Austin, Texas. Photograph by Kyle Lander
Austin is the fastest-growing city in the United States. More than 150,000 people moved there in the last decade and the city now has almost 800,000 residents. The greater metro area added almost half a million people in the past ten years and now has a population of about 1.7 million. This rapid growth has made Austin one of the few cities in the country where the housing market is strong and stable. The total dollar amount of single-family homes sold in Austin in October was more than $543 million, and with the population expected to keep growing and spreading into other parts of the city, the future looks good for realtors and developers in Austin.
For everyone else, the future looks expensive. Central Texas is struggling with an overloaded infrastructure and crippling congestion, which will keep getting worse unless Austin and Travis County can figure out how to build light rail, buy more buses and establish more routes, carve out more bike and pedestrian paths, and build larger highways—all of which comes with a price tag in the tens of billions. That money would have to come from ever-increasing property taxes and fees paid by current residents, and of course those living in growing neighborhoods will be hit hardest.
This means the residents of the East Side, where the city’s Hispanic population (35 percent of the city’s residents) has been concentrated for more than eighty years, ever since the city cordoned off those neighborhoods as a ghetto for Hispanics and blacks in the late 1920s. While much of the rest of Austin has grown and prospered in the last twenty-five years, the East Side has been disproportionately neglected, marred by blight and crime and now in the throes of rapid gentrification.
Austin’s real estate boom, spreading out from downtown, is accelerating that process on the East Side, where many homeowners are low-income or retired and living on fixed incomes. East Side homeowners have seen their property taxes rise sharply over the past decade, some by more than 100 percent and others by more than 1,000 percent, yet the city has barely acknowledged the problem in its plans for future development. Last year, City Council adopted the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, to guide the transformation of a part of the city known for dilapidated strip malls, aging apartment complexes, seedy bars, and cheap Mexican restaurants. City planners envision a light rail connecting a revamped, pedestrian-friendly corridor to the airport and downtown, with high-end apartments and condos replacing the bars and strip malls.