How Austin Became One of America’s Least Affordable Cities

AUSTIN – In recent years, in one of America’s fastest growing cities, change has come at a feverish pace in the Texas capital, with churches demolished, mobile home parks razed and haunted neighborhoods replaced by trendy restaurants and luxury apartments. complex.

The transformation was felt perhaps most acutely across East Austin and the Montopolis neighborhood, a 2.5 square mile parcel southeast of downtown, where sweeping views of the skyline in constant expansion has made the historically black and Latino neighborhood a sought-after community.

And the momentum is far from weakening. Nowadays, construction sites and cranes look more like permanent installations in the neighborhood, where longtime residents have watched with increasing anxiety as posh cafes, yoga studios and expensive bars come closer and closer. more.

“We knew it was going to happen,” said Francisco Nuñez, who lived for almost two decades at the Cactus Rose mobile home park until it was sold to a developer to make way for apartment-rich amenities. which are now earning more than double what he once paid. in rent.

Ten years ago, Austin, the capital of Texas often considered a liberal oasis in a decidedly conservative state, was one of the most affordable places to live. Now, according to a forecast prepared by Zillow, a real estate company that tracks affordability, the Austin metro area is on track to become by the end of the year the least affordable major metro area for homebuyers. outside of California. It has already overtaken the hot markets of Boston, Miami and New York.

With an average of 180 new residents moving into the city every day in 2020, the housing stock is very low, estate agents said. Multiple offers, bidding wars and long queues outside of open houses are commonplace.

Home selling prices in the city of Austin have skyrocketed to a record median of $ 536,000 in October, from about $ 441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median selling price was $ 216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trading group. Rentals have also increased, with the average cost of an 864 square foot apartment now at $ 1,600.

“Austin is the worst kept secret,” said Job Hammond, secretary-treasurer of the board.

With the flagship University of Texas campus, rolling hills and a vibrant music scene, Austin has long been an attractive place to call home. But soaring prices have created a housing crisis that is poised to reshape the city of nearly a million people and drive mainly low-income black and Latino residents like Mr. Nuñez away from cultural centers, centers of transportation, groceries and other amenities that come with city life, activists said.

The lack of affordable housing was underscored by the relentless sight of homeless settlements outside City Hall and under busy highways. (The city recently began eliminating them after voters approved a public camping ban this year.)

In 2018, when they were already experiencing explosive growth, at least 35 neighborhoods in Austin were experiencing some gentrification. According to a study commissioned by the city and conducted by researchers at the University of Texas, 23 other neighborhoods were at high risk of following suit.

The numbers are likely higher today, said Heather K. Way, a university law professor and one of the study’s authors.

“One day you are driving down a street and all of a sudden you ask yourself: what happened to the apartment building that was there last week? Ms. Way said, referring to the rapid demolition of older homes that is happening in some Austin. neighborhoods.

The displacement of low-income residents, in a city where about 13% live below the poverty line, has caused Austin officials so much concern that a grassroots movement has prompted them to hire the city’s first displacement agent this year. year. Nefertitti Jackmon has been given the difficult task of preventing widespread gentrification as cranes continue to dot the skyline and new structures rise ever higher.

Ms Jackmon said that while plans remain evolving, her office will be allocated around $ 300 million over the next 13 years to spend on fighting displacement, such as ensuring more affordable housing in affected neighborhoods. She doesn’t mince words to describe the challenges that lie ahead.

“In Austin, black and brown neighborhoods have been marginalized and under-invested,” Ms. Jackmon said. She also said she wanted to broaden the participation of local residents early in the process of new developments. “We say that development can be done without displacement. “

But not everyone is convinced that a new travel office will have a significant impact.

“It’s an aspirin against cancer,” said Fred McGhee, a local historian and longtime resident of Montopolis, a neighborhood that was once home to once enslaved people and Mexican migrants who came to work in the cotton fields.

On a recent day, Dr. McGhee walked out of his house and pointed in several directions, to construction sites or newly constructed luxury buildings. “It wasn’t that long ago that these areas were all wetlands,” said McGhee. “Now all you see are new developments or plans for one. “

The East Vue Ranch is one of them. On the land that was once the Cactus Rose mobile home park, the luxury resort has a stylish swimming pool, game room and walled dog park. Nearby, another apartment complex now sits on land once occupied by a historic black church. Another black church, built in the 1860s, was demolished to make way for a road to accommodate all the new traffic. And a neighborhood barbershop has been replaced by a trendy South American bakery.

“It became the story of two Austines,” said Susana Almanza, a longtime activist. “The rich continue to build in our neighborhoods and the poor continue to be displaced. It doesn’t stop.

From March 2020 to February 2021, despite the pandemic, Austin nearly dominated the country in new construction, with nearly 42,000 new residences, according to a housing report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

Much of the city’s expansion has been attributed to the recent arrival of tech titans, including Apple, Amazon, IBM and AT&T – and more recently Tesla, including chief executive Elon Musk, already a resident of a rocket site in South Texas, said the company would move its headquarters from Palo Alto, Calif., to Austin.

These big moves – joining other big tech companies, like Dell and IBM, already present in the region – resulted in an infusion of a younger and better-off population, giving rise to the city’s new nickname of “Silicon Hills”. .

Well-paying jobs have boosted the region’s economy. Over the past 10 years, high-tech jobs, which tend to pay in the six figures, have grown by nearly 62% in the Austin metropolitan area, for a total of about 176,000 positions, representing 17% of all jobs and far exceeding the growth of all other industries, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

And since 2010, the median household income has risen from $ 55,744 to $ 80,954, depending on the chamber.

Those high wages have pushed up house prices, including rents, the cost of which has risen 38% over the past decade, more than other fast-growing Texas cities like Dallas and San Antonio, according to one. Housing Market Analysis from 2020 Root Policy Research.

The city, which has seen an increase of nearly 160,000 residents over the past 10 years, “can’t build homes fast enough,” said Rob Gordon, director and real estate agent at real estate firm JBGoodwin.

In the Northwest Hills neighborhood, about 20 minutes northwest of downtown, where Mr. Gordon does the majority of his business, 18 of the 19 homes on the market this spring sold for more than asking, or an average of 113%. said Gordon. A house, listed for $ 975,000, was sold for $ 1,395,000 after a grueling bidding war.

Jon Kniss, a photographer from Nashville, took desperate steps to find accommodation when he moved to Austin last year. For months, he covered his new neighborhood in letters of cash offers.

Nine months and over 200 letters later, the Kniss family moved into a three-bedroom house in an affluent community northwest of downtown. “We wanted to see if we could get a little edge,” Mr. Kniss said. “The good weather, the quality of life, the schools. Everyone wants to move here.

This is especially true in Montopolis.

For those who have left the neighborhood, many wonder if they will once again be forced to uproot their new homes, as new developments continue to be approved and built in even more remote areas of the city.

Maria Garcia de la Luz, 68, a former resident of Cactus Rose who now lives next to Mr Nuñez, said she misses the proximity to shops and access to public transport she has in Montopolis. Not long ago, she injured her knee in an accident and had no way to go for treatment after her husband, Magdaleno Garcia, 77, also fell ill and did not could drive it.

“It really touched me. I feel trapped here, ”said Ms. de la Luz. “In the end, it’s us poor people who end up getting hurt. Who can say they won’t kick us out of here too? “

Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.

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