Last week the New York Times ran an article about three B-list celebrities who decided to use the COVID-19 lockdowns as an opportunity to move to Austin. Why did Becca Tobin (Glee), Jamie-Lynn Sigler (The Sopranos), and Haylie Duff (Hilary’s older sister) pick Austin? “We liked the idea of being in a progressive city, but not necessarily something so overly populated,” Tobin told reporter Mariella Rudi, who is based in Los Angeles.
That one quote gets to the crux of Austin’s ongoing housing crisis. Folks with lots of money are moving to Austin but also don’t want the city to get any bigger. Many long-time residents don’t want the kind of density that might alleviate the supply crunch. You don’t have to be a Milton Friedman aficionado to know that this is a recipe for skyrocketing prices and inevitable displacement. In fact, median home prices in Austin have jumped by more than $100,000—from $455,000 to $566,500—in less than six months. Upper-middle-class families who presumed they were on track to buy a home and start the next phase of their lives have suddenly found themselves priced out. Yes, the housing market is hot across the country, but Austin is on a completely different level. I’ve seen many friends come to the sad conclusion that the traditional path of homeownership and parenthood easily navigated by other professional, white-collar workers just ten years older than them is no longer tenable in Austin. Maybe they should move to Buda or Round Rock, they sigh. That’s when I chime in with a suggestion: move to Houston.
Austin is a fun place, no doubt. Texans from across the state love to hop in the car and spend a long weekend paddle-boarding on Lady Bird Lake, swimming at Barton Springs, partying on Sixth Street, and reliving college memories at Kerbey Lane—as if the city were their personal playground. But playgrounds are for children. If you’re trying to buy a home, then you’re probably a grown-up. You deserve a grown-up city—the city of Houston.
Don’t get me wrong; Austin has some great attributes. The Capitol is a beautiful and historic building. Houston should aspire to have a campus of the caliber of the University of Texas. And Austin summers are somewhat more of a dry heat. But those great Austin amenities that people swear they could never do without—the live music! The outdoors! The progressive attitude!—exist in every other major city in one form or another. And I would argue that Houston’s offerings are better, and more sophisticated, than Austin’s.
You want live music? How about the world-class Houston Grand Opera, Opera in the Heights, and the Houston Symphony at Jones Hall? If you’d prefer something more familiar to Austin sensibilities—a schlubby guy doing Oasis covers on his acoustic guitar, for example—Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Rice Village offers that on a regular basis.
Houston also has a claim to genres of music almost totally lacking in Austin—think of DJ Screw, Paul Wall, and the entire niche of Southern rap spawned by Swishahouse. And, yes, we have plenty of venues—White Oak Music Hall, McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, the Big Easy—if you want a random date night with a live band. Houston is an actual big city; you’ll find what you want.
But let’s face it: You’re not getting any younger. You probably don’t like new music anyway, and you get sleepy around 10 p.m. If you want to see Spoon or Ween or whatever, you can just wait until they go on tour, buy tickets to any city you want, get a babysitter, and make a weekend vacation out of it. You’re an adult now. You don’t need to cram into Emo’s to see your favorite bands live. Besides, Austin’s live music scene is dying. Like thwarted homeowners, the venues and artists are getting pushed out as the money flows in. You once saw Grimes do a concert in a garage; now she’s Elon Musk’s girlfriend. Welcome to Austin in 2021.
Well, what about the outdoors? Houston may not have hills, but we have hundreds of miles of bayou hike-and-bike paths, Lake Houston, and Lake Conroe, plus we’re a 45-minute drive from a little natural feature called the Gulf of Mexico. Enjoy kayaking, fishing, or surfing? Enter the domain of Poseidon himself. By the way, Austin’s nearest beach is three and a half hours away. And if you really begin pining for rocky landscapes, just take a summer trip to Colorado. We have two—two!—international airports with direct flights to cities across the world. That’s the Houston way!
The main critique I’ve heard of Houston’s outdoors is that we lack a watering hole that can compare to Barton Springs. But here’s a Houston secret: as you get older, you will inevitably have a friend who owns a pool and is more than happy to have you over. Heck, you may become that friend! Let the college students pay $5 to enjoy a dip in a freezing pond with 599 of their closest buddies. In Houston, adult swim is free, and you’re allowed to bring drinks.
Finally, there’s the politics. If the public vote to re-criminalize homelessness didn’t already deflate Austin’s sense of moral superiority, the fact that the city’s leadership can’t find a way to make housing affordable should be an indictment of anything related to self-proclaimed progressiveness. Politics is about power, and if Austin politicians can’t use their power to improve the fundamental living conditions of not only the most vulnerable but also a reasonably privileged middle class, then they should just admit the city is becoming a resort town for celebrities and a techno-oligarchy and spend their time arguing about plastic straws. Say what you will about Houston’s relationship with the oil and gas industry; at least pollution here has abated. Austin still hasn’t figured out how to mitigate the collateral consequences of tech wealth and Hollywood tourism.
Now that I’ve established that Houston can do anything Austin does, it’s time to turn the question back around and list all the qualities Austin lacks. I’ll be brief.
Austin doesn’t have a professional basketball, baseball, or football team. (Congrats, ATX, on the new MLS team; the Houston Dynamo look forward to beating you on the soccer pitch.) Austin doesn’t have a real science museum. Austin’s art museums are limited at best, and the zoo is a joke. All of Austin’s good restaurants feel like they belong in a generic luxury hotel. (In contrast, Houston’s high-end hotel restaurant offers Oaxacan cuisine.) For all the bragging about Austin tacos, the people who run Houston’s taco trucks actually speak Spanish. Austin is the least diverse big city in Texas. Heck, Austin’s Black population is shrinking, even as the city booms in population. And, crucially, Austin homes don’t have a median sale price of $304,000, as Houston’s do.
No doubt Houston isn’t as affordable as it used to be, especially for renters already struggling. But somehow it remains tenable for those upwardly mobile geriatric millennials taking their first steps into homeownership. In the past few months alone, I’ve seen four friends buy their first places: a new townhouse in Oak Forest, a classic eighties townhouse in Montrose, a bungalow north of downtown, and a cottage in the Second Ward. These homes aren’t in far-flung suburbs; they’re in Houston’s inner core, within walking and biking distance to the breweries, restaurants, arts venues, and other hallmarks of a livable, enjoyable city. Some of these are dense housing allowed by Houston’s lax land-use rules. Others are older homes still left standing—and reasonably priced—as new construction soaks up capital like a sponge, saving older neighborhoods from the deluge of wealth that has made Austin so unaffordable. I also know people who moved to the Woodlands.
When you’re young and free of responsibility, Austin is a fun place to live and hang out and maybe even work. But like the call to Keep Austin Weird, living in Austin as an adult means desperately trying to hold onto memories of a past that no longer exists. Austin’s weirdness used to be embodied by Leslie Cochran and Alex Jones. The cross-dressing celebrity has been dead for nearly a decade, and Jones pivoted from bizarre conspiracy theories to defending neo-Nazis. Times change.
In contrast, Houston, a place without pretension or zoning, will gleefully tear down its past if that makes the present more appealing—anything to give you the freedom to grow. You won’t be restrained by outdated notions of what the city should be. You’ll be empowered by hopes of what the city can be. We’re improving our parks, adding more bike lanes, and expanding the mass transit system. And we don’t listen to NIMBYs who want to block affordable housing. Forty years of the Houston Area Survey show that we’re a city perpetually, even irrationally, optimistic about our future. Houston thinks there are better days ahead, while Austin worries it is past its prime.
The choice is clear: You can rage against the dying of the light in Austin and spend 50 percent of your income on housing, or you can be reborn a sweaty, home-owning phoenix in Houston. So let me know when you’re done unpacking the U-Haul. I just may invite you over to take a dip in my pool.