Rapid increase of poor residents seen in high-poverty neighborhoods

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Photo Credit: Caleb Kuntz | Daily Texan Staff

When advertising senior Christina Ewin bikes around her neighborhood in East Austin, she can go to her favorite coffee shop, grocery store and pub, all on the same street. 

This convenience — and a calmer atmosphere — always remind her why she got out of West Campus as soon as she could: peace of mind.

“Often, the areas surrounding campus were so packed with students … that I felt like I was in a bubble,” Ewin said. “It just wasn’t ideal.”

While some students, such as Ewin, decide to flee busy West Campus for more quiet nights east of Interstate 35, they are more the exception than the rule in terms of moving to lower-income neighborhoods throughout the city.

Ewin’s neighborhood is one of many Austin census tracts that have seen rapid growth in the concentration of poor residents living in high-poverty areas since 2000, according to a study released last week.

The report from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program shows the overall share of poor residents living in high-poverty neighborhoods, or neighborhoods with a poverty rate of at least 20 percent, rose 12 percent in Austin from 2000 to the 2010–2014 census period. Austin’s rate is higher than other large metropolitan areas, adding statistical evidence to concerns over income disparities throughout the city. 

“Even as poverty is becoming more regional, it’s also become more concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program fellow and one of the co-authors of the report.

While the rate of poor residents living in already high-poverty neighborhoods is rising quickly, the overall rate of concentrated poverty is still below other metro areas, Kneebone said.

Kneebone said typically cities address concentrated poverty areas through initiatives such as housing and zoning ordinances. This ideally develops a more “mixed” income community by attracting businesses and middle class residents to move in, leaving a reinvigorated neighborhood in its place.

However, longtime low-income residents, who are generally people of color, may not get to benefit from the new-found prosperity. This leads to an influx of wealthier residents pushing them out and a rise in gentrified neighborhoods.

“As places revitalize, you might see … that it’s on the upswing, but the low-income people don’t get the benefit,” Kneebone said. “A lot of these places do need more investment, … but the key is as those developments happen, people get to stay.”

Austin’s rising economic and racial divides have led the City Council and Mayor Steve Adler to address those issues as major city mobility concerns. 

For example, the City recently began constructing 240 affordable housing units in the Mueller neighborhood and plans on kicking off an initiative to address the lack of affordable housing and rising rent prices this summer, officials in the mayor’s office said. 

“[This] will be a very big investment vehicle for people to invest in preserving affordable housing, and in exchange, they’ll make a lower rate of return — socially conscious investing,” said Jason Stanford, communications director for the mayor’s office. “We agree this is a problem, and we’re working on it.”

While Ewin chose her neighborhood for convenience and affordability reasons, she said she has seen more high-poverty areas — just south of her neighborhood — being affected by gentrification, with “dilapidated houses” adjacent to areas of new construction.

“I think people, like myself, choose this area of Austin because it is convenient — not because it’s glamorous, not because it’s cheap,” Ewin said. “We live here because it’s easy and it’s diverse. It’s just Austin to me.”