News & Politics

Dear Austinites, You Have Permission to Move to an Affordable, Weird City: Houston

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. 

Illustration by Valero Doval
This article originally published online on June 28, 2021.

This summer, the New York Times ran an article about three B-list Hollywood celebrities who decided to use the COVID-19 pandemic 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 the Texas capital? “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 at the crux of Austin’s ongoing housing crisis. Folks with lots of money are moving to Austin, but like many longtime residents, they don’t want the city to get any bigger, and they oppose the kind of density that might alleviate the supply crunch. You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to recognize that this is a recipe for skyrocketing prices and inevitable displacement. In fact, the median home price in Austin jumped by $120,000—from $455,000 to $575,000—in the first half of this year. Upper-middle-class Austinites 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 different level. I’ve seen many friends come to the sad conclusion that the traditional path of homeownership and parenthood navigated by other white-collar professionals just ten years ago is no longer tenable. Maybe we should move to Buda or Round Rock, they sigh. That’s when I chime in with a suggestion: Move to my hometown. 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 paddleboarding 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. 

Don’t get me wrong: Austin has some great attributes. The Capitol is a beautiful and historic building. Houston should aspire to an institution of higher learning of the size and caliber of the University of Texas. Austin’s summers are less humid than Houston’s. But those Austin amenities that people swear they could never do without—the live music! The outdoors! The progressive attitude!—exist in every other major metropolis 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, the symphony at Jones Hall, and Opera in the Heights? And if you’d prefer something more familiar to Austin sensibilities—a schlubby guy doing Oasis covers on his acoustic guitar, for example—may I suggest Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Rice Village? Moreover, Houston can claim genres of music almost totally lacking in Austin—think DJ Screw, or Paul Wall and the Southern rap spawned by Swisha House. 

Also, Beyoncé. 

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. Get a babysitter and make a night out of it! Besides, Austin’s music scene isn’t what it used to be. Like thwarted homeowners, the venues and artists are getting pushed out as the money flows in. You once saw Grimes hold a concert in a garage; now she’s Elon Musk’s girlfriend. Welcome to Austin in 2021. 

So, what about the outdoors? Houston may not have hills, but we boast more than a hundred miles of bayou hike-and-bike paths, as well as 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. Austin’s nearest beach is three and a half hours away. And if you’re really pining for rocky landscapes, you can just take that money you’re saving on a mortgage and buy airfare to Colorado. We have two—two!—international airports with direct flights to cities across the world. That’s the Houston way! 

The main criticism I’ve heard of Houston’s outdoors is that we lack a swimming hole that can compare with 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, let’s talk politics. Organic food and yoga studios used to be proof of Austin’s progressivism. But that was before Amazon bought Whole Foods and before a good pair of yoga pants would set you back $100. If the vote to recriminalize homelessness didn’t deflate Austin’s sense of moral superiority, the fact that city leaders can’t find a way to make housing affordable should be an indictment of their self-proclaimed liberal values. 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 admit the city is becoming a resort town for celebrities and techno-oligarchs. Say what you will about Houston’s relationship with the oil and gas industry; at least local leaders figured out how to get polluters to clean the air

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 major professional basketball, baseball, or football team. (Congrats, ATX, on the new Major League Soccer team; the Houston Dynamo look forward to beating you on the pitch.) Austin doesn’t have a real science museum. The art museums are limited at best, and the zoo is a joke. Many of Austin’s good restaurants feel as if they belong in a generic luxury hotel. By contrast, our swampy port region is a quarter foreign-born—home to a million immigrants who mix in a combo platter of culture and cuisine unmatched anywhere between New York and Los Angeles. The New Colossus stands tall in Houston, and he’s serving up Indo-Pakistani fried chicken. For all the bragging about Austin tacos, the people who run Houston’s taco joints actually speak Spanish. In Austin, your purveyor of cochinita pibil is likely a UT dropout sporting blond dreadlocks. 

Austin is the whitest big city in Texas, and its Black population is barely growing, even as the city booms in population. For a supposedly progressive city, its mayors have almost always been feckless white guys. Meanwhile, Houston’s two most recent mayors are a gay woman and a Black man, and our county judge is a thirty-year-old Latina immigrant who dresses up as obscure Star Wars characters any chance she gets.   

Crucially, Austin homes don’t have a median sale price of $314,500, as Houston’s do. No doubt Houston isn’t as affordable as it used to be, especially for renters. But somehow it remains tenable for those upwardly mobile geriatric millennials taking their first steps toward homeownership. In the past few months alone, I’ve watched as four friends have bought their first places: a new townhouse in Garden Oaks, 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 of breweries, restaurants, arts venues, and other hallmarks of a livable city. Some are in dense developments allowed by Houston’s lax land-use rules. Others are older homes still left standing as new construction soaks up buyers’ capital like a sponge, saving older neighborhoods from the deluge of wealth that has made Austin so unaffordable. I also know people who have moved to The Woodlands. 

When you’re young and free of responsibility, Austin is a fun place to be. But like the call to “keep Austin weird,” living in Austin as an adult means desperately trying to hold on to memories of a place that no longer exists. Austin’s weirdness used to be embodied by the cross-dressing street performer Leslie Cochran and the conspiracy-loving talk-show host Alex Jones. But Cochran died nearly a decade ago, and Jones pivoted from yelling about aliens to defending neo-Nazis. Times change. 

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 it could be. We’re improving our parks, adding more bike lanes, and expanding our transit system. We’re not afraid to pour massive amounts of concrete to accommodate new residents either, while Austin tries to squeeze ever-more newcomers into existing infrastructure like an aging hipster trying to fit his dad bod into skinny jeans. Despite the traffic, crime, and flooding, 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.

Evan Mintz lives in Houston and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial writing.

This article appeared in the September 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Why Austinites Should Move to Houston.” It originally published online on June 28, 2021. Subscribe today.