Popular eateries, coffee shops and trendy bars have transformed a historically undervalued community east of I-35 into a hip neighborhood, frequented by Austinites and visitors to the city.
But the East Austin renaissance has caused a severe rise in property taxes over the past decade that has affected low-income renters and fixed-income seniors, leading to a shift in demographics. According to Ryan Robinson, Austin city demographer, East Austin’s real estate worth has almost tripled, and property taxes have increased as much as 700 percent.
“From 2007 to 2014, the median price of a single-family home has increased about 200 percent,” Robinson said. “That very profound increase on the value of housing comes with a corresponding increase in the amount of property tax that’s being paid from that part of town.”
According to the City of Austin website, East Austin experienced a severe shift in demographics over the past 15 years. Census blocks show the total population of African-Americans in East Austin has decreased from 60 percent in 2000, to about 40 percent in 2010.
Daniel Llanes, an East Austin activist and artist, said this shift in demographics is largely due to a tremendous gentrification pressure. Real-estate development and rising property values have continued to displace low-income families and minorities.
“Before the year 2000, East Austin was 46 percent homeowner occupied, and today homeownership is down to about 18 percent, and that’s because of the displacement of a lot of people who have been, frankly, taxed out of East Austin,” he said.
Llanes said the community no longer resembles the original East Austin culture he remembers. Before 1990, there were hardly any white people walking around, jogging or riding bikes.
“It hardly looks like East Austin anymore; you see different economics and a different cultural class,” he said. “Since 1927, up until the year 2000, East Austin was predominantly Latino and African-American. Now, it’s just about to flip over to being an all-white neighborhood.”
He added that his property taxes have grown about 700 percent since 1989.
“I, as an East Austin property owner, have for the last three years had to pay my taxes in payments because I don’t have the money to pay them all at once, and I used to be able to do so,” he said.
Raul Alvarez, a former Austin City Council member, has formed an organization called the East Side Guardians. It has launched a fundraising campaign that aims to invest between $30,000 and $50,000 to help low-income homeowners and fixed-income seniors afford their rising property taxes.
“This (campaign) will allow us to help 15 to 20 families per year,” Alvarez said. “We have now helped 25 long-time, low-income homeowners with tax payment assistance. We want to continue this support and expand it to the greatest extent possible.”
According to the East Side Guardians’ “Land of Broken Dreams” report, land values for 55 percent of home-owners living in the Chestnut neighborhood since 1992 have increased by at least five times since 2002.
Alvarez believes that implementing a tax freeze of city and county taxes for homeowners who are 65 years of age and older could be a long-term solution to overwhelming market values.
Robinson, however, argued that this change in the east side culture has a positive side. It has brought a younger, more affluent “bohemian crowd” with higher education attainment level and a higher voting turnout. He said joggers, bike riders and young adults are now part of the daily east side scene, and large investments have revitalized East Austin.
“You see the single-speed hipsters flying around everywhere, and most of them are white,” he said. “I think it’s changing it, but it’s also creating culture as it happens. The culture is this evolving thing, and I’d hate to stop it. I’ll take the challenges of gentrification we have today as opposed to having a blighted ghost town.”