Jan 12, 2019

Classes Divide Along Burnet Road

The intersection of Burnet Road and Anderson Lane. Shepard Price/Reporting Texas.

NORTH AUSTIN — Nowhere in Austin has the line between haves and have nots been more distinct than along Burnet road, according to a new report.

Adults who grew up on the west side of Burnet Road between 1978 and 1983 made an average of $14,000 more annually between 1998 and 2015 than their counterparts who grew up on the east side. The difference in income exists regardless of race, gender or income status of their parents. For example, Hispanic children (the largest minority on both sides) raised on the west side in the years studied did better than the Hispanic children raised in the east. This dividing line is the only one this consistent across demographic groups in Austin.

This data comes via the Opportunity Atlas, an index created by Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit organization within Harvard University. The organization hopes that this type of data can guide policymakers in different cities seeking to create better opportunity for their citizens.

In the middle of the 20thcentury, nine of 10 Americans made more money than their parents, according to Shannon Spence, Opportunity Insights’ director of communications. “It’s now a coin flip whether you will be more successful in the economic sense than your parents were. We really exist to reverse that trend,” Spence says.

The Opportunity Atlas took data from several sets, including the 2000 and 2010 decennial census short forms and federal income tax returns for 1998-2015 as well as several years before that. This data was then put together by economists to paint a picture of how neighborhoods affected children who are now in their 30s.

“The Opportunity Atlas gives us the unprecedented ability to look across generations and determine what is the root in a child’s neighborhood that they grew up in that helped contribute to their adult outcome,” Spence says.

Policymakers can use the Atlas to identify factors that boosted achievement for children of different genders or races and make policy accordingly to reverse the downward trend in opportunity. It allows a city to compare neighborhoods to their neighbors rather than other cities.

The two sides of Burnet are represented by six neighborhoods. On the west side, the side with higher opportunity for advancement and wealth collection, there are Allandale and the North Shoal Creek neighborhoods. On the east are four neighborhoods: Abercrombie, Violet Crown Heights, Wooten and Brentwood.

The Opportunity Atlas tracked large numbers of children. The west side of Burnet had 551 students — 344 from North Shoal Creek and 207 from Allandale. The east had 1,924, including 921 from Wooten. Each side had a good amount of diversity as well. The west had 141 Hispanic children (25.5 percent). The east had 1,010 Hispanic children (52.5 percent).

According to the Opportunity Atlas, children from the west side of Burnet Road— regardless of race, sex or the family’s household income — did better than kids from the east side.

“You’re looking at historical segregation based mainly on socioeconomics,” Ryan Robinson, Austin’s official demographer, said.

This historical segregation is a result of multiple factors. The most important appears to be wealth status — the better off the parents as a group, the better off the children, even those from households with relatively low-income.

One clear difference between east and west is the housing stock. The houses on the east side were built for soldiers returning from World War II and were much smaller. They were affordable for working-class families. Houses on the west side were larger and better built.

Angela Ward and her husband, Bob, are house appraisers who live in the Violet Crown Heights neighborhood east of Burnet Road.

Their neighborhood is zoned SF-3, “which is duplex, whereas Allandale is SF-2, which is single family housing. SF-3 means you can build a duplex. We have more duplexes in this neighborhood,” Angela Ward said, and that means cheaper rents.

The relative cost of housing has played a crucial part over the years in keeping the two sides of Burnet road segregated along class lines.

Across Burnet Road, Lois McEvoy is on the board of the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association and has lived in the neighborhood for 24 years. She believes the difference in opportunity is that North Shoal Creek and the west side “is a more recently redeveloped area. The original smaller houses [on the East] are more inexpensive.”

This dividing line can even be seen in everyday things. “Kids from all over the city go over to Allandale to go trick-or-treating,” Bob Ward says. “They have better candy,” Angela Ward adds.

The affluence gap can also be seen in the schools, an area Robinson where says the Opportunity Atlas can be especially helpful.

“I think it’s really, really helpful for school board members to be looking at the entire district and really dig into the [difference in] opportunity,” Robinson says.

While kids from the neighborhoods along Burnet do attend some of the same schools now (for example, Allandale, Abercrombie, Violet Crown Heights and Crestview all go to Lamar Middle School, while North Shoal Creek and Wooten both attend Burnet), they also are separated at times.

Burnet Middle School, attended by both North Shoal and Wooten, was labeled as ‘underperforming’ by the Texas Education Agency in both 2014 and 2016. “Burnet has always been, and it continues to struggle,” Robinson says.

Parental participation is a big factor in how well schools perform. Participation, in turn, is affected by parents’ educational attainment and income. Young parents move into neighborhoods, and if they have the time and money, they change the schools through participation to make them better.

Brentwood Elementary is a good example of the process.

“Fifteen years ago, the schools in that area were not seen as being all that good, but now Brentwood is very much a sought-after school, and so by the virtue of Brentwood becoming an up-and-coming school, it generates this pull,” Robinson says.

The Wards, living in the area that is affected by that Brentwood pull, have seen the change.

“There’s been an influx of families coming in. I know there’s a lot of volunteer opportunities, and a lot of things that we all do that benefit the Brentwood school,” Angela Ward says.

Robinson notes that the outcomes identified in the Opportunity Atlas will change as neighborhoods change.

“Now it’s starting to change or shift,” Robinson says. “Allandale continues to be affluent, but Crestview is changing enormously. The median household value of Crestview is skyrocketing right now, at a much faster pace than what’s happening in Allandale. The end result is the two sides of Burnet road are starting to equal each other out.”