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Thursday, June 23, 2016 by Jack Craver

Austin’s black population growing again

After years of decline, Austin’s African-American population appears to be growing again.

In a presentation during a City Council work session Tuesday, city demographer Ryan Robinson explained to Council members that the black population within Austin’s city limits increased by an estimated 8,000 in the four years following the 2010 census. In the entire Austin metropolitan area, it grew by an estimated 20,000.

The figures are not based on a survey as comprehensive as the decennial census, but rather on estimates from the annual American Community Survey. The margin of error for the estimate of the city’s total black population was +/- 2,036.

That the black population grew at all, however, represents a stark reversal of the trend over the previous decade, between 2000 and 2010, when Austin was the only major high-growth city in the country that saw a net loss of black residents, explained Robinson in an interview with the Austin Monitor.

About a third of the population growth was due to births outpacing deaths in the African-American population, while the rest is due to newcomers.

The growth in the black population, Robinson suggested, is being driven by the same economic forces driving Austin’s overall population boom.

“We were the last large metro area in the country to go into recession and the first to come out,” he said. “That high level of job creation and economic and cultural vibrancy has turned it around for us.”

And yet, due to even greater population growth among other demographic groups, the African-American share of the city’s overall population likely declined from 2010 to 2014, from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent. In 1990, Austin’s African-American population stood at 12.4 percent.

There has been particularly strong growth in the city’s Asian population, which the same 2014 survey put at 6.6 percent, but which Robinson predicted has likely since overtaken the black population in size. The Latino population has remained relatively stable, estimated at 34.8 percent. Non-Hispanic whites make up 48.7 percent of the city.

In recent years, a popular explanation for the departure of African-Americans from Austin has centered on the city’s rising housing costs. But the most dramatic increases in housing cost have taken place since 2010, and Robinson argues that the city only entered a veritable affordability crisis within the past few years.

Indeed, as an article in Texas Monthly pointed out last year, the average home price in the 78702 zip code that covers much of East Austin tripled between January 2011 and the summer of 2014, from $125,000 to $375,000.

Many black families leaving the city, said Robinson, are leaving for the same reasons that people have historically opted for the suburbs: bigger houses and better schools.

The median income for black households in Pflugerville, where many of Austin’s African-Americans have migrated in recent years, was $67,235, compared to $50,820 for black households within city.

“What happened to Pflugerville was not the suburbanization of poverty,” said Robinson.

Eric Tang, a UT professor of African-American Studies who authored a study examining the causes of Austin’s declining black population, said that those who moved to northern suburbs, such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, were generally better off than those who moved to eastern ones, such as Manor, Bastrop and Del Valle.

It was not only the poor who were forced out of Austin because of a lack of affordability, he pointed out. Many middle class families in East Austin felt they could no longer afford to live in a city with prices geared increasingly toward the upper-middle class or wealthy.

In a survey of 100 black former residents of Austin who had moved to the suburbs, which Tang conducted as part of his study, two-thirds of those who had moved east cited affordability when explaining their departure. Half of those who had moved north said the same.

While African-Americans here are better off economically than they are nationally, the economic disparities between racial groups here is also much greater than usual. The median income of white ($97,939) and Asian ($101,699) families in Austin is roughly twice that of black ($50,820) and Latino ($43,198) families.

Council Member Pio Renteria, a native of East Austin, voiced pessimism about the city being able to bring back black families. He blamed misguided urban renewal efforts in the latter part of the 20th century that he said came at the expense of black-owned businesses and houses in East Austin, as well as the city’s inability to address the housing crisis.

“We had the opportunity in the 2000s to build more affordable housing around 11th and 12th street and we turned our backs on that, too,” he said.

He also suggested that, if not for the arrival of a large number of people fleeing Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city’s black population would be even smaller.

Council Member Ora Houston, the only African-American on Council, similarly said the city had overlooked the economic interests of the black community, but also cited the cultural change brought by newcomers to the city that she said often left her feeling unwelcome in her own neighborhood in East Austin.

“I go into places in District 1 and people look at me like ‘what are you doing here’?” she said.

Photo by US Federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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