Small towns around Austin struggle with big-city housing costs
To get to Taylor from downtown Austin, you’ll likely take U.S. Highway 79 east through the booming suburbs of Round Rock and Hutto. Continue on and that development begins to thin out and the surroundings return to a semblance of what most of this area looked like 20 years ago, rolling farmland in Texas' Blackland Prairie.
Driving into Taylor, the vibe is rural but not the usual trope of a dying, small town. The city has seen a gradual increase in its population in the past 10 years, and with that has come a renaissance of sorts. Taylor will soon be home to a $17 billion Samsung microchip-making plant, which is also expected to bring a lot of newcomers.
Downtown Taylor features the classic Louie Mueller barbecue joint, as it has for decades. But it’s now accompanied by new businesses that have made downtown their home. A brewery, coffee shop, some bars, restaurants and small boutiques are scattered among other various abandoned, historic buildings.
“All we had was basically fast-food restaurants,” said Gerald Anderson, a native of Taylor who serves on the city council. “And now you see a lot more mom and pop restaurants popping up, a lot of bars and just things for people to do. So, over the last 10 years, it's changed dramatically for the better.”
But Anderson is concerned that as Austin's population continues to grow outwards, Taylor’s growth will accelerate at a rapid pace. And with the surge in housing prices during the pandemic, he says his rural community is grappling with urban issues like affordability and gentrification.
The real estate mortgage company Redfin estimates the median home price in Taylor was $188,000 in October 2019. Two years later, that median home price jumped to $300,000. According to U.S. census data, the median household income in Taylor is $52,672, and only one-third of households earn more than $75,000.
“The new subdivisions that start at $270,000, most people can't afford,” Anderson said, “especially people directly out of college or just getting started on their own or young families. They're being priced out, and they're priced out of Austin and priced out of Round Rock. So, what we don't want to do is price them out of Taylor.”
Clare Losey, assistant research economist in housing affordability at the Texas A&M University Real Estate Research Center, finds it’s getting harder for that income bracket to find affordable homes even outside of Austin proper.
“Geographies outside of Austin, particularly those to the east of the city, which has historically been more affordable, have actually witnessed a sharp uptick in home prices from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020 to October of 2021,” Losey said.
The research center reports that the seasonally adjusted median sales price for existing single-family homes increased 40% in the city of Austin, and even more so in the communities to Austin’s east and northeast — approximately 47% in Bastrop County, 61% in Elgin, 62% in Manor and 68% in Hutto.
“The increase in home sales prices was a little bit lower in Taylor,” Losey said. “It was actually about 32%. But that's still a pretty significant uptick, especially for a geography, again, that's historically been more affordable.”
According to Losey, the cost of land and construction has increased significantly over the past several years, in large part to rising cost of materials. And with such a high demand for home ownership in the Austin area outpacing supply, home values are increasing rapidly, even in places 45 minutes away from Austin.
Losey doesn’t anticipate a significant decrease in prices anytime soon, especially not back down to the prices seen before the pandemic.
“It's very doubtful that home prices will decline to that extent. That would take a pretty significant increase in supply,” Losey said.
Anderson is particularly concerned about the people who have called Taylor home for generations. Anderson, himself, is a bit of a celebrity in town, thanks in part to his great-uncle Bill Pickett, a famous Black Texas cowboy and rodeo star. Anderson lives on the one acre his great-great grandfather, a freed slave, bought in 1890.
“Yeah, this is history. I mean, this is where Bill Pickett was raised,” Anderson said at his home. “So, this definitely has to stay in the family. We get offers on it all the time, especially because we got the acre, but we don’t want it to go anywhere.”
Anderson says he’s able to hold on to his family home for now, but that might not be the case for others who live in his neighborhood. The people he represents make up the majority of the town’s Black and Latino population.
An alumnus of Huston-Tillotson University, an historically Black university in East Austin, Anderson doesn’t want these neighborhoods in Taylor to end up like the communities of color in East Austin, where residents have been pushed out of their homes because they can no longer afford to live there.
“And just like the people that live in south Taylor and west Taylor and east Taylor, they own their homes. So, the problem isn't the mortgage; the problem is when they get the tax bill for $3,000, $4,000, $5,000 then they don't have that lump sum of money to pay the taxes,” Anderson said.
Taylor Mayor Brandt Rydell hears the concerns and is trying to prepare for the future. Rydell is a Taylor native and former high school classmate of Anderson's. He’s been leading Taylor since 2017 and was on city council for five years before that. Right now, he and Anderson are working closely on a comprehensive housing plan as more development goes in.
“We’re open to all sorts of strategies to help everyone in the community be able to continue to live here and afford to make their homes here in Taylor,” Rydell said.
The Taylor City Council is working to attract affordable housing such as townhomes, duplexes and even tiny homes. It is also working with Habitat for Humanity of Williamson County to repair the older homes of some of the area’s lower-income residents. There have also been discussions of creating community land trusts for Taylor’s largely Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Town leaders hope that the Samsung plant will also bring more income to the community. Rydell says for a long time, Taylor’s missed out on economic opportunities despite their proximity to Austin’s tech boom.
“The opportunity that something like this potential Samsung project would afford, it would have a generational impact on our community [and] would provide a real economic jolt,” he said.
But Rydell knows that not everyone is on board with these ideas. Some fear Taylor will lose its “small town character.”
“So that's a challenge that we have with the city to maintain that character as we grow and develop and to make sure that the growth is inclusive,” Rydell said, “and that we're not pushing people out and saying, ‘You know, you love Taylor and you've made it your home for decades, if not generations. But you know what? Taylor is not a community that you can afford to live in anymore, and you're going to have to go someplace else.’ We do not want that to happen.”
This story has been updated to reflect the official announcement of Samsung's microchip plant in Taylor.
This story was done in collaboration with Reporting Texas, an online publication out of the University of Texas at Austin’s Graduate School of Journalism and Media.
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