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State of downtown: How Austin's luxury feel affects its attraction as a live, work and play area

(Shutterstock)

There’s no shortage of online chatter about Austin. TikTok and Instagram are filled with people documenting their weekend trips with activities like paddleboarding on the lake, enjoying the nightlife and considering a move.


But it’s not just social media hype. A new report by the Downtown Austin Alliance backs up the excitement.

The nonprofit dove into its state of downtown report in an event at Waterloo Park this week with findings that show downtown sees more than 5 million visitors annually. Plus visits in the popular entertainment districts of Rainey Street and West 6th were higher in October this past year than they were pre-pandemic.


While the tourists may be enjoying Austin’s downtown, how is it working out for current residents?

More than 50% of respondents the Downtown Alliance surveyed rated downtown as poor or below average as a place to live. The answer to some of that dissatisfaction may be seen in the priorities respondents said should be addressed over the next two years in downtown, listing parking, traffic congestion and affordability as some of the top issues. In 2021, the report notes downtown asking rent rose 14%.

“Studio rents right now are averaging $2,200 a month downtown,” said Jen Weaver, who founded Weaver Buildings to provide housing that’s affordable to middle-income earners.

“That means to live downtown, you have to make six figures to qualify to pay that rent,” Weaver said, referencing how many lease agreements require renters to earn three times the rent in order to qualify.

With census data reporting that the median household income in Austin in 2020 sits at almost $76,000, that’s out of reach for many. But those costs don’t appear to be changing.

“We have increasing fees, we have increasing property tax,” Weaver said. “So our developers continue to develop only luxury products for downtown.”

Among the developments downtown are 25 projects under construction totaling more than 8 million square feet.

Still, some have hope for increased accessibility downtown with Project Connect moving forward. The plan approved by voters in November 2020 makes promises of transit equity with the mission to bring in light rail, a portion of which will pass through downtown, along with a downtown subway.

Annick Beaudet, mobility officer for the city of Austin, talked about how this fits into her vision for downtown 10 years from now.

“We're going to be doing a lot of work downtown, whether it's building more housing, whether it's revitalizing Sixth Street or it's Building Project Connect, there's going to be disruptions,” Beaudet said. “And we're going to have to work together to find that right balance of getting light rail, moving in Austin as soon as possible, but also balancing the folks who live here, work here and play here now, and it's not going to be easy.”

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