Are Families with Children Being Forced Out of the City?
Austin is the ninth fastest growing city in the United States, averaging a whopping 151 new residents each day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It certainly means a changing landscape for what was once a small town, and one of those changes may mean fewer families with children.
The number of families with children in Austin’s urban core is decreasing overall, even as the city’s population increased to 824,205 in April 2012. Some blame rising housing prices, lack of housing choices and schools, but others say you just have to prioritize to live with a family in the city.
“As a professional demographer, I think it’s something to be concerned about,” says Ryan Robinson, the City's demographer-in-chief. “A central city completely void of families with children is a type of homogeneity that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the steep [housing] price increase.”
This trend has been a long time in the making, Robinson says. Between 1970 and 2000, the central city's families-with-children share decreased by more than half, from 32 percent to 14 percent, but the overall population of families with children was still increasing. Now, within the urban core (inside Loop 360, Ben White and 183), both the share and the overall population of families with children are on the decline.
Click image for full-size version. Red means neighborhood loss of kids.
“It’s complicated,” Robinson acknowledges, “because there are numerous parts of town that are full of young families with children, so it might not feel that way.”
Windsor Park, located north of the new Mueller shopping development, for example, is a popular neighborhood for families with young children and is still considered to be relatively affordable. However, Robinson says, as the children in this neighborhood reach school age, many Windsor Park families leave for a different part of the school district or the suburbs and are replaced by another young family.
Russell Holley-Hurt, a digital asset manager for Whole Foods, moved to Windsor Park almost three years ago with his wife Carrie, when their daughter was 16 months old. He says they chose the area because the houses are great starter homes, “reasonably priced but relatively nice and close to downtown,” and the neighborhood presented cheaper options than South Austin. Holley-Hurt says the family will “definitely” still be in the neighborhood when Harper starts kindergarten, although whether that will be in public or private school is still up in the air.
Although he says being a parent in Austin has its perks – laid back people, fun activities, kid-friendly restaurants – he has questions about how the school system is run and describes the family’s property taxes as “crazy high.” Still, he says they’ll move away from Austin altogether before moving to the suburbs, listing 78704 or Hyde Park as possible destinations down the road.
The area known by its ZIP code, 78704, is bucking this decreasing children trend, says Robinson, calling this South Austin area known for its high-performing schools as a “destination neighborhood.” Contrary to the population in Windsor Park, families are moving to this neighborhood with their school-age children, resulting in a high transfer student enrollment at area schools.
Everybody loves 78704. (Photo courtesy Austinevan on Flickr.)
Andy Elder, a market researcher for Illuminas, is the president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, a 10-year resident of the neighborhood and the father of a 5, 4 and 1 year old. When the 2010 Census came out, Austin Independent School District noted the trend of decreasing families overall, and talk began of closing some schools, including Zilker Elementary School. Elder, whose 5-year-old daughter is a Zilker student, and others rallied to prevent this closure from happening, saying Zilker’s kid population wasn’t decreasing at all.
The Zilker Neighborhood Association began a survey of its own, to find out if anecdotal evidence of family growth could be proven with numbers. The survey found that although families weren’t growing on main corridors, like South Lamar, there were more families with children in the interior. Between 2000 and 2010, the overall number of families with children increased by 62, Elder says, and this year, Zilker Elementary added an additional kindergarten class.
Living in a neighborhood with excellent schools and parks but that is still close to restaurants and entertainment comes at a price, Elder admits, adding that making a choice on what’s important is a necessary fact of life to afford to live in the neighborhood.
“I’m at a point where my property taxes are close to exceeding my mortgage,” he says. “Now, I have to look at that and think, 'What do I do differently?' … maybe start bicycle commuting. In the future, I will probably have to think about selling my car. But those are the kinds of tradeoffs people make in exchange for the schools and neighborhood. It’s a big incentive.”
Although they’re committed to staying put, as their family has grown, Elder admits he and his wife have discussed the possibility of having to move at some point.
“With a small house, you don’t hang on to a lot of toys because the closet is full,” he says. “When our third child was born, we’d already run out of bedrooms, so we had to decide, ‘Do the kids share bedrooms?’”
The housing size issue is a serious one in Austin, a town where two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalows abound, and at an increasingly expensive cost. Sale prices for homes in Austin have appreciated by 17 percent over the last five years, according to real estate site Trulia.com. And although multiple vertical-mixed use buildings (which is city planning-speak for multiple-floor buildings with residences, shops and other uses) are planned throughout the central city, especially along the South Lamar corridor, those won’t provide much relief, Robinson says.
The two-bedroom one-bath model.
“Three-bedroom units are more expensive to build,” he explains. “The primary market for those [vertical-mixed use] developments is not families with children. They will give some relief, but I don’t know how much.”
Robinson sites the Mueller subdivision, off Airport, as a good model from the vision of a mixed-income, mixed-family community, but the development has experienced some unexpected popularity. Houses have already gone through four price increases, and although there was a school site originally set aside, the number of families with children that developers expected by this point haven't materialized, at least in part due to the prices, so the site sits empty.
“It’s a universal truth – when families are involved in competition for housing, they’ll lose,” Robinson says. “There’s an excitement of the redevelopment of Mueller and the urban core, but because of that, it’s so desirable and tough for families to keep up.”
An early model of the Mueller development. (Photo courtesy of Cote on Flickr.)
Rob Ryland, who works in client relations with a downtown law firm, experienced that reality when he moved to Elgin in 2006. Ryland and his wife bought a 1,200-square-foot home in 1999 for just over $100,000 not far from where Ryland grew up in South Austin. Although he says they loved the house, when it was appraised for close to $250,000 in 2006, they couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Looking at other neighborhoods in Austin wasn’t an option, as neighborhoods outside the city presented more land for less money.
“We wanted more space and another bathroom,” he says. “There weren’t many other kids around us. There were a lot of renters and older folks, and it didn’t seem that many families were moving into the neighborhood.”
Ryland and his family moved out to Elgin, where they bought a 2,200-square-foot farmhouse on a large lot near his sister and her family. “There were a lot of other families in the neighborhood,” Ryland says. “A lot of it was just a ‘birds of a feather’ kind of thing.”
Six years later, Ryland says they’ll probably consider moving back into the city after his 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son are out of school. The 45-minute commute each way gets to him, and although he says they love the house, he misses being close to friends and nightlife.
“We used to like going to shows or out to eat, but with a 45-minute commute, when we get home, we’re not going back [into the city],” he says. “The part I miss most is just not being able to visit with our friends as often, and having to do so much driving. It’d save a good hour of my life every day if I didn’t have to make that drive.”
Ryland certainly isn’t alone there. Robinson says that although employment is starting to decentralize, it’s not decentralizing as quickly as the population is. That, coupled with an already out-of-date and inadequate infrastructure, adds to Austin’s traffic congestion problem. As far as keeping families in the city though, Robinson says there’s only so much the City can do.
“There are loads of families with children that want to be in the central city because of the vibrancy of living here, so many families will make it happen,” he says. As a city, “we have to determine if there’s anything in our codes or regulations that could be adding to this centrifugal effect of pushing people out to the suburbs. “
The City toyed with the idea of giving out low interest loans for house expansions, to keep people put rather than moving to larger homes, but that never got off the ground, Robinson says.
Still, Zilker Neighborhood Association president Elder says there is more that the City can do, especially with Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan for managing the city’s growth, on the horizon, citing things like more variety in housing and more transportation choices.
“It feels like we’ve run out of tools in terms of zoning and incentives; there needs to be a fresh way of looking at how people live and how our neighborhoods are organized to accommodate families and mixed income and backgrounds,” he says. “We need a healthy mix in our neighborhoods, not a snapshot of either the way housing looked in 1963 or a McMansion. There has to be some other option.”