Austin Texas

Austin, Texas

As a hotbed of business innovation with hipster ethos, Austin, Texas, has become more than a stand-out on America’s heat map. Thousands flock there for the South by Southwest technology and music festival each year, and for locals, Austin’s Sixth Street offers Bourbon Street-style debauchery with lone star panache. But the “live music capital of the world” is more than just roaring nightlife and cultural flair: Austin is consistently ranked among the best places to raise a family. As the technology center of the southwest, the central Texas locale also houses regional offices for companies like Facebook, Google, and Dell.

Yet, despite its free-thinking and well-rounded reputation, Austin is losing its African-American residents at startling rates. According to a recent report from the University of Texas (UT), Austin saw an overall population boost of 20.4 percent between the years of 2000 and 2010, making it the third-fastest growing city in the country behind Fort Worth, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina. However, while Fort Worth and Charlotte respectively saw 28% and 43.5% increases in their African-American inhabitants, Black Austin experienced a 5.4% population dip, making it the only city to see a decline in Black residents.

“This just doesn’t happen in a city that has double-digit general population growth in a city of one million people,” says Eric Tang, PhD, the report’s lead author and assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT. “No other racial group in the city saw losses except for African Americans.” The dynamics driving this African-American exodus, Tang says, do not square with the city’s “good life” image.

Though segregation and gentrification are not unique to Austin, the convergence of those factors has imposed a germane consequence on its historic Black community. The City of Austin’s 1928 “Master Plan” relegated Black businesses, schools, and public services to a Negro district on the city’s east side. By 1930, 80 percent of Austin’s once-widespread Black populace had moved there. Integration efforts through the 1970s helped to somewhat loosen redlining’s stronghold, but throughout the latter years of the twentieth century, most Black Austinites continued to own homes, attend churches, and frequent businesses in east Austin.

“This district became one of the primary sites of gentrification in the 1990s and 2000s,” Tang says, highlighting that its enviable location in the shadows of downtown increased the intensity with which the Black city center attracted developers. “Once the downtown district was exhausted, the next logical place for new businesses and young professionals to go was just east to the adjacent area.”

The influx of new businesses in east Austin sent property values —and property taxes — soaring.  At an average of $434,367 (as of May 2014), the city of Austin’s single-family home prices have driven residents to its outskirts and to other major Texas cities in search of more affordable homeownership opportunities. The combined May 2014 average price of homes in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio was $252,555. According to data provided by the Austin Board of Realtors, the surrounding communities of Round Rock, Pflugerville, Cedar Park, and Kyle offer single-family dwellings for a combined average of approximately $227,897.  These areas, Tang asserts, “provide a better plan B for families from the historic district,” which has a May 2014 average single-family home price of $312,768.

Tang’s research suggests that because the population dip is comprised mostly of those under the age of 18, education may also be a factor in the negative trend. “[Parents I’ve interviewed] feel they’re taking a step back by keeping their kids in some of these public schools. They believe their children would be better off in other school districts.”

Jim Crow-era segregation­—as indicated in a 2013 study from UT’s College of Education— has also reared its legacy onto Texas schools that have high minority enrollment, creating a detrimental domino effect for Black Austinites seeking careers in Austin’s technology-focused market. “Educational attainment levels are not consistent with the direction of growth of this city,” says Natalie Madeira Cofield, president of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce. “[Young professionals come] to Austin with [multiple] degrees and years of experience in corporate America because this is what these industries require.”  

Though many Black Austinites once worked for the government, jobs in the technology and construction arenas have replaced civic positions. “But African Americans are woefully underrepresented in both areas,” Tang says. “They are not getting training and employment opportunities in the tech industry.  In the lower-paying construction industry, both skilled and unskilled workers are not heavily recruited by the labor networks. You see new construction everywhere, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any African Americans working those sites.”

But there seems to be room for Blacks in Austin’s efforts to go green.

“Austin wants to become the first zero-waste city; all trash will either be composted or recycled. The city is also attempting to make [sustainable] green building [the standard] when it comes to construction. This requires a new labor force and new skillsets,” Tang says. “The city can train and recruit those have lived here for generations, not exclusively African Americans, but working poor Latinos, Whites, and Asians.”

As a native New Yorker who had “never owned a rake, but now [tends] a lawn,” Tang acknowledges Texas’ and New York’s clear differences. A leisurely jog through the hill country’s rolling green was once unfathomable for this Brooklynite, but in his research, he’s deduced striking parallels. “In Brooklyn, I was familiar with gentrification and the displacement of the African American community. Historic Black communities are the first to be sacrificed when tremendous change comes to a major city,” he says.

For Howard University alumna Cofield, leading Austin’s Black business community means cultivating and supporting minority entrepreneurs. “This city is so ripe with opportunity that [an entrepreneur] can come here and make a serious mark on the direction of the city in a way that is economically possible,” she says, imparting her vision of Austin as a mecca of digital, creative, media, and tech talent. “What’s happening in Austin is the model for the future of the country. If [African Americans] move away, we’re leaving so much on the table. And we need to be at the table.” 

Though technology is at the center of the boom, Cofield argues that industries of all stripes must adapt to the changing landscape. “The older business community may say that we’re too [tech-] focused. But every company is online, and this conversation needs to be had. For example, how do we ensure that a janitorial company can do business in a green economy?”

Tang’s report emphasizes that there is no singular explanation for the decline of Austin’s Black population, but he hopes its findings result in measurable policy changes. “The report doesn’t suggest we do a premature autopsy on the Black community in Austin,” he says. “What it says is that we have a problem when it comes to the retention and recruitment of the African Americans, and we need to come up with solid solutions before it gets worse.”