Does Austin's Economic Segregation Threaten Its Charm?

Feb 24, 2015

Austin-Round Rock is the third most economically segregated metropolitan area in America, according to a University of Toronto study released this week. It ranks highest among the country’s large metro areas.

The study, led by urban researcher Richard Florida, measures how much residents concentrate by income, occupation and educational attainment. Only Tallahassee and Trenton are more segregated than Austin.

Four of America’s ten most segregated large metropolitan areas are in Texas: Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.

Ryan Robinson, Austin’s City Demographer, says the study highlights a contradiction in the city’s character: The very qualities that make Austin so appealing also correlate strongly with its segregated nature.

In an interview with KUT, Robinson commented on the study's findings.

“I’ve long said that Austin is segregated along so many different lines, and yet so many things that are driving [this] are very positive attributes, attributes that I would never want to trade with another city, in fact attributes that I would argue have collectively become one of our biggest economic development engines.”

He cites Austin's status as a tech hub, the fact that one in five Austinites is foreign born and the relatively robust LGBT culture as positive attributes that are also related to the city's segregated state.

"Yes, this is a less-than-ideal situation," he says, "but I would still argue that the fundamental factors that are actually driving that segregation are the factors that make Austin at the end of the day one of the greatest places to live in the country.”

Economic segregation erodes Austin’s charm

Just because the segregation issue stems from certain appealing aspects of Austin culture, Robinson says he thinks that the segregation takes away from the charm. He says the city should be paying attention to the study's findings.

“I think Austin should care," he says. "If we’re going to continue to be a vibrant place that has I would argue an enviable quality of life – if we’re going to continue to be that very special place – then we don’t want to be a tale of two cities, we don’t want to be this highly divided place where, depending on what neighborhood you’re in, that determines what experience you’re having.”

The concentration of wealth has shifted westwards

Austin has long been segregated economically, Robinson says, but the wealth has migrated over time.

“The peak of affluence historically was very much in town, but it has migrated west, into the Hills and into West Lake, and when you look at a map of median family income, you really see just one big dark blue blob, so indeed the affluent have self-sorted themselves into one macro-neighborhood,” he says. 

A map of median family incomes.

How to recapture “the missing middle”

The Austin City Government is in the process of rewriting its land development code, a project it calls CodeNEXT. Robinson says the new code could open up what he calls “the missing middle” of housing stock - affordable, single-family homes that aren’t simply apartments.

“You know, the code right now is dictating single-family home detached construction and a lot of garden style apartments. And all that stuff in between – attached housing, the type of housing that you see at Mueller – that is actually hard to do given the existing code," he says. "So if we change the code, we can allow the creation of this far more, not just dense, but diversely-dense, housing arrangements that will indeed be attractive to the folks that would otherwise be attracted to self-segregation.”

The city's now in the third phase of the four-phase CodeNEXT project. After gathering data and public feedback, it's now in the writing phase. The Austin City Council will have the final say on the new code, scheduled for implementation in the summer of 2016.