City of Austin housing has not “kept pace” with population growth

The City of Austin grew from 678,457 to 931,840 people in just ten years between 2005 and 2015, adding 253,383 new residents. While not as much growth as the City of Houston – which added 357,198 in the same period – this growth is harder on Austin with its segregationist zoning code and its extraordinarily high rate of sprawl.

Displacement, traffic, and other issues of growth are real, meaningful problems for the young metropolitan region and the city – and particularly tough for some residents of the region. How we respond with public and private decisions will determine the carbon footprint of the region, the ability of people to afford to live here, the quality of millions of people’s lives, and the long term sustainability of the metropolis.

A recent report from the Urban Institute claims that the City of Austin’s housing stock “kept pace” with its own population growth because the addition of housing units was at a similar rate to the addition of population in the city. KUT’s coverage focused on this concept of comparing population growth in the city to growth of housing units in the city.

The underlying premise of comparing just the city’s population growth to housing unit growth is suspect. So I dug up my own data from the US Census Bureau’s Fact Finder and ran my own numbers to allow a different interpretation of the same data they were trying to explain.

Here goes:

How City of Austin failed to keep pace with population growth

The Austin region grew by 740,830 people between 2000 and 2015 or a growth rate of 59%, with 465,552 of that growth happening across the region outside of the City of Austin – what you normally call sprawl.

Yet during this period, the City of Austin limited growth of housing through its segregationist zoning code, meaning that only 120,795 housing units were added in the city, at a growth rate of 44%.

This seems to have limited population growth inside the city to a rate of 42%, a significantly slower rate than the region as a whole. Yet people still want to live inside the city where they have much greater access to jobs, retail, people, schools, and affordable transportation costs. Since the city’s segregation policies can’t actually dictate who rents or buys each unit, lower income people were likely forced out as units within the city went to the highest bidders. This is the core story of displacement.

Were the City of Austin to have “kept pace” with regional growth – simply matching regional growth rate – it should have added an additional 43,310 housing units between 2000 and 2015. Doing this would have meant radically cutting displacement and the costs of sprawl. An additional 113,916 people should have been allowed to live in the City of Austin than were allowed simply to match regional growth rate. This would have meant a more sustainable tax base for the city, a more feasible future for AISD, and a variety of other benefits both for current residents and local governments.

If Austin were to have adopted smart growth policies – which it most certainly has not done – it would have tried to grow at a faster rate than the region. This would have allowed more people access to live in walkable urban places connected by high quality transit with low carbon lifestyles. This also would have cut down on the vast amounts of the Hill Country continuing to be destroyed through the interaction of the city’s segregationist zoning and CAMPO’s sprawltastic Regional Transportation Plan.

The traffic consequences of limiting access to the City of Austin

Using the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing and Transportation Affordability Index – one of the most important tools on the entire interwebs IMHO – I found that residents of the City of Austin on average drive a vehicle 7,894 miles every year, while residents of the rest of the CAMPO region drive 10,221 miles every year on average.

This vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita is perhaps one of the most important environmental variables facing our metropolis, our nation, and our world. This determines not only your consumption of gasoline and emissions while driving, but also need for the car itself. The embodied carbon of a new car is about equal to the carbon emitted from the tailpipe over the lifetime of the car – a carbon footprint that also holds true for an electric vehicle.

And we’re not done there. Excessive driving – and especially neighborhoods and vast areas designed for car dependent lifestyle require significantly more surface of the earth to be paved for roads, parking, and all the space needs of a system designed for using a 3,000 pound vehicle to go to the store to get a gallon of milk. Every time you drive, you’re consuming a little share of the tailpipe emissions of the construction vehicles that mined those aggregates and paved that road.

The choice of the Austin City Council to continue segregationist zoning to limit access to living in the City of Austin has meant – on average – about 2,327 additional vehicle miles traveled per person not allowed to live in the city.

If instead, the city had “kept pace” with the regional growth rate and allowed 113,916 more people to live inside the city of Austin, the CAMPO region would theoretically today be dealing with 265,046,611 less VMT per year or 726,155 miles worth of cars driving on our roads every day.  This represents 1.69% of the region’s current total VMT, meaning that on average, every traffic jam would have about 2% less cars in it.

The region could be using a little over 11 million less gallons of gasoline each year if we had ended segregation in 2000. This increased VMT caused by segregationist zoning also on average means four additional traffic fatalities and 40 more devastating incapacitating injuries every year than we would see if Austin had allowed these people to live inside the city.

However, these are conservative under-estimates, because greater density within the City of Austin would allow for better transit access for all – not just new residents – shifting wasted transportation funds from inefficient, low-use suburban roads to high-use multimodal streets, and allowing shorter trips for all. VMT per capita in the city will continue to go down as we add more people, even as we each gain greater access to more things.

Let’s not delay anymore – end segregation in Austin in April 2018

Much hullabaloo has been made this week about the costs of the CodeNEXT process, with a lot of people apparently having become experts on the costs to completely rewrite the land development code for a major US city. Luckily, city council chose this morning to continue the project and to try to stay on target to complete it in April next year.

As of now, the largest US city to switch from segregationist zoning to form-based code remains Miami, Florida, home to 453,579 people, less than half the size of the City of Austin.

This is a necessarily complex project. Various concerns and a vast diversity of neighborhood, community, and business interests deserve the deep, meaningful debate that we have had for the last four years. CodeNEXT can be completed in a way that keeps Austin weird, which means allowing people to live here, allowing many more of us to have the option of low-carbon lifestyles, and completing every neighborhood with more friends, more nice walks, more coffee shops, more schools, more access to the quality of life that comes when you live in a growing metropolis.


  1. Jay, your blog says, “Yet during this period, the City of Austin limited growth of housing through its segregationist zoning code, meaning that only 120,795 housing units were added in the city, at a growth rate of 44%.” This is not true. Segregationist zoning does not limit the number of units, just where they go. I am not defending segregationist zoning but pointing out that your argument is flawed. There is no limit placed on the number of housing units built in Austin by the LDC.

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