Sheldon Lamey spent most of his life in Austin. His wife, Latosha, grew up in the city, too.
But when they started looking for a house to buy eight years ago, they found themselves priced out of their hometown — even though both of them worked and, together, brought in a six-figure income. They moved to Pflugerville.
“When I was growing up and people talked about Pflugerville, I didn’t know where that was,” Sheldon Lamey said. “That was out in the country.”
Their story has become an all too common tale for many of Austin’s African-American residents. Like the Lameys, the rising cost of living in the city has pushed many of them to the suburbs.
According to the results of a new University of Texas survey, about three-quarters of the African-American homeowners who left Austin for the suburbs said they moved out primarily because of concerns about rising housing costs or declining school quality. The survey took responses from 100 African-American heads of household who formerly lived in Austin and now live outside the city limits.
The survey, the first to provide in-depth data about the forces that prompted thousands of black residents to leave the city, confirms the narrative that affordability and quality of schools spurred the exodus. But it also reveals a more nuanced picture of the urban neighborhoods black residents left behind and the suburban neighborhoods in which they settled.
“Affordability was across the board an issue,” said Eric Tang, professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at UT and co-author of the study. “Those who moved north during the first decade of the 21st century were motivated by education as well.”
According to Tang’s survey, 56 percent of the African-American respondents who moved out of the city, most of whom departed since 2000, blamed the soaring cost of living for their move.
“Everything in Central Austin was way out of our price range,” said Lamey, 39. “We knew a lot of people of color moving to the Pflugerville area, where you can get more home for your money.”
He and his wife don’t have children, but Lamey also said Pflugerville had better schools. And according to Tang’s report, a quarter of the survey respondents said they left because they were “dissatisfied with the quality of education their children were receiving in East Austin public schools.”
The study, co-authored by UT doctoral student Bisola Falola, follows Tang’s 2014 report that found the city’s African-American population had shrank from 2000 to 2012. While the overall metro area added black residents during that time, Austin was the country’s only large, fast-growing city to suffer a net decline in its black population.
With his latest survey, Tang sought to identify whether African-American residents left the city “in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere” or because they were “pushed out by socioeconomic pressures.” He said the survey supports the latter explanation.
“This notion of black flight — African-American families moving to the suburbs to experience a higher quality of life — is not true,” he said. “It’s a myth. If they had their choice, they would not have moved.”
According to the report, most of the respondents who moved north, mostly to Pflugerville and Round Rock, said they have better access to health care, supermarkets, good schools and similar amenities in their current neighborhoods. Even so, almost half of them said they would move back into Austin if housing were more affordable.
Furthermore, 80 percent of all the residents surveyed, regardless of where they now live, said they left behind positive relationships with neighbors in Austin. Only two-thirds said the same for relationships in their current neighborhoods, and only 11 percent “equated their move to the suburbs with a ‘higher quality of life,’” the report says.
“That tells us people still have this deep connection with Austin and didn’t want to move,” Tang said. “They had these important family connections, communal ties that were important to them and that they sacrificed, that they miss.”
Despite those indications, fewer than half the residents surveyed said they felt “pushed out” of the city, according to the report.
“Folks who’ve experience state-sanctioned racism, who really understand what it means to be displaced and confined in different areas, they don’t use the term lightly,” Tang said. “They’re not going to talk about market forces using the same language they would when it comes to segregation and displacement.”
Different reasons, different directions
Residents who moved north and those who relocated east identified different factors that prompted their moves.
Generally, those who went north to Pflugerville and Round Rock found more affluent and established African-American communities, Tang said. A higher percentage of them identified school quality as a primary motivation for their move.
Black residents who moved to Manor, Elgin and points east were more likely to report worse access to amenities in their current neighborhoods, and more of them cited affordability as the main reason they left the city.
The difference, Tang writes in the report, suggests that “residents who live east are experiencing the ‘suburbanization of poverty’ phenomenon.”
The Austin metro area posted the country’s second-fastest rate of suburban poverty growth from 2000 to 2011, with only Atlanta’s suburbs faring worse, according to a 2013 book co-authored by Brookings Institution fellow Elizabeth Kneebone.
In a subsequent report published in March, Kneebone found a rising concentration of low-income residents living in the region’s high-poverty neighborhoods. A separate study last year identified Austin as the most economically segregated large metro area in the country.
Those trends could dampen regional economy in the years come. Research led by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty has found that children who grow up in areas with greater income integration tend to climb higher up the economic ladder as adults.
And, according to a recent analysis of neighborhood diversity in many of the country’s largest metro areas, Austin’s shifting racial patterns track closely with maps of its growing socioeconomic divides.
From 1990 to 2010, the most diverse Central Texas neighborhoods — typically those with higher numbers of black and Latino residents — tended to shift toward the north and east of the city, according to a study by Kyle Walker, a Texas Christian University geography professor.
Meanwhile, areas west of the city remained considerably less diverse over that time. Rollingwood, Lakeway and Sun City were among the least diverse neighborhoods, with predominately white populations, according to the analysis.
Most of the area’s diverse neighborhoods are about 12 miles out from Austin City Hall, mainly along Interstate 35 north of U.S. 183. But Walker’s research also noted growing diversity in areas within a couple of miles of City Hall — many of those in the gentrifying neighborhoods of East Austin.
Tang said black residents in many of those neighborhoods have been whipsawed by a combination of concentrated segregation and concentrated gentrification. Local, state and federal policies from 1928 through the 1960s focused the vast majority of Austin’s black population in one neighborhood, he said, and now that neighborhood has become the city’s prime target for gentrification.
“African-Americans were hit first and hardest by gentrification,” he said, “and it has to do with their deep concentration on the east side.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Sheldon Lamey’s name.