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The census in Austin: homelessness, housing and schoolchildren

Tuesday, September 7, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the census, especially on a local level. As city demographer Lila Valencia told the Austin Monitor, “The census touches so many aspects of our lives, from our representation at our nation’s capital, to local representation on school boards and City Council districts, to over $1.5 trillion in federal funds for programs supporting housing, parks, roads, school lunch and education programs, among many others.”

Results from the 2020 U.S. Census revealed that, over the past decade, Austin added 171,465 new residents, bringing the total population to 961,855 – falling short of some demographers’ predictions that the city would surpass a total population of 1 million.

Yet Austin has still experienced rapid growth in the last 10 years, coming in only second to Fort Worth in terms of major city growth rate in Texas.

The city attributes nearly 40 percent of its growth over the past decade to its minority populations. One group that increased its representation was the city’s Asian population, with nearly one out of every five new Austinites being of Asian descent.

Leading up to the census, the city started with some baseline expectations for groups that were at risk of being undercounted, like children under the age of 5, college students, immigrants, and members of the city’s homeless population.

By 2019 estimates, Austin had around 225,000 immigrants, 85,000 children under the age of 5 and 135,000 college students.

Data around homelessness is particularly noteworthy because in Austin, like other majority cities, homelessness has become a political flashpoint in recent years. The census doesn’t provide overall counts of homeless populations on a local level, meaning that some of the best gauges available for assessing the size and needs of homeless people come from cities and support organizations.

A point-in-time count from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO, estimated that in May, there were 3,160 people experiencing homelessness in Austin.

Another interesting trend to note is housing availability compared to population growth.

The share of housing units in the city increased from 354,241 in 2010 to 444,426 in 2020 – around a 25 percent increase. During this same time frame, the city’s population increased 21 percent, meaning that housing supply slightly outpaced population growth.

A city report published last year showed that median rents have increased 38 percent since 2010, far outpacing the rate of inflation, meaning that despite similar housing availability in the past decade, rents have continued to rise.

Valencia explained that what the city is seeing now are just some of the top-line figures from the 2020 census, a set of data called the Redistricting File, which documents things like total population, housing units, race/ethnicity, and voting age population.

Next year, policymakers will be able to look at the Demographic and Housing Characteristics File, which has more granular data on things like housing tenure, family type and household size.

The follow-up data could provide valuable information about the Austin Independent School District, which has struggled with declining enrollment for years. The demographic file will provide a better look at the city’s school-age and non-school-age populations.

“The child population has been growing throughout the last decade,” said Valencia. That means that AISD’s enrollment woes go beyond just the available student base and involve factors like charter and private schools.

In terms of what policymakers are looking to take away from the census findings, it comes down to how this explosive growth will impact life in the city. According to Valencia, decision-makers “want to understand if Austin is no longer affordable to families, especially diverse families who may have been living in historic areas of our city, and what they can do to help them stay.”

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