Published in WEST AUSTIN NEWS February, 2002
Austin was named for Missourian. Travis County was named for an South Carolinian. The city was selected as the capital by a Georgian. The current Capitol building was designed by a Pennsylvanian. The first mayor was a Virginian. In 1999 sports fans across the nation focused on UT football as a Californian won the Hiesman Trophy. A year later Austin was in the spotlight as a man from Connecticut left the Governor’s Mansion designed by a North Carolinian for Washington, DC. Out of state people have played a significant role in the city’s history.
But in the 1990’s one state seemed more visible than the other 48 in shaping Austin. California was bringing in new Austinites faster than the maternity ward at Brakenridge Hospital. With the dot.com era of hyper growth of the 90’s gone the way of the land speculation of the ‘80’s and the oil boom of the ‘70’s, who knows what effect California migration will have in the future of Austin growth?
In 1999, the Benchmark Group’s Austin Newcomers Study showed most new Austinites came from other places in Texas. A new Austinite was about as likely to come from the Rio Grande Valley as Silicon Valley but California brought in the most new residents from out of state. Another study from Central Texas Directions, a market research firm, said 19% of new residents from out of state came from California.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce shows in 1999, 1341 people came from the metro areas of San Jose and Los Angeles. The Chamber lists only the metro areas that have brought in the most new residents, so people in other areas of California were not included. Eight of the top ten metro areas were other locations in Texas. The report said former residents of San Jose had the highest per capita income of the metro areas surveyed with $67,612. In comparison, new Austinites from the Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, Corpus Christi, Lubbock, Waco and Bryan averaged less than $20,000 per capita. The Chamber based its data on IRS tax records.
It’s hard to say when Californians coming to Austin became a major factor in the city’s growth. American Airlines made news in the Fall of 1992 when it began direct flights to San Jose. Direct flights, unless they were to Dallas or Houston, were a novelty then so their decision illustrated the close bond developing between the two cities. Also during the decade, 3 of Austin’s 10 largest corporate employers (AMD, Applied Materials and Solectron) were based in California(on the other hand, those three companies had layoffs in 2001). Tech employers needed employees and with unemployment hovering around 2-3% finding new people was difficult out of Austin’s population. They had to come from somewhere and the other high tech hubs including California were logical points of origin. The city also provided tax incentives to lure several high tech employers- some based in California- to move operations to Austin.
Bernard Ratsch of Pflugerville was waiting at Austin-Bergstrom International for American Airlines flight 639 to take him back to his hometown of San Jose.
“I wouldn’t call it migration I’d call it getting the hell out,” he said. Ratsch, an employee of Cadence Design, moved to Austin in 1998. California has become crowded and expensive, he said and he had seen much of the farmland in his community of Cupertino turned into development. He feels he can relate to the people of Austin much better. “You don’t get the Silicon Valley snobs with their noses up in the air in Austin,” he said.
A look at Cost of Living Data shows the contrast between the two areas. With 100 being average for the US, Greater Austin has an index of 106.1 for the second quarter of 2001. San Diego’s is 126.2. Los Angeles is still higher with 139.9 but lower than San Francisco with 191.7. When it comes to housing, Austin’s index is 119.2- 1/3 of the index of San Francisco. Over the last 10 years, housing costs have changed in Austin. In 1990, the average sale price was $ 87,600 that more than doubled in 2000 with a price tag of $191,300, according to the Real Estate Center website. On the rental side, state real estate boards show in the second quarter of 2001, Austin has an average rent of $697 per month. San Jose’s is $1732- and that was just for a one bedroom apartment.
Realtor Jason Crouch, relocation director of Horizon group of Capitol Realty says in 2000 more than half the relocations his company worked with were Californians, but he had fewer in 2001. “California buyers have been really easy to work with primarily because they are pleasantly surpprised by the prices here versus what they are used to paying,” according Crouch. In general, he said, Californians prefer a new home and don’t mind the long commutes from places such as Georgetown because they are used to much worse traffic back home. “I had a couple from the San Jose area that purchased a home for $250, 000 that they thought would go for $750,000 in California,” Crouch added.
But are Californians, by escaping the high cost of living in the Golden State, bringing the problem to the Lone Star State? “Not anymore than people from Oklahoma, Michigan or Florida,” said Katherine Stark of the Austin Tenants Council. Her group monitors renter’s rights and she has seen the rising rents and rising frustration among residents in the area over several years. Growth in general is what she blames for the rising rents. Crouch believes growth in general has brought up the housing costs, but people coming to Greater Austin from more expensive areas and paying cash for homes is a factor as well.
Freelance web designer Tim Ziegler moved from Austin to California and back to Austin. He longed to “get back to the old Austin feeling- mellow, focused on arts, music and quality of life,” he said. What he found was a place that looked more like California than the Austin he remembered. The city was full of high tech workers he says he could spot with their dress shirts, khakis, fancy glass frames but no tie or jacket. He says he sees good and bad in the change. Good for the diversity of businesses and people, bad for the cost of living and traffic congestion.
Native Californians Vickie and Glenn Black of Visalia looked all over their state for a new home. Ms Black is the owner of Vit’toria Woman’s Apparel, and was looking for a place with a strong economy and they both wanted “a city that is beautiful we would enjoy living there,” she said. They didn’t find what they were looking for. A friend had moved to Austin and suggested they try the city. “When I flew in a year ago I told my husband ‘I found my people” she said from her store, now in The Village of West Lake shopping center. As a business owner she has found running an enterprise easier in Texas than in California with no state income tax and less governmental paperwork. Texas, however does have a higher sales tax rate.
“It’s the people who won my heart,” she said. “Californians are very guarded, defensive and self centered,” she said. In her neighborhood she has met many California transplants “everyone feels the same way. They would not want to go back,” she said. Another Californian who went back agreed. “In two years I made better friends than in all my years in San Diego,” said Antonella Pisani who lived in Austin from 1996 to 1999 to attend St. Edward’s University and work at a radio station. She returned to San Diego for a relationship but still visits Austin about once a year.
Black said Texas weather was not a problem even though the humidity was something she had never experienced. “I have had very little adjustment. I have been enamored with the bright, blue sky and white puffy clouds,” she said saying the air is much less smoggy than back home. The mild climate of the Bay Area versus 100 degree days of Austin may make a Northern Californian run and hide amongst the Redwoods, but Ratsch agreed the weather in Texas was not difficult to get used to. Austin also sees greater extremes in cold that the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego where the Pacific moderates the temperature ranges. Pisani liked the four season climate of Central Texas, however there were drawbacks. “I had to drive from San Diego to Austin in January of ‘97.. there was ice on the ground from El Paso almost all the way to Austin. That was the worst driving experience I think I’ve had,” according to Pisani. In fairness to Austin’s environment, the last earthquake in the area was in 1902 when a small quake was felt in Creedmore in Southeast Travis County.
Missing in Texas, according to Ratsch, is that elusive quality called “hometown” family and old friends are more common in California. Black misses the beach, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and cooling off at night during the summer. Pisani missed the ocean as well. Michelle Fugere, who went from the Bay area to Austin and back, missed the “fog and the refreshing coolness it brought. I also missed the sourdough bread, because what they call sourdough bread in Texas isn’t the same,” she said. Fugere returned to California for family reasons.
With a large group moving to an area sometimes so does resentment be it at Ellis Island a hundred years ago or ethnically diverse neighborhoods of today. Some places with California migration have combined the two words into “Californication.” It’s hard to measure tensions, but a web search I could find offers for bumper stickers saying “Don’t Californicate ______” The places that filled in that blank included Washington state, Seattle, Oregon, Colorado and Idaho, but no Austin. “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could” was a more common bumper sticker. Could an alternate sticker for Californians say “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here once I heard about the low real estate prices, labor costs and no state income tax?”
With the economy in flux, many things can change migration to Austin. Pisani says of Austin “it’s defiantly someplace I’d move back to in a heartbeat... some of the best music, food and people I’ve encountered.” Will others in California arrive because of a rebound in the high tech industry? Or will growth come with some new sector that will be Austin’s “next big thing?” When the employment is low in Austin and companies need more employees, instead of investing in tech stocks or real estate it may be time to buy stock in U-haul.