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Demographer says city’s rapid growth a complex statistical issue

Friday, June 6, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin’s growth has received a lot of attention over the past few years. The pace of that growth certainly warrants attention – but are we seeing it clearly? The Austin Monitor sat down with City Demographer Ryan Robinson to try to figure that out.


“People just grasp on to how many people move here a day. I can’t stand that statistic,” said Robinson. “It implies this constant flow… That is not the way it works. It comes in surges. It implies a regularity that just isn’t there.”


The fact that, statistically, 110 people move to Austin every day in no way tells the whole story, he said. Middle-class families are leaving the central city, and what is beginning to emerge is that Austin is retaining two types of families: those with very high incomes and those with very low incomes.


Robinson says the pattern is already noticeable and amplified in area school districts, where the children from low-income families are heading to Del Valle and Manor ISDs, with those children whose families earn more filling Leander, Round Rock and Pflugerville school districts.


If families are fleeing, then who is moving to the central city? Increasingly, he said, it is Baby Boomers and senior citizens. Last year, Austin had the highest percentage increase in over-50 population nationwide, he said.


It is those two groups that Robinson says are keeping downtown high-end occupancy rates “really, really high.” And that is not something likely to change any time soon. Though he notes that a lot of attention is given to Austin’s millennial population, it is one of the slower-growing groups in the city. Though the millennial population does continue to set Austin apart from other cities, their relatively large population is not expanding as quickly as other, perhaps less-marketable, groups.


“The fastest growing cohorts are very young children under the age of 10, baby boomers and seniors,” said Robinson. “That kind of goes against this notion of Austin as this young city that’s a magnet for young people. We are, but the sort-of unknown dynamic is that we are also incredibly attractive to baby boomers and seniors.”


Complicating this is what Robinson suspects is a fundamental shift in what it means to retire. The old model, where Americans were able to drop out of the workforce entirely, supported an older model of what was appealing in a retirement community as well.


This could mean the end of the “move out, move into a fortress model,” that defined retirement communities like Sun City near Georgetown.


These days, fewer people are able to afford to retire entirely.


“People are going to have to stay in the game,” said Robinson. “If that’s true, vibrant economies like Austin are going to be increasingly attractive to seniors.”


Robinson explained that Austin currently has one of the lowest populations of seniors in the country, at about 8 1/2 percent.


“But it’s increasing at a really rapid rate. That 8 percent is going to grow to about 18 to 20 percent in the next 25 years. That’s what some folks call the Silver Tsunami,” said Robinson. “It really will be this kind of huge wave crashing over the market.”


Most of that initial increase will come from people moving to Austin. However, says Robinson, as that migration happens, it will also increasingly come from people aging in place. Currently, the national percentage of seniors is just under 13 percent and is expected to reach 19 percent by 2030.


Additionally, about one-third of Austin’s increase in population comes from natural sources – that is the number of people that are born, subtracted from those who die. That third should

remain constant even as the overall population increases.


And it will, no doubt, increase, according to Robinson.


Austin is following a national trend where two distinct rental markets have emerged explains Robinson. There are the cheaper rentals, aimed at students or subsidized for those earning the least. And there is an increasing market for luxury rentals.


“So much of the new stock is really, really expensive. People just can’t afford it,” said Robinson. That leaves those who cannot afford the new rentals scrambling to compete for cheaper housing, whose occupancy remains at 97 percent.


“That’s really, really tight. That’s a landlord’s market. No concessions are ever given. No breaks given. That simple situation, where you have these really divergent rent structures and divergent occupancy rates – that is what we are beginning to see here,” said Robinson.


The city is also seeing rapidly increasing costs for homeowners, and both have led to the aforementioned loss of central city families. In the 78704 ZIP code, every single age group under 18 saw a drop in population between the year 2000 and 2010.Though the ZIP code has historically been a family-heavy band of neighborhoods, gentrification has led to an overall loss in families.


Robinson says that, while there are a variety of reasons that could happen, to him the primary culprit is intense housing price pressure that has seen huge increases.


“When there is pricing competition over housing, families are going to lose that competition every time if they are up against a household that doesn’t have kids,” said Robinson. He notes that even the Mueller development has not seen the expected number of children, leaving plans for another school in the area on the drawing board.


“The market-rate housing at Mueller has already gone through four price point escalations,” said Robinson. “As housing increases in price, it really becomes antagonistic to families.”

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