Strong and steady tells the San Antonio story
By Brian Boucher
Some cities grow too fast, their mystique attracting people in such numbers that their most appealing features are ruined by gentrification. Twenty years ago, residents of Texas’s capital took up the “Keep Austin Weird” banner in response to this phenomenon. A few years later and 80 miles southwest, a group of friends coined the ironic “Keep San Antonio Lame,” hoping to keep their city’s coolness a secret.
That effort hasn’t been successful, as the city has shown impressive growth since they dreamed up the slogan. Between 2001 and 2019, San Antonio was the country’s fifth-fastest-growing large metro in the U.S., its population increasing by about 19 percent. From July 2019 to July 2020, it was the ninth-fastest-growing large city, growing by 1.3 percent, and that doesn’t account for pandemic-era in-migration.
“The city has boomed along with a lot of other places in the country over the last year,” says Edward Friedman, a director at Moody’s Analytics, as low interest rates and the work-from-home revolution spurred many to seek larger homes and higher quality of life than their dollar could buy in the expensive coastal cities.
Price are up, and time on market shrinking
The boom has pushed up home prices. A June report from the San Antonio Board of Realtors (SABOR) showed that the average home price was up 19 percent to $345,144 from last year, growing significantly faster than it did the previous year. (It wasn’t climbing as fast as the statewide average, which shot up by 26 percent.) The median price rose almost as fast, by 17 percent, to $292,600.
And she who hesitates is lost. Homes are spending an average of just 23 days on the market, down from 60 a year ago.
All this demand points to a strong future for investors, too: Zillow forecasts home values to grow by 12.3 percent in the coming year. Rental homes, too, are up in price, if at a slower pace than home prices: SABOR reported average prices increasing by 7 percent year over year, to $1,587. Rentals, too, are moving fast.
“There’s no time to kick the tires,” apartment broker Billy Elliott told News 4 San Antonio.
“Like many places throughout the country, San Antonio does have a shortage,” says Sara Briseño Gerrish, SABOR secretary and treasurer. “We currently have only 1.6 months’ supply of homes, so it’s a very strong seller’s market, and you’re seeing multiple offers and buyers offering above list price.”
Though the San Antonio native has been in the game for two decades, she says, “I don’t remember things ever moving this quickly. It can be an emotional rollercoaster.”
Military bases stabilize the local economy
One of the industries that powers San Antonio’s steady growth gives it the nickname “Military City USA.”
“It’s very much a defense metro area,” says Friedman. Joint Base San Antonio and other military facilities accommodate some 300,000 active-duty personnel. And while some industries may follow trends — witness reports of tech workers leaving the Bay Area in droves for more affordable cities and towns — military bases aren’t going anywhere.
“Having facilities like Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston gives a lot of stability to a metro area,” says Friedman, adding that “along with the soldiers and the airmen comes a lot of civilian employment, since not everyone who supports them is in the military. That gives you a lot of mid-range-income employment, which supports the city nicely.”
And growth tends to be steady, he says. “It’s not going to rocket you up the way IT will in Austin.”
What’s more, the retired military population numbers about 200,000, further lending stability since their pensions aren’t going away either. Many vets retire here to take advantage of the 15 Veterans Administration hospitals located within 50 miles.
But it’s not just the military that powers the economy. Many Fortune 500 companies have a headquarters or a footprint in San Antonio, including GM Financial, the grocery store chain H.E.B., Frost Bank, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Toyota, Wells Fargo, and Caterpillar.
And new companies are coming in. Pabst Brewing recently shut down its offices in Los Angeles and Dallas and moved its headquarters to San Antonio. One draw for these companies is the absence of state corporate taxes; a draw for their employees is that the state constitution forbids personal income tax. In fact, real estate brokerage Redfin’s numbers show Los Angeles, in high-tax California, as the top out-of-state city whose residents are moving to San Antonio.
‘Unprecedented’ job growth to come
San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the nation, and its growth ranked ninth in the nation year over year as of May 2020. In 2019, the city ranked third among destination cities for U-Haul renters.
And it will only grow in the coming decades, according to the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Now at 2.5 million, the metro area’s population is forecast to reach four million by 2050. Jobs are expected to grow fastest in Southern Bexar County with expansion of the Texas A&M campus and a Toyota plant. Expect “robust” job growth in Eastern Comal County and “unprecedented” growth in the Boerne/Fair Oaks Ranch sector, says the organization.
What’s more, Greater San Antonio includes New Braunfels, on the way to Austin. There, the population grew by a whopping 56.6 percent to 90,403 since the 2010 Census, making it the third-fastest-growing city in the union, qualifying it for a profile in The New York Times. (Bonus fact: half the country’s fastest-growing cities are in Texas.)
Traditional New Braunfels attractions include Oktoberfest celebrations that grow out of German roots dating back two centuries. Residents there have approved multimillion-dollar bond programs to keep up with the growth, and local utilities will shell out $688 million for improvements in the coming five years.
‘Remember the Alamo’ to Military City USA
Award-winning writer and San Antonio native Mimi Swartz says that, in her home city, “preserving the past is almost a religion,” and if San Antonio is known for one thing, it’s for the Battle of the Alamo of 1845. Attachment to this suicidal engagement against the Mexican army is such a trademark American trait that John Wayne tried to keep it alive in a nearly three-hour 1960 box office flop.
But the city has plenty more history, and some of it shows in its culture today. First populated by Papaya Indians, the area saw the arrival of Spaniards on June 13, 1691, the feast day of Saint Anthony, which gives the city its name. Spain intended to use San Antonio to keep back the French in Louisiana, and the country brought hundreds of families in from the Canary Islands in 1719 for that purpose. Serving those folks’ spiritual needs was the 1731 San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest standing building in Texas; religious and cultural events take place within the Catholic cathedral’s walls today.
Texas’s 1845 annexation to the union brought on the Mexican-American War, which killed off two-thirds of the population. The region’s Hispanic traditions are strong here, with nearly two-thirds of the city’s population identifying as Latino or Hispanic; there are five Spanish Catholic missions that together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A killer NBA team, killer whales, and killer tacos
In the magazine’s profile of the city, a U.S. News and World Report writer said San Antonio is “as comfortable as an old pair of jeans.” The paper ranks it 24th among the best places to retire, and fourth-best among Texas cities to live in, owing to 300 days of sunshine a year and plenty of attractions.
For the sports-minded, there’s the five-time NBA champs the San Antonio Spurs, who have the highest winning percentage among active franchises, and local football teams are consistently strong. (The popular show “Friday Night Lights” was, let’s remember, set in the fictional Texas town of Dillon.)
February brings the award-winning San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, which attracts some two million visitors annually. Those looking for more highbrow attractions enjoy the San Antonio Museum of Art and the McNay Art Museum, or theater or opera at the Tobin Center. Families, meanwhile, flock to Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio. And among the city’s greatest attractions is the San Antonio River Walk, in the downtown business district, lined with shops and restaurants and open 24/7. One silver lining to the pandemic is that the river has recently reopened for kayaking trips.
Less than 150 miles from the Mexico border, the city is a distribution hub between Mexico and the rest of the United States. And its heritage and location are reflected in some of its best cuisine: Texas Monthly magazine calls the city a Tex-Mex wonderland, asserting that it has some of the state’s best taquerias.
Nature at San Antonio’s doorstep
San Antonians have plenty of nature to escape to, including an 82-mile greenway system that provides good hiking and biking (and will eventually expand to 130 miles). Just 30 miles from downtown are the Natural Bridge Caverns, next door to the Bracken Cave Preserve, home to some 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats, the world’s largest known colony.
Right in the middle of the city is an urban colony of about 50,000 of the same critters living under the Camden Street Bridge. Locals enjoy the natural scenery of the surrounding Hill Country, take tubing trips down the Guadalupe River (to escape from stifling summer temperatures, which can average 98 degrees), or spy on thousands of other animals at the popular city zoo.
While college enrollment nationwide dropped 2.5% year over year by fall 2020, the University of Texas San Antonio grew for the fifth consecutive year as of spring 2021, by an impressive 5% over last spring, to nearly 32,000. And there are 13 other colleges in the city, including an outpost of Texas A&M University, whose young students balance out all the military retirees.
The city’s newest cultural amenity aims to serve that youthful audience. When Pabst relocated here, the beer company, which owns local brands like Lone Star and Pearl, opened a 1.5-acre culture park in the River North neighborhood, featuring a BMX bike track and a skate park, among other features. That was just the company’s way of repaying the young folks who sucked down millions of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon in recent years, when it became “hipster” beer.
It’s only fair, one supposes, but, as a writer for the San Antonio Report joked, it will hardly keep San Antonio lame.
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