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Where have all the children gone? Commission studies Austin’s shrinking family share

Monday, November 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Success has come at a cost for families with children in Austin.

At its most recent meeting, the Planning Commission took a look at how decreased affordability is impacting families in Austin and started a conversation about how it might address the issue. Commissioners asked city demographer Ryan Robinson to give them the lay of the land, and he delivered a picture of the city that posed the question: “Are we becoming an overpriced playground for the rich and famous?”

Agreeing with many Austin residents, Robinson cited affordability and mobility as two big, negative manifestations of the historic boom the city has seen over the past decade. He asked commissioners to consider the impact of the central city’s current role as “a centrifuge for families,” particularly families with fewer resources.

“The way I think of it is we are experiencing collapsing affordability. It’s not simply an eroding affordability, it’s a full-on collapse, especially in the central city,” said Robinson. “Households with children are being pushed around because of this collapse in affordability.”

By type, Austin households in 2015 were composed of 47.5 percent nonfamilies, 35.3 percent married couples, 12.6 percent single mothers and 4.7 percent single fathers. In real numbers, there are about 98,950 households with children (and about 199,980 children) in the city.

Robinson also tried to discern what types of housing families live in. He explained that the task was complicated by how census data is broken down, but overall, about 53.5 percent of households with children and about 76 percent of two-parent families lived in single-family housing. Of course, that number remains in flux.

“The total number of households with children in the city is climbing, no doubt about that. But the share of the total is beginning to drop,” said Robinson, who noted that in the urban core, within the approximate loop of Highway 183, Highway 360 and Ben White Boulevard (excluding West Lake Hills), only about 21 percent of households have children.

Out of the 30 largest cities in the country, Austin now ranks 22nd in terms of how many households have children. However, in terms of the greater metropolitan area, Austin ranks 16th, which shows that families remain in the area, though they are leaving the central city.

Ex officio Planning Commissioner Jayme Mathias, who is an AISD trustee, said he was grateful for the chance to participate in the discussion.

“As a district, you can imagine our concern with the suburbanization of poverty, how it is we can keep families here in the core, and affordability,” said Mathias. He said that on his first day on the Planning Commission, for example, he was “appalled” at the low fees-in-lieu along the Riverside corridor, which has traditionally been a place where low-income families could afford to live.

Mathias also said that the school district was not just down 1,000 students. AISD is actually down 2,000 economically disadvantaged students and up 1,000 students from a more stable socioeconomic background. “We are seeing some changes that are absolutely alarming,” he said.

Taking a closer look at some neighborhoods, Robinson compared the 78704 and 78741 ZIP code areas. He noted that in 78704, there was a consistent decrease in the under-18 population from 2000 to 2010, despite a surge in construction in the area.

Over that same period, there was a consistent increase in children in 78741, a “demographic swell” that didn’t necessarily correlate with increased construction. Robinson pointed out that instead, surges in family populations occurred in places with older housing stock, like the Riverside corridor or the Rundberg Road area. Patterns like that, he said, make it hard for school districts to predict school population shifts.

In his presentation, Robinson also noted that the east side ZIP code 78702 experienced a tripling in median value since 2007 – and that info is almost two years old. Over the same time period, enrollment in East Austin schools fell rapidly.

Commissioner Trinity White, who lives in that ZIP code, pointed out that there is a lot of construction going on in her neighborhood, “but it’s not doing anything to keep the families, because there’s no affordability.”

“Even though we’ve got single-family houses going up, and we’ve got huge apartment buildings being renovated all along Manor, they aren’t attracting families, and they’re pushing the families out,” said White. “To me, it seems like the takeaway is: It doesn’t matter how many bedrooms you have, it matters if you can afford any of those bedrooms.”

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza said it was important for the commission to take a look at what was actually going on, and as an example, she said she was “shocked” to find out that only about 1.6 percent of residents in the Triangle, at 46th and Guadalupe streets, had children.

“I’m not sure what we think works, works,” said Zaragoza.

Commissioner Jose Vela pinned the problem on land value and said that the recent doubling and tripling of that value has led to today’s increased housing costs. However, he said that it was important to “allow the bubble to create the housing that will eventually age, and eventually wear down, and … eventually become the affordable housing of the next decades.”

“It has to happen, and if we unnaturally constrain it, we’re really setting ourselves up for the nightmare San Francisco model,” said Vela.

At the beginning of his presentation, Robinson laid out his “executive summary,” saying, “Austin, Texas, is Boomtown, USA. We will look back at these years and just go, ‘Wow.’”

He added, “Show me a city that has as vibrant an economy as Austin does that doesn’t have a real issue with housing, and I’ll be amazed.”

Graph courtesy of the city of Austin, from presentation below.

Download (PDF, 16.29MB)

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