Keeping gentrification at bay requires effort
The factors that drive gentrification and push housing prices up in neighborhoods that minorities traditionally call home were the subject of this year’s final Dialogue for Activism. San Marcos activist Tomas de Leon moderated the panel discussion, which was held at the LBJ Museum. Panelists were Shetay Ashford, Ph.D., a professor at Texas State University and head of the P2P Movement nonprofit; and San Antonio activists Salina Santibañez and Marlon Davis.
Santibañez and Davis spoke about gentrification in East San Antonio, an historically Black neighborhood.
“What’s happening in the east side of San Antonio is happening here and in New Braunfels,” Santibañez said.
The East Side has already changed demographically, she said, and is now 65 percent Hispanic.
“It’s evolving and it’s changing right before our eyes,” she said.
The Dignowty area, which now boasts San Antonio’s highest property values, is right across a major thoroughfare from the East Side, which Santibañez called the “last frontier of affordable housing” in San Antonio.
“My biggest concern is we’re going to witness … the largest displacement of brown and black people from downtown to the AT&T Center. And it’s all planned,” she said. “It was all designed this way.”
Davis pointed out that gentrification and the loss of affordable housing is not just an issue in Central Texas.
“This is something that’s happening across the globe and across the nation,” he said.
Davis noted that in the past, lower-income populations lived in the city because they could not afford to move out to areas far from their jobs. Now, as cities are seen as more desirable places to live, those populations are being pushed out -- a problem that Santibañez said causes more damage than many people realize.
“Once you push them out, and they live past 410 even out to 1604 … who’s going to be able to take a bus for an hour and a half to access a doctor’s appointment?” she said. “... Once you push out people, regardless of any housing assistance, moving assistance, you’re talking about quality of life -- not being able to access a grocery store, not being able to get on a bus and go see your family member.”
An example in San Marcos
Ashford spoke about the Dunbar neighborhood, an historically Black area where most of the population is no longer African-American.
“I could not turn a blind eye to the need to preserve the community,” she said.
Whereas Dunbar was once a thriving Black neighborhood, Ashford said, “The footprint of African-Americans in that neighborhood is probably 5 percent, if that,” she said.
She also spoke of a high number of rentals in the neighborhood as opposed to home ownership, demographic shifts and political disengagement.
“If we look at city council meetings, we look at a lot of things that happen in the community, you don’t see very many African-Americans,” Ashford said. “I want to understand why.”
Ashford said that when she lived in Austin and was part of an East Austin church community, she saw gentrification happening in that part of the city.
In San Marcos, she said, “We can’t erase the history.”
Causes of gentrification
Davis named two chief causes of gentrification. First, he said, cities have been disinvested in.
“Creating affordable housing, fostering community -- these are things that should be initiated at the federal level,” he said. “These should be a priority for the government, but they’re not.”
The second cause, he said, is simply inequality.
“What we mean by inequality … the East Side traditionally was Black. This was not necessarily by choice. This is because from a historical context, at one point across the nation -- not just in Texas -- the banks actively redlined populations,” he said, meaning that banks would not give housing loans to some population groups.
“Housing itself is a form of wealth … that people of color were traditionally barred from,” he said.
One of the more prominent struggles against gentrification in San Antonio involves the area around the Hays Street Bridge, where residents are fighting to keep new development from coming in and displacing their neighbors.
The bridge, Davis said, historically was the only way Blacks living in the East Side had to get to and from work.
“This was the link that connected them to opportunity,” he said. And now, “We see the apartments going up. We see cupcake shops happening. We see Starbucks. .. .It’s a common misconception that that’s when it starts. But it’s the end result of years of development.”
Santibañez said that short-term rentals have been a big part of the conversation about gentrification and housing affordability in San Antonio.
“It’s one thing as a business model … but when you make it a sole business model, you’re disrupting that very community,” she said. “It’s one thing to have short-term rentals - -it’s another thing to pick up homes that are beautiful, that have so much history and so much character … and turn it around for business’ sake,” she said.
She used an example of houses that could have been homes for families with children, right across the street from a school.
“Now you have AirB&B residences, and they’re still in the middle of the hood,” she said.
Ways to move forward
Santibañez said that keeping people in their homes and the power that comes with home ownership are crucial to fighting gentrification. Instead of selling to house flippers, she said, people should work to repair their houses and stay in their communities.
Noting that San Antonio is expected to grow by 1 million people by 2040, Santibañez asked, “If we’re not creating housing … where are you going to house 1 million people when they come? The best housing stock is the existing housing stock.”
She said that San Antonio put together a mayor’s task force on affordable housing but, “Unless the city really, truly gets behind not only the community and connecting people … and putting money behind it … it’s going to be really hard to sell this to the people of San Antonio.”
Ashford, giving the example of community support for the restoration of the historic First Baptist Church in the Dunbar area and of measures to protect the neighborhood, said that community is a major factor. She also said it is important to have affordable housing built — and that means housing that is affordable for people within communities where displacement is occurring.
Ashford urged people in the audience to take action to change the systemic factors, including systemic racism, that make gentrification happen in minority neighborhoods.
“Each one of you in this room has a position of influence,” she said. “You have some form of influence in your spheres. … By being informed, you have an opportunity to effect change. … Keep in mind the interests of others. That’s first and foremost. Because we can make a change.”