AUSTIN: Domain On Riverside Threatens Low-Cost Housing Options for African Refugees

Photo: A Refugee from Cameroon living in the Quad apartments in the East Riverside area of Austin

Editors Note: The first version of this article was irresponsible in its lack of investigation into the armed separatist movement in Cameroon and should have been more precise about the conditions and politics of the struggle between Anglophone Cameroonians and the Francophone dominated government, which is backed by US Imperialism. We have elaborated on this in order to better serve our readers.

by Serena Ayers – a French translation of this article is now available.

In less than two weeks, Austin city council will make its final decision on the “Domain on Riverside” proposal, a luxury mixed-use development which threatens the displacement of thousands currently living in the East Riverside area. Presidium Group, the main developers behind the project, have consistently repeated that the residents of the existing apartment complexes are “mostly students.” City politicians and the bourgeois media have uncritically run with this, propagating the idea that the loss of student housing is inconsequential.

While the developers want to belittle students, there is an important population that has been obscured by them, the ruling class media, and politicians: the complexes on the chopping block are home to hundreds of mostly African refugees, who, without the apartments, would have few or no other options for low rent housing in the city.

These refugees, who have fled the economic devastation of US imperialism and bureaucrat capitalism in their home countries now face eviction notices delivered by the same brutal mechanisms of international finance capital that pushed them here in the first place.

The unassuming Quad apartments are a vital housing option for African refugees fleeing repression

A community member who helps find housing for refugees and asylum seekers told Incendiary that the housing stock available for refugees in Austin is, “a disaster,” and that “the Quads,” a series of three complexes facing redevelopment, are an “absolutely vital” resource for the people she is trying to help. She stressed that the importance of the Quads goes beyond their low rent; the critical aspect is their low barrier to entry, something that would be lost with Presidium’s proposed income-restricted affordable units.

The developers of the Domain on Riverside have claimed to address affordability concerns with a token amount of 250 units restricted to 60% Median Family Income (MFI) of the Austin area, which is about $57,000 for a family of four, well out of reach for working-class and poor Austinites. When MFI restrictions are factored in, there are more boxes to check and more hoops to jump through when applying for housing, and many refugees would be barred due to either lacking the required identification documents, or to the fact that many of them get paid in cash, which is disqualifying for income-restricted housing. All of the technicalities of applying aside, the “affordable” units in the Domain on Riverside would be far too expensive for tenants whose median income is roughly $15,000 a year.

While the majority of the immigrants currently coming to Austin are from Central America, most of the immigrants housed at the Quads are from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. Many of the migrants coming from Central America already have connections in Austin such as a family member that can help them get housing, but those migrants coming from further abroad and with smaller local populations have no such connections, making the cheap, by-the-bedroom apartments offered at the Quads a much more accessible option.

The refugee supporter estimated that in the three previous months alone, close to 100 refugees have found housing at the Quads. Like most tenants in the complexes, she said that the refugees living there are frustrated with the poor conditions of the apartments, but know that there’s nowhere else to go. While they may initially report problems to management, they do fear pressing the issues too far could result in retaliation.

Incendiary sat down with Thomas (not his real name), an asylum seeker from Cameroon and a tenant of the Quad, who spoke about why he left his home country. Thomas is an educator, leader, and humanitarian who fled political violence and the oppression of English Cameroonians by French Cameroonians. He traced the root of the country’s conflict to the end of World War I, when France and Great Britain divided up the colonial holdings of the defeated Germany.

Cameroonian Anglophones mobilized against the Francophone dominated government in 2016 following decades of national oppression.

Since British-speaking Cameroon (also called Ambazonia) was integrated into the French-speaking Cameroon, the Francophones have persecuted the Anglophones economically, politically, in schools, and in courts. In 2016, Thomas, a professor, staged a walkout of educators and lawyers at the university he taught at in protest of the marginalization of English-speaking students. Cameroon’s US-trained military cracked down on the protest, Thomas was jailed for a week, and his brother spent six months in a military camp.

With this repression of the ethnic minority of Anglophones, Cameroon’s Francophone dominated government works as an agent of US imperialism to divide the Cameroonian population, making things more manageable for US interests in the region.

The Anglophone resistance has been primarily led by its bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, such as lawyers, who sparked the civil movement. Since the start of protests in 2016, Cameroon’s military has killed thousands of Anglophones and razed hundreds of villages, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to Nigeria or live in the Cameroonian bush. In response to the violent repression, armed struggle, led by disparate separatist groups with varying politics, has been taken up by more and more forces.

The separatists do not have a consolidated leadership, but some are united under the bourgeois Anglophone forces attempting to form Ambazonia, a territory the corresponds to what was formerly British Cameroons in the Northwest. In August, Julius Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, a former computer engineer who had risen to a place of leadership in the exiled separatist movement, was sentenced to life in prison after being extradited from Nigeria.

While not unified politically, separatists across the country have taken on forces of the Cameroonian government in retaliation for the destruction waged against Anglophones. Some reports say that farmers have attacked Cameroonian military forces with nothing more than basic weapons and their tools.

Thomas teared up when he described the murder of his own father by the Cameroonian military. Despite the trauma he has experienced, Thomas does not regret the protest he helped to lead. As to the government’s brutal response to the walkout, he said, “It is a fundamental right of every human being to protest their government.”

Thomas continues to protest the Cameroonian government today. “I didn’t escape my country,” he said. “I left my country on a visa. I will not shut up my voice on the kind of treatment we are going through”.

Thomas speaks to activists fighting back against the Domain on Riverside

Another Cameroonian political refugee living at The Quads was forced to flee after handing out pamphlets about President Paul Biya, the comprador leader of the country backed by the US. For all the oppression he faced in his home country, even he has been shocked by the lack of protection for tenants in the imperialist US, sharing how in Cameroon, the police will tell landlords to address issues instead of targeting tenants as they do here.

When dealing with a recent bedbug infestation, the tenant said that, ”They come, they spray and say the bedbugs are gone, but they are not. So I call again and ask to speak to the head manager, and they don’t let me. It’s sad, America is a nation of laws. In my country, if this happened, I would not pay my rent. The landlord would call the police and the police would say, ‘Fix his problem!’ In America, if I don’t pay my rent, the landlord would call the police and they would make me pay or kick me out. It’s not fair.” As the tenant learned, the US is not a ‘nation of laws’ for tenants or workers, but a nation of laws written by and for the ruling class bourgeoisie.

Most of the refugees housed at the Quads stay for a year or two before moving on. Regardless of how long they stay, having the apartments as an option is no less critical for the refugees trying to stabilize their lives, and many find that they prefer staying in the area. There is a growing hub of Eritrean immigrants on East Riverside, many of whom make their livings as taxi drivers, and the Quads’ proximity to downtown Austin and the Austin Bergstrom International Airport is beneficial. East Riverside is also on a large number of public transit routes, an important amenity for workers without cars. If the Quads were demolished, many of these immigrants would lose likely access to their jobs as well as their homes.

If built as proposed, the Domain on Riverside would demolish around 1,400 apartment units that house 4,000 people at rates well below most of the central city. The developers’ own numbers cite that 60% of the complexes are students, and investigations by University of Texas at Austin’s student newspaper The Daily Texan have shown that the majority of students living in the Riverside area are from oppressed nations backgrounds, such as Chicanos, Black students, and the children of Latin-American immigrants.

The other 40% of the apartment residents consist of recent graduates, low-wage service and retail workers, immigrant workers, single mothers, and sometimes whole families occupying the apartments that are typically rented by the room. None of the residents at the complexes can simply pick up and easily find similarly priced housing in a city like Austin, but this is even more true for the refugees who currently call the Quad home.

Centuries of colonialism in Africa, which transitioned into imperialism, has split the continent up, stripped it for parts, installed despotic leaders, and crippled the African nations in debt to the World Bank, forcing millions to flee. Gentrification mirrors these processes and brings their consequences into clear view. American tech companies use child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo to mine the minerals necessary for smartphones and tech hardware, and now the very apartments where Congolese refugees ended up are being gentrified to make amenities for the highly paid software engineers at tech companies like Oracle.

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley Announces ‘Riverside Togetherness Project’ beside sellout non-profits and politicians like Pio Renteria

In all imperialist exploitation, brutal force is required to achieve its goals. While the US military carries out imperialists’ agendas abroad, in our cities, it is the police who carry out the role of the occupying force. In Riverside, to support the wave of gentrification, the federal government has funded the “Riverside Togetherness Project,” a dystopian way to describe putting more officers on the streets and increase enforcement against the working class and oppressed nations in the neighborhood. Residents have witnessed increased traffic stops and citations in the area, which for immigrants can lead towards detention depending on the whim of the cop who detains them.

State and political repression has come down on the resistance to Domain on Riverside as well, which has been characterized by a higher level of militancy than any other fights against displacement in Austin to date. Twenty arrests have occurred at city-held meetings for the project, with Austin police, just like the cops in Cameroon, arresting and throwing people in jail for nothing more than speaking out or holding posters. Out in the streets of Riverside, organizers have received trespass warnings as well as arrests for simply being in the complex, and cops targeted protesters at a picket of an arts district when a wealthy homeowner attacked protesters but claimed he was the victim. This repression has been on the orders of City Council and Mayor, who have sought to silence the resistance to the project.

These same politicians opportunistically use the plights of refugees and migrants to appear progressive. Mayor Steve Adler and District 3 Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria in particular have made a big show of being against President Trump’s family separation policies, yet they push the destruction of some of the last available low-rent housing in central Austin that serve refugees created by the reactionary force of US imperialism across the globe.

Until this point, Austin’s capitalists and their political servants have been, deliberately or not, blissfully unaware of the refugee population at Quad. The capitalists and opportunist politicians are likely to try and twist any heightened awareness of refugees at the complexes as a chance for another token concession. They may offer proposals of refugee housing or donations to non-profits that work with refugees, but any charity, affordable housing, or relocation plans are mere change compared to the profits they will reap from the Domain on Riverside longterm. The policy proposals of the ruling class capitalists and their collaborators, like everything they do, are nothing more than insulting bribes to try and subdue the growing resistance to their exploitation.

The working class and oppressed nations understand that luxury development to further enrich the ruling class will not serve them. When asked about his thoughts on the Domain on Riverside and the potential destruction of his apartments, Thomas, one of the refugees from Cameroon was clear on this, saying the project, “will benefit a few people financially, but for people like us [refugees] were assigned to come here, we didn’t make a plan B for moving.”

“It will satisfy a few individuals, but will only cause a larger problem.”