An Interview with CEO of the Austin Revitalization Authority Greg Smith
The Austin sun is bright and hot as I make my way down East 11th. On my left is the Quickie Pickie, a bright and (thankfully cool) restaurant/convenient store, and on my right lay the austere steel skeleton of a new apartment-complex-in-progress. In front of me is a small powder blue building that houses the organization responsible for much of the recent development on 11th Street, the Austin Revitalization Authority. Its President and CEO, Greg Smith, met with me at a pleasant round table inside to talk about the organization’s efforts at redevelopment and the struggle against gentrification.
TERRAL: Who are you, and what do you do?
GREG: My name is Greg Smith, I’m the President and CEO of the Austin Revitalization Authority and our primary focus is to assist with revitalization efforts. Starting in the 11th and 12th Street Corridor we look at certain communities where we can provide assistance. That may include real estate development, historic preservation, affordable housing, and mixed-use development.
TERRAL: How long have you lived in Austin?
GREG: I was born in 1957, so 57 years.
TERRAL: What are the long-term goals of the ARA?
GREG: Our long-term goal is to continue to provide revitalization efforts, whether here on the 11th and 12th Street Corridor or in other underserved communities that need our assistance, whether for affordable housing or real estate development.
TERRAL: What are the current, immediate projects of the ARA?
GREG: We currently have the Herman Schieffer House that’s under renovation. It’s 1400 square feet of historical preservation, and we’ll be adding a two-story addition so at the end of the day it’ll be a 4200 square foot office building. In addition with that we’re working in collaboration with some townhomes where we will be building sixteen townhomes, of which two of those will be identified as affordable housing for income qualified individuals.
TERRAL: When working with commercial interests, how does the ARA balance those interests and desires with those of the community?
GREG: Right now we haven’t sold any properties other than housing and we sold those to income-qualified individuals at least 80% below the median income. Our charge is to jump-start revitalization and attract other dollars. One of the things we’ve done is historical projects and mixed-use development. With those investments we’ve attracted other private investors over here. Our area is to clean it up, we do try to mitigate- obviously when you do a revitalization project you have the “g-word”, gentrification that occurs throughout the country when you do projects like this. We try to mitigate that as much as you can by educating community folks over here, specifically in regards to taxes. We currently working on a tax relief program to deal with some of the seniors living in the area that are struggling with paying their taxes. Again, it’s cleaning up the area to attract development and at the same time as we develop, we try with some of those to keep the rent low enough to get small businesses on the Corridor but more important is to get rid of the blighting influences.
TERRAL: Relating to gentrification, are you talking about the townhomes in the Juniper-Olive Historic District?
GREG: There is a Juniper-Olive Historic District, but the townhomes I’m referring to are not within that district.
TERRAL: Well about the Juniper-Olive Historic District; on your website it says that their location makes them a prime spot for development and gentrification.
GREG: That’s on our website?
GREG: We don’t have gentrification mentioned on our website, I can’t imagine, but go on.
TERRAL: So you wouldn’t consider gentrification as a part of your efforts, it’s a bad word to you as well?
GREG: Well obviously gentrification is not a good word for us, what we try to do is mitigate it as I mentioned just a moment ago about the tax relief program. We realize it creates restraints and we try to mitigate those. One of the ways is this tax relief program. Gentrification is not a good thing- it depends on the way you look at it- it’s not good and it’s not bad. But it happens throughout the country when you go in and redevelop and area, it happens. To the extent that you can mitigate it, you mitigate it.
TERRAL: You may be familiar with some recent research by Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, which found that among America’s fastest growing cities, Austin is the only one that experienced a net loss in its African-American population between 2000 and 2010. How does the ARA combat those sorts of issues? Is that something they’re concerned with?
GREG: Obviously that should be a concern for the whole city of Austin. So that is a concern, and it’s even more troubling in the area we work in because it showed that between those years there was a mass exodus of African-Americans in this immediate area. That obviously contributed to the overall numbers.
I am currently the Chair of the African-American Resource Advisory Commission and one of our charges is to try to create an environment to attract African-Americans. The interesting part is- I’m aware of this study- because the study actually looks at the cities that have had a growth of ten percent or greater in population and Austin is one of those, yet the absolute number of African-Americans is lower than it was originally. As the Chair, that is a major concern of ours. We got started in 2005 identifying the issues that exist with African-American individuals and families in Austin and so this commission’s whole design is to try and improve the quality of life for African-Americans and we’ve been working on that since 2005, so then to have this report come out and see that, despite our efforts to improve the quality of life, that exodus continues. So yeah, I’m extremely concerned about that and about trying to get the city’s attention as well.
TERRAL: As far as the townhomes you were talking about, you said that a portion of the homes will be sold to people below the median income?
GREG: 80% of the median income, and that’s the city’s requirement. We purchased that property from the city of Austin and they put the stipulation that at least two of those be affordable and that’s what we’re doing.
TERRAL: How does that work, can the family then turn around and sell the house for more or are there rules they have to stay in the house awhile?
GREG: Well, yes. We put stipulations on there to prevent immediate sale and the incentive for them is that the longer they stay, the more they may benefit from any price appreciation but for example in some houses we’ve done if you leave within five years then you receive no equity from the property.
TERRAL: And the specific number, two of them, that comes from the city of Austin? What dictated the two out of the sixteen being affordable housing?
GREG: Yes, we purchased the property from the city and their stipulation was that we’ll sell it to you if you make at least two of the units affordable.
TERRAL: The ARA used to produce “SoulFest”, an annual jazz festival, is that right?
GREG: That was before my tenure, I started work in 2009 and that festival ran from 2001 until 2007 I believe.
TERRAL: Do you have any other projects like that upcoming?
We’re primarily focused on development. Some of that was being done in the early 2000s because I believe at that time there wasn’t that much interest or entities that existed or lent themselves to putting on those types of functions. I think we collaborated with possibly DiverseArts might have ended up participating in that to some extent and I think ProArts may have participated as well. I don’t know the details of it but I think there are some organizations that have since been born that lend themselves to putting on those types of activities so we don’t want to be duplicating services or competing with someone’s mission.
TERRAL: Great, thanks so much, is there anything else you’d like to add?
GREG: I think you’ve covered it, and if anyone’s curious they can go to our website and keep track of us there.
Terral Wells is a writer and English student at the University of Texas and the editor of Austin East Side Arts Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.