SpaceX's plans to launch near Brownsville, Texas, have sent house prices sky high
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SpaceX has big plans to launch rockets near the border town of Brownsville, Texas. But some residents say housing costs are the only thing skyrocketing. Texas Public Radio's Gaige Davila reports.
GAIGE DAVILA, BYLINE: The city of Brownsville has changed its motto from on the border by the sea to on the border by the sea and beyond. In downtown, there are space-themed murals, including one of an astronaut. It's on the side of a hot dog stand owned by Rebecca Rodriguez.
REBECCA RODRIGUEZ: When I decided to get this business, I thought, you know what? I need to incorporate that into the business because I know that it's going to be hopping, like the young kids say.
DAVILA: SpaceX is Brownsville's the largest private employer and wants to expand their site on a popular, undeveloped stretch of coastline just outside the city. That has upset some residents, along with rising house prices and rents.
Christopher Basaldu, a Native American scholar from Brownsville, moved apartments as rent prices soared across the city last year. His previous landlord sold the building, and now he's paying more for a smaller place.
CHRISTOPHER BASALDU: What SpaceX is doing is taking advantage of the long history of economic exploitation of human beings in this valley.
DAVILA: Basaldu is a member of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. His ancestral lands stretch far along the Rio Grande River, separating Texas and Mexico and onto the coast. Basaldu believes the city has fallen victim to SpaceX seeking short term monetary gain. He sees parallels between his housing ordeal and the plight of his ancestors who were forced off this land by colonists.
BASALDU: That whole structure of inequality that makes life so difficult, that history is not lost on me.
DAVILA: A Texas A&M University study found housing prices increased nearly 30% in the last few years. Half of Brownsville's available houses have been sold since January 2019. Median family income for Brownsville residents is around $40,000. That's less than two-thirds of the national average.
But the city's leaders are more focused on the economic promise SpaceX pitched. Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez declined interview requests, but said in his 2021 state of the city address that SpaceX is a priority.
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TREY MENDEZ: We're actively building a new space ecosystem in Brownsville to attract more space-related companies. New space is projected to be a trillion-dollar industry by 2030, and Brownsville will position itself as a city that welcomes its industry and fosters innovation.
DAVILA: The housing problem worsened when Elon Musk told his Twitter followers in 2021 to move to the area for SpaceX jobs.
NICK MITCHELL-BENNETT: We all referred to that. That was kind of the Day 1.
DAVILA: Nick Mitchell-Bennett heads the affordable housing organization Come Dream, Come Build.
MITCHELL-BENNETT: It's gone from zero miles an hour to, you know, we're at breakneck speed right now.
DAVILA: But recently, Musk cast doubt over SpaceX's future in Brownsville. Musk's company is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether a lengthy environmental review is needed to expand. When asked about this in February, Musk said they may move the Mars launches across the Gulf if the review is ordered.
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ELON MUSK: So we would have to shift our priorities to Cape Kennedy.
DAVILA: Musk's threat to shift their starship plans to Florida would be a big departure from his initial promise of launching the first person to Mars from Brownsville. SpaceX did not respond to interview requests.
One artist is channeling frustration with Musk and housing costs. Josue Ramirez's exhibit currently shows at a nearby college, and he hopes to illustrate the downsides of SpaceX's presence in Brownsville.
JOSUE RAMIREZ: Arts and culture really is a shortcut to understanding policy because that's ultimately what shapes it. People feel a different kind of way after they see these portraits, and maybe that will change into a public opinion once enough people see it.
DAVILA: Ramirez uses bandit signs found throughout the Rio Grande Valley for his pieces. These are often crudely drawn signs with phrases like, we buy houses. He paints silhouette portraits on some of them. One is of Musk, titled "Silhouette Of A Gentrifier."
For NPR News, I'm Gaige Davila in Brownsville, Texas.
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