When the founders of Huston–Tillotson University (HTU) were looking for a location to start a Black college, they found an area in East Austin that was cheap. Things have changed, according to Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette, the school’s first female president and CEO. “Now we have a bird’s eye view of the capitol. We have a beautiful view of downtown. We sit on very valuable property and it’s our job, our role is to develop that property in line with the mission of the institution.” Gentrifiers, however, really want that property and that’s why the school has teamed up with local nonprofits to fix up homes for low-income residents, so that they can stay. The program is working and providing a model for cities across the country.
HTU is working closely with the Austin Housing Repair Coalition (AHRC), which provides free housing repairs for low-income homeowners. By doing the repairs, the coalition believes that they can help families afford to stay in the neighborhood. A number of nonprofits are involved in the effort: Easterseals, Meals on Wheels, Austin Area Urban League, Austin Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Action of Central Texas, Rebuilding Together and American Youthworks. To date, the coalition has helped more than 300 families in the area and the strategy is working quite well. HTU has surveyed families who’ve had repairs done by AHRC and their findings are overwhelming. Indeed, 97% of those who’ve had repairs done within the past three years say it has helped them afford to stay in their home.
HTU is attempting something bold and necessary but the school is not unique in its circumstance. Many HBCUs find themselves in neighborhoods that are increasingly gentrifying. The recent battle between Howard University and new residents who insisted on walking their dogs on the yard, illustrate the point well. The role of HBCUs in maintaining the history and rich culture of their neighborhoods has never been clarified. Still, as Dr. Burnette says, “If we sit back and let it happen to us, it will continue to happen to us.” HTU is making a bold attempt to model the role Black institutions should play in their communities, in a daring way.
Many of the repairs are strictly exterior– a cracked sidewalk or damaged stairs. Some homes require more investment, for sure. What is consistent in all cases is the desire for families to to stay in their homes, to remain in the community they have loved for generations. HTU isn’t talking about it, they’re doing the work.