What explosive growth looks like, Austin and New Braunfels edition

It is not a coincidence to see two recent articles about effects of growth in Texas communities as this part of the country – and the Sun Belt more broadly – is growing fast. One is the story of a big city where housing is in high demand while the second is a small town that is now a booming suburb.

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First, thousands of Austin properties are going for far above list price:

Nearly 2,700 homes in the Texas capital have sold this year for $100,000 or more above their initial listing price, according to an analysis by Redfin Corp. that examined sales through Aug. 11. While a few other U.S. cities have had more properties sell at that premium to the asking price, none have experienced as big a percent rise in homes transacting at that lofty an increase, Redfin said…

The number of homes sold year-over-year for at least $100,000 over asking price has grown nearly 10-fold in Seattle, and fivefold in Oakland, according to Redfin. In Austin, that figure grew by 57 times the number for last year at this time.

The jump in these sales at six figures above the listed price shows how Austin, which has attracted young professionals for years, has become an even more competitive place to buy in recent months.

Second, the community of New Braunfels between San Antonio and Austin is going through growing pains:

Today, the cattle are gone, replaced with clusters of sleek apartments, gated communities and big-box stores. And New Braunfels, the third-fastest-growing city in America, tucked in one of the fastest-growing regions, finds itself at a crossroads…

A once quaint town known for its German roots and the Schlitterbahn water park, New Braunfels grew a whopping 56 percent over the last decade, adding about 32,500 residents…

Newer residents to New Braunfels have been drawn to the region for its affordable cost of living and by larger employers who have settled there, including several distribution centers and technology companies. Over the past decade, the median salary has jumped to $90,000 from $65,000 in Comal County, which includes much of New Braunfels, one of the highest averages in the state…

The community has also grown more noticeably diverse, with the presence of Latinos particularly evident on the city’s West Side. Residents flock to eateries like El Norteño for typical Mexican dishes, such as menudo, a spicy stew known colloquially as a hangover remedy. This week, a server took orders wearing a red T-shirt that read “Menudo Para La Cruda” or “Menudo For the Hangover.”

The emphasis on growth is a long-term pattern. When Census data is released, many like to highlight the fastest growing areas of the country. This can shine a spotlight on places that are changing but it also reinforces a consistent American narrative: growth is good for communities. Indeed, discussion of the opposite trend – losing population (or somehow not losing residents) – reinforces the notion that growth is good.

At the same time, focusing on population numbers is worth considering alongside what is happening to the character of communities with population growth or loss. These two articles highlight both phenomena. In Austin, what happens to a local housing market when so much competition drives up prices? At the least, this means some are priced out of the adjusted values, existing community members may see their property values rise, and builders, developers, and local officials respond to the changes. And the rising prices are often interpreted as a sign that Austin is a desirable place to live.

In New Braunfels, this is both a common American story – small town outside big city turns into a sprawling community in a relatively short time – and a story with particular traits as the community has a particular character. The German roots of the community now sit among a more diverse population. A quaint town is now much bigger and there is a lot of building activity. The businesses there for a long time are now joined by new ventures.

Even as population growth is usually viewed as a good thing, it comes with costs and changes. Few communities would reject growth just to avoid change but there can tension over how to respond to growth. Many cities and suburbs have struggled to match their existing character to changes and what the community will end up being once a construction boom and/or sprawling subdivision growth subsides.

Trying to keep up with growth in housing and jobs, Dallas edition

A report on the growing numbers of housing and jobs in the Dallas metropolitan area over the last decades highlights the connection between the two:

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From 2010-2020 the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area added 438,000 new housing units, increasing the housing stock by 18%. Dallas’s growth in new housing ranks No. 9 fastest among the nation’s 100 largest metros, Zillow’s stats show.

Over the same period, Dallas added 802,000 new jobs, an increase of 29%. A healthy housing market should add a new housing unit for every 1-2 new jobs as the local economy grows, according to the Zillow report and industry rule of thumb

.In Dallas-Fort Worth, 1.8 jobs have been added for every new housing unit, indicating that the area is building enough new housing to keep pace with demand, according to Zillow, although many realtors, homebuilders, and would-be buyers argue that’s not the case, at least right now.

Many American communities would like to have this problem: more residents and more jobs. Growth is good. Yet, growth in one area that outpaces the ability for other areas to keep up could become a problem.

In this case, the issue is housing. A flood of new workers could lead to higher demand for housing, driving up prices and increasing competition. In the long run, this could be discouraging both to new workers as well as long-term residents who find themselves in a different housing market.

I could imagine other issues in the Dallas area and elsewhere where growth happens. Take schools. This often comes up in booming suburbs where new residences are plentiful. This puts a strain on local schools and construction has to take place rather quickly to avoid having a lot of students in temporary settings. But, at some point, population growth will slow down and then there might be too much education infrastructure and costs that are difficult for the community to sustain.

Another example could be traffic and congestion. Adding all these jobs and housing units means many more people have to travel between them. Can the current roads and mass transit (roads in the case of most American metropolitan areas) handle all of this? New lanes can be added but putting in additional roads or highways is expensive and time-consuming. And studies show that adding road capacity just leads to more driving and more traffic.

The Dallas area might be fine in the long-run with roughly 1.8 new jobs per new residence but it will take some time to catch up with and settle in to the growth.

Declining Mexican immigrant population in Chicagoland

The population stagnation or loss in the Chicago region extends across groups of residents, including the Mexican immigrant population.

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The Mexican immigrant population in the Chicago metropolitan area has decreased by 15% over the last decade, shows a new report published this week.

That’s a 104,000-person loss, roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood disappearing, according to a report by the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). The tri-state Chicago metro area includes the city, suburban Cook County and eight surrounding counties in northeast Illinois, four in northwest Indiana and one in southeast Wisconsin…

Cooper said most of the narratives about the population loss have focused on middle-class and upper-middle-class white residents leaving Illinois because of high taxes and the state’s pension woes…

The net loss of Mexican immigrants since 2010 is the continuation of a larger trend that has seen immigrant growth slow to a near halt over the past 30 years. In the ‘90s, Illinois had a net gain of 576,786 immigrants, according to the MPC report. From 2000 to 2010, the state witnessed a net gain of 230,801 immigrants. But from 2010 to 2019, the state’s immigrant population slowed to a net growth rate of just 0.4% — a net addition of only 6,622 immigrants. That trend helps explain why Illinois is near the bottom in population growth since 2010. Immigrant population growth had largely buoyed the state’s population growth in previous decades.

See this earlier post about how immigration to Chicago helped hold off population loss and this earlier post about the exit of Black residents from Chicago.

The point of this research makes sense: many locations in the United States talk about what might happen if wealthier residents leave. Would the 1% move elsewhere if taxes were raised? Will white flight continue? This emphasizes the structural conditions and decisions affecting just part of the population even as immigration has been important for many areas of the United States in recent decades. And then the next question to ask is why immigrants are not staying in this location or coming to this location in the first place; where are they going instead? Growth is good in many American communities but highlighting only certain kinds of growth provides an incomplete picture.

Another question based on these numbers: is Chicago welcoming to immigrants in 2021? Chicago has long been a traditional gateway city but it this now not the case for certain groups or immigrants overall?

Selling Schaumburg, Illinois

Schaumburg, Illinois, nearly 30 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, is a prototypical edge city. Home to Woodfield Mall, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, and over 70,000 residents plus located at the convergence of I-290, I-90, and IL-390, journalist Joel Garreau mentioned Schaumburg in his 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. When I heard Schaumburg advertising on the radio, I wondered: is this an aggressive or a desperate move in these particular times? Where does Schaumburg fit among other Chicago suburbs also trying to get their name out there (examples here and here)? A few thoughts on this.

https://www.villageofschaumburg.com/

-Woodfield Shopping Mall is one of the largest in the United States. Even with numerous shopping malls struggling plus the problems of brick and mortar retailers, Woodfield will probably survive due to its size, location, and status. It may need to transform significantly – can it still support hundreds of stores? – but it is likely in good shape compared to numerous other Chicago area malls that are exploring new paths (other examples here, here, and here).

-Office space may be hard to fill. Schaumburg is not in a city; other suburban office parks have become less desirable in recent years with firms looking to appeal to young workers. Add the complications of COVID-19 when more workers are not going to the office. At the same time, many workers going to Schaumburg are doing so via car and they may be coming from relatively well-off suburban areas.

Growth is important to American communities. Like many edge cities, Schaumburg experienced explosive growth early in its history: it had 986 residents in 1960, in 1980 had over 53,000 residents, and peaked in 2000 at over 75,000 residents. Where does it go from here? Population loss and/or the loss of businesses would not be a good image for the community as it tries to chart a bright future.

Compared to other Chicago suburbs, Schaumburg is likely in good shape. At the same time, the growth and status of the past and present does not have to continue amid new social pressures and internal decisions. If Schaumburg is advertising in order to attract businesses, perhaps this hints at broader issues across suburbs: can they all succeed in what may be a challenging several year period?

McMansions, SUVs, and megachurches

I recently reviewed the book The Glass Church: Robert H. Schuller, the Crystal Cathedral, and the Strain of Megachurch Ministry by sociologists Mark Mulder and Gerardo Martí. As the authors describe Schuller’s emphasis on growth, they include this line on page four:

TheGlassChurchP4

As I studied the use of the term McMansion in the first decade of the twenty-first century, I found people regularly linked McMansions to SUVs. As the cited passage above suggests, McMansions and SUVs came about at the same time. Perhaps some would go even further and say McMansion owners are likely to be SUV owners or the two consumer goods are likely to be found in the same communities or kinds of places. And, like the passage above, the comparisons could go further than SUVs to include large food items.

Rarely have I seen the growth of McMansions and the growth of single-family homes in the United States connected to megachurches. A similar argument could be made: in a period of growth as Americans liked to consume bigger items in bigger settings with providers happy to produce larger goods, McMansions and megachurches came about or became widely recognized at roughly the same time (McMansions built in the closing decades of the 1900s and as a term widely used by the early 2000s; megachurch as a phenomenon known by the 1980s). As everything grew and appetites expanded, so did churches. And maybe megachurches were likely to spring up in or near McMansion filled suburban communities flush with money, family life, and access to highways.

At least in this study, Robert Schuller was enamored with growth decades before McMansions became a thing. Mulder and Martí suggest Schuller pushed for growth in order to encourage more growth; previous accomplishments became evidence for pursuing and fulfilling future accomplishments (until it could no longer hold together). Yet, Schuller was well-positioned in a booming suburban area: he arrived in Orange County in the 1950s and capitalized on the growing population and appetite for large churches in a way that few other religious leaders could match.

Now, linking these multiple phenomena together would take some more work. Were Orange County McMansion owners more likely to attend a megachurch? Is this a pattern throughout the United States? Did an ideology of growth pervade many sectors at the same time and mutually reinforce each other or explicitly intersect at points?

Aiming for resilient suburbs with long-term thinking about development

Fate, Texas, almost thirty miles northeast of Dallas, has grown rapidly in recent decades. But, the community is aiming for a different kind of suburban growth:

This financial distress is the inevitable endgame of a development pattern that doesn’t generate enough private wealth to sustain the public investment that supports it. So Fate planning staff began asking developers to document the ratio of public to private investment for every proposed project. This process lends itself to difficult, adult conversations about the long-term fiscal impacts of near-term growth. And elected officials in Fate have proved willing to have those conversations. The next challenge: bringing the public along with an affirmative vision of a financially resilient future for the small city…

What’s difficult is fostering such a conversation while the continued booming growth of North Texas drives developers to seek permission to build in Fate now, not a decade from now. One approach the city has taken is to work with the developers of in-progress or phased projects to alter their M.O. moving forward…

The city finds developers amenable to such voluntary amendments, because there is usually some overlap in interests. A more compact development pattern that integrates single-family homes with townhomes, apartments, or mixed-use development, for example, can simultaneously shore up the city’s revenues and render development more profitable in the long run. Still, residents are struggling with getting more and more neighbors, and with the high taxes they have to pay to special districts that facilitated the first waves of growth…

This path forward, if the city can manage it, entails actively pursuing high-quality, compact downtown development that pays its bills—now and in the long run—as a proof of concept, a way to demonstrate to residents that this path can lead to a desirable, prosperous community. It would be a gamble on the proposition that most people, in North Texas or elsewhere, aren’t unshakably anti-walkability or anti-urbanism. It would be a bet that the right kind of strong neighborhood will change some hearts and minds. Fate’s plan to attract new residents to the city—people looking for something different than what Richardson or other nearby towns have to offer—might just work in the long run.

In the United States, municipal growth is good but that does not necessarily mean it is sustainable in the long run. At the least, suburban communities can only grow so long in generating more and more subdivisions until they run out of land. As this article notes, the infrastructure of suburbia can be expensive to maintain as growth slows.

There are multiple solutions communities can pursue:

1. Like in Fate, consider the long-term early on to hopefully avoid other problems down the road.

2. Slow growth/limited development. This helps avoid the big boom suburbs can face for a short stretch that occurs and disappears quickly.

3. Just keep growing; if the open land runs out, start building up. Population growth can come through multiple paths.

If the bigger picture is correct (titled “the Growth Ponzi Scheme”), then many suburbs will have much to reckon with in the coming decades.

 

Celebrating new development – and recognizing what is lost

Looking at a few 2010s retrospectives at Curbed, I enjoyed looking at one detailing some of the buildings and spaces lost in Chicago in the last ten years:

The losses in Chicago’s built environment go far beyond the buildings and their architectural features. These places are symbols of greater failures: vacant lots represent a dearth of affordable housing, church-condo conversions signal the absence of community spaces, and closed schools call attention to the city’s disinvestment in its neighborhoods.

This only covers a sliver of the demolitions and conversions that have occurred in the past decade. These spaces are still mourned today, and as we reach the end of a decade, let’s take a look back at what Chicago has lost.

This is an interesting collection. And it does not even address the significant changes that may have come to neighborhoods or smaller areas through new development. Addressing how a place changes in atmosphere and feel goes beyond just buildings.

What is the proper or best way to mark these losses? Growth is often seen as an inarguable good. Don’t residents and leaders want new buildings, new options, updated spaces? Here are a few ways buildings and spaces could be memorialized:

  1. Articles, books, and websites can help keep memories alive. A retrospective like the one above makes sense but such pieces need to keep coming, particularly as the years pass and new residents do not even know what used to be there.
  2. Some sort of public marker or display in certain locations. This would be hard to do for every structure that changes but imagine having both a new building or space and a public marker with an image and some text that records what also stood on that land. This would help future visitors visualize what used to stand there.
  3. How about a museum for a lost Chicago? I could envision exciting displays with pictures, videos, interviews, text, and immersive recreations (whether parts of buildings that are reconstructed or using virtual reality displays) that celebrate what used to be in Chicago. A history museum can do some of this as could a celebration of architecture but really focusing on buildings and spaces could be really interesting and worthwhile for a city that wants to celebrate its past.
  4. Of course, ongoing historic preservation efforts can help keep this in the public eye. While it may be difficult at times to agree on a balance between saving key structures and allowing for change and innovation, at least having public discussions about important structures helps provide reminders of how something can be lost even as something new looks promising.

Can American residents and leaders be convinced population stagnation or loss is not that bad?

Chicago continues to lose residents and Houston is coming up fast. A sociologist is cited as saying the population decrease is not that bad:

Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, cautioned that while it is significant to note that Chicago is losing people, “this does not necessarily reflect the health or the functioning of the city.”

An array of complicated factors are at play in population numbers, including changes to mortality, fertility and immigration rates, she noted.

I believe Percheski is right: the relatively small population loss in Chicago plus the city’s ability to avoid the larger population losses experienced by many Rust Belt cities means this is not a huge deal. Of course, getting passed by Houston in population will matter (though Toronto passing Chicago barely registered).

But, will residents and leaders ever be convinced that a lack of growth is not bad? Because growth is good and this argument is rarely challenged, population stagnation or loss set off an alarm bell. Why exactly this is the case is a bit harder to articulate but it likely involves a loss of status and a suggestion that the city has limited momentum heading into the future.

At this point, the United States does not have good models of cities and communities that have stalled out in population or even declined that are widely regarded as successful places. Chicago could be one of these models and perhaps it could work because it is so big and so storied. On the other hand, if Chicago has small population loss for decades, this adds up and will require Chicago leaders to work harder and harder to convince residents and businesses that the long-term story is not bad.

Trying to create a bust-proof oil city

Midland, Texas is looking for ways to utilize the benefits of the current oil boom to prevent a future bust:

In the Permian, “we don’t say boom anymore,” according to Morales, who serves as mayor of the nation’s fastest growing city. “We’re very sustainable. The boom-and-bust era is over.”…

The Permian rose from the dead with the advent of fracking a decade ago to become a market beast, producing about a third of U.S. oil as it grew to become one of the world’s most prolific oilfields.

In the process, though, local resources were stretched beyond their limits. Now, Morales and others say the region may be settling into adulthood. Employers still struggle to fill jobs in competition with the oilfields, roads are jammed, schools overflow and home prices are sky-high. But local leaders say they have plans and resources set to secure a long-term future…

The partnership being forged between the oil companies and the local communities is unlike anything achieved elsewhere, Bentley said.

Growth is good in any American community. When the population is increasing, businesses arrive in town, and money is being made, a lot of problems can be overlooked (including the issues of adjusting to sudden or rapid growth).

But, growth does not always continue or move at the same pace. This seems especially true for places reliant on limited natural resources like oil. At some point, the oil runs out or prices change and the boom is over. Reliance on any single industry or produced good – think Detroit and cars – can lead to problems.

I would guess that few communities could quickly replace or recover from the loss of a business sector that seems to be as important as oil is in Midland. At the same time, resiliency is a buzz word in many circles as cities, regions, and states consider how they might set themselves up to be more adaptable to the sudden changes that could come. Imagine New York City without the finance industry, Silicon Valley without tech, Miami without tourism and beaches, and so on. Building infrastructure now and sowing the seeds for other industries and sectors to grow in the future could be a good hedge for a time when oil is not booming.

Focusing on the fastest-growing American cities reinforces the idea that growth is good

For American communities, growth is generally good. Growth comes with multiple benefits including the idea that it is an important community to pay attention to. In other words, growth equals a higher status (and population stagnation or decline is bad).

So when USA Today publishes a list of the fastest-growing cities in each state, it helps reinforce the idea that explosive growth is good. Here are a few of the listings with higher rates of growth:

Arizona: Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 15.6% (state: 11.9%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.3% (state: 5.1%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 20.1% (state: 16.6%)
• Median household income: $61,506 (state: $56,581)…

Colorado: Greeley
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 23.7% (state: 12.8%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 2.9% (state: 3.7%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 34.1% (state: 19.9%)
• Median household income: $68,884 (state: $69,117)…

Florida: The Villages
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 36.6% (state: 13.0%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 5.1% (state: 3.5%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 42.9% (state: 19.5%)
• Median household income: $54,057 (state: $52,594)…

Oregon: Bend-Redmond
• 2010-2018 pop. growth: 21.7% (state: 9.2%)
• Feb. 2019 unemployment: 4.5% (state: 4.4%)
• 2010-2017 job growth: 36.0% (state: 17.8%)
• Median household income: $66,273 (state: $60,212)

Growth can have additional benefits beyond a higher status. Having more residents  is related to more taxes, more businesses, and more clout in the political realm. Growth can make local politicians who presided over the changes look good. Communities can change their character in significant ways when growth comes.

At the same time, growth can have a number of downsides: strained local services, lots of new residents in the community (which can lead to issues with more longer-term residents), the use of more land and resources, and an accrual of the benefits of growth to only some in the community (usually in the local growth machine) rather than the community as a whole. Furthermore, communities can usually only experience significant growth for a short period.

On the whole, there are many worthwhile American communities that have limited population growth (and the growth could be limited for a variety of reasons). Only paying attention to the fast-growing places and drawing lessons from those communities unnecessarily valorizes big population increases while diminishing the other factors that contribute to what makes a worth community to live in.