Austin City Councilman for District Four, Gregorio Casar on Segregation, Inequality, and Revolution in the Live Music Capital of the World.
The story of Austin, Texas, is a tale of two cities: this much is clear in the wake of the February 2015 Martin Prosperity Institute report, Segregated City. Yes, Austin is the most economically segregated large metropolitan area in the United States. This information comes as a wake-up call for a city known for its forward-thinking attitude.
All the same, no one likes killing dreams, and Austin is a dream city if there ever was one. At first glance, Austin is an affluent, postmodern, liberal utopia, complete with a world-famous music scene, chic bohemians, a buzzing downtown, eco-friendly infrastructure, old relics of the days of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, frisbee golf, well-dressed geeks, stylish cafes, and, most importantly, an emphatic insistence on keeping it “weird”.
While preserving Austin’s unconventional ethos is a cause worth fighting for, at the same time, Austin’s “weird” is double-edged: there is the creative, magnetic “weird” of Austin’s fiery flower power, and then there is the unsettling “weird” that lurks behind the fact that this nonconformist utopia is built on top of a radically different city.
This buried city is the city of Austin’s working class, of its historic Hispanic and African-American minorities, of its starving artists, of its displaced families. Until recently, I-35 was the traditional dividing line between the rich West and the poor East, a separation that dates all the way back to Jim Crow era zoning policies designed to isolate Austin’s black and Hispanic populations. With gentrification on a massive scale, things have changed dramatically for Austin’s poorer half and, as one would expect, not for the better. Now, property prices are pushing low-income residents into ever more alienated pockets of suburban housing. As inequality has grown more palpable on a global scale, so, too, has the suppressed counterpart to Austin’s unorthodox utopia been rendered more visible than ever.
Although change always meets resistance, doing whatever it takes to bring Austin’s twin cities together will strengthen the legend of the blue hole in the red donut. Fortunately, only a month before the release of last year’s report, a committed reformer was sworn in to City Council armed with a unique insight into Austin’s fight for fairness: District Four’s Gregorio Casar.
The youngest City Council member in Austin’s history, Mr. Casar has certainly established his progressive bona fides. Before he was elected to the Council, Casar was a vocal champion of social justice as the Policy Director of the Workers’ Defense Project. Since his election, Councilman Casar has spearheaded initiatives for “fair chance” employment, raising the minimum wage and providing health insurance for City employees, equipping APD officers with body cameras to prevent instances of police brutality, the construction and preservation of parks and vital infrastructure, affordable housing and utilities, and the democratization of city government. Casar has also distinguished himself as a voice for the voiceless on City Council, being an outspoken advocate for the rights of workers, tenants, immigrants, and low-income homeowners. If anyone is capable of bridging the urban divide, it is Mr. Casar. How did Austin become so divided? For Casar, the root is fourfold: housing policy, gentrification, the exclusivity of knowledge-based industry, and educational inequality.
For a city that loves to toot its progressive horn, Austin has incredibly backward housing policies. Not only does the city neglect to properly subsidize affordable housing, it also isolates what little affordable housing there is in impoverished parts of town, thus closing the lid on social mobility. To make matters worse, strict property qualifications designed to chase off low-income wage earners are effectively walling off high-income neighborhoods. Mr. Casar expressed the problem as such:
“What we need in Austin, like some other cities have, is a lot more progressive city and state intervention in building affordable housing in parts of town where there is not very much affordable housing. My district has a good bit of affordable housing, and East Austin and Far East Austin have even more, but lots of parts of West Austin have very, very few subsidized affordable housing units. Another part of it has to do with our land use policy. We decide if a piece of land can only have a single family house on it, or if it can have apartments, or if it can have an office, and so on. We do have a lot of rules that say if you can’t buy 7,000 feet of dirt and live in a house just by yourself and your family then you essentially can’t live in that neighborhood. We need to work on not only allowing houses but also different sized apartments and different kinds of housing types so that people of different means can afford it.”
The danger posed by gentrification in Austin is more than serious: it is existential. Representing a constituency beset by Austin’s ravenous real estate market, Mr. Casar eloquently describes the problem posed by gentrification, having seen firsthand the damage it can wreak on a community:
“We have seen a big cultural shift…where people of high income have decided to come back to the centers of cities. This shift causes a lot of displacement, so that has had a huge effect, especially on areas really close to downtown that once were really cheap but are now unaffordable…We need to work on making sure that there is enough housing for all the people who want to live in a particular area; otherwise, it usually winds up being the less fortunate residents who get pushed out first…The dangerous thing is if we don’t buy down the price of housing with government money, if we don’t allow for more housing to get built so that there is enough housing for everybody, and if we don’t think of creative ways for the private sector to also build affordable housing units, what everyone moved here for could wind up being gone. My own District Four is one of the last affordable places to live that’s close enough to downtown for someone to easily make it to a gig, so we have lots of musicians and artists that live there. Some of those folks that I know used to live on Riverside, which used to be pretty cheap and now they’re seeing it’s becoming too expensive, so now they might live north of Highland or south of Rundberg. A lot of those folks are saying ‘Well, once we get priced out of here, there is nowhere nearby left to go.’”
Austin’s evolution into the “Silicon Hills” has kicked its economy into overdrive, electrifying the city’s already famous dynamism. There is another side to this story, though: Austin’s knowledge-based economy has also intensified urban inequality by concentrating jobs among a highly-educated, wealthy, Anglo minority. How can Austin’s robust high-tech economy be used to enrich the whole community and not just a small elite? Gregorio Casar may have just the answer:
How can we harness Austin’s powerful economy to help everyday people? That’s something, thankfully, that the local government can do a good bit of. We can make sure that a lot of the property taxes and fees we collect from this thriving and prospering economy are directed to the people who are benefiting the least from it, and that’s a challenging political move because only so many of us represent or are representing largely working poor or working class districts… We have to decide that, out of all this money that we collect, we are going to put so much more into workforce development or into wages for working class folks or into benefits for those people or into parkland and that people who are doing really well may not get as much of the government’s support or help because they’re doing just fine out there.
Economic segregation is not the city’s only problem: Segregated City also ranked Austin fifth in the category of educational segregation. The link between educational and economic segregation is painfully clear: both problems generate and sustain each other. Undaunted, Councilman Casar presents innovative solutions designed to bring this vicious cycle to an end:
The data is pretty clear that, if you get degrees, you have a better chance in the job market, but those sort of middle jobs, the jobs that you can move up into, are slowly disappearing because of trends in policy decisions at the national level. So I’ve been really supportive of things like expanding ACC [Austin Community College] … and coming up with partnerships between community colleges, traditional colleges, and employers. For example, Rackspace, a cloud computing company, is going to be co-locating at the ACC campus so that ACC students can immediately be plugged into the world of high-tech industry. The hope is for more of these technology companies to not just be places where only certain segments of the population can get in. We need to work to create pipelines and paths up to tech jobs because I think there are a lot of really creative, capable high school and middle school students in my district who go to a science class, and they say “Well, I’m not going to be a scientist, so why am I taking this class?” My goal is to convince these students with real life examples that learning about science and technology is truly valuable. I think it would be dishonest to tell them “You can be this” or “You can be that” until we really know that we have a system set up where they can more easily excel.
Casar has a simple prescription for treating Austin’s disease: “We would need to be a very, very different place to be able to tackle this problem…head on and seriously enough for me to feel like we were really reversing the trend rather than trying to just bandage the wounds the best we can.” This might be the moment where a “limousine liberal” might ask: “Where’s the beef?”. Like any true progressive, Casar has plenty of it:
“…there needs to be a major reprioritization of the issues we pick up as a local government…That means taking political heat. That means thinking about actually supporting a mass transit system that can get people around the city. That means actually putting up enough apartments around that mass transit system so that it pays for itself. That means reprioritizing the way we deliver public services and use our taxes so that people are actually safe in their homes, have enough parkland nearby them, and have affordable housing. That means that other parts of town that are doing pretty well are going to have some chunk less of Austin’s wealth. That means supporting an income tax at a state level (in our state constitution it says that we can’t have one). That means figuring out a way for us to actually tax based on income instead of just tax based on property because right now property taxes burden folks pretty heavily.”
Make no mistake: the change Casar wants is radical. Instead of just cushioning the blows, the Councilman wants city government to hit back against economic segregation, to eliminate the roots of inequality, not just address them. While Casar obviously isn’t proposing any sort of “Austin Commune” insurrection ( with Moloov cocktails, tear gas, and the like), his crusade is part of the growing democratic tide sweeping the United States and, if successful, would entail a thorough restructuring of the metro status quo. In short, Casar, to the consternation of Austin’s pampered Clintonians, does not want reform: he wants revolution.
This article was written by a guest journalist:
Cameron Yancy – 16, United States of America
A fan of psychedelia, psychoanalysis, rock ‘n’ roll, radicalism, revolution, politics, and power. You’ll find him where Lennon read a book on Marx.
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