Blackland, like most minority communities in East Austin, had been plagued by disinvestment and predatory real estate speculation. Blackland’s situation was worsened by ever-pending eastward annexations by the University of Texas at Austin that were endorsed by the 1928 Austin Master Plan, that called for relocation of people of color from West Austin to East Austin and simultaneously called for the University of Texas to grow eastward. The plan was officially abandoned by the city as racist in 1956, but eastward annexation was pursued by UT until 1992. The combination of these factors created blighted housing conditions where rent was cheap but housing quality was very poor.
In 1980, the UT Administration began its sixth annexation that was intended to take all land to Chicon Street — half of the Blackland Neighborhood. The Blackland Neighborhood Association formed and struggled with the university for 12 years before agreeing to a compromise whereby UT would cease all purchases east of Leona Street and divest its properties in that area to the neighborhood. During that battle, one of the strategies that the neighborhood conceived and executed was to become an active developer to end blighted conditions and annexations. In 1983, the Blackland CDC was created to do this and has since built, purchased and maintained housing for low-income families and special populations. Nine of the non-profit’s 47 units are reserved for transitional families – formerly homeless families similar to those evicted by UT in the 1980s; six units are for elderly; and four more are designated for adults with mental and/or physical disabilities; the rest are for struggling families. The Blackland CDC is the only neighborhood-based nonprofit in the United States that provides housing for homeless families. In order to keep rents low for struggling households, the nonprofit has employed part-time staff and operates with a thin, austere budget.
Most of the funding for BCDC’s housing has come from city-administered HUD funds but the neighborhood received 16 houses and eight vacant lots as a result of the 1992 Agreement with UT. Those were rehabilitated with a combination of volunteers, HUD funds and private donations. BCDC had historically refrained from mortgaging properties, a policy difficult to follow in light of city and HUD initiatives that encourages “leveraging” — borrowing capital to match federal housing subsidies. BCDC avoided the leveraging policy to avoid debt service that would be passed on to low-income tenants as higher rent. In 2002, to develop six vacant lots and not lose tax exemptions, BCDC compromised with the city and borrowed to obtain matching funds for HUD HOME funds.
The board remains reluctant, however, to borrow under terms that jeopardizes its mission and pursues development of new units with low capitalization and minimal debt. In 2005, the board shunned pursuit of city housing funds and adopted a policy of “incremental development” where it would forego city/federal funds and cobble together small donations of materials and volunteer labor to develop several vacant lots along 22nd Street. With donations of materials from Mueller Home Depot and several small nonprofits, the Blackland CDC annually garnered and coordinated approximately 5,000 hours of volunteer time to build two duplexes.
The effort continues with the current project being the creation of a community “conservatory” from an historic bungalow. When finished, the facility will provide space for teaching and preserving domestic arts such as quilting, canning, gardening and arts and crafts for kids. It will be the centerpiece for an enclave of affordable housing that features gardens accessible to farmers in wheelchairs.
Among the legion of volunteers who worked on neighborhood projects were several councilmember’s who volunteered with the Blackland CDC and became aware of city policies that fostered gentrification. Many of those policies have been revamped to make funding more viable for development of low-income housing. The Blackland CDC has recently negotiated funding for several projects with the city and is presently working on two more that will boost its total housing to 56 units, scattered throughout the 28-block neighborhood.
The overarching strategy to operate as an active developer in the interests of the neighborhood remains in effect today as new challenges arrive. Austin’s 2005 real estate boom brought intense speculation from private developers who have driven-up the prices of property and taxes on surrounding properties. That market has cooled but the remaining real estate is scarce and expensive. Taxes resulting from the higher appraisals have driven out many marginal families and fostered some gentrification. The Blackland CDC now manages approximately 20 percent of the residential units scattered throughout the neighborhood and that assures inclusion of low-income households in the area into the foreseeable future. The nonprofit’s presence informs prospective buyers and realtors that the neighborhood will remain inclusive — that community characteristic attracts some new homebuyers and self-eliminates others.
Blackland’s accumulation and retention of affordable housing in the past 29 years has moved the nonprofit toward its original goal of fostering an inclusive community that hosts people of all races, religions, means and personal preferences. That goal, based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream, remains dynamic and realizes the Blackland CDC’s lived and enduring motto: “The Dream starts here.”