Study: There are now more dogs than children in east Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Institute for Urban Policy Research Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin found dogs now outnumber children in east Austin nearly two to one, a statistic they say is a signifier that gentrification is alive and well there.

They did their research on either side of the Texas State Cemetery in Census tract 901 and asking people whether they had dogs or children. The study found the number of children under the age of 17 falls well below the city and regional averages.

"A profound absence of children, not an abundance of dogs, explains the disparity. Dog ownership rates in the neighborhood appear to be on par with national averages," the researchers wrote in their findings. "Moreover, one can assume that the majority of these losses were among children of color."

They surveyed 55 percent of eligible households in the neighborhood, finding 116 dogs and 66 children. Additionally, of the 171 houses they surveyed, 40 percent of them had neither dogs nor children.

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The researchers noted that between 2000-2010, the neighborhood’s black population decreased by 60 percent, its Latino population decreased by 33 percent and its white population increased by 442 percent.They reported that Austin was the only fast-growing major city in the U.S. to show a decline in African Americans between 2000 and 2010.

The research, which was published this spring, documented a trend of longtime east Austin families and communities of color being pushed out of the area. It was during these interviews that they heard neighbors saying that dogs outnumbered children, which prompted them to start this second part of their research.

UT graduate Olivia Sullings contributed as well and explained that 76 percent of the homes in the east Austin neighborhood bloc they surveyed were without children.

"When you say it right off, it kind of seems like almost an attack at the newcomers — eccentric dog owners — but it’s not that at all, it’s just the severe lack of children," she said.

"So the loss of children in certain sectors of the city doesn’t make sense if the rest of the city is growing at a rapid clip," said Eric Tang, associate professor of Black Studies at UT, who led this research.

Tang hopes that city leaders have an "elevated sense of urgency" to improve Austin’s affordability after hearing about these findings.

"The existing housing that is being built at the market is not attracting families with children," Tang explained, noting that after looking at Austin Independent School District data, they found that out of the 1,900 Austin apartment units built in the last several years, only six children were living in those units.

"The only way to see more children in east Austin see more families in east Austin is if more affordable housing is built and existing affordable housing maintained," Tang said.

The earlier research they published has prompted the Austin City Council to consider a "Right to Return Policy" which would try to reverse the tide of gentrification by adding affordable housing and working to incentivize families who have been pushed out of the east side to move back.

"I think that’s a very important policy, but in order for it to not just be symbolic, it has to go hand in hand with affordable housing," Tang said, noting that even if people have protections that help them move back, they’ll need to be able to afford living there for the long term.

People who grew up in or presently live in east Austin tell KXAN they are already noticing the impacts of this lack of families.

Erika Jasper, who grew up in east Austin in the 1970s and lives there currently, said that children today have a much different experience.

"We would play basketball on the street, ride the bikes on the street, we were a family, the neighborhood was a family," Jasper said, describing her childhood as "really fun."

Now, she estimates that in any given hour, she’ll see five dogs outside, but no children out playing.

"They walk their dog, their dog is in our yard using our grass as their deposit spot," she laughed.

"More than that there’s not really the unity," she added. "The kindness, I mean people walk up the street, ride their bikes and may not even speak or say hello."

She believes these changes go along with the disappearance of places that were community landmarks in her childhood.

These changes are especially significant for black Austin families like Jasper’s. East Austin was racially segregated in 1928, under Jim Crow laws which aimed to bring black residents to one area.

For decades, black Austinites developed thriving communities that endured east of where Interstate 35 now runs.

"It kind of bothers me because my kids won’t experience what I experienced, I have to describe to them what I experienced growing up," she said. Jasper goes out of her way to teach her children the history of black Austinites and to take them to black cultural centers in town, but notes that they see fewer kids who look like them in school.

Jasper said she couldn’t afford to live in east Austin on her own and moved to Pflugerville. She more recently moved back to the neighborhood so that she could care for her grandparents and says she can only afford to live there because her grandparents already own the home.

Bertha Marie Delgado, who is an activist on behalf of East Austin Schools and Children, agreed that a big piece of the puzzle is finding a way to ensure more affordable housing for east Austin. "What we’re seeing is we’re losing our homes and losing our families, next we will be losing our schools and losing our parks," said Delgado who explained she’s been seeing this decline for 10 years now.

Delgado noted that Metz, the east Austin elementary school she attended, has been impacted by this declining youth population.

She added that there are plans in the not too distant future to add more affordable housing to east Austin and she hopes that those plans are factored into the bigger picture of how students are enrolled in and transported to east Austin schools.

Austin’s city leaders have been actively using this UT data to help them with policies. Their research guided the anti-displacement plan additions to CodeNEXT which the planning commission just passed.

Conor Kenny, a planning commissioner who helped spearhead the anti-displacement plan, said the commission recommends that council work to protect the entire "Eastern Crescent" of Austin from the pressures of gentrification.

Under their CodeNEXT recommendations, none of the east side would be up-zoned for single or multi-family properties, which means that no additional density could be added unless developers add to affordable housing in the area.

He said the planning commission sought to highlight the areas of Austin where the median income is below $50,000 per year or where the rate of gentrification is high, which is how they came up with the "Eastern Crescent."

The planning commission recently submitted their recommendations for CodeNEXT, the overhaul of the city’s land use development code, to the city council and council is gathering public feedback this week about the new code.

An image of the "Eastern Crescent" area which Austin Planning Commissioners recommend should not receive additional housing density under CodeNEXT. (Photo from a Planning Commission PowerPoint/ Courtesy Conor Kenny).

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