Where wealth flowed

2000 census draws a map of boom in Central Texas

By John Pletz and Andy Alford
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, September 22, 2002


Central Texans swaggered into the new millennium packing vast wealth from what will surely go down as one of the greatest booms of the state's many boom-and-bust cycles.
New data from the 2000 census shows that spiraling incomes, fueled largely by the explosion of high-tech jobs, cut a wide swath through the five counties that make up the Austin-San Marcos metropolitan area.
The rising tide of wealth flowed into almost every neighborhood. Affluence bloomed across western Williamson and Travis counties and northern Hays County, where vastly bigger areas had household incomes of $70,000 or more.
In 2000, there were 14 census tracts with median annual incomes of $100,000 or more, up from three 10 years earlier. The number of tracts with incomes below $20,000 fell from 51 to eight.
The data, released Tuesday, provide a snapshot of a Central Texas economy that roared between the recessions of 1991 and 2001.
The change was evident to anybody going to and from work, in and around Austin during the past decade: Roads were more congested. Cranes dominated Austin's skyline. Office buildings sprouted like bluebonnets along Loop 360. And new subdivisions of expensive homes rolled farther and farther in every direction.
Few places were transformed like the Forest Creek area, a collection of upscale subdivisions that stretches from the eastern edge of Round Rock to Hutto and is crisscrossed by golf courses and luxury homes. Most of the area was vacant farm or scrub land when the 1990 census was taken.
The area owes much of its growth to Dell Computer Corp., which arrived in Round Rock in 1993, bringing in thousands of workers and pushing up the median household income by 122 percent, from $47,090 in 1989 to $104,657 in 1999.That compares with a regional median income of $48,950 in 2000 — up 28 percent during the decade.
The neighborhood reflects how the Central Texas economy picked up in the '90s from where it left off in the late '80s, after the last bust. The census tract that includes Forest Creek lies between Red Bud Lane and FM 685, and north of Gattis School Road. It was carved out of a larger tract that used to extend from the eastern edge of Round Rock, through Hutto to Taylor.
"This neighborhood began in 1985, right before the bust," said Vicki Boriack, who moved into the Oak Bluff subdivision in 1993 and watched the area take off. "Everything came to a stop until about 1990.
"It's just exploded out here since '93," she said, gazing across her front lawn at a neighborhood of large homes that sell for an average of $300,000.
Charles Patiño, who lives nearby in Forest Creek Estates, also moved to the area in 1993. He watched the transformation from his back yard, as pastures where cattle grazed were replaced by two golf courses. And he saw it on his drive to work, where sports and luxury cars sped along county roads that were built for pickups and farm vehicles.
"I could tell whenever Dell had bonuses by the number of people coming out of their parking l0ot in new cars," he said.
Patiño saw the tech boom unfold as he moved about during the decade — first from San Antonio to Williamson County and later from a state government job to a tech company. He estimated that salaries in his field had doubled to $25 to $35 an hour by 2000. Since then, he figures the pay has dropped by half.
That's the other interesting thing about the data — just 2 years old, it already feels outdated.
"To me, it's the way we were. It's a beautiful snapshot of the peak," said Ryan Robinson, demographer for the City of Austin.
What the data don't capture is the downturn that began in early 2000, just after the census forms were filled out. Since then, more than 20,000 jobs, mostly in high-tech, have been lost.
The region's massive population growth also makes it tricky to do comparisons with the data. Nearly one-third of the census tracts were redrawn to account for a 60 percent increase in residents during the decade.
Still, the picture that emerges from the data collected in 2000 is a fascinating look at the region and its wealth.
Southwestern Travis County, favored by high-tech executives and other affluent residents, is home to nine of the 10 wealthiest census tracts. The richest one lies west of Loop 360 and north of Bee Cave Road (RM 2244). It is home to the exclusive Rob Roy subdivision, where the median annual household income rose 41 percent during the 1990s to $165,112.
The poorest tract lies in East Austin, between Chestnut Avenue and Airport Boulevard and between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Webberville Road. The median income there rose just 4 percent, to $12,427.
"There is a lot of encouragement and a lot of positive news (from the census data) in terms of issues of poverty and income," said Steve Murdock, the state demographer and a professor of rural sociology at Texas A&M University. "We have made progress, but we have a long way to go. The differences remain dramatic."
The wealthiest 10 percent of census tracts saw median incomes rise 42 percent after inflation, compared with an average gain of 24 percent for others.
Floating all boats
But real income growth reached into East Austin and beyond during the 1990s.
Several East Austin census tracts showed double-digit income increases. In the neighborhood between Seventh and 11th streets, between Interstate 35 and Northwestern Avenue, for example, the median income climbed 81 percent to $31,538.

Only five of 32 tracts in East Austin — from I-35 and U.S. 290, from Yager Lane and William Cannon Drive — showed income declines. And some of those were more statistical quirks than true losses of wealth.
That's the case in the two census tracts where incomes dropped the most. One is home to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which opened in 1999. It was an Air Force base during the previous census.
The neighborhood north of Riverside Drive between Pleasant Valley Road and Montopolis Drive reported a 46 percent drop in median income to $17,321. That's largely because the neighborhood is heavily populated by college students, who have little reportable income but are usually far from destitute. (Three of the four tracts with the lowest median incomes in the region are on the University of Texas campus.)
During the 1990s, 2,345 apartments were built in the area, which is on the UT shuttle bus route and near an Austin Community College campus. As a result, only 20 percent of the residents are 35 or older, and the neighborhood's median age is 21.3. About 71 percent of the residents are in college, according to the census.
The biggest gains
A neighborhood in northeast Lockhart — west of Plum Creek along both sides of U.S. 183 and north of Texas 142 — showed the greatest income gain among the census tracts whose boundaries were not redrawn between 1989 and 1999. The median income in the neighborhood doubled to $34,726, the fourth-biggest increase of any census tract.
City officials are stumped by the change.
"I just have no explanation for it," said City Planner Dan Gibson. "There's nothing new out there that was built during that decade."
But Julia Haynes, who was born in the neighborhood 69 years ago and has lived there ever since, says younger people moved in as many of the older residents died. "People left their houses to their kids, and, quite naturally, they sold them," Haynes said.
Today, Haynes has a lot of new neighbors. Three-fourths of all residents, and half of the homeowners, moved into their homes after 1989, according to census data.
And they're younger. About 11 percent of the population is age 65 or older, compared with 15 percent in 1989. Younger workers tend to see their paychecks rise steadily, while retirees' incomes are usually constant.
The neighborhood is more Hispanic now, too, up to 59 percent from 49 percent in 1989.
Residents say another reason for the increase in incomes is because many people work in San Marcos or Austin, where wages are higher.
As Janie Garza looks along Monte Vista Drive, she points out neighbors who work in Austin and San Antonio. One of her sons works in San Marcos. Her daughter used to work in Kyle and Austin.
The economic boom of the 1990s was felt across the region, as wages were driven higher by an unemployment rate that ultimately fell below 2 percent before the downturn started. Garza said her husband, a construction worker, saw his pay increase steadily during the decade as work picked up or he changed employers.
Untouched by change
About 7 percent of census tracts missed the boom altogether. That's what happened on the north side of Taylor — between North Drive and Carlos Parker Loop Bypass, and north of Lake Drive — where median household incomes rose just 1 percent between 1989 and 1999.
It's a neighborhood heading into its sunset years. Many residents moved in when a large number of homes were built in the early 1970s, and most have lived there ever since.
The north end of Lathan Lane is typical. Catarino Gonzales, 66, says five of his six neighbors across the street are retired or soon to retire. On his side of the street, everyone is retired. On the south end of the block, "they're still working, but they're in their 50s."
"Taylor hasn't changed that much in the past 10 years," he said. "There are no jobs here. You have togo to Austin or Temple."
While Taylor waits for change, the question in Round Rock, Austin and other areas that enjoyed the boom of the 1990s is whether they will hold on to those gains.
"For sale" signs now dot the lawns of Forest Creek neighborhoods, and home prices are coming down.
"I think people here are hurting, just like they are in (Silicon) Valley," said Peg Bush, a real estate agent who recently moved to Forest Creek from a suburb south of San Jose, Calif.
Louis Treviño, a maintenance worker who lives east of I-35 near Stassney Lane in South Austin, is hurting a little, too. His income rose about 20 percent during the decade, in part because of overtime.
"After 9/11, the overtime went away," he said. "That was my extra spending money. I started looking for some (part-time) weekend and night work, but I couldn't find any. Two years ago, I was being offered work."
The slowdown also is cutting into the gains made in Janie Garza's neighborhood in Lockhart.
Her 25-year-old daughter, who enjoyed progressively higher-paying jobs during the late '90s, has been out of work for four months and is having trouble finding a job.
"It used to be she could leave a job one day and find another one the same week," Garza said. "It's tough out there right now."

jpletz@statesman.com; 445-3601


Original Austin American-Statesman article may be viewed at http://www.statesman.com/search/content/specialreports/
census/0902/0922census.html
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