Direct cash, anti-displacement efforts, and conservative backlash in one of America’s most rapidly gentrifying states — and how Austin is stepping up.
By Annie Flom
Texas in 2021 is a ball of contradictions. Rapid population growth, gentrification, and demographic shifts are reshaping the state at a dizzying pace. According to the 2020 Census, Texas experienced the largest population growth of any state since 2010. Texans of color made up 95% of that growth, with the state’s Hispanic population now almost as large as the state’s non-Hispanic white population. Gentrification has also skyrocketed. The median home value in Texas has increased by more than 50% since 2010 — and in certain neighborhoods like East Austin, median home values have doubled in the past decade. Despite ballooning rent, property taxes, and costs of living, minimum wage has stagnated at a paltry $7.25 per hour, pushing many of the poorest Texans out of their communities. Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers are lobbying for regressive, nearly-Draconian policies — voter suppression bills, the statewide ban of homeless encampments, and most recently, severe abortion restrictions — that deepen the divide between the Texas of the past and the Texas of the future.
In the midst of this pushing and pulling, progressive leaders are looking to combat some of the state’s most intractable issues with a simple solution: guaranteed income. The Lone Star state now boasts three major cities — Houston, San Antonio, and now Austin — whose mayors have joined the nationwide coalition Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. But Austin is taking it a step further.
In June, Austin’s City Council passed Resolution №73, affirming the City’s commitment to exploring how guaranteed income could further the economic security of Austin residents. The resolution was passed unanimously and cited multiple factors that informed the decision, including current hot-button issues like rising housing prices and economic shocks due to COVID-19 and the devastating 2021 Winter Storm. But they also encompassed the preexisting inequality, systemic racism, and economic segregation that have plagued the city since long before our current moment. In his recent 2021 State of the City speech, Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged the role of guaranteed income in mitigating the racial wealth gap:
“Led by Black and brown community activists and organizers, our city has taken meaningful first steps toward addressing race-related, generational wealth disparities through restitution and atonement, preserving Black culture, history, and economic opportunity, and planning for a Black Embassy just east of IH-35. Austin is among the first cities in the country to make a substantial investment in developing a guaranteed income tool as a more efficient and effective way to deal with poverty.” — Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin
Most recently, the city allocated $1.13 million to studying how a guaranteed income program could be implemented in Austin. The funding will be used to contribute to and expand an existing local pilot being run in conjunction with philanthropic partners. The program will focus on distributing $1,000 per month to 100 low-income households in Austin, with further details on the program set to be released in October of this year. According to the budget amendment, city staff “would collaborate with the pilot organizers and develop a repeatable program design that integrates guaranteed income with other public support services and a participant selection process that emphasizes areas of key priority to the City such as homelessness, displacement, and equity.”
Anti-displacement is a major motivator in Austin’s push for guaranteed income. According to a recent Zillow affordability analysis, Austin is on track to become the least affordable city outside California by the end of the year — surpassing even expensive metro areas like Miami and New York. Unsurprisingly, low-income, immigrant, and communities of color are the most at risk of being displaced by the influx of new wealth into the city. “We’re a growing city, we’re a prosperous city, we’re also one of the most segregated cities in our country and it’s rooted in the racist past of our city. So here we are, decades later, dealing with institutional neglect,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Fuentes, Austin City Council Member for District 2 for Southeast and parts of South Austin. “So for someone like me, who represents a predominantly Latino community (almost 70%) and one of the lowest-income communities in Austin, a program like guaranteed income would help us combat displacement. With rising costs — rental costs, but also homeownership with property taxes going up — being able to have a set amount each month would help individuals stay in their homes, and to be able to continue to call Austin their home.”
Austin is no stranger to direct cash programs. When the pandemic hit, the City Council swiftly mobilized and set up two cash assistance programs: the RISE (Relief in a State of Emergency) fund and the RENT (Relief of Emergency Needs for Tenants) fund. Both programs had some baseline eligibility requirements, such as being a low-income resident of Austin-Travis County and having been financially impacted by the pandemic. The distribution of these funds presented a new challenge. “There was a learning curve in even having the ability to set up that infrastructure,” said Fuentes. “What we have learned is that we operate best when we work with organizations who are trusted messengers in their community. And so we engaged with different nonprofits in setting up that type of application process. They were organizations that were well-known [and] already had inroads in the community. And so when we had to mobilize quickly to provide relief, we worked with them in that type of partnership… so that the money got out to the people who needed it the most.”
Fuentes believes that the establishment of the RISE and RENT programs will help Austinites understand the need for a guaranteed income program in their city and the positive effects it would have on their families. People who have the most reason to be distrustful of the government — those who have experienced systemic racism or fear deportation due to their immigration status — may be more receptive to the idea if they’ve already received direct cash assistance from the City of Austin. “The resolution gives us that framework in showing our community, who may have doubts or may not know exactly what this type of [guaranteed income] program could do for our community,” said Fuentes. “It lays out that assessment of ‘We’ve already been doing this, through the pandemic, but even before then. And we have the infrastructure, and here’s the analysis, here’s how we can go about doing it.’”
However, the ascent of guaranteed income in Texas is certainly not without opposition. “[Guaranteed income] is something that I believe we should have nationally. But you know, we are in Texas, so things operate a little bit differently here…We are the capital city in a conservative state that is dominated by Republican lawmakers. And so we have to be very careful when we do things, and what we do, because we do run the risk of being preempted by the state legislature,” said Fuentes. A prime example of this pushback to cash aid is Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision to opt-out of all federal unemployment assistance programs after June 26 — even as the state is thrown into chaos and businesses scramble to adapt as Delta variant COVID cases skyrocket.
But perhaps the growing popularity and urgent need for direct cash programs in the wake of the pandemic has softened some resistance against them. The recent expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which provides families with up to $300 per month per child, is one such program that is normalizing the idea of receiving regular cash assistance for the government for millions of Americans. “I think the Child Tax Credit is huge for families living in the rural parts of Texas, because they’re going to have to ask themselves, ‘Why am I getting this?’ I think that’s going to go a long way in creating some really good inroads in the more conservative areas of Texas,” said Fuentes. “Even for me, I called my sister, who doesn’t vote the way I vote. And I said, ‘Hey, what do you think about this income that’s going to come out to your family?’” Almost immediately, the question of funding came up. “She was a little wary. She was like, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ I said, ‘Do you ask yourself how we pay for border security?’ But it is just that dialogue,” said Fuentes. “And I think anytime you’re speaking to someone of a different party, you certainly want to engage, just have a conversation to understand where they’re coming from and share where you’re coming from.”
It’s still uncertain if these programs will bridge the divide of Texas politics. What is certain is how badly some form of intervention is needed to support and empower the state’s most marginalized. It has never been more clear how much cash matters: in the past week, the Texas legislature passed the most severe abortion restrictions in the country, limiting access to critical healthcare that will now be out of reach for lower-income women who can’t afford to travel out of state. The confluence of forces descending on Texas at this moment — gentrification, displacement, and political, economic, and demographic changes — demands a profound systemic reckoning. And thanks to progressive lawmakers in cities across the state, guaranteed income is poised to meet the moment.