Barton Springs vs. bayou. Black Pumas vs. Beyonce. Live Music Capital vs. Energy Capital.
As Austin expands into "boomtown" status, it's become subject to a growing rivalry between another storied Texas city: Houston.
While Houston still edges out Austin in population—it's the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and boasts a metro of over 7 million compared to Austin's 2.3 million—Austin has been generating significant buzz as tech CEOs, Californians and migrants nationwide begin to call the Texas capital home.
Most Austinites will tout their Hill Country beauty, world-renowned live music and the proud "weirdness" that has long defined their city. But some say Houston's signature self-deprecating humor and status as the most diverse city in the nation gives them a leg up
It's time for these quarreling siblings to duke it out.
Here's how Austin and Houston compare, mapped out in five categories:
Affordability: Houston 1, Austin 0
Ask anyone in Austin: the city is not what it used to be. That change is no more apparent than in the skyrocketing housing market, which has shot from an average median home price of 189,000 in 2011 to a peak of $482,364 in June 2021, a 255% increase.
The exploding housing market is one of the best examples of Austin's "boomtown" status and is great for current homeowners, but it's a near-death sentence for many with an average income looking to survive. In fact, Austin is expected to become the least affordable metro outside of California by the end of 2021.
According to Salary.com, this translates into the cost of living—it's 11% more expensive to live in Austin than its southeast Texas neighbor.
With both cities nestled in Texas, a state well-known for its bang-for-your-buck housing, both are still attracting ex-pats from expensive metros across the nation. But Houston's reputation as an affordable city lingers.
A study by Property Club in 2019 found that a homebuyer in Houston with $250,000 could purchase 1,204 square feet—six times more than in NYC and more than 49 of 50 global cities studied.
That affordability is conditional, however—the fourth-largest city in the nation differs drastically in price in different neighborhoods. And Houston's housing market is beginning to heat up just as Austin's slightly cools, with home prices up 15.7% in September 2021 as compared to the year before.
"We are witnessing the most energized Houston real estate market in history," Houston Association of Realtors Chairman Richard Miranda said in a June 6 monthly update. "It's difficult to predict how and when this incredible housing run will end."
But with a median home price of $285,000, Houston's housing prices are still just a rumble compared to Austin's boom. Kevin Quist, a Houston urbanist activist, said that comes down to the cities' different zoning policies.
To the chagrin of struggling Austinites everywhere, Houston takes the cake with this one.
Economy: Austin 1, Houston 1
Austin has come a long way from its days as a college town. While a major employer for the city continues to be the University of Texas and the Texas Capitol, the city has been dubbed "Little California" by recent move-in Elon Musk for a reason.
The area's tech boom, headlined by Tesla CEO Musk and his upcoming Giga Texas plant, brought in tech transplants including Oracle, blockchain companies like Blockcap, and 35 others in 2020 alone.
With Fortune 500 companies like Dell and national brands like Indeed and Bumble already in the area, Austin has become the darling of startups looking to relocate to a California-esque utopia with no state income tax.
But the Energy Capital earned its namesake for a reason—the city is home to 24 Fortune 500 companies and over 500 oil and gas firms. With a seven-mile-long Energy Corridor and nine refineries, Houston's opportunities abound.
Still, Austin's job market is projected to expand by 47% in the next decade to Houston's 30%. While both sit under the national average of 5.2% unemployment rate in August 2021, Houston saw a 4.9% unemployment rate compared to Austin's 3.8%. And with many parts of Houston experiencing higher poverty rates than others, Houston's average income is nearly 20,000 less than Austin's $71,579 at $52,558.
Austin may be hard to live in, but its current economic opportunity outpaces Houston.
Janice Omadeke, CEO of startup The Mentor Method, is one of many startup CEOs in Austin. (The Mentor Method/Facebook)
Diversity and Culture: Houston 2, Austin 1
According to Wallethub, Houston was the United States' most diverse city in 2021. By contrast, 38th-place Austin has become more cosmopolitan in recent years but is losing some minority residents—census data shows the city's Black and Hispanic populations decreased from 2010 to 2020.
That's not to say that Austin doesn't have culture—it's a majority-minority city that has seen its Asian-American population skyrocket and diversify. It's not uncommon to find Spanish spoken in Austin, with a quarter of residents speaking Spanish at home and Spanish-language chants like "Dale ATX" chanted at the city's first professional soccer team, Austin FC.
That diversity bleeds into food. The breakfast taco hub is home to Tex-Mex eats of every creed, and residents can grab bites from all the world's cuisines at its ample food truck locales. But with 145 languages spoken in the metro, Houston's dining scene far outpaces Austin's in variety,
While Austin beat Houston in socioeconomic diversity in the same Wallethub study, that may be more due to economic segregation than anything else. According to the city of Austin, an "island of affluence" has emerged to the west even as some means of residential segregation have improved. Houston, on the other hand, often sees "newly poor" neighborhoods right next to their more affluent counterparts.
While neither topped the charts in religious diversity, Houston is the third-most religious area by percentage of population in the U.S., slightly edging out Austin when it comes to places of worship.
It looks like being a truly global city does have its perks. Houston is once again up, 2-1.
Himalaya Houston pairs fried chicken with Pakistani flair for a truly Houston dish. (Himalaya/Instagram)
Identity: Houston 2, Austin 2
Whether it be the Live Music Capital or Keep Austin Weird, Austin has always known what it is. Legends including Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin helped join a massive musical movement in the 1970s that saw hippies, outlaws and cutting-edge artists flock to the Live Music Capital of the World in the mid-to-late- 1900s. By 1991, the city discovered it had the most live music per capital, and an iconic name was born.
Houston, however, has seen a few failed slogans—see an "Austin City Limits" knockoff, "The City With No Limits," or even worse, "Houston's Hot." The city's new unofficial slogan, "Houston. It's Worth It," embraces its imperfections as what makes it special, a name that is aptly fitting for the city's signature self-deprecating humor.
While Houston has finally found its niche as an imperfect place for imperfect people, Austin has known its identity for years-even if some say it's beginning to blur.
The tech boom has seen some of that laid-back Austin swagger morph into a more corporate feel, accentuated by new developments such as The Domain. Every year, new move-ins and natives alike lament about the legendary "old Austin" and its wacky eccentricities.
But the world-renowned music festival Austin City Limits still exists. Weirdness is still accepted in this city like no other-from The Austin World Naked Bike Ride to playing bingo with "chicken shit."
That historic identity shines through, albeit less bright, in every corner of the Texas Capitol. Austin ties it up 2-2.(Charles Reagan/ACL)
Lifestyle: Austin 3, Houston 2
In June, Texas Monthly instigated a war when they wrote an article imploring Austinites to move to "an affordable, weird city: Houston."
"Those Austin amenities that people swear they could never do without—the live music! The outdoors! The progressive attitude!—exist in every other major metropolis in one form or another," writer Evan Mintz said.
But as stated before, that weirdness is not quite matched even in global cities like Houston. In fact, Houston's big-city status may be what hinders it from certain Austin-y amenities.
Even as things change, remnants of Austin's small-town charm still shine through in pockets of seemingly millions of local cafes, wacky mom-and-pop shops and character-filled neighborhoods. Festival culture abounds, from the Moontower Comedy Festival to SXSW, to give residents a fiesta feel all year long.
While Houston has Austin beat in sports ventures—think Astros and Texans—Austin professional soccer team Austin FC has made Q2 Stadium "the biggest party in Austin," and University of Texas tailgates are unmatched. Not a fan of watching? Join sports teams from Quidditch to pickleball.
The Hill Country beats the bayou, as well—a Texas beach isn't too far from Houston's interior, but a river cuts through downtown Austin, improving residents' quality of life with its acres of hiking trails, swimming holes and more.
Houston defeats Austin in sheer numbers of things to do, but Austin takes it home in the lifestyle category to beat its fellow Texan sibling once and for all.
Austin FC matches are just one of many ways to get your party on in Austin. (Austin FC/Twitter)
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At 3 a.m. on Thursday, at the end of a 10-hour shift in what used to be a buzzing downtown district, Austin police Detective Ken Casaday went home shocked.
He had only four calls for service, on a night that normally sees up to 40. Emergency 911 calls across the city were down 81%.
"That's crazy," he said. "It's just an absolute ghost town."
Less shocking, Casaday said, was that there were no arrests, citations or warnings for violators of the new "Stay Home, Work Safe" orders, issued Tuesday, requiring local residents to stay home if possible.
Casaday said both experiences indicate a willingness by Austinites to comply with the orders, the violation of which can carry a fine up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail, slightly less than a Class B misdemeanor.
As law enforcement agencies across Texas struggle with how aggressively to enforce stay-at-home orders, Austin's answer is decidedly friendly: Education, citations as a "last resort," and no arrests or related traffic stops.
Austin and Travis County law-enforcement officials say they are counting on voluntary compliance instead.
The county order explicitly encourages the use of a cite-and-release approach. Officials say they have no desire to fill up the jail during a health crisis because it's a high-risk environment.
Nor do officers plan to pull people over randomly to see if they are going somewhere essential, said County Attorney David Escamilla, whose office would handle the citations under the order.
That contrasts with more aggressive enforcement reported in some North Texas cities, where officers are authorized to make arrests and stop drivers to ask for authorization or proof that their travel outside their home is essential.
Escamilla helped write the Travis County order and said he engaged in "tremendous talks" with local officers to avoid that level of enforcement.
"This isn't a lockdown, and this isn't a curfew," he said.
"These orders don't change any of the constitutional requirements," Escamilla said, adding that "reasonable suspicion" is still required. "This isn't an authorization for law enforcement to just be out there stopping people."
Doing so would also put the health of officers at risk for what amounts to a traffic stop, said Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association.
"The less contact the officers have with people [during the health crisis], the better off we are," he said. "There are several people in the department who are being monitored, quarantined at home, to make sure they don't have it. So warning and trying to get compliance through just asking people to cooperate is the best thing."
In fact, Austin police Senior Patrol Officer Katrina Ratcliff said, the department has been discouraging traffic stops of all kinds to lower officers' exposure.
"We were all issued a mandatory mask to wear in case of interacting with someone who may be sick," she said.
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