Historic designations aim to combat East Austin gentrification

Today, young professionals are moving into East Austin, enticed by the proximity to downtown and the hip bars, taco trucks and coffee shops around each corner.

Meanwhile, Black residents who live in the same houses their grandparents lived in face higher property values, leaving them with few options besides moving out of the city.

One way the city of Austin has tried to curb this gentrification is through the designation of historic landmarks. When an old East Austin home becomes a historic landmark, it is protected. It is less likely to be demolished and can serve as a reminder of Austin’s rich history.

Austin’s historic preservation officer Steve Sadowsky spoke about this last October, at an event hosted by the Community Housing Hub from the University of Texas’ Center for Community Engagement.

“It captures the context of entire neighborhoods,” Sadowsky said. “I’ve been doing one building at a time, but that has a much greater effect and impact on preserving the character of a very rapidly changing city.”

The Historic Landmark Commission reviewed 19 applications for historic zoning in their 2018–2019 year, according to their internal annual review. Seven were recommended for historic zoning. One location was Cisco’s Bakery and Restaurant on East 6th Street, an East Austin staple since 1955.

Austin is dotted with historic landmarks — from Shoal Creek Bridge and freed slave Sallie Johnson’s house, to the Bohn House, a modern mansion on 29th Street. Some landmarks are part of a national registry, while some are selected by the city of Austin.

There are three main criteria for historic designation: architecture, historic significance and community value. A landmark must meet at least two of the three. And neighborhoods can be historically designated, as well as individual buildings.

“That’s a much more holistic approach to preservation,” Sadowsky said. “It captures the context of entire neighborhoods.”

Between July 2018 and June 2019, the commission also granted historic designation for three neighborhoods. One of those three, the Robertson/Stuart and Mair District, is in East Austin.

The Robertson/Stuart and Mair District Boundary Map. From the official website of the City of Austin.

But historic preservation hasn’t always prioritized East Austin’s history.

Public housing historian Fred McGhee gave a presentation to the city’s Human Rights Commission in 2015, asserting that gentrification is a human rights violation. The presentation outlined the way historic preservation has historically favored West Austin.

“The overwhelming majority of historic landmarks in Austin are in white West Austin,” McGhee said. “When you do that, you send a message about what you consider to be valuable in terms of historic preservation. If you look at the city’s list, what it says it values is people who live in Pemberton Heights, Old West Austin, Hyde Park, where disproportionately, overwhelmingly rich whites have lived.”

In his presentation, McGhee found that 62 of Austin’s 564 landmarks are in East Austin, according to landmark location information from 2011. As of the Historic Landmark Commission’s most recent list of landmarks by address from 2015, the city has identified 599 landmarks.

McGhee attributes the high amount of landmarks in West Austin to the tax exemption available to historic landmark owners. The idea is that the money they are not spending on taxes is invested into the landmark’s upkeep. McGhee said it’s the largest tax break in the country.

“You’ve got a significant tax write off if you decide to designate your property as a stock under this, under the theory that you’re supposed to use that money for upkeep to keep the property historic,” McGhee said. “But the city doesn’t actually properly inspect to make sure that that’s the case, so it’s essentially a tax giveaway.”

Tax abatement for historic districts. Information from the official website of the City of Austin.

A landmark must be maintained in accordance with neighborhood design standards, but it is still possible to renovate and modernize a landmark. Certain home additions are allowed, and Sadowsky said architecture should reflect the time it was built. If an addition is built onto a home from 1912 in 2019, it should look like a 2019 addition.

“Historic districts don’t freeze buildings in time, so we welcome energy-efficiency and all kinds of things,” Sadowsky said.

Workshops like the one Sadowsky spoke at last year help advertise the tax abatement to East Austinities. A tax exemption is a good incentive to keep and preserve a home — especially in a city where land values are higher than most home values. Instead of trying to live in a neighborhood with increasingly high property taxes, a family may demolish their home, sell the land it stood on, and move somewhere with a cheaper cost of living.

“They’re not choosing,” McGhee said. “They’re being compelled to sell their property, because if you actually ask them if they wanted to stay .. in almost every case, they’ll say, ‘I would love to stay, but I can’t afford it anymore.’”

Sadowsky said one of the biggest threats to a neighborhood’s integrity is demolition. Austin’s “McMansion Ordinance” regulates buildings from doing things like filling lots to the edge of the sidewalk to maintain community aesthetics, but even with these regulations, once a single-family home is demolished, it is almost always replaced by something larger. The average demolished home is 1,430 square feet, while the average home that is replacing it is 3,544 square feet, the Austin Monitor reported in 2018.

“That has a very adverse effect on the character of the neighborhood,” Sadowsky said. “It also has an adverse effect on your property values. If you’re living in a thousand square foot house and next door just built the 3500 square foot house, guess what now has become more comfortable? That’s what sets the standards.”

The Historic Landmark Commission initiated historic zoning cases for 12 applications for demolition between July 2018 and June 2019, but none of them were recommended for historic zoning. One East Austin home was recommended after the homeowner withdrew his demolition application and submitted a historic designation permit instead.

Even with tax incentives and flexible renovation regulations, Sadowsky said it’s becoming difficult to historically preserve East Austin because of the diminishing Black population still around to tell their stories.

“When we propose a historic district in East Austin, we’re not dealing with a traditional population, we’re dealing with a lot of newcomers,” Sadowsky said. “It’s preserving the neighborhood, but it’s not for the traditional residents of that neighborhood. The silver lining to that is that the legacy continues, the stories continue.”

Audio journalist. Cat mother. Amateur gardener.

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