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Austin, TX: State of the Economy 2016

Thanks to the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin and Eldon Rude of 360 Real Estate Analytics for inviting me to participate in the 2016 Housing Forecast today. Slides are now posted: HBA 2016 Housing Forecast.

2016 will be an interesting year. We’ve reached some major milestones in Austin:

  • Austin-Round Rock MSA likely surpassed one million jobs and two million in population in 2015. We’ll know more when the Census Bureau publishes the 07/01/15 estimate in March.
  • Unemployment in Austin (city and MSA) is down to its lowest level since the dot-com era. With job growth of 3.0%+ annually and historically low unemployment, we’re finally seeing some upward movement in wages, at the average at least. In fact, it took fifteen years, but average wages in Austin are finally back to pre-dot-com recession levels.
  • Total employment in the tech sector in Austin has surpassed peak employment of the dot-com era. Tech companies in Austin added more than 23,000 jobs between 2010 and 2015, a 27% growth rate that was nearly double the growth rate of other leading Texas markets and well above most peer markets around the country, with the exception of San Francisco (42%) and San Jose (31%). Manufacturing employment in the tech sector appears to have stabilized for now, and Austin’s IT Services and Applications industry (NAICS 5415, for data wonks), is among the highest performing markets nationally, doubling in employment since 2010.

A few other thoughts from today:

  • There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how sustained lower oil prices will impact Austin, relative to what’s going on in the rest of Texas. Eldon brought up a good point today about underperforming assets in Houston and what that might do to availability of capital and real estate investment in Austin. Discretionary spending in Austin could also take a hit, since oil and gas holdings have generated a lot of income for Austin residents holding them over the last few years; same goes for the pricier end of the housing market, I suppose.
  • But I still think Austin’s biggest exposure is how the state budget may be impacted. State government accounts for about 7.5% of total employment in Austin, more than 70,000 jobs. If sustained lower oil prices start to translate to budget cuts and staff reductions, then we’re going to feel it. So while lease holders, investors, and people working for oil and gas related firms in Austin may be having a different experience, there’s no evidence that lower oil prices are having much of an impact on the Austin labor market, at least not yet.
  • EMSI projection for job growth in 2016 is 3.1%, with tech at 2.4% (3.1% services, 0.4% manufacturing). The consensus forecast for Austin at this time last year was in the 2.0%-2.5% range, with most forecasting firms expressing a great deal of uncertainty about how the oil and gas market would impact Austin. With a year of data now available in the context of lower oil prices and slower statewide growth, perhaps the forecasters are a bit more confident of Austin’s resilience in the face of what’s happening in the rest of Texas. We’ll see.

Finally, what would a forecast be without a new year’s resolution? If you look at only one slide from my presentation today, please make it Slide 13. It’s about as plain as I can make it in terms of how educational attainment, income disparity, and housing costs are painting a discouraging portrait of economic segregation and inequality of opportunity in Austin.

We hear a lot about traffic these days from our elected leaders in Austin and around the region. Yet, it’s the one issue we can do the least about. Traffic is an inevitable consequence of economic growth, and until people make different decisions about where and how they want to live–contingent on having more affordable housing and better transit available to give people that choice of living differently–traffic is going to get worse. Dispensing with the calls for “fixing” traffic or employing an “all of the above” approach to transportation would be a great way to start 2016. I realize it’s good politics, but it distracts from the real trade-offs we need to grapple with.

Instead, let’s focus on something we can do something about: empowering more people with education and training they need to fully participate in Austin’s dynamic, growing economy. Increasing the number of high schools offering dual credit so students have the opportunity to earn a postsecondary degree–the prerequisite for having a chance to keep up with rising cost of living in Austin–before graduating and leaving home. Taking a close look at the positive impact of family resource centers (disclosure: I’m on the TAP board) and the community school model as stabilizing factors in areas undergoing rapid change.

Investing in neighborhoods willing to innovate, something we profess to love so much in this town.

Austin isn’t alone, of course, in facing challenges related to economic segregation. However, the astounding influx of wealth (Slide 11), high-wage job creation (Slide 7), and rapidly increasing housing costs are putting a finer point on it here, especially compared to peer markets like my hometown area, Raleigh-Durham. Given the limited tools and resources at the disposable of cities and counties in Texas, we’re not going to “fix” any of these challenges, at least not locally. But we can make progress toward measurable goals, if we’re willing to be serious about it.

Inclusive prosperity would make a great 2016 resolution.

Experts: Austin’s economy won’t falter in 2016

This article was written by Dan Zehr and appeared in the Austin-American Statesman.

Experts: Austin’s economy won’t falter in 2016

The economic seas all around Austin look a little choppy these days, but it should remain smooth sailing for the metro area this year.

Low oil prices and a strong U.S. dollar cooled the Texas economy’s growth in 2015, and likely will do so throughout much of 2016, according to most forecasts.

In the midst of that, though, Austin keeps chugging along, with only a little slowing at the edges of this fast-growing region.

Given the pace of its ongoing expansion and the size it has attained, the metro economy probably will moderate no matter the effect of oil prices, said Brian Kelsey, principal of Civic Analytics, an Austin-based economic consulting firm.

“Unless we’re talking about the NFL, as things get larger, they tend to slow down,” Kelsey said. “Austin is the 11th largest city in the country now, and while we have a long way to go to catch some of the expensive coastal cities we tend to use as benchmarks, prices are becoming more of a factor in Austin’s competitive advantage relative to peer markets.”

The sustained low energy prices that forced layoffs across many parts of the state in 2015 could weigh on Austin’s growth, especially if tax collections suffer and state government payrolls are pared.

Statewide, small and midsize exploration and oilfield services firms have felt the squeeze, and most forecasts expect a wave of consolidation to sweep through the industry.

Those tighter conditions have seeped into Austin as well. FieldPoint Petroleum Corp. recently said Citibank cuts its borrowing base in half. Parsley Energy announced it had sold off almost $40 million of assets. And Forestar saw its credit rating slashed by Moody’s, in part because of its energy holdings.

“With oil prices at multi-year lows,” the rating agency said, “we expect the company’s metrics will remain under pressure in the next 12-18 months.”

The same outlook holds true for the Texas economy. At a recent Austin Chamber of Commerce economic forecast luncheon, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the state is not like the 1980s, when an oil and real estate crash sent the state economy into recession. It’s more like the 1990s, he said, when a drop in oil prices merely slowed Texas growth.

Will Texas outpace U.S. economy over the next few years? It’ll be tight, Hegar said, but the state economy well positioned to accelerate as the energy sector rebounds.

“Yeah, we have a litany of issues,” he said, “but it’s better to have that litany of issues here, in this state, than other states.”

The economic research team at BBVA Compass agreed, saying the state will stave off recession in 2016 and return to its potential in 2017.

“Ultimately, short term factors will inevitably fade, again bringing to the forefront Texas’ true value as a global leader in growth and innovation,” Boyd Nash-Stacey, the banks senior economist, said in a release.

Meanwhile, Austin itself should continue to provide a solid push for the broader state acceleration. The energy sector’s impact on Central Texas – while notable – should have only a marginal impact on region’s economy as a whole.

The strength of the U.S. dollar, which might rise further now that the Federal Reserve has started nudging up its rate targets, might curb area exports and local tourism spending. A strong dollar makes U.S. products and travel more expensive for people overseas.

Austin isn’t immune to those macroeconomic factors, of course, but its growth engine powered through them in 2015 and is poised to do so again in the coming year.

Austin and Texas continue to attract some of the highest rates of job interest from workers outside the state, said Daniel Culbertson, economic research analyst at The region and state also get a lot of searches from workers outside U.S., he said at the Chamber event.

It helps that Austin remains more affordable than the tech-driven markets on the coasts, Kelsey said.

“But rising residential and commercial prices in Austin are starting to level the field a bit,” he said, “and companies and economic developers in markets like Raleigh-Durham are well aware of that fact.”

More changes for tech sector

Last year saw some of Austin’s largest public companies – Freescale Semiconductor, HomeAway and SolarWinds – acquired by bigger players.

Experts say more Austin companies, both big and small, will likely be snapped up in 2016, including those that might have once considered an initial public offering.

“You’re going to see more acquisitions and fewer IPOs because the IPO bar is getting higher and higher,” said Kirk Walden, an adjunct business professor at Texas State University and principal of Austin-based Walden Consulting. “That’s not specific to Austin, it’s the general trend. For startups, it shortens the time for payoff. For the buyer, it makes more sense to acquire something that try to create it or compete with it.”

Meanwhile, venture capital is expected to continue to flow to Central Texas companies, thanks to the region’s strength in hot investment areas including cloud computing, mobile technology, cyber security and e-commerce.

Experts expect 2016 to stay on pace with last year. During the first three quarters of 2015, 82 deals raised $628 million, compared with 615 million raised by 114 deals in all of 2014.

“Austin is on the national stage for innovation, and investors are coming here to do deals,” Walden said. “For startups, that means more options to choose from when looking for financing.”

Also in 2016, look for more out-of-state software companies to development development offices here to leverage the region’s software industry workforce. In 2015, Apple Inc. continued to push ahead with its 38-acre campus in northwest Austin, while Oracle Corp., the world’s second-largest software company, announced plans to build a new corporate campus on 27 acres overlooking Lady Bird Lake.

“For California companies, Austin has just what they need: A skilled technology workforce and a lower cost of living,” Walden said. “We’ll see more companies following the lead of Google, Facebook and the others. If you’re growing and you’re hiring, this is a good place for you to be.”

—Lori Hawkins

Outlook strong for housing market

In 2016, things are shaping up for another strong year for Central Texas’ housing market, industry experts predict, if job and population growth continue as anticipated.

Austin ranks fourth among Trulia’s top 10 markets with the strongest potential for growth this year, thanks to the area’s employment growth, population growth and its share of millennials.

“As millennials become a greater force in our housing market, builders are challenged with providing homes that meet the needs of this growing demographic,” said Eldon Rude, a housing market consultant who is principal of 360 Real Estate Analytics. “In Austin that means trying to identify urban locations where home construction is still feasible at prices that millennials can afford.” expects single-family home sales in the Austin metro area to climb by 10 percent over last year, and the median price to increase by 5 percent.

In recent years, Central Texas’ sharply rising home prices in the metro stemmed from housing supply lagging demand – not the speculative home buying that bubble markets like California and Florida saw during the past decade, Rude said.

“Much of the growth in the new home market in 2015 has been in the lower price ranges,” Rude said. “With apartment rents in the region continuing to increase — average citywide rents are up 40 percent in the last five years — I expect this segment of the market to continue to be strong in 2016.”

Families looking for homes in close-in locations in 2016 will continue to pay more for existing homes, as little new supply is added in these areas, said Charles Heimsath, a local real estate consultant. “Some relief from the increasing prices can be found in new, smaller units in higher density developments in the central city.”

Jim Gaines, chief economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University, said the pace of growth in the housing market, locally and across other major Texas metros, could slow some due to the energy decline, with Houston expected to be most affected and the Austin and Dallas metros the least. But nevertheless, “a slowdown will result,”Gaines predicts.

— Shonda Novak

Retail scene should stay hot

Austin’s retail scene was red hot in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down in 2016, local developers say.

Many of the new additions on the way are at The Domain in North Austin, including Nordstrom and Restoration Hardware, as well as the 100,000-square-foot Rock Rose development featuring a mix of mostly local shops, bars and restaurants.

Nearby at the Gateway Shopping Center, Off 5th, Saks Fifth Avenue’s discount outlet, has leased space.

“We expect 2016 to be more of the same for the Austin market,” said Britt Morrison, senior vice president for the Weitzman Group, a commercial real estate firm. “By that, I mean a tight market for space and limited new construction. The new space for 2016, though, will outpace 2015, because rents are reaching a level that will justify development costs and the demand from anchors and junior anchors.”

Outside of The Domain area, other hot spots, according to Morrison, include South Congress Avenue, downtown Austin and many suburban areas.

“We’ll see new space come online in Lakeway, Leander, Cedar Park and others,” Morrison said. “The city of Pflugerville has been one of the biggest beneficiaries thanks to Texas 130, and it remains one of the hottest young markets.”

Restaurants, in particular, are on the hunt for space to expand, Morrison said. Several new-to-Austin salad chains, for instance, have said they’re looking to gobble up more than 20 storefronts throughout the region.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth from local concepts, like Hopdoddy, which recently leased a prime site at The Triangle,” he said. “Other growing local concepts include P. Terry’s, Verts, Torchy’s, Chi’lantro and Sway. Some out-of-state concepts are entering the market, too, like high-profile Shake Shack, but many of these are from small chains such as Voodoo Doughnut, Eureka and Fox Restaurant Concepts.

“The local chef-driven concepts have been huge in areas such as East Austin and Airport Boulevard, and restaurants continue to march northward along Burnet Road. The stretch between West 45th Street and Anderson Lane has quickly established itself as one of the major restaurant and bar destination centers in Austin.”

—Gary Dinges

Whole Foods points to better 2016

Austin-based Whole Foods Market ran up against a challenging year in 2015, but 2016 will be different, company executives say.

Whole Foods, in the midst of revamping its brand to battle a growing army of competitors, will be focused on a nine-point turnaround plan this year.

The plan ranges from launching a new chain of smaller, value-focused stores, 365 by Whole Foods Market, to cutting costs, lowering prices and boosting marketing to communicate a new message.

“I think the biggest thing that is going to happen for Whole Foods is the nine-points” plan, co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey told the American-Statesman recently.

Whole Foods is one of Austin’s highest-profile companies, with 91,000 employees for 434 stores worldwide and about 2,500 employees located in Central Texas.

One of the retailer’s major initiatives this year will be the new 365 stores, with a first location slated for the Los Angeles suburb of Silver Lake in the first half of 2016. So far, the retailer has signed off on eight new 365 stores, including a Cedar Park location slated for 2017.

The 25,000 to 35,000 square foot stores with compete directly with the likes of Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and other smaller format, value focused brands.

Mackey said Whole Foods looked at their competitors and took the “best of Whole Foods, best of Trader Joe’s, best of Sprouts — the best of everybody that we have seen out there.”

“There’s not going to be any expensive items in those stores,” Mackey said. “Truthfully, that’s one of Trader Joe’s secrets, they just curate there product mix well. …That’s not rocket science, we can do that.”

— Claudia Grisales

2015: Big deals and strong job growth

This article was written by Staff and appeared in the Austin-American Statesman.

2015: Big deals and strong job growth

The job growth kept coming.

The housing housing market stayed hot.

And the technology and software sector came through with some of the biggest merger and acquisition deals in Central Texas history.

Yes, 2015 was anything but boring for the Central Texas economy.

Here’s a look back at some of the biggest stories from the year that was:

Austin’s job market keeps humming

A year ago, as prognosticators put forth their predictions for the Austin economy, most indications hinted at a moderate 2015.

Last year’s job growth had started to ease in the fall and, while no one expected the Central Texas economy to slow dramatically, it seemed reasonable to expect a breather after a couple years of sizzling growth.

But Austin does not care much for moderation.

Despite a depressed energy sector that slowed economic expansion statewide, the metro-area economy re-accelerated in 2014 and remained among the most-vibrant regions in the country.

Thousands more people migrated to Central Texas during 2015, pushing the metro-area population to the 2 million mark. Housing sales and real estate prices continued to set record highs. And local employers kept adding enough jobs to absorb all the new folks calling Central Texas home.

In fact, regional payroll growth shook off any suggestion of moderation for 2015. According to seasonally adjusted data from the Texas Workforce Commission, metro-area employers added 34,000 jobs in the first 11 months of the year — already 5,600 more new positions than in 2014 with December numbers yet to come.

If this month doesn’t deviate too far from the usual, Central Texas payroll growth will easily outpace 2014 rates. It eased to 3.2 percent last year; this year, it might tick back over 4 percent again.

Through the first 10 months of the year, local employers added jobs at an annual rate of 3.0 to 3.5 percent after seasonal adjustments, according to calculations by Brian Kelsey, founder of Civic Analytics. In the local tech sector, employment increases were on a 3 percent annual pace, Kelsey said, a bit slower than in 2014 but well above Texas rates and in line with national performance.

Yet for all its robust workforce and population growth, Austin still sits in the middle of Texas. The local economy couldn’t completely avoid the bull-rush of lower oil prices and a stronger U.S. dollar — a combination that slowed statewide growth.

Much like last year, the expansion of the metro-area economy appeared to ease toward at the end of the summer, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas snapshot of the Austin metro economy.

The Dallas Fed’s latest Austin Business-Cycle Index still rose at a 7.1 percent annualized rate in October, but that had dropped from a peak of 10.1 percent in January – and down to its lowest point in four years.

“While this pace is the slowest since 2011,” the report said, “it is above the 5.2 percent average over the past 30 years.”

The report blamed the deceleration on a recent uptick in the local unemployment rate and more moderate job growth, especially in the leisure and health care sectors. Yet even that somewhat cautionary report included hints of Austin’s aversion to economic moderation.

In October, job growth “accelerated to a brisk 5 percent annualized rate,” the report said, “more than double the state growth rate.”

A year of big deals

Seeing Austin-area companies involved in multi-billion dollar buyouts is a pretty rare occurrence — but 2015 brought no fewer than four of those megadeals.

The biggest of all was Dell Inc.’s mammoth $67 billion bid to take over EMC Corp., which would be the biggest IT deal in history if it is completed.

Dell Inc. announced in October that it planned to buy to buy data storage giant EMC, a move that would turn Dell Inc. into a “behemoth” in the technology industry, analysts say.

For years, Dell Inc. has been working to transition from being a PC maker into a wide-ranging, full-service technology company. The EMC acquisition would help transform Dell into a major player in the data storage market.

The deal, which was approved by EMC’s board, is targeted to close in the second or third quarter of Dell’s fiscal year ending Feb. 3, 2017. But it still faces hurdles, including approval from EMC shareholders and, reportedly, problems dealing with the debt load the deal would create.

The EMC deal is expected to create as much as $49 billion in debt for Dell Inc., and Dell Inc. is looking to divest as much as $10 billion in assets to reduce that debt load, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets. Dell Inc. is also seeking a buyer for its Perot Systems technology-services unit that it acquired for $3.9 billion in 2009, according to various reports.

Dell Inc. executives have not commented on any of those reports, but the company revealed last week via securities filings that it plans to take its cybersecurity business unit SecureWorks public. Industry analysts said that could be a step toward helping clear the way for the EMC deal.

Another giant tech deal in 2015 was Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor’s $11.9 billion sale to NXP Semiconductors. The deal values the combined company at more than $40 billion and created an industry leader in the automobile and industrial semiconductor markets.

John Dixon, director of corporate marketing for NXP Semiconductors, said that while the Freescale brand is going away, the company’s operations in Austin — where Freescale had about 5,000 employees — will have a major role in the new combined company.

“My belief is that Austin is going to be a hugely important part of the new company,” Dixon said.

Online vacation rentals HomeAway, which had been one of Austin’s most high-profile public companies, was also sold in 2015, being snapped up by online travel giant Expedia Inc. for $3.9 billion in cash and stock.

HomeAway has more than 1,900 employees worldwide, including 1,086 in Austin. HomeAway CEO Brian Sharples has said the company will keep its operations in Central Texas and likely expand here.

Also in 2015, Austin software maker SolarWinds Inc. agreed to be sold to two investment firms in a $4.5 billion deal that will take the company private.

The offer by Silver Lake Partners and Thoma Bravo LLC is for $60.10 per share of SolarWinds’ stock. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, company officials have said.

Housing market on record pace

Central Texas’s sizzling housing market didn’t take a break in 2015, staying on pace a record year for home sales.

This year, 26,683 homes have been sold through November in the metro area, according to date from the Austin Board of Realtors. The Austin area set a record last year with 27,794 home sales, according to revised figures from the board. The board’s latest report shows 1,965 pending sales in the pipeline to close, putting 2015 on track to surpass last year’s total.

“While home sales typically slow each fall, housing demand has remained strong far past the typical peak selling season. This demand stems from strong employment and our area’s high growth rate — factors that help create a stable housing market,” Barb Cooper, president of the Austin Board of Realtors, said during the fall.

The area’s median sales price also set a record in November at $270,000 — a 10.2 percent increase in the median over the prior November’s $245,000 median sales price.

Even with the Federal Reserve’s recent decision to raise interest rates, mortgage rates “are still among the lowest they have ever been, and we do not anticipate a significant impact on the Austin-area housing market,” said Mark Sprague, a housing market analyst with Independence Title Company.

Austin’s evolving skyline

The past year also ushered in another high-rise building boom in Austin, with a flock of new skyscrapers bursting on the scene, either in the planning stage or actually being built.

Building by building, the wave of skyscraper construction is altering the city’s visual identity yet again.

One of the city’s most talked-about new towers is The Independent, a proposed 58-story condominium high-rise with a stacked design that has earned it the nickname the “Jenga Tower.” The tower would rise 685 feet on downtown’s southwestern edge, eclipsing the Austonian condominium high-rise in downtown Austin by two feet and two stories. It would also be the largest residential tower west of the Mississippi River, according to its developers.

Among the other new editions to Austin’s skyline — some in the planning stages, some even recently completed — are: Waller Park Place, a 50-plus story mixed-use tower at Cesar Chavez and Red River streets; the Fairmont, a 37-story, 1,000-plus room hotel at 101 Red River St.; Fifth & West Residences, a 39-story condo tower at 501 West Ave.; and The Bowie, a 36-story apartment tower at 311 Bowie St.

Doug Manchester, president of the company developing the Fairmont Austin hotel downtown, said Austin’s skyline is shaping up to be one of the most distinctive in the nation.

“It’s fascinating how our skyline has grown within the past 10 years and will continue to grow in the next 10 years to include many other unique and iconic towers — all of which I’m convinced will elevate Austin as a top 10 most admired metropolitan skyline,” Manchester said.

Up-and-down year for Whole Foods

Austin-based Whole Foods Market has long been hailed as a success story, and a darling of Wall Street, for its steady sales growth and consistent earnings performances.

But in 2015, the organic foods giant faced increased media scrutiny and posted a series of earnings reports that disappointed Wall Street analysts. One of the low points of the year came in July, when Whole Foods executives admitted the company overcharged some New York customers, following accusations from New York regulators.

“It was a challenging year for us for sure,” Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey told the American-Statesman recently.

Mackey and other Whole Foods leaders say they have implemented a nine-point plan to improve the company’s performance, including cutting costs and creating a “crisis team” to more quickly address issues that pop up.

“We have to differentiate ourselves, we have to improve ourselves, we have to be more relevant on price,” Mackey said.

A slow year for IPOs

When it comes to Austin companies going public, 2015 was a slow year.

Only three Austin-based companies filed for IPOs in 2015:

*Medical research company Mirna Therapeutics, which raised $44 million with an intial stock offering in October. The company is developing treatments for cancer and other diseases using micro­RNA, molecules that play crucial regulatory roles in cells.

*XBiotech, an emerging developer of cancer-fighting drugs, raised $76 million in an April IPO.

*Amplify Snack Brands, which makes health-conscious popcorn and tortilla chips, raised $235 million in August.

Also, software maker Atlassian — which is based in Australia but has a significant and growing presence in Austin — raised $462 million in an initial public offering in December. The company priced its IPO at $21 per share, above its expected price range of $19 to $20.

2015 Wrap

A few thoughts on Austin, economic development, and Civic Analytics as we close out 2015:


Uncertainty about the state of the Texas economy looking down the barrel of sustained lower oil prices led some prognosticators toward the end of 2014 to forecast “moderating” growth in Austin during 2015, which for us is somewhere in the 2.0%-2.5% range. Well, as the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” Total employment in the Austin-Round Rock MSA is up by 34,000 jobs through November (3.7%), compared to 26,600 jobs (3.0%) this time last year, according to the latest report from the Texas Workforce Commission. We’re slightly off pace compared to 2013 (4.1%) and 2012 (4.5%), but, barring something very strange turning up in the December report, we are going to finish the year well north of 2.0%-2.5%, proving, yet again, that there are better ways to spend your morning than listening to economists feebly attempt to predict the future. Texas, meanwhile, stands at 1.1% for the year.

Make sure to look for Dan Zehr’s summary of 2015 in the Statesman. Dan’s been on top of the latest data releases all year, providing helpful context with interviews and interesting longer-form stories. We’re lucky to have him.

But despite Austin’s enviable position at the top of most “best of” lists, equitable or inclusive economic development continues to elude us. This is not a challenge unique to Austin, of course, but our population growth rate and influx of higher income households magnify the challenge. We got a few stark reminders this year with new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. First, there’s this thoroughly depressing map of concentrated poverty among children using new data from the 2014 ACS five-year estimates. Darkest shaded areas are 50%+ children in poverty.


Wages have been trending upward, at least at the average, but there is still wide disparity among race/ethnicity groups in Austin. Average earnings for Hispanics (69%) and Blacks (65%) are less than 70% of what Whites are earning in Travis County. The last time that ratio exceeded 70% was nearly 20 years ago. Average earnings (wages, salaries, self-employment income; no benefits) for Whites in Travis County are $60,932 per year, compared to $41,332 for Hispanics and $39,620 for Blacks. To put that into perspective, using the affordability guideline of no more than 30% of income spent on housing costs, Black workers in Travis County, on average, can afford to spend about $991 per month on housing costs (rent or mortgage, utilities, etc.), compared to $1,523 per month for Whites. With average rents of more than $1,000 per month across most of central Austin, combined with no significant improvement in wage/income inequality among race/ethnicity groups, we’ll continue to struggle as a community with the pernicious effects of economic segregation into 2016 and beyond.

We also got a fresh look at The Human Capital with new ACS data on educational attainment. Much of Austin’s (city) transformation over the last ten years can be attributed to growth in the very well educated, very high income part of the population. ACS (one-year) estimates indicate that Austin added more than 39,000 people age 25 or older with a graduate degree between 2006 and 2014. That’s 53% growth in Austin’s graduate degree population in less than ten years. Put another way, for every four people age 25 or older that Austin gained between 2006 and 2014, one of them had a graduate degree.

For context, compare Austin to two outliers, San Francisco and Washington DC, in terms of highly concentrated, very well educated, very high income populations, and then one peer city in Raleigh, NC (my hometown). Austin’s graduate degree holding population growth rate of 53% during 2006-2014 exceeded Raleigh (42%), Washington DC (41%), and San Francisco (32%). Numeric growth is even more telling. Austin’s numeric growth of 39,197 graduate degree holders during 2006-2014 was more than San Francisco (34,409), more than double Raleigh (14,393), and nearly as many as the most extreme outlier, Washington DC (41,322).

Austin’s dramatic increase in very well educated population means, of course, an equally dramatic increase in very high income households. Median earnings for Austin (city) residents age 25 or older with a graduate degree are $63,089 per year. Average earnings are more than $90,000, based on residents of Travis County age 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or better (city-level, graduate degree specific data not available). If we assume that people with a graduate degree earn closer to the average than the median, that’s a potential gain of about 39,000 people earning $90,000+ per year added to the city’s population in only eight years, 2006-2014. Indeed, according to Census estimates, Austin (city) gained 13,770 households with income of $150,000 or more during 2006-2014, a 41% growth rate, compared to Washington DC (40%), San Francisco (28%), and Raleigh (34%).

[Sidebar: People ask me sometimes when they find out I’m from Raleigh why Austin and Raleigh “feel” different, despite experiencing similar rates of population and economic growth. I suspect there are many explanations for that, but one of the main differences is earnings. Numeric growth of $150,000+ income households in Austin was nearly three times that of Raleigh during 2006-2014, and average earnings for bachelor’s+ residents in Austin are considerably higher than Raleigh, $93,480/year versus $79,416/year. This may partially explain why Austin “feels” different than Raleigh in terms of housing costs, foodie scene fueled by discretionary income, etc.]

The question facing The Human Capital now is at what point housing costs in Austin rise high enough to discourage even the very well educated, higher income population from moving to and/or staying in Austin, especially given the increasing number of smaller markets that offer many of the same amenities at a much lower price tag (e.g, Durham, Grand Rapids, Chattanooga). Austin is still a bargain compared to outliers like San Francisco and Washington DC, but we need to be cognizant of how far we’ve diverged from traditional points of comparison like Raleigh. Trust me, economic developers in Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville, and other peer markets are well aware of it.

Economic Development

Serving as economic development consultant for the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) is among the most enjoyable and rewarding work we do. This year was no exception, as we launched a new economic development district training program in partnership with the EDA Austin Regional Office, helped roll out the new CEDS guidelines, and collaborated with a group of dedicated RDO planners in Minnesota taking on the challenge of a statewide economic development strategy. And speaking of EDA Austin, congratulations to Jorge Ayala, the newly appointed Regional Director. The office is in good hands. Congratulations, as well, to my former EDA colleague, Paul Corson, for embarking on a new writing endeavor, Rumination Paradox. I can’t say I enjoyed everything about my year in Washington in 2011, but meeting Paul was a bright spot.

The new CEDS guidelines from EDA provide unprecedented flexibility to economic development districts (EDDs) in terms of how they create and implement a regional strategy. Many EDDs are already taking advantage of it, exploring new formats, leveraging web-based data platforms, and using the CEDS as a vehicle to lead coordinated, integrated regional planning efforts. Yet, we still lack a proper compliance mechanism–the proverbial carrot or stick–to ensure that EDDs take advantage of this “opportunity to excel,” as one of my former bosses liked to put it. I had hoped that the Jobs Accelerator program, or one of the other EDA-led inter-agency initiatives, could be used as an incentive to provide more funding to entrepreneurial EDDs embracing new and innovative approaches to the CEDS, but that hasn’t happened so far.

While there are many EDD leaders, in the NADO membership and elsewhere, who can be spotlighted as a way to encourage others, without sufficient carrots and/or sticks we shouldn’t assume that the much-improved CEDS guidelines will result in widespread, immediate improvement. We’ll be doing our part to contribute to the state of practice through continued work with NADO, as well as kicking off the first-ever regional CEDS in Sonoma County and Mendocino County, CA, in early 2016.

Civic Analytics

It’s been a fun year. What started out as a one-man economic development consulting shop in 2012 has grown into a multi-disciplinary team engaged in projects that I never would have imagined three years ago.

This year we designed and built a data platform and planning tutorials on free, publicly-available technology, lowering the barrier to entry for data and GIS-minded EDDs wanting to add value to their communities but lacking the resources to pay for and maintain expensive proprietary licenses. We helped quantify the perceived shortage of technology workers in Austin, not to pile on to the mostly unproductive debate over the so-called skills gap, but rather to create a data-driven call to action to improve workforce development opportunities for everybody, as well as a sound methodology for measuring and tracking progress over time. We’re suckers for a good experiment, and were thrilled to partner with RideScout on investigating potential mobility solutions in downtown Austin. We were part of the planning team that helped the Texas General Land Office submit a $283 million application for Phase 2 National Disaster Resiliency Competition funding. We keynoted the EMSI national conference. We even helped a bank with CRA compliance.

Most important, Meredith and Isabelle joined the team. We’re lucky to have them.

Civic Analytics has never been a traditional planning firm, in economic development or any other field. While every project shares a common theme–using data and technology to help community leaders make informed decisions–we’ve evolved from writing plans and reports for clients to helping clients build organizational capacity to improve the way planning is done, and develop the skills and experience to put plans into action themselves. We’re glad to help clients create a plan, but we would much rather help create better planners.

Thanks for your interest in our work.

Are Millennial ‘Stealth Dorms’ Ruining Texas Cities?

Kriston Capps at CityLab reports on the occupancy limits debate in Austin and Fort Worth: Are Millennial ‘Stealth Dorms’ Ruining Texas Cities? Capps cited our pro-bono study, working with the Austin Board of REALTORS and others, on the relationship between occupancy limits and housing affordability in Austin, which, of course, boiled down to the need for better data and more thorough, objective analysis before anything could be said for certain.

Hopefully city leaders and interest groups will be more open to that possibility when the moratorium expires and it’s time to take another look at this issue and realize that potential impacts extend far beyond student housing.

High-Occ Map Zoomed_Revised2

Expedia deal sends HomeAway stock soaring

This story was written by Lori Hawkins and appeared in the Austin-American Statesman.

Expedia deal sends HomeAway stock soaring

A day after agreeing to be acquired by online travel site Expedia, Austin-based HomeAway saw its shares soar amid speculation that a competitor such as Priceline could make a counter offer.

Expedia on Wednesday said it would pay $3.9 billion in cash and stock for HomeAway, which is the leading player in the online vacation rental industry.

Shares of HomeAway surged as much as 27 percent in trading on Thursday, closing up $8.11, or 25.3 percent, at $40.15.

Expedia said it would pay $38.31 a share for HomeAway, a 20 percent premium over HomeAway’s price before the deal was announced.

But with HomeAway’s stock surpassing the offer, analysts said a competing bid was a possibility. Cowen & Co.’s Kevin Kopelman said such a move by online travel rival Priceline or home-sharing company Airbnb was “not out of the question.”

Deutsche Bank analysts said that the buyout price seems low, particularly as HomeAway changes its fee structure. HomeAway makes most of its revenue by charging property owners to list on sites right now, but the company said that it will start charging travelers for booking locations, similar to Airbnb’s model.

Founded in 2005, HomeAway has built a network of websites that have more than a million paid listings in nearly 200 countries. Expedia, based in Bellevue, Wash., lets customers book flights and hotel rooms through its website and apps. The HomeAway deal would give it a major presence in the fast-growing alternative lodging market.

Regardless of whether more bidders jump in, a deal is all but certain, which means Austin will lose another well-regarded publicly traded company.

The agreement marks the third multibillion-dollar deal for an Austin-based company this year, joining the $11.8 billion acquisition of Freescale Semiconductor and the recently announced $4.5 billion private equity buyout of SolarWinds Inc.

HomeAway CEO Brian Sharples said the company, which has more than 1,900 employees worldwide, including 1,086 in Austin, will keep its operations in Central Texas and likely expand here.

“In Austin, I don’t think there is going to be much of a change,” Sharples said in an interview with the American-Statesman. “As a combined company we’ll probably be able to grow even faster.”

But there are still unknowns, Austin economist Brian Kelsey said.

“From an economic development standpoint, there’s always a bit of uncertainty and nervousness when a major local employer is acquired by an out-of-market company,” Kelsey said. “Maybe less so in this case, compared to something like consolidation in the semiconductor industry, but I’m sure there’s still some uncertainty among economic developers and employees at HomeAway.

“Anytime you see a deal like this you also wonder about impacts on entrepreneurship – i.e. will it encourage anybody with newly available capital to jump off and start a new venture after the dust settles? We’ll have to wait and see what the ripple effect is on the local economy.”

While being acquired by a larger player can be a financial home run for a company and its shareholders, it’s not always the most beneficial outcome for a community, said Bob Smith, principal at Bridgepoint Consulting, which works with technology companies.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Smith said. “It’s disheartening to lose another high profile corporate headquarters in Austin. But it will also be very good financially for some employees. Hopefully you’ll have people who will use that to go fund some new startups or branch out and start up some of their own companies.”

Making Data Work for Economic Development Districts

There are 387 federally-funded Economic Development Districts (EDDs) across the country. These EDDs, operating with planning funds from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), manage a wide array of multi-county, regional programs related to community and economic development. Occasionally, one of these EDDs will win a large, multi-million-dollar, multi-year grant from a program like HUD Sustainable Communities and then create an impressive data platform that makes integrated regional planning a lot easier. Urban planners can overlay project information, such as proposed transportation improvements or affordable housing developments, over base maps that demonstrate need with demographic data. Economic developers can showcase available properties and incentive offerings on maps that identify workforce availability around any given site. Many EDDs are investing in dashboards that feature compelling visualizations of economic indicators or plan performance measures.

Examples of impressive data platforms are not hard to find in the planning world. The challenge is: What happens when the grant money runs out?

Most EDA-funded Economic Development Districts operate on very lean budgets, especially those located in small metropolitan and rural communities. Licensing even the most basic GIS and/or data platform solutions from private firms is out of the question for the vast majority of EDDs. Further, value-added services at EDDs, or any regional planning organization with voluntary participation from local governments, must be financially sustained through fee-for-service or cost sharing agreements with members. Getting buy-in from members to purchase and maintain these tools (not to mention hire and train the planners to run them) requires a very clearly communicated return on investment. Data platforms, GIS tools, and dashboards must have functional value to planners and other technical users, but be easy enough for non-technical, general public users to access in order to create a wide user base–i.e. increase the chances of constituents complaining to elected officials on your board if their support for maintaining the data platform and/or your staff running it ever shows signs of wavering.

What we’re talking about is the sweet spot for EDDs: delivery of cost-effective, value-added services that (1) expand resource capacity of member governments, which, hopefully, increases the likelihood of successful implementation of CEDS and other types of plans; (2) create a niche market that presents revenue generating opportunities for EDDs to offer more advanced technical services on a fee-for-service basis; (3) empower community members to get more engaged in planning efforts by lowering the barrier to participate through providing free, publicly-available tools; and (4) grow the EDD’s role in the region.

We thought about these goals a lot when I worked at CAPCOG, the EDA-funded Economic Development District in Austin, but that was more than five years ago and technology (or our knowledge of it) had not improved yet to the point of being able to fully explore where data could take us, at least not in a way that was cost-effective enough to develop a sound business plan around it. Proprietary tools were still too expensive; data still too cumbersome.


Fortunately, we got another chance. East Arkansas Planning and Development District (EAPDD) was awarded a $2.6 million HUD Sustainable Communities grant and then turned to us with a challenge: Create a free, publicly available data platform that the agency could maintain itself with existing staff after the grant money was gone. No licenses. No fees. No maintenance agreements. No consultants, unless they chose to use them, not because they had to. We also had to figure out how community members could be trained to use the data to accomplish planning objectives, and track progress on the new HUD-funded regional and local plans under development.

The EAPDD data platform is powered by free Google technology and includes three main components: interactive map and data warehouse for visualizing primary and secondary data; step-by-step tutorials, or “field guides,” that demonstrate how to leverage the data platform to complete planning activities; and a data dashboard featuring performance measures that will be used to evaluate progress on the new regional and local plans.

Interactive Map and Data Warehouse

Here’s an example for economic developers. Suppose you’re working with a prospect company and need to identify a site under a given budget that is zoned commercial with access to ports and rail. The data platform includes a zoning map (where parcel data is available) and you can quickly identify candidate sites based on a company’s infrastructure needs. The data can be viewed on the EAPDD map or downloaded in various file formats, such as Excel or .kml for Google Earth.


Field Guides

No formal training or planning experience is needed to successfully use the field guides, which is one way we are leveling the playing field for small, rural communities. For communities interested in downtown redevelopment, start with learning how to identify an appropriate site and visualize a new development.


Data Dashboard

Effective planning requires an ability to tell a compelling story–helping civic-minded members of your community understand opportunities and challenges and then motivating them to act. EAPDD will use a data dashboard to tell that story at the regional and county level as communities work to implement the new plans.


Designing and building the EAPDD data platform was a challenging experiment and we’re looking forward to seeing how EAPDD and its member communities leverage the new resource to improve the East Arkansas region.

For more information on the data platform experience, please read the case study on the Civic Analytics website. Thanks to Make It So Design and Aunt Bertha for all their contributions.

Austin: This is the best economy you’re likely to see

Here’s my roundup of the latest statistics available on the Austin economy:

Austin, TX: State of the Economy

The comparisons to Raleigh, another extremely fast-growing, tech-driven economy, are stunning to me. I grew up in Raleigh and often hear people comparing Austin to the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill). There are clear similarities–research universities, influx of young, well-educated people, tech hubs–but it’s the differences that underscore Austin’s singular economic performance lately.

More primary working age, educated people are moving to Austin than any other U.S. city, and that’s having a profound effect on wealth creation. Research Triangle is also among the leaders nationally, but there’s an important difference: When the demographic driving economic growth is making approximately $15,000 more on average in Austin than in Raleigh (see Slide 14), you can start to understand why affordability and inequality are dominating policy discussions in Austin.

Austin may still be a bargain compared to expensive coastal places like Seattle, the Bay Area, and New York, but we are a world away from many other fast-growing, mid-size markets like Raleigh-Durham and Nashville. And, trust me, the economic developers in those comparable mid-size markets are starting to take notice.

This is the best economy we’re likely to experience in Austin, assuming, of course, that you have the education, skills, and luck to be able to fully participate in it.