Code enforcement activity and impact in Austin, TX's gentrifying neighborhoods

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2019-05-13

Authors

Martin, Benjamin Andrew

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Abstract

Community members and advocates have expressed concern that Austin Code enforcement activity in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods contributes to residential displacement pressure. However, there is lack of clarity as to whether code is over-enforcing, causing financial pressure on low-income homeowners and property owners, or under-enforcing, exacerbating health, safety, and displacement risks for low-income tenants. In this report, I compare the frequency of residential code complaints for 2018 and stage of gentrification for Austin census tracts. I find that neighborhoods in Austin that are vulnerable to gentrification or in a stage of gentrification experience considerably higher rates of code complaints than neighborhoods that are not gentrifying and not vulnerable. This finding holds true for all major code complaint categories. Furthermore, this heightened complaint frequency cannot be accounted for by age and quality of housing stock alone, as complaint categories that are not related to structural conditions follow similar patterns. Several code complaint types increase in frequency between gentrification stages. Code complaints for multi-family properties are highest in neighborhoods that are susceptible to gentrification and adjacent to a gentrifying tract, or “next in line” to gentrify. Interviews with supervisors from the Austin Code department and expert-advocates from the Austin tenant advocacy community help clarify and interpret the results of these tests, and provide additional insight on the impact of code enforcement on residential vulnerability and neighborhood change. Topics that are discussed and debated include: potential developer abuse of the anonymous code complaint system, Austin Code’s mission and strategies, rental registration and proactive enforcement tradeoffs, and Austin Code data management and public data sharing processes. Recommendations suggest both administrative and legislative considerations that could help Austin Code better understand and serve the needs of the city’s vulnerable renters and homeowners.

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