As more people move to Austin, officials say growing pains possible
The City of Austin could go through some more growing pains as more people come to call Central Texas home, according to city and housing officials.
According to demographic information from the City of Austin, the city's total area population is expected to increase from 824,205 in 2012 to about 1.09 million in 2030 and to about 1.28 million by 2045. Three areas that could be affected by this increase are housing, water and wastewater service, and the city's parks.
Eldon Rude, director of the Austin market at the housing market research firm Metrostudy and a speaker at the 2013 Austin Housing Forecast, said the housing market in Austin seems like it will continue to recover because of the area's job growth, a tight rental market and low home inventory.
"My expectation is as we move into 2013, we see a continuation of that recovery somewhere between 10 [percent] and 20 percent [in home starts]," Rude said. "So we go from 8,000 to 9,500 [to] possibly as high as 10,000 starts."
A home start is the beginning of construction on a new house. According to information from Metrostudy, the Austin new home market saw 7,981 annual starts for detached housing as of the fourth quarter in 2012.
Rude said along with new detached homes, the city has seen an influx of urban and suburban apartment construction as demand increases. Rude expects that it will take a couple of years for those units to finish construction and become available, keeping rental rates high. According to information provided by Austin Investor Interests, an apartment market research company, rent rates have increased 12 percent since 2010.
"It's very tight out there, whether you [are] renting apartments or renting homes," Rude said. "Obviously, with so much demand for apartments, we're going to see a lot of apartments built over the next two, three and four years."
Water and wastewater
As more people make Austin their home, providing municipal services such as water becomes a bigger issue. Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water Utility, said growth influences the Water Utility in a number of ways, including infrastructure and supply.
"Austin has a long history of growing, and it's something we planned for in terms of our infrastructure, our staffing and investments for the future," Meszaros said.
Meszaros said the utility invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year into adding new infrastructure and maintaining what the city currently has. Austin has about 7,000 miles of underground water and wastewater pipes, ranging from 2 inches to 8 feet in diameter, according to Meszaros. Building and maintaining pipes can cost $200 to $300 a foot, Meszaros said.
"If you just have to maintain a small percentage of that each year to replace it or upgrade it, that gets very expensive," Meszaros said.
Another factor Meszaros said is affected by a growing population is the water supply. He said the utility works with the Lower Colorado River Authority to plan for the city's water supply.
In 1999, the City of Austin invested about $100 million with LCRA to reserve raw water for the next 50 years. The city receives all of its water from the Highland Lakes system that includes Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis.
"We have locked up the bulk of the remaining water in the Highland Lakes system," Meszaros said. "That should serve us for many years into the future."
To make that supply last as long as possible, Meszaros said the utility uses reclaimed water for irrigation at municipal golf courses and cooling towers, and has a "very strong" conservation program to educate the public on using water wisely.
"If you're moving from a different part of the country, you may not understand how subject Central Texas is to arid times and droughts and how precious water is here, so we take steps to make sure folks are educated," Meszaros said.
Sara Hensley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department with the city, attributes part of Austin's current and projected growth to the environment and community the city has fostered.
"I honestly believe that the reason Austin has the growth that it has and has the vitality that it has, has a direct link to the parks and the golf courses and the services that are offered," Hensley said. "I really believe that is why Austin is a place that people want to live. It's because of the quality of life."
Hensley said population growth affects the department in two ways: maintaining current parks and facilities, and looking for opportunities to increase park space and amenities.
"One of the biggest concerns we have is to bring our park system, both the parks and the facilities, up to the current standard, so that when we see this growth that we're seeing, we're still not going back and having to address things we should have taken care of before," Hensley said.
The parks department has 255 parks in its system that the city owns and maintains and more than 300,000 trees it has to maintain.
Hensley said the Parks Department is "well below having the adequate number of staff" to maintain the parks and trees, adding that at current staffing, it will take 91 years to adequately maintain all the trees in the city. Parks staff have set a goal of maintaining a ratio of one maintenance worker per 75 acres of parkland. The current ratio is about one worker to 164 acres.
Although the maintenance ratio is not at the desired level, Ricardo Soliz, division manager of Planning and Design for the Parks Department, said the ratio of parkland to the population is in a desirable range, about 23 acres per 1,000 residents. He said the department tries to keep the ratio around 24 acres per 1,000 residents.
The Parks Department is looking to add more parks to accommodate the influx of people, but Hensley said that comes with a price. She said the cost to develop new parkland between 1 and 15 acres ranges from about $500,000 to about $700,000.
"People value their parks here, and they love their parks to death," Hensley said. "The people who come here will be coming for the very same reason, and when that happens, we need to be prepared."