Austin renters now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, more than renters in any other big Texas city. ...The rising cost of living is the second-biggest concern for people in the Austin area, behind only the notoriously snarled traffic, according to a recent, wide-ranging survey by veteran pollster Peter Zandan.
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Austin’s rising cost of housing among top concerns
Posted: 6:17 p.m. Saturday, July 12, 2014
By Marty Toohey - American-Statesman Staff
Austin renters now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, more than renters in any other big Texas city. But that wasn’t always the case; during the 1980s and 1990s — when “Austin City Limits” was only a TV show and downtown’s skyline was more low-rise than high-rise — housing in Austin was the least expensive among Texas cities.
Austinites have noticed that the trend is going in the wrong direction. The rising cost of living is the second-biggest concern for people in the Austin area, behind only the notoriously snarled traffic, according to a recent, wide-ranging survey by veteran pollster Peter Zandan.
Stacy Guidry co-hosts a civic-affairs radio show on KOOP called “Shades of Green.” A recent show discussed affordability issues and Austin’s ... Read More
“It’s an important issue for the community because for creative types and people who take risks, cost can be a big barrier to entry,” Zandan said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but we’re getting there. It’s an issue that could affect the city perhaps more deeply even than transportation.”
In Zandan’s survey, affordability arose in a variety of ways, including:
• How satisfied residents are with 15 major aspects of Austin life, such as job opportunities and the environment. Of the four aspects that polled the worst, three were related to affordability: the overall cost of living (59 percent were dissatisfied), the cost of housing (65 percent) and the availability of affordable housing (67 percent).
• The primary reason people said they warn friends against moving to Austin was traffic, at 33 percent. But “it’s too expensive” and “difficult to find affordable housing” were not far behind; when those overlapping reasons are combined, 27 percent of people cited cost as the main reason not to move to Austin, making cost the second-most-popular reason to avoid moving here, according to the survey.
There is ample evidence backing residents’ concerns about affordability. The typical property-tax bill rose 38 percent between 2000 and 2010, even adjusting for inflation, according to a 2012 American-Statesman analysis. The average Austin rent now stands at just above $1,000 a month, the highest it has ever been. It rose 50 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to Capitol Market Research, even as the median income rose just 9 percent over that span, according to the Texas A&M Real Estate Center.
Historically, affordability has been one of Austin’s central appeals. Even slackers have been able to make it here. In the 15-year span from 1985 to 2000, Austin renters spent just more than 20 percent of their after-tax income on housing. That made Austin the cheapest among Texas’ big cities, according to Zillow Real Estate Research. The Texas capital was below the national average.
Now, housing takes 30 percent of Austin renters’ income, more than the national average and more than in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. That is also above the “red line” that experts say is more than a household should be paying for both housing and utilities.
Housing is not the only rising cost. Water and electric costs are also on the rise. In May, Fitch Ratings downgraded the Austin Water Utility’s credit outlook from stable to negative, partly because of rates that are “somewhat high relative to income levels of city residents, and in comparison to other large urban systems.” The water utility’s proposed drought fee earned it a Bum Steer of the Month award from Texas Monthly.
Zandan’s polling found that affordability concerns held across race, age and the part of the city in which poll respondents live. And it bleeds into other issues.
Civic activist Stacy Guidry co-hosts a weekly radio show, “Shades of Green,” which focuses on sustainability issues. The name isn’t a reference to money. But Guidry said affordability is increasingly intertwined with other sustainability issues, from water supply to transportation. Even diet can be affected by the cost of living; as other expenses rise, people who want to eat organic food have less money for the often more expensive fare, Guidry said.
“Affordability and sustainability go hand-in-hand now,” she said.
For example, the July 3 show was a dense, nuanced debate about a proposed $1.4 billion urban rail system. Anything with that kind of price tag is bound to have critics who say it’s too expensive. But the guests on the radio show agreed that Austin needs a rail system. They argued mainly about the best route — and even under those pro-rail circumstances, cost kept coming up, both for rail and its alternatives.
“It is spending a billion dollars to put rail in the wrong place. … You’re soaking up a lot of resources for that,” said Lyndon Henry, a rail proponent who dislikes the route a regional planning group has settled on.
“This is an expensive project,” replied John-Michael Cortez, a spokesman for Capital Metro. “But the cost of doing nothing is higher.”
When Guidry posted a recent Buzzfeed article to her Facebook page about national housing costs, one of her friends suggested that Austin renters might have been spoiled until recently. The occupancy rate was 89 percent in 2003, as opposed to 97 percent earlier this year. The lower occupancy rates correlated to cheaper rent.
Austin also is hardly alone in rising housing costs. A recent Harvard University study found that one-third of American households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Zandan’s polling found Austinites know other places are more expensive than Austin, particularly in housing. Only 9 percent thought Austin was more expensive than New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Still, two-thirds of the people Zandan polled said that Austin is less affordable than comparable cities — which is a generally accurate conclusion, according to Zillow rankings from late 2013.
Zillow found that housing — generally a household’s biggest expense — was far more expensive in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco, even when accounting for the higher incomes in those cities. Wages in Miami weren’t so staggeringly high, but prices were, making housing a far greater burden for people there than it was for Austinites. Likewise, housing took a bigger chunk of household income in several of Austin’s peer cities, including Denver and Seattle.
In other places the comparison is muddled. For instance, average mortgage payments took a higher percentage of household income in Portland, Ore. But rent consumed less of a household’s income. Conversely, rents took more household income in Orlando, Fla., but mortgages consumed less household income.
In Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, among other cities, both rents and mortgages consumed less household income than Austin.
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In related news, the latest living wage for Travis County has been released: