New UT report examines Austin’s declining black population

New UT report examines Austin's declining black population (KXAN Photo)
New UT report examines Austin's declining black population (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new study from the University of Texas gives some insight on why so many black Austinites are moving to surrounding areas. It found they were “pushed out” by structural inequalities, rather than “pulled away” to new opportunities. The study only confirms what many already knew to be true.

“I think it’s important that the studies occur because people in my community have been saying this for at least the last 20 years, but we didn’t have the ability to provide the kind of academic research that Dr. [Eric] Tang has been able to do,” Council Member Ora Houston said. “This only – just kind of says to everybody in the community, you’re not crazy. This has happened and it’s continuing to happen.”

The majority of the respondents in the UT report, 56 percent of the 100 surveyed who moved out of Austin between 1999 and the present, stated they left because they couldn’t afford the cost of living within city limits, residential housing prices in particular. The second leading reason respondents gave was “better schools,” the report, indicating 24 percent were dissatisfied with the quality of education in East Austin public schools.

Sitting with Elaine Davis at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin, it became clear the joyful song erupting from within brought sweet memories.

“That is the most soothing period of my life. This is what I like most of all,” Davis said, listening to her peers sing. “I’ve been a member here 60-something odd years.”

But the sweet memories, also brought a sense of sadness at the thought of having to leave.

“It’s just like cutting my life off,” Davis said. “I don’t want to move from the east side but I’m going to have to go to Killeen in order to maybe regroup or just stay there because it is so expensive.”

Davis is one of many who have either moved to nearby cities, or are contemplating it because of  Austin’s rising cost of living.

“When I start thinking about it, I just get emotional,” Davis said, explaining her son now lives in Killeen and the commute back to her East Austin church would be too expensive as well. Houston told KXAN displacement has become so high in her district, that historic black churches, like St. James, have become what she calls “destination churches.” It’s something UT’s study pointed to, saying a majority of the surveys were conducted within St. James, Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, and David Chapel.

“Majority of the people that belong here, they don’t live in Austin,” Davis confirmed.

But they come back, from placed like Round Rock, Pflugerville, Elgin and Manor, because of the sense of community. One Houston says she’s made it a mission from Day 1 as a council member to work to keep intact.

“The city lost an opportunity 20 years ago to talk about, if we talk about smart growth and density, what are the unintended consequences for the people who live there. We didn’t have that conversation,” Houston said.

So they’re having it now, through avenues like public input meetings for the city’s new Equity Office, which will work to avoid continued displacement. The intent with the creation of a city equity office is, anytime the city creates a new program, implements a new transportation option, or works on the budget, the office would look at who would benefit and who wouldn’t.

“It hurts because it’s like, everybody’s saying ‘we don’t care. Go away,'” Davis said.

Like any church, she hopes the city will instead say, “come back”.

“The soul of Austin is being pushed out of Austin so what will that leave us,” Houston said.

The next opportunity for Austinites to weigh in on what they envision for the city’s Equity Office will be Thursday night from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Dove Springs Recreation Center.

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