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Housing costs skyrocket as SpaceX expands in Texas city

A mural of Elon Musk in downtown Brownsville by Alexander Gonzalez-Hernandez.
Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
A mural of Elon Musk in downtown Brownsville by Alexander Gonzalez-Hernandez.

The city of Brownsville's motto used to be, "On the Border, By the Sea" to indicate its geography at the Southern tip of Texas. In 2019, it changed to "On the Border, By the Sea, and Beyond" — an ode to SpaceX, which has a facility about 23 miles east of the city.

In downtown Brownsville, there are space-themed murals. One of them is of an astronaut, on the side of a hot dog stand called Space Dog Station.

"When I decided to get this business, I thought, 'You know what, I need to incorporate (space) into the business,' because I know it's going to be poppin', as the young kids say," Rebecca Rodriguez says from the window of Space Dog Station. Rodriguez opened the hot dog stand last year, a hit among the space enthusiast crowd, though she acknowledges the split between those who support and are against SpaceX's presence in Brownsville.

Space Dog Station owner Rebecca Rodriguez.
/ Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
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Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
Space Dog Station owner Rebecca Rodriguez.

Since 2020 median housing prices have increased in the Brownsville-Harlingen metro from $184,900 to $233,000

"Elon Musk is bringing a lot of changes here into the city," Rodriguez says. "I think a lot of people, just the same way they don't like it, a lot of people do go for it as well."

Some of that change includes rising housing costs. Texas A&M University data show median housing prices have increased in the Brownsville-Harlingen metro by 26% since 2020, from $184,900 to $233,000. The median yearly family income for Brownsville residents is just over $40,000, a third less than the country as a whole, according to Census data.

One resident who has endured these rising costs is Christopher Basaldú, a Native American studies scholar and member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. He grew up in Brownsville and moved back in 2017.

He lived in a duplex for 18 months before his former landlord sold the property and asked him to leave.

Basaldú eventually found a smaller apartment with a higher rent. Left there was an eviction notice taped to the window for the previous tenant. He says it scared him.

"I have a full-time job with healthcare benefits," Basaldú says. "Most people in Brownsville do not have that. And if it was that difficult for me, how much more difficult is it going to be for somebody else if their landlord tells them that they need to get out and find an apartment?"

Basaldú sees parallels between his housing ordeal and the plight of his ancestors who were forced off this land by colonists. The Carrizo Comecrudo tribe's ancestral land stretches along the Rio Grande river and onto the coast, where SpaceX's site lies.

Christopher Basaldú, PhD, stands at Resaca De Las Palmas State Park in Brownsville. Basaldú was forced to find new housing when rents started raising across the city.
/ Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
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Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
Christopher Basaldú, PhD, stands at Resaca De Las Palmas State Park in Brownsville. Basaldú was forced to find new housing when rents started raising across the city.

SpaceX is taking advantage of the "long history of economic exploitation of human beings in this valley"

"What SpaceX is doing is taking advantage of the long history of economic exploitation of human beings in this valley," Basaldú says. "That whole structure of inequality that makes life so difficult, that history is not lost on me."

Some attribute the rising costs to CEO Elon Musk directly, who tweeted last year encouraging people to move to Brownsville for SpaceX jobs.

"We all refer to that as, kind of, the 'day one,' " says Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director for affordable housing organization Come Dream, Come Build, (CDCB).

Homes in Brownsville are on the market for less than two weeks before they're sold, Mitchell-Bennett says. Before Musk's tweet, a Brownsville home would take up to three months to find a buyer.

Local organizers protest Bekah Hinojosa's arrest for allegedly spraying graffiti below an Elon Musk-funded mural in downtown Brownsville. The mural, on the side of the Capitol Theater, can be seen behind them.
/ Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
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Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
Local organizers protest Bekah Hinojosa's arrest for allegedly spraying graffiti below an Elon Musk-funded mural in downtown Brownsville. The mural, on the side of the Capitol Theater, can be seen behind them.

"Whether they're folks moving here for SpaceX or people trying to get into the market, it has ramped up," Mitchell-Bennett says.

Through the Starship project, Musk hopes to send people to Mars and colonize the planet. The company has tested Starship prototypes at its Brownsville site. Only one has avoided exploding.

SpaceX's latest prototype is the largest rocket ever created at 395 feet tall. SpaceX plans to launch the Starship, attached to a booster, in a suborbital flight, then expand its Boca Chica site near Brownsville by nearly 20 acres.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced last month, however, that it's delaying whether to grant environmental clearance to the Starship project's lofty ambitions. In February, Musk said he would move the Starship program to Florida if the FAA issued an EIS, or Environmental Impact Statement. An EIS can take a few years to complete.

SpaceX did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Mayor Trey Mendez says Brownsville is on its way to becoming "New Space City." During a press conference last year announcing space-business investor firms opening in Brownsville, Mendez said the city needed to continue attracting more space-related companies.

"If you create that atmosphere, this business-friendly environment like we are doing, we are going to be able to attract that," Mendez said.

Mendez did not respond to NPR's interview requests.

An artist's criticism of SpaceX's effect on Brownsville

Artist and writer Josué Ramirez stands before one of his pieces at his gallery "Who's the Bandit?" in Weslaco at South Texas College's library.
/ Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
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Gaige Davila/ Texas Public Radio
Artist and writer Josué Ramirez stands before one of his pieces at his gallery "Who's the Bandit?" in Weslaco at South Texas College's library.

One local artist has documented how SpaceX has changed Brownsville: Josué Ramírez the co-founder and cultural organizer for Trucha Media. He has written extensively on Brownsville and its relationship to SpaceX, including his exhibit—titled "Who's the Bandit?"—at South Texas College's Weslaco campus.

Most of the pieces are made with "bandit signs" Ramírez collected around the Rio Grande Valley. The signs are usually crudely-written and illegally posted, with phrases like "We Buy Houses" and a phone number written on them.

Ramírez says two pieces in particular, portraits of Musk and Mendez, show who benefits from Brownsville leadership's ambition to become "New Space City." The painting of Musk is titled "Portrait of a Gentrifier," and the portrait of Mendez, "Portrait of a Bootlicker."

"These types of cultural works and art are helping create a narrative around what "New Space City" is and what they're trying to do," Ramírez says, referring to Brownsville's space-themed murals. "I think there's space for other people like myself and other artists who are countering these narratives put in place by the richest person in the world."

Ramírez hopes that, through this exhibit, he can help shift opinion on SpaceX's presence in Brownsville.

"Arts and culture really is a shortcut to understanding policy," he says. "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."

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Gaige Davila | TPR