A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

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"When you aren’t around people of color and people of color are the hyper-other, then it becomes acceptable to do racist things," said History senior Joshua Tang.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series of stories examining the demographics of two neighborhoods where students live ­— West Campus and East Riverside. The next installment, about the makeup and history of Riverside student housing, will run Sept. 21.

The growing diversity of the UT student body has not spurred racial integration in student neighborhoods, census, city and UT records show.

The majority of Asian and white undergraduates living off campus reside in West Campus, while most Hispanic and black undergraduates live in East Riverside.

This trend has intensified in the past 10 years because of a convergence of socioeconomic inequality, disparate living costs in the two areas and alleged discrimination — and some fear it may not change.

Ryan Robinson, demographer for the City of Austin, said population growth in West Campus is the result of massive multi-family complexes built in the neighborhood since 2004 under a plan called the University Neighborhood Overlay.

Many of these new high-rises may not be affordable for Hispanic and black students, who are disproportionately from low-income backgrounds, Robinson said.

“West Campus has long been expensive and recently became enormously more expensive,” Robinson said. “Since income remains, unfortunately, associated with race, it could be that there is more racial segregation.”

These new high-rises also raised the total cost of living in West Campus, possibly creating an income barrier for Hispanic and black students, Robinson said.

According to The Daily Texan’s analysis of demographic data sets, more than 40 percent of all white undergraduates lived in West Campus in 2010, as well as 38 percent of Asian undergraduates. Twenty-two percent of Hispanic undergraduates and 15 percent of black undergraduates also lived in West Campus then.

These numbers are significantly higher for whites and Asians than in 2000, when only 27 percent of white undergraduates and 21 percent of Asian undergraduates lived in West Campus. Fifteen percent of Hispanic undergraduates and no black undergraduates lived in West Campus in 2000.

In Riverside from 2000 to 2010, the white population declined from 44 percent to 29 percent among college-age people, while Asians declined from 9.7 percent to 6 percent. College-age Hispanics increased from 37 percent to 47 percent, and blacks increased from 6.3 percent to 9 percent. The 2010 American Community Survey estimates that 5,598 undergraduates live in Riverside.

“Massive construction started in 2004 and was intended to allow more students to live closer to campus,” Robinson said. “The plan for that construction was to make the new apartments affordable, but the irony is that the exact opposite has occurred.”

The Daily Texan shared this data with city and UT officials, who have not yet returned requests for comment.

A Game of UNO
The University and the neighborhoods around campus were facing a swelling population problem in the late 1990s.

At that time, West Campus was a medley of small and aging apartments that did not allow new development, and the increased size of the UT student body had outgrown available rental housing near campus.

Many students had to commute from apartments across town, which hurt the University and hindered student success, said Mike McHone, a longtime Austin real estate broker who helped design today’s West Campus.

“When you look at the graduation time line, it became extended,” McHone said. “Class scheduling became less efficient and more costly. Alumni funding, it significantly dropped.”

Austin City Council brought the neighborhoods around campus into the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee in 2002 to attract students to West Campus. CANPAC then created the Central Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan in 2004 to manage the future development of the University area.

The University Neighborhood Overlay, or UNO, was a key component, McHone said.

“You knock down [the older, smaller buildings] and build new housing that can house over 300 people on the same piece of land,” McHone said. “What we did was create an overlay to bring the University students back by doing that.”

The University Area Partners, the neighborhood association of West Campus, and developers interested in the area created UNO. It passed unanimously in Austin City Council in 2004. The University did not take a position on the plan at the time of its creation.

Affordable Housing
From 2000 to 2010 West Campus developers added about 5,236 new beds in high-rises, according to UAP. The average cost for a single bedroom in these apartment buildings today is between $900 and $1200, available listings show.

McHone said West Campus was always expensive, but the construction boom following UNO caused the cost of living in West Campus to stay lower than developers expected in 2004. Developers hoped to make high profits but had to offer lower rental rates because so many complexes opened at the same time, he said.

Richie Gill, a Plan II and economics senior who founded real estate agency Mr. West Campus, said the cost of monthly rent in West Campus has risen by 7 percent every year since 2004 and now runs between $700 and $900.

Gill said most of the new high-rises in West Campus are catering to a luxury market and were not built for low-income students.

“You’re going to get a lot of debt from building on expensive property in West Campus,” Gill said. “It wouldn’t make sense for developers to build these expensive buildings and target them for a low-income audience. The new buildings were more targeting a middle-class demographic from a suburb of Houston or Dallas.”

Today, the demographic makeup of West Campus is much different than that of the University.

In 2010, white undergraduates made up 51.7 percent population, compared to 63.8 percent in 2000. Hispanic undergraduates increased from 13.5 to 19.4 percent in the same period. Asian undergraduates increased from 14.9 to 17.9 percent. Black undergrads grew from 3.4 percent to 4.7 percent.

“The Value of Dirt”
Brian Donovan, a member of CANPAC and administrator of the Inter-Cooperative Council, a West Campus cooperative organization, said the cost of all West Campus apartments has risen since UNO as a result of rising property values.

According to Travis Central Appraisal District records, the average value of land occupied by high-rises in West Campus increased from $50 per square foot to $100 per square foot between 2004 and 2012. This led apartment owners to charge more for rent since they had to pay more in property taxes, Donovan said.

“The property taxes of all the land in West Campus went up when the new zoning went in, and you can’t fight the value of the dirt,” Donovan said. “A lot of the older apartments, students are living there, too, but now they are charging high rates because they can get away with it as the area becomes more expensive.”

These property taxes rose in response to demand for land in West Campus, which had became more profitable after UNO, Donovan said.

Inter-Cooperative Council doesn’t pay property taxes because it is a non-profit. Rent for a single room at one of the co-ops has risen from $600 to $685 since 2004 due to increased expenses, Donovan said.

Cathy Norman, president of University Area Partners, said the creators of UNO aimed bring all students to West Campus, not just a middle-class or white demographic.

“What we intended was to create housing for all students, not just any exclusive group,” Norman said. “Now, how we are doing on that is a little bit more of a complex question.”

Norman said UNO has been successful in bringing students closer to campus, but there may be flaws in the plan.

“We probably didn’t focus on ethnic diversity at all when we created this plan. I don’t think it was a priority then,” Norman said. “It takes an ongoing process. It’s not like you can have a static plan for ten years.”

Racial Tension
Even if more housing becomes affordable in West Campus, many black and Hispanic students may still choose not to live there, said physics senior Jazmin Estrada.

Lower prices may not improve an environment that many students of color consider hostile.

“In certain areas of West Campus, especially where there’s a lot of white Greek houses, you feel kind of uncomfortable,” said Estrada, who is a member of the Latino Leadership Council.

Estrada said she moved out of West Campus to Riverside after hearing about balloons filled with bleach being thrown at Hispanic students and seeing Facebook photos of a West Campus theme party where participants dressed up as “Cowboys” and “Illegal Aliens.”

Estrada, whose family moved from Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley before she was born, said she lives in Riverside because she, like many other first-generation students, cannot afford to live in West Campus.

“It’s kind of impossible to live in West Campus if you’re a first-generation college student, it’s so expensive,” said Estrada. “Most of us are on financial aid and a bunch of us could maybe afford to live there, but we would have to give up something else.”

History senior Joshua Tang, who is Asian and black, said part of the problem is low Hispanic and black representation in the area. Most white students in West Campus do not commit racist acts in the neighborhood but may look the other way if racist incidents occur, he said.

“When you aren’t around people of color and people of color are the hyper-other, then it becomes acceptable to do racist things,” said Tang, who is a student associate in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

Tang has also experienced racism in West Campus.

“As I was moving into my apartment in West Campus, someone threw [the n-word] at me from their balcony,” Tang said. “Very recently someone dropped a balloon that had bleach in it very close to me. Thankfully, it missed.”

Tang says some white students believe that students of color receive favorable treatment from University admissions and other programs, which might be why they act racially intolerant.

“There are people from homogeneous areas who think people who belong at the University of Texas should look like them,” said Tang.

Premed freshman Meagan Elferink, a member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, said West Campus is less diverse than most parts of Texas. She graduated from Ball High School in Galveston, where she said different racial groups are equally represented. West Campus seems exclusive to students from a “certain type of background,” she said. She lives in the Castillian, a private dormitory at 24th and San Antonio streets.

At Ball, “it didn’t matter where you were from or how much money you had,” Elferink said. “I think that’s a more realistic representation of society.”

The UT Police Department and the Austin Police Department say they have received no reports of bleach-filled balloons being thrown at students.

UT students concerned about alleged racial discrimination in West Campus and at UT will meet at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 in UTC 2.112A. The event will feature student panelists sharing their experiences with discrimination at UT.

Going Forward
Alan Robinson, administrator of West Campus cooperative organization College Houses Cooperatives, is supporting the Affordable Housing Initiative that will go before Austin City Council on Sept. 27.

High-rises built in West Campus since UNO was established must offer between 10 and 20 percent of their units at “affordable” rates, but the definition of what was affordable was very high, Alan Robinson said.

“Someone who qualified for an affordable room was expected to pay a little over $1,000 per month for rent,” Alan Robinson said. “Those were [U.S. Department of] Housing and Urban Development definitions, and weren’t based at all on students.”

The AHI will change the definition of an affordable room from city-wide averages based on families to a different algorithm, lowering it to about $700, he said.

“That’s still pretty high, but I think it’s going to help a lot of people out,” he said.

The AHI will also change the definition of an affordable unit to an affordable bedroom, which Alan Robinson says will double the number of affordable rooms in West Campus.

“They currently have to provide about 20 percent of their units at affordable rates,” he said. “By changing the definition to bedrooms, we think we can double the number of people living in affordable housing.”

West Campus faces both economic and racial challenges. For students choosing whether to live in the neighborhood, the two often go hand in hand.