In America’s 10th Largest City, Who Exactly Are Your Neighbors?

We may not be growing as fast as you think

Six of the nation's 15 fastest-growing large cities were in Texas in 2021, and 3 of top 4 fastest-growing were in the Austin area. (Courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau)

When newly released census numbers showed Austin finally cracking the top 10 most populous cities in America last week, it seemed like yet another mile-marker in the city's extraordinary growth. But we're not growing as much as that new ranking – or the city's competitive housing market – might lead you to believe, explained city of Austin Demographer Lila Valencia.

First, Austin didn't knock the previous 10th largest city (San Jose, Calif.) out of the ranking because we added huge numbers. San Jose shrank. Valencia pointed to the pattern in recent years of big coastal cities losing residents, some of whom flock to Texas. But even with population gains from coastal people moving inland, the city's growth has actually slowed in recent years.

“The question is if we’re actually meeting the needs. Are new units the kinds that allow families who live here to stay home, or is it more the kind of units [for] people moving to Austin with more resources?” – City of Austin Demographer Lila Valencia

Which brings us to the housing conundrum. New census numbers also showed Travis County had the third-largest increase in housing units of any U.S. county. As Valencia points out, for the last 10 years, the rate of housing units coming online in Austin has outpaced the rate of population growth – meaning we added more housing units than bodies between 2010 and 2020. "And that's good for availability and prices, though it's very close," Valencia said.

So why is housing still so expensive, and why do so many units get snatched up within hours of hitting the market? Because we're seeing smaller household sizes, Valencia says. More units with fewer people living in each means the market remains competitive.

"The question is if we're actually meeting the needs," she said. "Are new units the kinds that allow families who live here to stay home, or is it more the kind of units [for] people moving to Austin with more resources?"

Census data released so far has not described the type of housing added in Aus­tin, though more yet to be released could help to answer the question. What current counts do show is that between 2010 and 2020, the city saw significant population growth in areas of dense growth where units have fewer bedrooms, such as Mueller and around the Domain.

At the same time, towns surrounding Austin are growing faster than the city itself. Census data released last week showed 3 of the top 4 fastest-growing cities in the entire U.S. are suburbs of Austin – Georgetown, Kyle, and Leander.

"There are a lot of folks moving to suburban cities and we need to understand why. Is it an affordability issue, or are people moving here from such far away places that Cedar Park is interchangeable with the city of Austin?" (This reporter, who moved here from Washington state and lived initially in Cedar Park, can confirm that the two are not interchangeable.)

To figure out if families leaving for the suburbs is a factor, demographers can look at Austin's child population – which is growing overall, though not evenly across communities. Of all of the increase in the city's child population between 2010 and 2020, 6 of 10 new kids were of Asian descent. Black and Latino child populations have actually declined, while the white child population continues to grow. "The question of whether Austin is a family-friendly city depends on which part of Austin you're in," Valencia said.

Overall, Austin's growth appears to be steadying, which is a good thing. It means the city can make better predictions about infrastructure needs to address growth. "We're in the midst of planning for a once-in-a-generation transit system overhaul," Valencia said. "We want to make sure we put the infrastructure in place to make that growth not feel so heavy or burdensome to people already living here."

See “ATP Recommends the Flexible Light Rail Option,” for an update on Project Connect.

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