Growing pains

Surprise! Austin again declared fastest-growing large city in America

Surprise! Austin again declared fastest-growing large city in America

Auditorium shores Austin skyline
Austin took the top honor for the third year in a row. Photo by Alicia Vega

In what may be eyeroll-inducing news, Austin has yet again topped one of those “fastest growing” or “best” lists. This time around, WalletHub has named Austin the fastest-growing large city in the country for the third straight year.

To determine where the most rapid economic growth happened over a seven-year period, WalletHub compared 515 U.S. cities across 15 key metrics. The data covers topics such as growth in population, jobs, and economic strength. 

Taking all of those metrics into account, the WalletHub study put Austin atop its list of the fastest-growing large cities, followed by Miami; Seattle; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Denver. Fort Worth appeared at No. 6, with San Antonio at No. 14, Dallas at No. 17, and Houston at No. 42.

Among all of the cities examined, Austin ranked 18th. Round Rock was one spot ahead of Austin, at No. 17.

As for Austin, one local economic expert wonders just how long the city can stay atop its fast-growth perch.

“At this point, Austin being number one in the rankings for just about anything is par for the course. It’s an incredible accomplishment for the city and says a lot about the quality of life that Austin has to offer to those looking for a great place to live,” William Mellor, vice president of Austin-based economic development consulting firm AngelouEconomics, tells CultureMap. “That said, the ride won’t last forever.”

Mellor says Austin could remain the fastest-growing large metro area over the next couple of decades, but that growth would come despite “some pretty serious challenges” facing the region. The chief challenge on Mellor’s list? The increasing shortage of labor, which he calls “the single biggest threat” to Austin’s expansion.

In July, the Austin area’s unemployment rate stood at 3.1 percent, putting a squeeze on employers that are seeking to hire for both new and existing jobs.

“The labor shortage issue is not unique to Austin; we see it in many major metros throughout the country. However, the fact remains that if companies cannot fill open positions, then productivity is limited, output is constrained, and the economy will drag as a result,” Mellor says. “The dragging effect is not likely to translate to negative growth — it’s more likely that the region will just experience growth that is slow[er] than it otherwise would.”

The other serious stumbling block in terms of Austin’s growth is transportation, Mellor says. As anyone who commutes in the region knows, the metro area’s roads continue to be crammed with cars, and the region’s public transportation system isn’t equipped to pick up the slack.

According to the most recent INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, Austin is the 14th most traffic-congested city in the U.S. — behind Dallas and Houston, but ahead of San Antonio.

“If we maintain this business-as-usual approach, some folks 20 years from now wouldn’t get home from work until 10 pm,” Jeff Shelton, a research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute, has said of Austin’s snarled traffic. “And that will cause the local economy and quality of life to suffer.”

Nonetheless, the Austin area’s transportation woes fall well short of those experienced along the West Coast, according to Mellor. For instance, INRIX ranks Los Angeles as the most traffic-congested city in the world, with San Francisco at No. 5 and Seattle at No. 20. By comparison, Dallas is the highest-ranked Texas city on the global list, at No. 22.

Just as with traffic, the Austin area’s housing affordability crunch could keep worsening, Mellor says, but homes and apartments still would be more affordable than they are in major locales on the East and West coasts.

Still, Austin remains the most expensive major housing market in Texas. In August, the median price of a single-family home in the Austin metro area rose 8.2 percent to $322,478 compared with the same time in 2017, according to the Austin Board of Realtors. In the city of Austin, the increase was even more steep during the one-year period, with the median home price climbing 9.2 percent to $393,000.

Echoing other local leaders, Steve Crorey, president of the Austin Board of Realtors, has said there’s a “critical need” for more housing at all price levels in and around Austin.