The city of Austin released preliminary data as part of its five-year review of the Imagine Austin initiative—the city’s 30-year plan to manage the explosive growth it has undergone in the past decade. That data highlights some of the biggest issues the city is currently grappling with—increased housing and rent prices, gentrification and a very real struggle for many residents.
According to data by the U.S. Census Bureau, the greater Austin-area has undergone explosive growth in the past decade. In 2007, the city’s population was 1,565,606 residents. The population has risen 34 percent since then, and in 2017 is estimated to be at 2,112,172.
"There are so many things that are happening well in Austin," said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. "We have an economy that's on fire. We're still the live music capital of the world. It's an exciting, vibrant, innovative, creative city."
Adler said with the positives that come from growth, the city is facing serious challenges as well.
"We have some pretty significant challenges too, and high among those are things like affordability and transportation," he said. "We're losing people in communities who can't afford to live here, and it's really difficult to get around this city."
With increased population comes an increase in demand for affordable housing, and issues of gentrification from new, more expensive housing pricing out the poorer areas of town.
The Imagine Austin data shows a steady increase in Median Housing Values from 2008 to 2015. The data for 2016 and 2017 has not yet been assessed, but from 2012 to 2015, there is a sharp increase in housing values. Within those three years, the average housing value rose 27 percent to 282,700 dollars.
Within this same time-frame, the average rent in Austin also rose and saw the same sharp increase trend. In 2011, the average rent was 905 dollars, and in 2015, this was 1,139 dollars.
Another increase in the city within the past decade is the average family income. According to the city, this indicator is measured by dividing the income distribution into two equal parts: one-half of family households falling below the median income and one-half above the median.
In 2007, the average family income was 69,300 dollars. It has since risen by 26 percent to 87,400 dollars in 2017. While an increase in income on the surface may seem like a positive trend, it also could point to gentrification occurring within the city, where poorer residents may needed to move outside of city limits as they could no longer afford to live in Austin. If this occurred, it would cause the median family income to increase, but does not indicate wages have increased for residents.
According to the city, “Median family incomes have generally been outpaced by median housing prices, and are thus an indication of housing affordability and general prosperity. This indicator may not capture households who have left Austin for more affordable housing options outside of the city limits.”
"Well, think about it, if it got so bad that the richest of the rich couldn't afford to do business in California, what did that mean to everybody else? I mean, everybody else had already fled. And in Austin, we're already seeing people flee. And I care about this, specifically, because I'm young, and I love this city, and I want to live here for a while. And I don't like the idea that there's this clock hanging over our head, and every year, it gets more and more costly to live in this city."
"...My daughter got a divorce a couple of years ago, and she moved into the other unit because she could not possibly afford to rent a home for her two children and herself on a teacher's salary, because Austin ISD salary and the cost of living in central Austin just don't work well together...if it's just teachers' wages, they have to move outside of Austin because you cannot live in Austin even on a low-level professional career."
"Just in the past couple of years, we've had three families, two that were in my block and one just one block over, they're all families of color and they ended up being displaced because of the high taxes. Two of those families, their plan had been to leave their property to their next of kin, their next generation, and they were not able to stay because of these high taxes and ended you having to sell their property and ended up leaving the city of Austin."
Austin residents surveyed told of basic needs they had to cut down on or forgo to afford their housing costs. Hover over the circle to see what percentage of residents polled had to reduce/forgo the need.
BBC Research & Consulting 2014 Survey completed for the City of Austin.
3,122 Austin homeowners surveyed; 1,307 Austin renters surveyed.
Imagine Austin in 30 years. What does it look like? The city outlined its vision with the Imagine Austin initiative, a 30-year plan that was adopted in 2012 to handle the growth. The initiatives have multi-faceted aims including, “ensuring Austin is a place of economic opportunity, social equity, where diversity and creativity are celebrated, community needs and values are recognized, leadership comes from citizens and necessities of life are affordable and accessible to everyone.”
One aspect of the Imagine Austin initiative is CodeNEXT, a redesign of the existing Land Development Code that was written nearly 30 years ago, when Austin had half the population it does today.
“Austin's development code are the rules that talk about what gets built, where and how it gets built, and Austin's development code is 30 years old,” Mayor Adler said. “It's been through amendment after amendment. You can't find things in it. It's outdated. CodeNEXT is the current effort by the City of Austin to rewrite its development code after 30 years.”
The updated code hopes to address issues with diminishing natural resources, household affordability and access to healthy lifestyles. The first draft was released in January, with the second draft set to come out later this year.
The current draft has been hotly debated, with residents voicing their concerns that it isn’t doing enough to alleviate housing costs, gentrification and among other issues, or that it is too far-reaching and will exacerbate problems currently faced. Another concern voiced in South Austin and Central Austin community meetings for CodeNEXT was that the East Austin community was not involved in drafting the original plan.
“As important as CodeNEXT is, it's not a silver bullet,” Mayor Adler said. “It's not going to solve the issues of affordability in this city, or mobility in this city by itself. But without redoing our land development codes, then the effectiveness of all the other things we do is going to be more limited than it should be. So, it's a really important ingredient, but it's not the only one.”
Dave Sullivan, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, who helped draft the first iteration of the code, echoed Mayor Adler’s sentiment, and said enough houses couldn’t be built to lower costs.
“The idea is to try to slow down the increase in costs,” Sullivan said. “We cannot promise people that we will ever go back in to the past and make Austin a cheap place to live, but with CodeNEXT, we hope that we can slow down the increase. And with regard to gentrification, we hope that we can give people choices. That if they do have to move, they would have an opportunity to move nearby.”
Trenton Henrichson, an Austin resident and computer aided design engineer at AMD, spoke to a crowd at a community meeting for CodeNEXT about his personal experience with increasing housing costs and affordability in Austin and California, and his concerns for living in the city.
“When I first moved to Austin 11 years ago, I was young, I was single, I was working in tech and I was getting paid a lot of money to do it,” Henrichson said.
He told of how his company, based in California, would frequently lay off 20 percent of the company and hire 15 percent back, but once it became too expensive to pay workers in California the business moved to Austin. The company executives from California were moving to Austin, building pricey residences and pushing out the poor in the city.
“Well, think about it, if it got so bad that the richest of the rich couldn't afford to do business in California, what did that mean to everybody else?” he said.
Everybody else had already fled, and in Austin, people are beginning to flee, Henrichson said.
“I care about this, specifically, because I'm young, and I love this city, and I want to live here for a while,” he said. “And I don't like the idea that there's this clock hanging over our head, and every year, it gets more and more costly to live in this city.”
View the preliminary data released by the City of Austin from their five-year analysis on Imagine Austin, adopted in 2012. The data gives a valuable insight into the overall health of the city, where the city is thriving and where it is struggling. The data has been grouped into seven key factors to make it easier to view related variables.
Steffanie Agnew is a mass comm graduate student at Texas State University. This multimedia package was created as part of her Summer Code Camp course with Dr. Cindy Royal during the summer 2017 semester, and published on August 9, 2017.