Last year, we examined how Austin has an unlikely lookalike in Boise, Idaho, a fast-growing metro that, like Austin, has earned both praise and ire as thousands flock to the city.
But while Boise and its suburb, Nampa, were named the two best-run cities in America by WalletHub, Austin ranked 85th—below fellow hubs Phoenix and Miami and six fellow Texas cities.
The study, which measures 150 US cities across 38 metrics, compared each metro's quality of city services to its city budget per capita. While Boise ranked third in both categories, Austin's 12th-best quality of services was offset by a city budget that ranked 112th per resident.
Here's a look at how the Sun Belt's former pride and joy fell so far below its tinier "twin":
Booming economies—both cities
Both Boise and Austin ranked in the top 5 for their economies, with Austin taking the cake.
Bolstered by a mass pandemic migration and tech influx, both metros are caught "mid-metamorphosis" as they quickly transform into major cities. While Austin suburbs Georgetown and Leander both saw the fastest growth of any metros from July 2020-2021 with double-digit growth, three Boise suburbs—Meridian (5.2%), Caldwell (5.2%) and Nampa (5.0%) rounded out the top 10.
Tech giants like Tesla and Oracle, alongside other developments in tech and business, helped Austin produce one of the fastest-growing economies in 2021. And with employers like Albertson's, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology, Boise's unemployment rate sat at 2.4% in April—well below the national average of 3.6%.
City budget, safety—Boise
Austin's city budget for 2022 was around $1.2 billion. (Hensel Phelps)
Boise's City Hall offers 42% of its budget to general funds. (Boise City Council/Facebook)
With a $661.8 million budget and a projected population of just over 235,000, Boise has the third-best city budget per capita.
As the city experiences rapid change, city leaders said their budget priority was community-oriented, including "housing, transportation, environment, and more," and that 42% of the budget went to general funds.
And while Austin had a $4.5 billion budget this year, the city had to stretch that among its nearly 1 million residents. 1.2 billion—or 26%—of the budget was placed in general allocation, with two-thirds of that slotted toward public safety.
Austin remains one of Texas' safest cities, according to Police Chief Joseph Chacon, but pales in comparison to Boise. While Austin ranked 71st in safety, Boise clocked in at eighth. Boise's crime rate per 1,000 citizens was 35.5 in 2020, a 2.4% decrease from the year prior, while Austin's was 40.98 in the same time period.
Austin has become known as a "brain drain" in part thanks to the University of Texas. (University of Texas at Austin/Facebook)
Boise's biggest university is Boise State University. (Boise State University/Facebook)
Aside from its top economy ranking, Austin also shone in its high school graduation rate, which clocked in at 1st in the US. Known as a "brain drain" city, Austin's college-town status and wealth of job opportunities have created one of the most educated populations in the U.S.
Three of the top 25 public high schools in Texas are located in Austin, and the city's education system ranked 16th. And while four of the top 10 high schools in Idaho are located in Boise, the city's overall education earned just 41st place.
Both cities are known as fitness and health havens thanks to robust outdoor amenities and health-conscious residents. But Austin still edged out its Idahoan lookalike, ranking 7th overall to Boise's 10th.
Affordability and infrastructure issues—both cities
Housing has become a scarce commodity in Austin.
Both Boise and Austin are experiencing affordability issues thanks to an overpriced housing market. (Boise New Construction/Facebook)
Still, the effects of high-speed growth have done some major damage to both formerly sleepy cities.
Both cities pose higher than average incomes relative to their state. But thanks to a rapidly diminishing number of available homes for both new and old residents, both Boise and Austin ranked as the top two most overvalued housing markets in the country, according to a Florida Atlantic study.
With more and more residents priced out of homeownership and burdened with a higher cost of living, both Boise and Austin ranked below the top 30 in the financial stability index.
Both cities have seen even more development in neighboring suburbs—like Boise's Nampa, which was named the US's best-run city for the sixth year in a row—while its inner-city infrastructure often struggles to keep up with the times. While Boise's infrastructure and pollution ranked 32nd overall (Nampa ranked 77th), Austin's car-centric infrastructure ranked 45th.
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It's been 100-degree weather for nine days straight in Austin, and Jim Bays feels right at home.
Bays, a 66-year-old contractor and homebuilder, hails from a small town just south of Seattle, where rain and chilly weather often prevails over sunny skies. On Wednesday, he celebrated his one-year anniversary in Austin, and with his penchant for "Mediterranean" warmth and booming business, he's not planning to leave anytime soon.
Austin move-in Jim Bays loved Texas weather in all its forms. (Jim Bays)
"They're in the 60s up there right now and it's raining chickens," Bays said. "They have 11, 12 days in a row where they don't even get to see the sun. Down here, you see the sun every day even when you get a rainstorm."
Bays joined thousands of Northern state dwellers in moving to Sun Belt states in search of (sometimes literal) greener pastures amid the pandemic. And with its image as both a cheaper tax haven and "Little California," Austin became the region's poster child, welcoming in 567,082 newcomers from 2010 to 2020 to become the U.S.'s fastest-growing metro.
Some moved for warmer weather; others embarked on a search for employment amid the city's tech boom. And while some, like Bays, enjoy a Texas summer's triple-digit heat, others couldn't weather the seasons.
In a viral op-ed, Californian Brett Alder opined that Central Texas' "oppressive" heat and humidity helped ensure that his stay in Austin was short-lived. It's a tale that quickly became familiar for many misled West Coast move-ins.
I’m laughing at this LA tiktoker who went to Austin during SXSW and said they wanted to move there.
That tiktoker is in Austin now and is nonstop complaining about the heat and it’s only May.
— Laura Gorsky (@lauragorsky) May 7, 2022
For Aimee Knight, a native of Basel, Switzerland, the climate certainly wasn't a selling point when she moved to Austin to study at the University of Texas.
"I probably moved here in spite of the weather, not because of it," Knight said.
Austinite Aimee Knight said she's had to learn new heat-related safety measures for herself and her pets after moving to Texas. (Aimee Knight)
Like Seattle, Basel's high temperatures rarely surpass 80 degrees—even in the summer. Knight said she's had to adjust to both the heat of the outdoors and the chill of air-conditioned spaces in her six years here.
"It's kind of like this pendulum swing of extremes," Knight said. "I think I'm still making that adjustment."
Even Texan move-ins are apprehensive about the summer heat. It's West Texas native Mickey's first summer here, and although temperatures don't reach the desert highs of the West, he said the humidity makes it much worse to grapple with.
"(In West Texas), you can find shade, but the suffocating humid heat will follow you (in Central Texas)," Mickey, who asked to be identified by his nickname, said. "You can't run away from it. I'd describe it as heavy air."
As he turns to loose-fitted athletic clothing for some reprieve, Knight recommends frequent trips to Barton Springs and Deep Eddy.
"It would be nice to be able to migrate like a bird," Knight said. "Maybe come to Austin in the fall and winter, and spring for those prime weather times during ACL and SXSW. And then somewhere like the Pacific Northwest in the summertime."
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When Mark Coffey moved to Austin in 1986, it was the land of Stevie Ray Vaughan shows, MTV and new opportunities.
Now, it may be the land of limited housing, property tax hikes and California license plates—but many are still choosing to stay for remnants of that old-school charm.
Austinites love to lament the loss of “Old Austin”—they’ve been saying it since 1884. And with one-bedroom rents up 112%, home appraisal rates up 56% and the cost of living on a seemingly endless upward trend, it's hard not to see Austin's past through rose-tinted lenses.
But even in money-stretching times like these, some Austinites are taking a break from their usual complaints to remind themselves why they choose to stay.
Mark Coffey has stayed in Austin for decades due to its uniqueness, inclusivity and community. (Mark Coffey)
As a near-original Austinite, Mark Coffey didn't have too much trouble buying a house or finding a job with pension benefits at a local utility service decades ago. Still, he said he's stayed in Austin for more than financial security.
"Despite the cost of living, the brutal heat and traffic... I think the trade-off is that Austin has always kind of had that sense of possibility," Coffey told Austonia. "Of all the cities in Texas, it's been the most open to change and future possibilities and I don't think that's ever completely lost."
Austin's unique spirit has attracted like-minded small-town Texas kids looking for community. Gabriel Rodriguez, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, moved to Austin a few years ago after graduating from Texas State University and still hasn't become bored with the vibrant live music scene.
Gabriel Rodriguez, who has experience as a musician has found a home in Austin's live music scene and with Austin FC. (Gabriel Rodriguez)
"The big thing to me was the music," Rodriguez said. "That's what made me want to move to Austin in the first place... I grew up in a place that didn't have that."
Coffey, Rodriguez and many others have also found the Austin spirit with Austin FC, the city's first major league sports team, and its vibrant and community-minded fanbase.
Reason for being in love: Austin FC.
— Micky Ruñoz (@HighMs66) June 7, 2022
"Austin FC has come around and it's caused both old and new Austinite to kind of rally around something that like, yeah, this is our club, but it's also a statement about the kind of community we want to be," Coffey said.
For others, like Michelle Sanchez, Austin is home for many reasons—namely, a famed food scene, family and plenty of outdoor activities.
Proud, Austinite. I love Zilker (all the greenbelts), people for the most part are friendly, soccer, the food, and the fact that my family lives here. <3 I have thought about leaving once my contract is up.
— Michelle Sánchez (@MichelleS_tv) June 7, 2022
In a Reddit post that saw nearly 800 comments, dozens of users pointed to outdoor activities—from Barton Creek's Greenbelt swimming holes to paddle boarding on Lady Bird Lake and trails dotting the city's outskirts. Others said that despite its flaws, they've never found anywhere better.
"Austin doesn't do anything spectacularly, but does more things adequately than most anywhere I can think of," user boyyhowdy said.
However, for some, those "adequacies" still aren't enough to stay.
Over austin too. I resigned a (sub)lease for a super small studio that’s 40% lower than the average 1 bedroom in Austin. This will be my last year in Austin, so I’m staying to save money then move to a city with actual public transit and ditching my car.
— amanduh (taylor's version) (@hey_amanduhh) June 7, 2022
Rodriguez said he's thought of leaving too. But whenever he thinks too long about the city's flaws, he finds solace in Austin's live music venues, including his favorite, Moody Theater. Coffey, meanwhile, recommends longtime spots like Continental Club, the Broken Spoke or even South Congress for a quick "old Austin" fix.
And with housing prices showing signs of slowing down and longtime haunts like Austin's longest-standing grocery store opening back up, there still may be time to reignite a romance with what "Keeps Austin Weird."
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