Neighborhood displacement and economic diversity : gentrification policy in Austin, Texas




O’Connor, Mike, M. of Public Affairs

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In 1964, English sociologist Ruth Glass coined the word “gentrification.” Within a few decades, the phenomenon this term described had become an issue in the United States. After the passing of the “urban crisis” of the 1960s and 70s, wealthier, whiter Americans began to want to live in the nation’s cities. As they began to move, the result was a rise in housing prices, leaving longtime residents—often minorities and/or those with lower incomes—with nowhere else to go. Austin, Texas is currently the fastest growing city in the United States. As such, it sits at the leading edge of the American gentrification crisis. This report will consider Austin’s history and the city’s policy responses in the context of the theoretical approaches to gentrification in the US. Considering the intellectual responses to gentrification, it begins with the nation’s seminal urbanist, Jane Jacobs. It was Jacobs’ response to urban renewal that set the tone for the revived appreciation of the American city. This thinking was reflected in the work of urbanists like Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser, who both emphasize the fact that gentrification is a form of economic development that brings positive as well as negative aspects. Opposed to this viewpoint is Peter Moskowitz, who argues that gentrification is a policy tool of an elite white political and economic class, designed to clear people of color from desired urban spaces. In Austin, both of these interpretations ring true. Explicit public policies relegated African- and Mexican-Americans to the east side of town throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, but it is market forces that are currently pushing them out of those same neighborhoods. Austin’s municipal authorities are aware of the gentrification problem, but many of its policy documents present the issue only through the lens of “affordability.” This report argues, however, that acting to keep housing prices down is a necessary but not sufficient condition for addressing displacement. The city must also direct itself to the legitimate claims of the specific people who have lost ties to the neighborhoods that are meaningful to them.



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