Austin @ Large: Sense of the Census

The new data suggest what Austin is becoming

Austin At Large
It's been more than two years since we all sent in our Census 2000 forms, and the numbers thus tabulated have already been used to draw Austin's congressional and legislative and ill-fated single-member City Council districts. But those were just numbers of warm bodies -- other than racial and ethnic data, necessary for redistricting, most of the interesting and important census statistics were officially released by the Census Bureau just last week.

In a city that's changing as much, and that's as obsessed with its own changes, as Austin is, much Census 2000 data confirms what we already know. The city has gotten wealthier and more expensive, but at the same time less white and more economically polarized. We are overeducated, housing is in short supply, and we drive (alone) more than we should. But if we are to do anything responsible about the burdens we face, we have to know the facts as they are, and not as our predispositions tell us they must be, which is why we have a census.

Oddly -- or perhaps not -- even though every Texas newspaper has been studded for a week with stories related to this last batch of census data, most coverage has been of reflections, not implications. Experts and average folk speculate on why Austin has so many more men than women, why San Antonio's population is aging more rapidly, why Houston has the longest commute times. Isn't that interesting? And then we put the data back on the shelf and move on. But what if we asked -- as we should ask, for this is why we go through this every 10 years -- what these fun facts mean as trends, what Austin will look like tomorrow based on what it looks like today?

Buddy, Can You Spare a House?

In that light, some things jump out from the 1990 census profiles. One is that nearly half -- 49.7% -- of Austin's population is between the ages of 20 and 44, which is quite a bit higher than in Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, or San Antonio. For the five-county metro area -- the "Austin-San Marcos MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area]," and no, we don't know why San Marcos rates a header and Round Rock doesn't -- the proportion is 45.2%, which is still higher than other Texas urban areas.

Yes, those numbers are somewhat bloated by students, but even within that 20-to-44 block, the post-collegiate 25-to-34 and 35-to-44 sets are larger than elsewhere in Texas. Leaving aside the high salaries attached to the tech boom, the fact that a larger proportion of our population is in its moneymaking years helps explain why Austin has the highest household income levels in the state. It also helps explain, and will continue to explain throughout the decade, why Austin has such a severe housing shortage.

Housing occupancy, which is no higher than 93% in most of the state's metro areas, and is as low as 80% in South Texas, is more than 95% here, and more than 96% in the city of Austin itself. If our housing occupancy rate were 92% (as is Houston's), we would have enough extra vacant units to accommodate the entire city of Georgetown -- about 28,000 people. And our basic age demographic means the demand for the few vacant units we do have will be that much greater, since the 20-to-44 set are the people who move more often, into bigger housing as their families or incomes expand (or into several smaller units as their families dissolve), into different markets within the metro area as their jobs and circumstances change, and who want to convert from renting to ownership.

Nearly 60% of metro-area residents lived at a different address in 1995 than they did in April 2000, the official census "date." As has been well-hyped for years, about 30,000 people a year moved to the MSA, and 20,000 into Austin itself, from out of state (or abroad) each year from 1995 on. But a much larger number moved to a different house within the metro area, and more of those people moved into the surrounding counties (or within Travis County, i.e., young house-hopping renters) than into Austin. As has been the case for a while, far fewer residents of Austin proper -- 44.8% -- own rather than rent. (That's actually more than in Dallas and about the same as Houston, but far less than San Antonio, El Paso, Fort Worth, or Corpus Christi.) But for the MSA as a whole, owner-occupied units make up just under 60% of all housing, which is only a little below average for urban Texas.

Storm Warning

After spending most of the 1980s filling Williamson and southwestern Travis counties with ever-bigger trade-up homes targeted to an ever-smaller pool of middle-aged buyers, local builders got wise in the 1990s to the need for starter homes for those 20-to-44s (or, more narrowly, the people who are now 35-44), and flooded the eastern reaches of Metro Austin with what we wishfully call "affordable housing." If this trend continues, all the renters will live in the city, and all the homeowners will live outside Austin, with obvious impacts on the tax base and the services provided by cities and counties.

In this sense, Austin is a lot more like Dallas and Houston, where the big cities have all but given up their share of the middle-class housing market, than urbanites often admit -- ironically, since the lack of new housing within the city limits is so often blamed on cranky townies seeking precisely to preserve our not-Dallas-and-Houston character. And since the demographic bulge -- the pig in the python -- is moving through and past its starter-home years as we speak, the MSA's housing market will continue to be about 10 years behind where the need is, as we end up with a glut of (aging, not-holding-their-value) starter homes on the eastern prairies.

The housing situation, though it's a major focus of the Census Bureau's own data-gathering, is just one of plenty of noteworthy findings -- for example, more than one in four Austin MSA households speak a language other than English at home -- with implications for how this place should be managed and nurtured in the coming decade. And, as policy people know all too depressingly, in the two years since the census was actually taken, the facts on the ground have already started to change. One of the things the census shows us is the dark cloud within which the bust might be the silver lining.

For more information, see the Census Bureau Web site at

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Census 2000, Austin-San Marcos Metropolitan Statistical Area, Census Bureau, housing, San Marcos, occupancy rates

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