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Austin losing some of its middle class, says demographer

Friday, April 3, 2009 by Austin Monitor

While the nationwide recession may have slowed growth and development activity, in the long run, pressures on the city’s housing supply and transportation infrastructure will continue, according to speakers addressing a joint meeting of the Planning Commission, Design Commission, Downtown Commission, Community Development Commission, and Zoning and Platting Commission this week.


“We shouldn’t for a minute think that we can stop talking about the need to plan for growth, because it’s not going anywhere,” said Brian Kelsey with the Capital Area Council of Governments. “Yes, the recession is slowing growth…but these challenges we are facing are not going anywhere.”


Figures provided by City Demographer Ryan Robinson showed Austin’s population continuing to grow, likely reaching 780,000 by the time the next Census is taken in 2010. Those figures also show more of that population growth is coming from international immigrants and more births within the city limits.


In addition to population data, Robinson also presented data on household incomes which revealed a trend that will likely affect those boards and commissions that deal with land use issues. Austin, he said, is losing some of its middle class, especially among the African-American and Hispanic population.


“There’s been a continuing flow of middle-class and upper-middle-class African-American households out of the city of Austin,” he said, citing figures on the growing income disparity between Anglo families and Hispanic and African-American families. “I think you have a duality working within the Hispanic community. Working-class Hispanic households are increasingly being clustered into large barrios, whereas middle-class Hispanic households are enjoying a lower level of residential segregation than ever before.”


In the short term Robinson predicted the recession could actually boost Austin’s population. Since other areas of the country are being more greatly affected by the recession and by high foreclosure rates, Austin’s relatively strong economy could make it even more attractive. “I think we’re going to get economic migrants,” he said. “They may not have a job, they’re going to spike our unemployment rate up a little bit, but they’re also going to bring an enormous amount of energy and talent and could end up starting businesses and creating jobs of their own. I don’t think it’s a long-term negative.”


Both the short-term and long-term trends could increase traffic congestion and drive up demand for affordable housing. “We’ve got a lot to do. We need to build on our strengths,” said Margaret Shaw, Director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office.


“The citizens of Austin elected in 2006 to provide $55 million to fund more affordable housing. Also, the City Council passed an ordinance…for every city-owned parcel that is sold for private development, 40% of the tax proceeds from those redevelopments in perpetuity go to the housing trust fund to support very low-income housing creation.” But, Shaw said, the community needed to do more. “We need to set and be specific in our goals. We have lots of opinions about where we need to go. It’s very hard to have folks come together and give very clear direction that ‘these are the three to five things that we all agree will count as success for affordability’. That’s happening right now.”


The representative of Capital Metro at the meeting cautioned that unless problems in transportation are addressed, gains made in the area of affordable housing could be offset. “A lot of what we talked about here tonight is providing economic opportunities…but if people can’t get there to access them, then they’re not really doing what they were intended to do,” said John-Michael Cortez. He urged commissioners to keep transportation needs in mind as they made their decisions, and to get involved in discussions over CAMPO’s 2035 Plan. “Every single one of your commissions have a lot at stake with this particular process. The decisions that are made at that level are going to trickle down and affect what gets built and maintained. Consider transit an infrastructure that is vital for the quality of life.”

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