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How Austin is Combating Gentrification in the Wake of CodeNext

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Local lawyer Jane Webre looks to the future after Proposition J.

By Emily Benson, Photo courtesy of Jeremy Doddridge

Austin is one of the most quickly gentrifying cities in the United States. As a lack of affordable housing pushes Austinites out, the City of Austin is searching for viable next steps to avoid inflation and satisfy the community. Local lawyer Jane Webre is on the front lines of this fight.

Webre has worked for Austin-based law firm Scott Douglass & McConnico for the past 28 years. Bilingual and an active community member, Webre  performs pro bono work through Volunteer Legal Services, an organization founded by Austin attorneys in 1981 to represent people unable to pay for legal services.She also represented the City of Austin in the battle about rewriting the city’s land-development code.

“The existing land-development code had not been rewritten for decades,” Webre says. “Austin has grown a lot since then. We had an outdated hole with a lot of patchwork of amendments.”

CodeNext served as the latest attempt at rewriting the outdated land-development code but was met with controversy, ultimately voted down by Austin City Council and sparking a lawsuit.

The CodeNext lawsuit concerned whether the state should allow residents to vote on zoning ordinances. Proposition J, the proposed solution to ease clashing opinions put all land-development decisions, including CodeNext, to a public vote. It also established a mandatory waiting period before any new laws regarding zoning can go into effect.

Webre compared the CodeNext lawsuit to similar lawsuits in cities throughout the United States and found elected city officials deciding how to divvy up the land is the norm. The insertion of public opinion in zoning ordinances is unprecedented and rare in most cities in the United States, according to Webre.

However, Travis County District CourtJudge Orlinda Naranjo ruled the matter would be put in the hands of the people, and the controversial issue appeared as Proposition J on November’s midterm election ballot.

Nevertheless, some members of the community are fighting to keep the Austin skyline the same—without additional high-rise apartments—noting they want to maintain the soul of the community in Austin.

“When you do a comprehensive land revision, you’re going to have tension,” Webre professes.

Uprooted, a report by researchers and scholars at the University of Texas, details the effect of residential displacement in the Austin community.

“The current rise in prices in central neighborhoods is part of a broader inversion of the demographics of U.S. metropolitan areas, whereby the poor are pushed outward, while the affluent are moving inward,” the report explains, citing as the impetus for changing urban trends factors such as “changing preferences for central city living and the amenities that offers, city planning and economic-development initiatives fostering redevelopment or new development in or near central neighborhoods, and federal initiatives to redevelop public housing as mixed-income communities.”

In the 2018 midterm election, a majority of citizens voted against Proposition J, meaning the City of Austin can implement a new land-development code without voter approval. The decision is a win for Webre, who saw the lawsuit as a fight to prevent gentrification from overwhelming the current residents in metropolitan areas.

The future of development in Austin is still a pressing issue and careful planning is necessary to ensure at-risk residents are not pushed out. As Austin continues to grow, Webre is committed to protecting and representing people of all backgrounds in step with the spirit of Austin.

 

 

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