urban renewal

That Empty Lot on East 11th Street

Darwin Hamilton responds to the changes being made on East 12th Street in light of the enthusiasm for the new Rosewood project.

In the past 15 years, I learned a lot about eminent domain aka condemnation, and gentrification through my lived experience and observations. As I discuss briefly in the Chapter Vs. Eminent Domain, of my memoir 25 Years Later, I was somewhat familiar with urban renewal because as a child when my father was alive, he was heavily involved in the community with different organizations and attended meetings that discussed plans for redevelopment in the 1980s. At one time, my father even worked for a real estate company before becoming a teacher. I remember him always talking about, “They’re coming, and they have to pay me relocation money for every tree, shrub, etc.” We were sitting on a gold mine, because of its proximity to downtown. The city could not grow anywhere else but east. I now know exactly who “they” were/are: the City of Austin and the Urban Renewal Agency.


During the summer 2003, the City of Austin’s Urban Renewal Agency wrote my brother and I, stating that they wanted to appraise our property. They had already aggressively been buying up most of the parcels on blocks 17 and 18 on E. 11th St., in 2002, and had already purchased the neighboring lots to ours. Once the appraisal offer was presented to us, it was very insulting, given the knowledge I already had about real estate values in Austin at the time. I refused the offer. We then received “take or leave it” letters, threatening to file lawsuit if we refused the offer. I began internet searches for everything I could find about eminent domain and the condemnation process. I would also go to the public library and
study everything I could find about real estate appraisals for residential and commercial property and the appraisal approaches used to determine value.

According to my research, when an area has been deemed “slum” and “blight” for approval to receive a HUD Urban Renewal Block Grant, the funds are supposed to be used for revitalization and public use projects, like infrastructure to improve roads, utilities, schools, libraries, public agency offices etc., not economic or commercial development. When the city acquires property with HUD dollars, they withhold the sales values from the market of realtors, and you must file an open records request for that information. Also, the property sales values in that area cannot be used as real estate market comparables to determine the value of your property. Therefore, your property is treated as its own island, even if your next-door neighbor’s property sold for a million dollars, or there’s a multimillion-dollar development across the street from you or a block away. In the free market, those properties have a positive impact on the value of your property. However, in an area designated for urban renewal, it is as if those
neighboring properties do not exist. These tactics are used to low-ball and take advantage of private property owners because it places them at a disadvantage and presents challenges in finding comparable properties to assess valuation.

I consider these policies and practices, contemporary tools and weapons, counter to swords, gun powder and bullets used in the past to colonize and seize land, from Indigenous and marginalized communities. Historians call it Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, or a good thing. However, those impacted by it, call urban renewal code for black and brown removal, and gentrification domestic colonization. Municipal governments throughout the country, all too often succeeds at this, because marginalized communities have few financial resources to fight legally and pay for counter appraisals to meet the burden of proof regarding the value of a desred property.  Property owners who are considered the “Condemnees” are basically David v. a Goliathan of resources and a team dedicated to achieving land grabs.  After the property is taken, people from those marginalized communities must relocate and start all over, looking for comparable housing and sustain their livelihood, while pending civil litigation after the property has been taken by a municipality if they choose to appeal.  In my case and I’m sure countless others’, the “public use” clause was abused, as it is applied vaguely in definition by those who execute condemnation proceeding. For example, the City of Austin, never had a site plan for the lot prior to, during, or after citing that they needed our property for a public use project.  Upon questioning them during the hearing, nothing was ever produced, not even a report, blue print or rendering.  

Now, here we are 15 years later, and there is still no site plan or blue print of a “public use project.”  A business partner and I attempted to repurchase the property, based on Texas Property Code Section 21.101; 102, which lay out requirements for the Condemnor: City of Austin, in my case, must notify the original owner of the right to repurchase the property after 10 years, if/when no progress has been made.  Amendments to the statute, now basically allow a municipality to take property, based on the premise of a public use project and as long as that is/was stated as their intended purpose. The law allows them to hold the land as it appreciates in value, like a land bank in perpetuity without any effort or elements toward progress on the project.   This is Austin for you, and most folks have no idea. This kind of history and storytelling about Austin is neither widely published nor discussed.

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