it will be that much more difficult for the community to do so.”
It may come as a bit of a surprise that the city that advocates diversity, civic involvement, acceptance and tolerance is caught in the cross-hairs of gentrification, political and city leader self-empowerment, and blatant disregard for economically challenged citizens.
Austin community leader James Nortey, a Northeast Austin resident, comments on a 2013 Travis County study naming Austin the most economically segregated city in the country: “I’m unsure about this conclusion, but part of this is historical. The City’s 1928 Plan mandated racial discrimination which is tangentially related to economic segregation. Because Austin has become so desirable, the cost of living here has also increased, in turn, pushing residents away from the urban core.”
The City of Austin’s political leadership is not the only group to blame – a small minority of citizens have always dictated how the city is run – unfortunately, it’s usually the economically advantaged that seem to have the stronger influence. Those with less change to jingle have been overlooked for decades.
“The cost of housing and the cost of living generally are perhaps the most urgent and most difficult challenges facing our community today,” stated Ramey Ko, another notable activist. “Even if you have only lived in Austin for a few years, it’s glaringly obvious that costs of all kinds have skyrocketed. Economic segregation feeds racial segregation, exacerbates traffic by making it more difficult for people to be able to live near where they work or go to school, reduces interaction between people from different walks-of-life, and reduces social and economic mobility. Austin’s greatest strength has been its welcoming and open culture and environment; economic segregation threatens the essential foundations of Austin’s identity and its recent prosperity. We all stand to lose if we do not aggressively tackle income and wealth inequality in our community.”
Another critical issue is the not-so-bright future of many of our students from lower socioeconomic communities. East Austin schools, in particular, routinely fail in academic performance studies. Children from communities of color are overrepresented in the areas of dropout and truancy, and underrepresented in terms of graduation, college and career success stories.
Laura Donnelly Gonzalez, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Latinitas Magazine and Outreach, believes that with true guidance and mentorship, our children, especially young Latinas, can be lifted up and empowered to reach their potential, just the same as any child truly can with the right resources.
“At Latinitas, we are acutely aware of MALDEF’s reports of low graduation rates for Hispanic females since 2009 (41 percent not finishing in four years, if at all),” explained Donnelly Gonzalez. “The answer is not cryptic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard our older Latinitas in high school express defeat when a counselor says she’s not ‘college material’ or the deterrence that takes place when a Latina is coming to the college enrollment game later than her peers who might have had the mentoring, economic support, etc., to even consider such an opportunity during their freshman and sophomore year, as opposed to some of our seniors having to navigate this path on their own as the first in their family. They are turned away – trumped by sophomores and juniors. This kind of direction or misdirection is unacceptable, but believe it or not is happening today in 2014 at our area schools more than you think, when a college degree is sometimes a basic minimum for entrance to the professional realm.”
Often times, people are completely unaware of these issues, or don’t comprehend the associated hindrances that accompany such problems and fortify them. We can tie much of this unawareness back to the lack of engagement and education in our communities, but that is yet another one of our city’s growing pains.
“Perception is everything, Donnelly Gonzales continued. “If Austin doesn’t view its graduating seniors in our Title 1 schools as viable a workforce as others – kids feel that. We have to start looking, as a city, in our own backyard for raw talent. And, a lot of equalizing needs to happen. The fact is there is no mystery what poverty brings – a lack of luxury that could be as basic as access to the internet. Schools need to equalize technology access for our Austin students, now. Not later.
“We should be ashamed to be considered a ‘tech center,’ and how limited that access really is. Our economically challenged Latinitas and other girls of color need inclusion in their education.”
On August 24, 2013, the Austin American-Statesman published an article pointing out that for the past two years, the Austin school district has posted the worst graduation rates for low-income students than any other large urban school district in Texas. That fact is more than startling and the entire community of Austin seems to be unaware, or perhaps, disinterested. Saldaña brings up an even more alarming fact, “In 2008, Austin ranked dead last only graduating 61 percent of our economically disadvantaged students and in 2012 we were still ranked at the second to the bottom, graduating 78 percent of economically disadvantaged students and still nearly seven percentage points below the State Average (85.1 percent).”
It seems as though housing and education are two among several prominent issues that our city faces. Our poor education system and lack of affordable housing continues to feed the cycle that creates Austin’s underserved population. If our city leaders continue to avoid tackling these issues and promote temporary solutions, Austin one day, soon, will be recognized for something less attractive than our booming skyline.