Austin, Texas has sustained a steady pace of growth for more than 70 years, and has seen its population double twice since 1970. It has gone from a small city whose workforce was dominated by moderate income state and university workers, to a diversified regional economy with greater extremes of wealth and poverty. Its low cost of living and large public university helped spawn a unique culture and music scene. Over time, the pressures of growth have caused the city to expand outward, pushing development into surrounding towns and natural areas. By 2014, Austin had transformed from one of the most affordable small cities in the country, to the 11th largest city in the nation, and the least affordable housing market in the state of Texas1. Its role in the region has also shifted, as the city’s share of the five county region’s population has fallen from 63% in 1970 to 46% in 2010.
These changes have reduced the housing choices available to low and moderate income households. Rents have risen dramatically, particularly in areas close to downtown Austin or the University of Texas. Property values - and taxes - have skyrocketed in Austin’s historically affordable central neighborhoods in recent years. Census data reveal the ongoing demographic transformation of central east Austin neighborhoods, particularly the area historically designated as a “negro district” prior to court rulings outlawing racial discrimination in housing and public accommodations.
While the broad outlines of change are well documented, we know little about how low income workers view their housing choices and their commute to work. They may prefer suburban locations for their housing types and school districts. Does their current home location indicate such a decision? Or, are they unhappy with the time and money spent on long commutes? If given an affordable choice, would they prefer to live more centrally, closer to work? If so, would they prefer neighborhoods with better access to transit and services? With a mix of housing types? What impact could provision of housing affordable to low wage workers in central Austin have on the time and cost of their commute?
The answers to these questions also have significance for the broader community. Lack of housing affordable to low and moderate income households may reduce the attractiveness of the region to new employers, threatening ongoing economic growth. Long commutes, including time spent sitting in traffic, reduce the quality of life not only of commuters but of all who breathe the air in the region. Long commutes contribute to worsening air quality and the incidence of respiratory problems, such as asthma. Finally, ongoing decentralization of regional population draws people away from the network of social services and community institutions established to serve residents, compromising service delivery and informal social networks.
This report details the findings of a survey of central Austin workers working full time for modest salaries and commuting at least 10 miles to work in central Austin. We surveyed 928 people who live more than 10 miles from the city center, earn less than $60,000 per year and work for two of the city’s largest local employers - The City of Austin and the University of Texas at Austin. Those surveyed were randomly selected from a list of over 5,000 employees meeting our wage and commute criteria. The response rate was 34.5 percent.