Austin: A tale of two cities

COST Commentary: Below are articles by Chris Bradford and Ed Wendler Jr. of Austin regarding the movement of families with children from central Austin. While no two cities are the same, or even very similar in most cases; the phenomenon of families, with children, departing central cities is more common than not in the US.

One concludes from the articles that there may be a number of contributing factors but the overwhelming reason people are leaving central Austin is high housing and general living costs. Increasing housing costs are driven by a number of features in Austin’s planning including continuing commitment to increased density and a flow of regulations which increase development costs. In addition, increasing fees for such items as energy and water along with rapidly increasing taxes make central Austin less affordable. And, increasing central Austin density, without roadway improvements, results in greater congestion. Contrary to the City’s promotion, the Urban train will significantly increase congestion and not decrease it. The major growth of Austin area population and jobs is in the suburbs as is true for almost every city in the US.

Portland, Oregon is an interesting comparison with Austin. As late as 1990, the city of Austin had less population that the city of Portland, but, in 2010, Austin’s population of 790,390 was 36% greater than Portland’s. Austin and Portland had similar housing affordability in the late 1980s, but, Portland’s current housing affordability index of 4.4 is 30% higher than Austin’s 3.3 (This index is the median home price to median household income). This means Portland’s median home price is 29% greater than Austin’s and Portland’s median household income is slightly less.

The impact of Portland’s planning and public policy has been devastating to families with children and to public school enrollment which declined from a peak of over 80,000 students to about 47,000 today. Interestingly, Austin’s public school enrollment is over 80,000 today.

What happened to cause the divergence in Portland and Austin? Basically, Portland embarked on a path of “draconian” land use controls and development regulations which limited land use and forced higher density living with greater focus of resources on mass transit. Billions were spent on light rail, streetcars and commuter trains and on subsidizing development of “mixed use” transit oriented developments (TOD’s) which the market did not support. All of this reduced the city’s general fund and was detrimental to overall city services and infrastructure.

While Austin’s public policies and current “Comprehensive Plan” are trending similar to Portland’s plans over the past 30 years, Texas law regarding land use outside the city and the year 2000 defeat of light rail and the failure of Austin’s first commuter rail has made it more difficult; somewhat slowing Austin’s desired implementation of its Mayors’ and City Councils’ high density, mass transit visions. Austin housing affordability has been negatively impacted slightly and is moving in the wrong direction but much less so, to date, than many other cities in the nation.

Part of Austin’s “offset” has been its continued high population growth. While the demographic shift of Austin ‘families with children’ from the central city is consistent with many cities in the nation, Austin’s overall growth has resulted in public school enrollment increases even though the central city area has lost major percentages of public school enrollment.

However, there may be warning indicators that the Austin city’s growth rate has already started to decline as the central city ‘family with kids’ evacuation continues. Decline in public school enrollment may follow and achieve the exact opposite results as those stated by the City Council. While Austin and Portland grew 37% and 33%, respectively in the 1980s decade, Austin grew about 20% from 2000 to 2010 and Portland grew only about 10%.

As mentioned in Bradford’s article below, we often hear that Austin has doubled in population about every 20 years since its inception. Dallas city also had a similar high percentage growth rate until it reached approximately the size Austin is today and then the percentage growth slowed and dropped for the city while suburban, Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), growth continues at much higher rates as it is now in Austin. Austin grew 90% in the 1990 decade but grew 67 % from 2000 to 2010. This is still major growth and Austin was the fastest growing major city and one of the fastest growing large MSA’s in the nation.

While Bradford’s article refers to “two cities,” Austin has also been described as “two cities” in a different context: For some time one city has been working very aggressively to bring companies, jobs and people to Austin as fast as they can. During this time, the other city has taken a position that, if they do not build the infrastructure, “they” will not come. Both cities succeeded: Austin grew rapidly with new companies, jobs and people and the necessary infrastructure was not built. Now, we have one of the most congested cities in the US with too many safety hazards and lower quality of life than is appropriate for such a successful city. The city needs to decide what it wants to be when it “grows up.” It should put a fence around the city and let no one else in; or, it should build the infrastructure to support the population already here and growing. Pursuing the path of these two opposing Austin cities is not sustainable, nor is a fence around the city sustainable.

The bottom line to the two articles below is that Austin’s public policy direction and planning path is inconsistent with serving the needs and greater good of the citizens of the community which are similar to citizen’s needs expressed throughout the nation. Other recent COST articles on this site further elaborate on this subject. See:

Note: City growth comparisons are very complex and difficult to summarize. Growth in some cities is particially by annexing adjacent non-incorporated areas as in Austin’s case. In other cities, there is little or no opportunity for annexation such as Seattle. In many ways, MSA is a more appropriate comparison. Portland’s MSA is much larger than Ausni’s even though the city of Austin is now larger than the city of Portland. This seems to be because Portland made its housing and cost of living unaffordable for the low to average income citizens and people moved to the suburbs beyond the city but within the MSA to live the American Dream.


by Chris Bradford published in newgeography, 05/05/2009

Austin has enjoyed healthy growth during its 150-year history. As a rule of thumb, its population doubles every 20 years, and has done so since it was founded. It continues to grow at a healthy clip: from a population of 345,000 in 1980 to 656,000 in 2000; the Census Bureau estimates it had nearly 750,000 residents in 2008.

But if the city of Austin has grown briskly, its suburbs have exploded. Williamson County to its north was the sixth fastest-growing county in the United States between July 1, 2007 and July 1, 2008. Hays County to the south was the tenth.

This is not a recent development. Williamson and Hays Counties have outpaced Travis County (Austin) and Texas for years:

The figures for individual suburbs reflect this spectacular growth:

•Between 1990 and 2007, Round Rock, ten miles north of Austin and home to Dell Computers, tripled from 31,000 to almost 100,000; its population grew by 50% between 2000 and 2007 alone.

•Pflugerville, just south of Round Rock, grew from a tiny village of 4,000 in 1990 to 34,000 in 2007.

•Cedar Park and Leander grew tenfold and sevenfold, respectively, between 1990 and 2007.

The scale of rapid growth is noteworthy, but the distribution of growth is hardly unique. After all, American cities have been suburbanizing for the last 60 years (and in some cities, for much longer). Austin’s suburbanizing growth merely mirrors the national trend.

But Austin’s growth evinces another pattern. As Austin and its suburbs have grown, families with children have left central Austin for its fringes, ceding central Austin to singles and couples without children.

Central Austin is typically defined as the area urbanized by 1970, delineated by a perimeter of highways and lakes. But there’s an alternative definition: Central Austin is where the families with children are not.

The map below tells the story. It depicts, using 2000 Census data, the percentage of households consisting of married couples with children. Darkly-tinted regions have a relatively high percentage of such households; lightly-colored regions, relatively few. The area bounded by the heavy, black line – the lightly-tinted region in the center of the map – is central Austin.

This map excludes the suburbs in Williamson and Hays Counties. Needless to say, these cities would also be colored brown and deep-orange. For example, 45% of Cedar Park’s households in 2000 consisted of married couples with children. In Pflugerville, the figure was 48%. Over the last few decades, Austin has sorted itself into two cities: suburbs populated by families with children, and a central core populated largely by singles and childless couples.


This might seem a trite question at first blush. This pattern has repeated itself in one American city after another for many decades.

But Austin’s case is interesting because many standard explanations do not hold. Austin’s families have not had to flee the central city to escape crime, or dense, overcrowded neighborhoods, or failing schools, or the pollution and blight of old, abandoned industrial sites. Nor have they had to abandon the central city in search of jobs.

Austin historically has had a low crime rate with one of the lowest homicide rates in the country. And many of those crimes occur outside the central city. Austin’s slums are not located in central Austin, but in the aging suburbs just north and southeast of the urban core. Central east Austin – where African Americans and Latinos were banished for much of Austin’s history – was, and to some extent remains, an exception. But even that area has gentrified rapidly in recent years. And, in any event, neither east Austin’s problems nor a racist desire to avoid people of color can explain the flight of families from the historically “whiter” parts of town.

Central Austin certainly has plenty of bad schools. But it also has plenty of good schools, and a liberal transfer policy. Moreover, many of the central schools began to deteriorate after they were abandoned by middle-class families. Thanks to declining populations of children, the Austin school district has been forced to close several small, neighborhood elementary schools, even as it strains to add classrooms to the burgeoning suburbs. Austin includes many of its suburbs – it grows rapidly through annexation – and AISD covers these.

Families also did not have to flee central Austin to escape dense, overcrowded neighborhoods. The typical central Austin neighborhood is no denser than a typical suburban neighborhood. Most central Austin neighborhoods consist almost entirely of single-family residences. Indeed, in some, nearly 90% of the residential acreage is set aside for single-family housing, with multi-family developments relegated to busy streets. And yard sizes in suburbs are frequently little larger than the yards in the central neighborhoods.

Nor did families flee central Austin in a quest for green space. Austin’s great parks are concentrated in its core. These include Zilker Park – Austin’s equivalent of central park; Barton Springs, fed by springs bubbling up from the Edwards Aquifer; Lady Bird Lake, neé Town Lake; and more green belts than a die-hard hiker could cover in a summer.

Central Austin has no pollution or industrial blight. Austin has never been a manufacturing town. Its employment base has always been the University of Texas, the state government and, more recently, high tech.

The high-tech job growth has blossomed in Austin’s suburbs. Austin styles itself “Silicon Hills,” and virtually all high-tech jobs have spring up in the rolling country west and north of the downtown. But the addition of jobs to the periphery does not explain why families have been abandoning the central city. Austin’s core has not only retained its jobs, it has seen healthy growth. A recent Brookings study estimates that central Austin employment grew by almost 13% between 1998 and 2006 According to the Brookings study, the number of jobs more than 10 miles from the CBD increased by 77,523, or 62%. Obviously, this was incredible growth. But this does not explain why families abandoned the central core when it, too, was adding jobs.

In the end the key reason people have been moving to the suburbs lies in a mundane reality. Austin families have been moving to the suburbs because the suburbs have bigger, better and cheaper houses.

Austin’s inner neighborhoods may be packed with single-family housing, but they are small, old and increasingly expensive. The central neighborhoods were built before 1970 and, in most cases, before 1960. The houses are usually no more than 1200 or 1400 square feet. And these houses are expensive (for Austin) and often fixer-uppers to boot.

By contrast, the suburban stock is much newer and larger. Between 2000 and 2006, for example, the average new home in Circle C, a prominent suburb to the south, had 3,965 square feet; the average new home in Steiner Ranch, a western suburb had 3,915 square feet. And these houses were and are much cheaper than central city houses. One might find a 3,000 square-foot home in the suburbs for $250,000. The same home in central Austin might cost $750,000. Many suburban subdivisions have much smaller homes, of course, but a middle class family only able to afford an 1,800 square foot house in the suburbs is not likely to pay $400,000 for a smaller house in central Austin.

Families want space, and the central housing stock is either too small or too expensive. This basic reality has transformed Austin into essentially two largely successful cities: a central core left to small households and suburbs that offer either larger housing, or smaller housing at much cheaper prices.

This trend may have been slower if developers had been allowed to continue replacing small bungalows with larger, more modern houses. But this trend prompted an outcry from central Austin residents, who pushed the city council to enact a “McMansion” ordinance to “protect” central Austin neighborhoods. The title was a clever bit of marketing. The word “McMansion” evokes an enormous, pretentious structure – and who wants that? But Austin’s stringent ordinance takes aim at much more modest homes. Depending on lot size, a home with an attached two-car garage may be limited to 2,000 square feet, smaller than the typical new American home. The ordinance imposes other complicated limitations, turning modest home additions into a complicated, extensive ordeal. A homeowner who wants to add a second story, for example, must ensure that the second story fits within an elaborate “building envelope” – a complicated calculation unless the addition is centered in the lot – and new setback lines calculated as a rolling average of neighboring setbacks. (Incidentally, the new setbacks and square-foot limitations have all but eliminated granny flats.) The only option for adding a significant amount of new space is often the construction of a basement buried completely below grade; basements do not count against the square footage limits.

Austin’s McMansion ordinance will ensure that its central Austin neighborhoods remain the domain of small, aging bungalows – and people without children – for the foreseeable future. In this way, it will reflect the demographic realities of many prosperous, “hip” cities from San Francisco and Boston to Seattle and Portland.

Yet there’s an ironic side to this. Alarmed by the decline of families in the city, the same city council that enacted the McMansion ordinance created a new task force a few months later to determine why central Austin has now so few families with children.

Chris Bradford is a 1992 graduate of the Yale Law School, where he was an Olin Fellow in Law and Economics. He is an attorney at Clark, Thomas and Winters, P.C. in Austin, Texas. Visit Chris’s blog.

Wendler: Where have all of the children gone?
Ed Wendler Jr., Local Contributor
Austin-American Statesman, Published: Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011

The Austin school district is struggling with budget issues and central campuses that are underutilized. Underutilized means that there aren’t enough children in the attendance zone to fill the school. The district is considering closing some of those schools.

There just aren’t enough families with school-age children living in the center of Austin. That’s not the district’s fault.

Only 25 percent of all Austin households have kids. Compare that with Round Rock’s 43 percent; Pflugerville’s 53 percent; Cedar Park’s 49 percent; and Kyle’s 46 percent.

In the center of Austin the average drops to less than 10 percent. For example, in Hyde Park, about 9 percent of households have children. Despite the new condos, in downtown just 3 percent of households have kids. In Allendale, about 12 percent have kids.

Many families with children are bypassing Austin and living in the suburbs.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell asked the district to keep the schools open because Austin’s planning goals are to discourage sprawl by promoting inner-city growth. Actually, Austin’s policies have much more influence on where families opt to live than the school board.

The school district should challenge Austin to jointly study the decreasing number of families with kids and what can be done about it.

First, determine why families with children are moving to the suburbs. Once officials know why, they should make sure Austin’s planning efforts really address those issues.

Are the costs of living in Austin too high for young families? Those costs include Austin’s rising electric rates and housing costs.

Will the concept of promoting locally owned businesses drive up the costs of buying necessities, sending more families to the suburbs?

Are the amenities that Austin offers attractive to families with kids? Austin focuses on open space to protect the aquifer, live music, downtown living and shopping, bars and restaurants, and F-1 racing. At the same time Austin closes neighborhood swimming pools, cuts library hours and cancels the Trail of Lights.

Austin’s growth plan is to promote vertical mixed use — apartments on top of retail stores — and high-rise condos. Do families with kids want to live in those kinds of buildings?

Are families with kids attracted to single-family detached houses? If so, will Austin’s campaign to end sprawl, which by definition is single-family homes on single-family lots, backfire resulting in still fewer kids in AISD?

That the district is talking about closing schools is a blessing in disguise. It should make Austin start with the needs and wants of people and families in policy and planning decisions. Right now, Austin starts with buildings, vertical mixed use and form-based zoning and then tries to shoehorn in residents. It won’t work.

As a third-generation Austinite, I’m often asked what I miss most about “old Austin.” What I really miss is Austin as an egalitarian, progressive and affordable city of middle-class families. People mattered most. Austin now seems to focus on glitz and the height of buildings. Austin will spend more time talking about F-1 racing than worrying about making the city a great place for families with kids.

Wendler, an Austin developer, is a former member of the city’s Planning Commission.

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