A couple of weeks ago, the Statesman reported that Austin's urban core lost a lot of children between 2000 and 2010.
The Statesman quoted me but did not ask me for my solutions. It's just as well. I doubt there are any solutions for reversing the trend. But there are effective strategies for accelerating it.
Good strategies start with good theory. We can't run off more families with children without understanding the current trend.
The usual explanations are wrong. Taxes are not causing families to flee central Austin. Suburbanites pay the same tax rates as central Austin residents. As do singles and couples. Why would higher taxes force families with children to move but not childless families?
Crime is not the reason. West central Austin, at least, does not have much crime.
Schools are a more plausible explanation. But west central Austin has some very good schools. My son will start kindergarten at Barton Hills Elementary this fall. It is as good as anything in the suburbs.
The best explanation is that central Austin is filled with old, small houses that the central Austin neighborhoods are hell-bent on preserving. Larger households tend to value larger homes. Imagine a family with a couple of children at the margin, torn between a central Austin neighborhood with all of its advantages and a larger suburban house. A rise in price for the central Austin home makes the extra space in the suburban house a relatively better deal. So this hypothetical family at the margin chooses the suburban home.
With a good theory in place, we can devise strategies that would drive more families with children to the suburbs.
1. Limit construction of condos and other multi-family in central Austin neighborhoods. It's true that this sort of housing is more appealing to singles than families with children.* But -- and this is the key point -- limiting the supply of housing that singles like will cause them to bid more for the housing that both families with children and singles like. The family at the margin then will choose the suburb for the reason given above.
2. Impose draconian limits on remodeling and replacing small bungalows. In theory, a family with children that wants more space could choose to enlarge that central city bungalow or replace it with a bigger house; the suburban home is not its only choice. We can push more families to the suburbs by restricting that option.
3. Close neighborhood schools. Schools do matter, of course. Closing as many central neighborhood schools -- particularly the best performing ones --might be the best strategy.
Central Austin neighborhoods have successfully implemented strategies one and two. They have fought the development of multi-family housing for years. It's an easy strategy to sell: just dismiss new multi-family as hipster housing built by greedy developers.
It's true that there have been oodles of new development in West Campus, but this neighborhood is dominated by students. There have been new vertical mixed use developments here and there, but it takes a lot of housing to accommodate strong demand. VMU is expensive; smaller projects in neighborhood interiors would be cheaper but allowing more of them is a non-starter.
The McMansion ordinance is brilliantly effective at implementing the second strategy. And it was a brilliant piece of marketing. The name invokes the huge, ostentatious homes that were popping up in central Austin in 2005-2007. But the ordinance is a bait and switch; it in fact makes it very difficult to enlarge even modest homes, or to replace tiny bungalows with 2400 or 2800 sf homes. These aren't McMansions. But since the typical Austinite won't spend more than 15 minutes thinking about this kind of thing, there was little backlash.
The third strategy has not yet been implemented, although AISD is threatening it. The groups most responsible for the first two strategies genuinely oppose number three. (Me too.) It's not really necessary to close good schools when students are clamoring to transfer to them, nor is abandoning central Austin infrastructure just to build more schools in the suburbs really prudent. But central Austin neighborhoods are dealing with the consequence of limiting development; this strategy might yet be implemented.
I'm confident that maintaining or implementing these strategies would complete Austin's segregation by children. Perhaps the complete package could be sold to the public with the slogan, "More dogs, fewer children".
*It's worth noting, though, that 10% of all children in 78704 live in just two city blocks in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. These are low-income housing projects. I don't see any more of these being built.
Are luxury condos good for Austin's housing market? (Sept. 11, 2006)
Seven reasons to hate the McMansion ordinance: Reason No. 1 (Sept. 17, 2006)
Reason No. 2 to hate the McMansion ordinance (Sept. 18, 2006)
Reason No. 6 to hate the McMansion ordinance (Sept. 22, 2006)
A VMU primer (Nov. 30, 2007)
Apartment complex mentality (Aug. 27. 2008)