What an attractive crowd!” cheered Fredrik Eklund, the Swedish-born celebrity real estate broker who stars on the hit Bravo reality show Million Dollar Listing. He stood on the patio of a newly built home in Tarrytown, the tony neighborhood that hugs the shores of Lake Austin, addressing the local brokers who were packed into the yard. It was the launch party for the Austin branch of Douglas Elliman, a brokerage famous in New York and California for selling luxury homes and high-rise condos.
Eklund, who wore a double-breasted navy linen jacket, snug-fitting white slacks, and sockless dress shoes, seemed a little surprised that the crowd had matched him ankle for stylish ankle, but he didn’t linger on it. Speeches had to be made, toasts given, and then he’d board a plane for Miami first thing in the morning, after fewer than 24 hours in the Texas capital. For the moment, his job was simply to be seen, to lend some sizzle to the occasion. Not only was Elliman moving in on Texas real estate, it had brought its biggest gun, Eklund, one of the country’s top real estate brokers, who also happens to be a bona fide TV star.
Not that Austin—or this house—needed any help in the sizzle category. The three-story brick-and-shingle mansion had sold in two days for considerably more than its $16.25 million asking price, to an out-of-town buyer whose identity was confidential (but who was rumored to be to an entrepreneur from Los Angeles). During the party, celebrated interior designer Fern Santini glided from room to room in a silk Pucci caftan aswirl with soft pinks and yellows, showing off the many style innovations she’d brought to the home, which was sold fully furnished. Brass mesh paneling encircled a spiral staircase. Blue-and-gold cowhide carpeted the ceiling of the third-floor man cave. Outside on the meticulous lawn, a bearded bartender wore pointy boots with skinny black jeans and a flat-brim Stetson. This was rootsy old Austin taken to its most glamorous—or, depending on your perspective, its most absurd—conclusion.
Eklund has built his New York–based Elliman subsidiary, the Eklund Gomes Team, around what he calls the “golden triangle” of U.S. real estate: New York, Miami, and L.A. But as he and his partners got wind of Texas’s booming population and economy in recent years, they started planning to expand here—to Houston, Austin, and Dallas, another kind of golden triangle. As he would tell me later, “I was in Beverly Hills yesterday, and Texas real estate was the only thing anyone wanted to talk to me about.”
In the black-lacquered Tarrytown kitchen, I spoke to a visitor from California who suggested the reality was a little more complicated. “Nobody’s actually moving here,” he said, smiling conspiratorially. “Nobody’s leaving L.A. They’re looking for a tax shelter or something.”
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
He was exaggerating, of course. For one thing, a string of high-profile corporate relocations from California had grabbed headlines (Charles Schwab to Denton County, Hewlett Packard Enterprise to Houston, Oracle to Austin), and the Elliman team had spent the day meeting with Texas economic development officials in the governor’s office. Eklund’s publicist, Alexander Ali, noted that Elliman was especially excited about the arrival of Tesla, which is in the process of building what it’s calling its Gigafactory near the Austin airport—a structure the size of 165 football fields that would theoretically create 15,000 jobs. Ali suggested that a few high-profile celebrities who’d moved from the West Coast were inspiring others. “Elon Musk and Joe Rogan have such cult followings,” he said. “And when celebrities move, people pay attention.”
And then he leaned in close again and confided that he wasn’t sure this whole scene was entirely welcome. “Does the community not love it?” he asked.
In fact, breakneck growth in recent years has stirred up all sorts of conflicts across the city, much as it has elsewhere in the state, which is perhaps why Ali made certain to explain that this evening’s party was also a benefit for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.
Later that night, at an after-party downtown in a dimly lit cocktail bar called the Roosevelt Room, the waitstaff tried in vain to enforce the establishment’s mask mandate while huddles of partygoers talked about the challenges and rewards of surfing this real estate wave. One Dallas agent told me there are simply too many faux chateaus in Big D and not enough contemporary homes to suit the tastes of newcomers. In Austin, developers can’t build high-rise condos fast enough. In Houston, buyers from abroad—the United Arab Emirates, China, parts of post-Brexit Europe—are scooping up many of the high-end properties.
At the after-party, I also met U.S. congressman John Carter, a former Williamson County district court judge who’s been a law-and-order, free-market Republican representing Round Rock and the other far-northern suburbs of Austin since 2003. Carter was talking with a circle of real estate developers, including an executive from the Related Companies—one of the largest commercial developers in the country, responsible for Manhattan’s Hudson Yards and similar megaprojects in London, Abu Dhabi, and beyond. Though he hadn’t made it out to Tarrytown for the open house (“Sheesh,” he said when I mentioned the sale price), Carter had met the Elliman team as part of the firm’s goodwill tour. “I think they’re creating enthusiasm,” he said. “They realize they don’t want to change what makes us a great place to be, so let’s hope they don’t. We still want to be Central Texas.” And how might one do that? “Be cautious,” he said.
Of course, nothing about the evening—or the pace of the state’s growth—seemed especially cautious.
The Big Picture
The Texas population grew by about four million people in the past decade—far more than any other state in raw numbers, and enough as a percentage to make it the third-fastest-growing state in the nation over that period, behind Utah and Idaho. Roughly 3,800 more people move here every week than move out of state. Tick down any list of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and Texas shows up again and again. Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio all landed on the list of cities with a population gain of at least 100,000 over the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which released its latest data in August. Frisco easily topped the list of large cities, followed by a lot of other suburbs and exurbs, such as New Braunfels, McKinney, and Conroe.
You get the idea: the Texas population is booming.
That growth, of course, has come with plenty of hand-wringing about everything from an overheated housing market to fears of a hostile takeover by liberal coastal elites. News headlines have stoked those worries in the past two years. And then there was Greg Abbott’s 2018 campaign slogan: “Don’t California My Texas.” But perhaps unsurprisingly, partisans may have it wrong.
For one thing, despite all the public focus on Californication, there are intriguing signs that many of the newest arrivals share key characteristics with lifelong Texans. Many are coming for abundant jobs, lower taxes, fewer regulations, and a more reasonable cost of living (which may be hard to believe for Texan buyers and renters fretting over the housing market but is a fact).
The Great Migration, by the Numbers
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Texas Demographic Center
It’s also worth noting that people moving from elsewhere make up only about half of Texas’s population growth; the other half comes from births outpacing deaths. Of the people moving here, about 40 percent come from other countries and 60 percent from other states—though that balance has tipped back and forth a few times in recent years. Californians are hardly the full story.
Perhaps the most surprising Texas statistic that landed with the latest census: those of Hispanic or Latino origin, Asians, and members of other racial and ethnic minority groups made up about 95 percent of the population growth from 2010 to 2020. (95 percent!) That’s 3.8 million new non-Anglos in Texas, compared with about 200,000 non-Hispanic whites. Rogelio Saenz, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a native of the Rio Grande Valley, has a memorable way of driving that statistic home. “Essentially, that means we added the equivalent of the cities of Houston and San Antonio in [non-Anglos],” he told me. “And we added the city of Brownsville in [non-Hispanic whites].”
The census revealed just how close Hispanic Texans are to becoming a plurality. When it was published, they constituted 39.3 percent of the population, whereas non-Hispanic whites constituted 39.8 percent. That threshold will be crossed any day now, and by 2050, less than 30 percent of Texans will be non-Hispanic white.
Hispanic Texans, however, are not the fastest-growing ethnic group in the state. That honor goes to Asian Texans. While the proportion of Asians in the state remains just 5.4 percent, the group has gained nearly three times as many new members as Anglo Texans have over the past decade. Whereas Texas gained 187,252 non-Hispanic whites in that period, it gained 613,092 Asians. In some areas of Denton and Collin counties, north of Dallas, or Fort Bend County, just southwest of Houston, Asian immigrants are the driving force of growth.
Top origins of domestic migration to Texas’s most populous counties, 2015–2019
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Texas Demographic Center
Whatever their ethnicities, Californians are coming to Texas in much higher numbers than are migrants from any other state. In 2019 about 42 percent of net domestic immigrants came from California. For all the hyperventilating about Californians ruining certain Texas cities, however, the fastest-growing parts of the state owe much of their growth to Texans shuffling around from city to city. In fact, a primary reason Texas is growing so fast is that we tend to stick around as compared to natives of other states, meaning there’s less out-migration to offset the in-migration. About 82 percent of people born in Texas still live here, making it the so-called stickiest state in the country.
Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, in Houston, points out that “basically all the population growth is in the Texas Triangle,” the relatively tight space defined by the Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin–San Antonio regions. He recently wrote a book with former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, “and we found that the Texas Triangle favorably compared to virtually all other mega-regions in the U.S., including Southern California and the Northeast Corridor. It is a true economic powerhouse.”
That’s just one of the ways Texas’s population growth is changing the landscape. In the booming cities, Fulton points out, the influx of a young professional class has led to a flowering of high-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings, as well as multiunit home lots. At the same time, suburbs have become more diverse than they were in the days of white flight from urban neighborhoods, in the sixties, in part because today gentrifying city neighborhoods are edging out non-white residents. Rural and small-town Texas, meanwhile, is shrinking. In fact, 142 of the state’s 254 counties are declining in population, some of them precipitously. Schleicher County, between San Angelo and Sonora, lost 29 percent of its population in ten years, the steepest drop in the state.
Population change by county, 2010–2020
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Texas Demographic Center
The diversification of the suburbs could fundamentally alter the political map by changing reliable Republican standbys to perennial toss-ups. Dying small towns carry less electoral weight. Gerrymandering of districts, now pursued as avidly by Republicans as it once was by Democrats, will continue to redraw electoral maps to maintain the current political order. But at some point, likely soon, the old assumptions will simply no longer hold true, and the keys to winning Texas will change.
The continued growth of the Texas economy, meanwhile, will increasingly rely on newcomers from other states and countries—to both provide jobs and fill them. In turn, pressure will mount for Texas to better educate and train its homegrown workforce to remain competitive, especially as our population ages. Dramatic shifts in the economic and cultural landscape of the U.S.—as well as in Texas itself—have landed the Lone Star State an opportunity to lead the country into the future. Figuring out how to respond requires understanding the forces that brought us here.
The Growth Propellant
Half an hour’s drive southwest of Killeen, within sight of U.S. 183, a patch of prairie has been blasted into a barren crater by eruptions of highly refined kerosene and liquid oxygen that combust and emerge as a torrent of fire from a tangle of tubes and wires—the guts of a rocket engine test model—with such violence that the technicians in charge must watch from a control center eight hundred yards away.
Here, at the edge of the unincorporated Central Texas community of Briggs, which has a population of about 430, is where Tom Markusic met me on a blazing hot afternoon. He’s the CEO and founder of Firefly Aerospace, a company that builds rockets to take satellites to space and ultimately, he hopes, to ferry supplies to the moon and other celestial bodies. The company recently won a $93.3 million contract with NASA to construct a lunar lander, and it has built a simulated moonscape here in Briggs, alongside the test-firing field and a small rocket factory.
Markusic, who worked for NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic before launching Firefly in 2014, chose Texas for his company’s headquarters in part because he knew nobody would get in his way. It’s the same reason Jeff Bezos tests and launches his rockets near Van Horn, and Elon Musk launches his in Boca Chica. “There’s a different view of property ownership in Texas,” Markusic told me as we settled down in a dark conference room inside one of the factory buildings. “There’s a clear cultural expectation that your land is [yours] to do with as you choose—within the confines of the prevailing zoning and such, of course. So, the neat thing is, so long as you are a good neighbor, people leave you alone and let you do what you need to do.”
“Time is our most precious commodity,” Tom Markusic explained, “and we can move a lot faster here in Texas.”
In particular, Markusic explained, he needed the freedom to act fast. Firefly, which was valued at more than $1 billion earlier this year and plans to grow its workforce from roughly three hundred at the start of 2021 to nearly a thousand by the end of 2023, competes with some of the world’s most deep-pocketed and aggressive entrepreneurs. “Time is our most precious commodity,” Markusic explained, “and we can move a lot faster here in Texas.” In other states, he said, “you’re almost working from a position of presumed guilt, and then you have to prove you’re not doing anything wrong. In Texas, it’s set up to presume that you’re not breaking the law. That allows us to operate our site without extensive permitting. The only permitting that’s required at this site right now that I’m aware of is our septic.” The company has to abide by state and federal environmental laws, he added, but there were no bureaucratic approvals to secure before his team could start firing up the rocket blaster.
He compared that to a previous experience when he was building a test facility for Virgin in California: “When we went in to get the permitting, they wanted to classify it as a power plant. And you can imagine if you want to build a power plant, that’s going to be a tough permitting slog. It was just a silly, one-size-fits-all way of thinking.”
His comments echo those of several high-profile recent California defectors, including Musk, who told the Wall Street Journal last December, upon announcing his move to Texas, that he wished California would “just get out of the way” of innovators. That was a couple of weeks after Joe Lonsdale, an influential venture capitalist and cofounder of big-data contractor Palantir, explained his move to Austin from Silicon Valley, also in the WSJ. “Forty years ago . . . you could accomplish anything in the Golden State,” Lonsdale wrote in an op-ed that quickly went viral. “Government policy facilitated the entrepreneurial spirit. Dreamers and doers could thrive. The burst of activity in tech, finance, medicine, energy and many other industries lasted for decades. But now a state like Texas provides these opportunities without the problems and baggage California has accumulated.”
Just a few years ago, calling Texas more fertile for innovators than Silicon Valley would have raised more than a few eyebrows among the entrepreneurial elite. Texas is home to fifty Fortune 500 companies, sure, and its GDP is nearly $2 trillion, more than that of any state not named California. But the future was being built elsewhere—specifically the West Coast. Now that has changed, and the pandemic hastened the shift. In Musk’s case, legal battles with officials over COVID-19 restrictions at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory were a clear catalyst for the company’s eventual announcement, this October, that it would be moving its headquarters to Austin.
Of course, wealthy moguls and investors also stand to reap handsome personal financial benefits by setting up in Texas. The state famously doesn’t charge income tax (though high property taxes make up the difference for a lot of homeowners). More importantly for the investor class, Texas doesn’t charge capital gains tax. California’s personal-income tax, by comparison, is the highest in the U.S., at 13.3 percent for sums of more than $1 million a year. The capital gains rate is similar.
And then there are the corporate incentives. Texas has long been known for luring companies away from other states with generous packages containing various tax breaks. Tesla recently negotiated a tax break worth nearly $60 million over 10 years to build its Gigafactory in Del Valle, in exchange for investing $1.1 billion in the plant and vowing to hire at least half of its expected employees from Travis County. At the time of this writing, Samsung was negotiating with Williamson County and the City of Taylor to build a potential $17 billion chipmaking plant there. The South Korean electronics giant had rejected an initial offer from the City of Austin that included almost $650 million in incentives over 10 years; the company wanted a 100 percent tax abatement for 25 years.
Whether economic incentives for business relocation come from a city, a county, or the state’s Texas Enterprise Fund (former governor Rick Perry’s legacy), they’re almost always controversial, with opponents pointing out all the ways they can strain existing infrastructure—roads, water, schools, the electric grid—and end up costing a community as much as it gives away in incentives. The math of whether a deal ends up benefiting a community can be endlessly debated, though. Proponents argue that landing a big corporate relocation spurs investment in communities and creates jobs (though Perry also had terrific luck getting donations from a source tied to the companies his administration locked in with incentives, as a New York Times investigation famously found). A new plant like Tesla’s or Samsung’s will ideally lead to local home construction, investment in the local service economy, and eventual relocation of suppliers.
“HP Enterprise, Google, all these technology-based companies cannot meet their workforce demands with the current Texas workforce,” said Steven Pedigo. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Regardless of how the math of individual economic development deals stacks up, virtually everyone agrees there’s value in diversifying the state’s economy. Though Texas relies a lot less on oil and gas than it did a few decades ago, fossil fuels still represent one of the largest sectors of the economy and the dominant one in the state’s largest city, Houston. This puts the state at risk as the energy industry transitions away from petroleum. As Rice’s Bill Fulton put it, “Houston is at a critical juncture right now. The business leaders have to get out in front to the energy transition so we remain the energy capital of the world but not the fossil fuel capital.” Failing to make that shift, he said, would make Houston “the next Detroit.” While Texas has, in recent years, added jobs in software development and cloud computing, those gains have been outpaced, sometimes drastically, by those in California and other states. Which only underscores the urgency many local leaders feel.
Even Firefly wrangled roughly $1.2 million in incentives from the City of Cedar Park when it established its headquarters there, back in 2014, and earlier this year it picked up an additional $4.3 million in incentives. That package, in addition to paying the company for each job it creates (and for purchasing and renovating a building), shells out $10,000 in cash directly to each employee who buys a home in Cedar Park. In return, Firefly pledged to create nearly seven hundred jobs in the area, with an average salary of $90,000, by the year 2030.
That sounds like a big benefit, but there’s a catch, not just in Cedar Park but all across Texas: companies that relocate and expand here find it tough to hire Texans to fill many of the kinds of jobs that require the most education, expertise, and experience. “We haven’t done a very good job of educating our workforce,” said Steven Pedigo, at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Urban Lab. Those who come to Texas from other states are more likely to have college degrees than native Texans. “HP Enterprise, Google, all these technology-based companies cannot meet their workforce demands with the current Texas workforce. It just doesn’t happen.”
Which raises a question: If not Texans, who exactly is filling all those new jobs?
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
The Art of the Suburb
The immaculate streets of Frisco, in the far northern reaches of metro Dallas, nearly sparkled under a cloudless sky. It was a Thursday morning, and Dana Baird, a former Dallas TV news reporter who’s now the City of Frisco’s director of communications, piloted her Honda SUV from one commercial development to another, tracing the history of one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. First up was the Stonebriar Centre (“Our first economic engine,” Baird said). Then the Frisco RoughRiders minor league ballpark (“Our first sports venue—the convention and visitors bureau now calls us Sports City USA”). Then the Ikea, the headquarters of the Dallas Stars National Hockey League team, the sprawling Hall office park, the stadium and practice facility of the FC Dallas professional soccer team, and ultimately, the pièce de résistance: the Star District, the gleaming headquarters of the Dallas Cowboys and surrounding office buildings, restaurants, shops, and other amenities.
It was 1987 when Baird’s boss, city manager George Purefoy, settled into his job leading Frisco’s development. A native of Mineral Wells, he’d been the city manager in Columbus, a hamlet that abuts Interstate 10 between Houston and San Antonio, when he decided it was time to level up and head somewhere with more growth potential. “I took out a map one night, and for some reason I followed Preston Road up through the Metroplex, because it was kind of a growth corridor, and it came up to Frisco,” he told me. At that time, it had around five thousand residents and was essentially still a small rail town. But Purefoy saw it as a kind of suburban start-up, a little old place that could eventually grow into something altogether different. “So, I thought, ‘If the city manager job ever opens up there, I’ll apply.’ And that night my wife and I prayed on it, and not one week later I got a call from the City of Frisco asking me to apply.”
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
A soft-spoken, throwback gentleman who brings to mind Ward Cleaver, Purefoy became the first and only city manager Frisco has ever had—though he likes to joke that he’s had an entirely different job every five years as the city has ballooned. Today’s Frisco population of around 200,000 is almost double that of a decade ago, and the city projects it will reach 300,000 in the next five years or so.
There are a few keys to the success of Frisco. For one thing, abundant land and the expectation of growth: even before Purefoy showed up, city leaders had annexed land on both sides of multiple roads that stretched out from the center of town, creating what he calls “octopus arms” that would come to frame the area’s eventual sprawl. Among Purefoy’s first acts was securing an abundant water supply for the town and cleaning up the finances. He was essentially laying a foundation on which to replicate or improve on what the city of Plano, just south across the Sam Rayburn Tollway, had begun building a few decades prior.
Perhaps most important to Frisco was the counterintuitive fact that Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the metro area’s commuter light-rail system, did not extend past Plano. Whereas the communities served by DART have to dedicate a one percent sales tax to the rail system, Frisco voters elected to use that same cut of money to incentivize businesses to move in and also to buy land for parks and other amenities. The result is that entertainment is so plentiful that many Frisco residents have little reason to leave. The city is less a bedroom community for Dallas than a thriving place all its own that just happens to be adjacent to one of the largest cities in the U.S.
In economic development circles, Frisco is known for its mastery of public-
private partnerships. To help build the Star District, for instance, the city, its economic and community development corporations, and Frisco Independent School District kicked in a collective $115 million, and in return Frisco’s high school football and soccer players get to use the Cowboys’ spectacular indoor stadium. The whole deal came together in three months, Baird told me—lightning speed for a giant commercial development on prime property in a city center. The same strategy built Toyota Stadium, which FC Dallas shares with the high schools.
“We’re basically a city of immigrants,” George Purefoy said, “either from within the United States or from outside the United States.”
The result is a town that regularly lands on the lists of best places to live and best places to do business in America—which in turn helps it stay on the lists of fastest-growing places. And it’s not all strip malls and subdivisions. Frisco has the second-largest skate park in Texas, after Houston; the largest private collection of contemporary Texas sculpture; and one of the largest collections of historic train cars in the Southwest.
It’s not slowing down anytime soon. Earlier this year the military-grade eyeglass maker Wiley X announced it was coming to Frisco from Livermore, California, and that it hoped to bring its one hundred employees along. In 2019 iconic Texas brand Dr Pepper announced it would move its headquarters from Plano to the Star. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America announced in 2018 that it would move from Palm Beach County, Florida, to Frisco. The smoothie company Jamba moved there in 2016. The list goes on.
The competition for corporate relocations or expansions can be a full-contact sport among cities—sometimes even adjacent ones—but the effects often ripple out. Though Frisco lost out on one of the greatest economic development deals in the area’s history—neighboring Plano landed Toyota’s North American headquarters, which was relocating from Southern California—the runner-up still managed to reap the benefits. The carmaker’s campus, which opened in 2017, sits at the northwest corner of Plano, close to residential areas of Frisco. Baird remembers running a trade booth back when Toyota employees were starting to explore the area and the company had set up a kind of relocation bazaar at a hotel. Because Frisco had so many new neighborhoods sprouting up, thousands of Toyota employees ended up settling there, leading to rumors of whole neighborhoods being colonized by transplanted Californians. Today, the median household income is about $127,000—more than double the number for Texas overall—and the median home value is about $400,000.
When I asked Baird whether residents of Frisco ever grouse about all the growth and newcomers, she looked at me sideways. Purefoy pointed out that in a place whose population is almost entirely newcomers, it would be hard to look askance at other fresh arrivals. “We’re basically a city of immigrants,” he said, “either from within the United States or from outside the United States.”
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
The New Face of Immigration
If the city that George Purefoy built is a triumph of capitalism and Texas’s natural inclination toward sprawl, it is also a marvel of something more surprising: the diversification of the suburbs in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin.
According to the 2020 census, Texas is now the fifth-most diverse state in the country, just ahead of New Jersey and New York. (At the top of the list: Hawaii and California.) And in the major metro areas, the census showed a clear pattern of cities with static diversity levels abutting suburban counties where diversity is surging. One measure of diversity is the census-calculated Diversity Index, which demonstrates the likelihood that any two people in a community will represent different ethnic or racial groups. In Dallas County, the Diversity Index grew by just 2 percent from 2010 to 2020. In Collin County, which includes part of Frisco, that number grew by 19.8 percent.
In Frisco, the largest and fastest-growing minority group is Asian Americans, who make up nearly 21 percent of the city’s population. Some 14 percent of the surrounding county’s population traces its origins to India, with those hailing from South Korea, Japan, and China making up much of the rest. Many are new not just to the North Dallas suburbs but to the U.S. Nearly 23 percent of Frisco residents were born in another country.
Anamika Mukherjee, a preschool teacher, was born in India and moved to Frisco five years ago, after her husband’s job had taken them to California, Connecticut, Brazil, and, finally, North Texas. She told me that Frisco sometimes reminds her of Little India, a famously large ethnic enclave in New Jersey that she and her husband used to visit when they lived in Connecticut. “I have three Indian stores within easy reach of my house,” she said, “and you can find every single thing you might want.”
She can thank, at least in part, Sunitha Cheruvu. Born in southern India, in the state of Andhra Pradesh, Cheruvu grew up in New York and New Jersey. After she met her husband, who is from Texas, she moved with him to Plano. They were happy, but as practicing Hindus they had to travel more than thirty minutes to worship at a temple in Irving.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
She and members of five other families from the area joined forces to build a temple nearer to their homes, and in 2009 they ended up buying a piece of land in Frisco, on the site of a former gardening company. They gathered in a small trailer while their first permanent building was under construction. And then, in 2015, they opened a second, larger, gleaming ivory structure that they believe is the largest Hindu worship hall in the nation, at 34,000 square feet.
Cheruvu now lives, along with many other members of her faith, in the Eldorado Crossing neighborhood, in a two-story brick-facade home whose backyard fence adjoins what’s now called the Karya Siddhi Hanuman Temple. “I can look out my window and see the rajagopuram,” she told me, referring to the temple’s ornate entrance tower, which rises seventy feet between two large elephant statues. “It’s beautiful during sunrise and sunset.”
In fact, all throughout Frisco, the suburban shopping centers and green spaces show signs of diversity, such as Korean dessert shops and Taiwanese teahouses. The Frisco school district recently introduced a three-week cricket unit as part of the PE curriculum. The student body at Roach Middle School, near the Hanuman Temple, is 37 percent non-Hispanic white, 28 percent Asian, 18 percent Black, 11 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent of a category that includes American Indian, Pacific Islander, and two or more races. At McSpedden Elementary, just down the road, 68 percent of the students are Asian. A few miles away in Plano, Russell Creek Park is the only park in North America to boast seven cricket pitches.
In 2019 Cheruvu helped start the City of Frisco’s Inclusion Committee, of which she’s the vice chair. The committee has polled residents about issues regarding diversity and inclusivity, and it has spearheaded events such as the first official city celebrations of Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Lunar New Year.
All of which has given Frisco a reputation far beyond the state’s borders. As a Dallas Morning News story put it, shortly before the temple’s opening, “Young parents in India know Frisco is the place to raise a family.” The story cited DFW-based tech companies as part of the allure but credited word of mouth as the greater force. Cheruvu told me the same thing. A week after the temple opened, it hosted a livestreamed chant marathon for nearly eight hundred that lasted more than 24 hours and set a Guinness World Record.
To demographers who study Texas, the story of Indian Frisco is both fascinating and no great surprise: fascinating because it’s such a transformation from just one or two census cycles ago, and no great surprise because Frisco is hardly the only place in Texas to see the trend.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
The Great Mosaic
It is hard, the teacher said.
It is hard, the class repeated, fifteen teenage voices in unison.
The call-and-response continued: It is even harder . . . to make . . . a new home . . . Everything is new . . . Everything is strange.
It was a few minutes before the lunch bell in Johnny Rios’s English language arts class at the Language Institute for Newcomers, a specialty school in an annex building that connects two adjacent high school campuses in the Alief Independent School District, which straddles the city limits of Houston on its southwest side. The fifteen teenagers in this class—seven Hondurans, four Guatemalans, three Salvadorans, and one Nicaraguan—attended LINC because they were new to the U.S., and some had no experience with English. They were reading Growing Together, by the Cuban American children’s book author Carmen Agra Deedy.
LINC, which was established in 2003, typically serves about three hundred students. They complete a one- or two-year program, depending on how much help they need (some come with no schooling background whatsoever), after which they join the rest of the student body at one of the district’s high schools: Elsik or Hastings right next door, or a third school a couple of blocks away. Together, the three serve an astounding 11,200 students.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
Much has been made in recent years in the national media about the diversity of Houston, and no place showcases it better than Alief. A mostly lower-income area, Alief is one of the country’s most diverse communities. Unlike that of Frisco, Alief’s population of roughly 113,000 doesn’t fluctuate much, but every year droves of newcomers land here, as others who are more established disperse to the wider region. To drive through Alief is to tour the world—Vietnamese stores on this block, Chinese stores on the next, followed by Salvadoran shops, Mexican shops, Nigerian shops, and on and on. The distinctive rooflines of mosques and Buddhist temples punctuate the horizon.
In her twelve years working for Alief ISD, first as a teacher and now as the ESL department chair for LINC, Dulce Segovia has seen wave after wave of migrants from different parts of the world. There were the hundreds of Burmese students who showed up six years ago. Four years ago, there was a surge of unaccompanied boys from Central America. Today the district is expecting hundreds of Afghan refugees any day, many of them kids. “For me, this is very raw and real, because I went through the same thing forty-two years ago,” Segovia told me. She’s a former refugee herself, having arrived in Alief in 1980 with her aunt after escaping war in El Salvador. “We asked for asylum, and we did exactly what our students are doing now”—worked hard to find their place in a new country. She referred to the migrants massing at the border in Del Rio, as thousands of Haitians had in the weeks right before I visited Alief, and remembered an incident from childhood when someone called Salvadoran refugees cockroaches—“because there were so many of us and they couldn’t get rid of us.”
Segovia grew up in the nearby Sharpstown area, earned degrees in English and in curriculum and instruction at the University of Houston, and eventually came back for work. “Alief is family,” she and her colleagues like to say. In some ways she means that literally: many immigrant students, even unaccompanied minors, end up in Alief because they have extended family members in the area. Roughly 65 percent of students live in apartments or multifamily units.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
Some also arrive in the community with pressing needs: no shoes, no familiarity with indoor plumbing. The school district provides vision and dental care, social workers to visit families, and other basic services. As superintendent HD Chambers puts it, “Not only are we teaching children how to read and write, how to add and subtract, but we’re teaching and helping people from all of these different ethnicities and cultures how to come in and adapt to our country.”
Chambers, who started his career as an assistant football coach and economics teacher in the Aldine district, on the north side of Houston, has, to his surprise, ended up dedicating his career to educating diverse populations. He landed in Alief ten years ago and has built a reputation as a passionate and innovative leader whose mantra is “meeting students where they are—as opposed to where we wish they were.”
It’s a mission that not only resonates with colleagues like Segovia—who cites it regularly—but derives from what sounds like a deep sense of patriotism. For an educator, Chambers said, the only response to the rapid diversification of the population “is to do everything you can to make sure that these individuals . . . regardless of where they come from, are educated in a way that will sustain our republic and our democracy and the things that our country was founded on.”
Of the population changes Chambers and his colleagues have observed in their district, one of the starkest in recent years has been the fluctuation in Texas’s Hispanic population: even as Hispanic Texans become the state’s dominant demographic group, fewer and fewer Mexicans are migrating to Texas. According to one analysis by Rogelio Saenz, of UT–San Antonio, Mexican migration to Texas has plunged. There are multiple reasons for this, from militarization of the border and the aging of Mexico’s population to the improving economic fortunes of Mexican women, who are having fewer children later in life. Of the Mexicans who do come to the U.S., many are now better-educated and have higher incomes than in the past. This year the Hispanic population at LINC largely comprises refugees from Central and South American countries—most from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which are wracked by organized crime and sagging economies.
Whereas some years the LINC classrooms serve kids speaking dozens of languages (there are more than ninety languages spoken in the surrounding community), in 2021 the vast majority of students are native Spanish speakers. Of the Hispanic students, very few come from Mexico. “Can you imagine the ganas, the desire, to better their lives?” Saenz had asked me, referring to Central American refugees. “They are walking, sometimes unaccompanied, without their parents, hundreds or thousands of miles, and then we have them here and have the possibility that they can be our future workforce.”
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
A few blocks from LINC, in a sprawling, glassy new building that opened in 2018, Jennifer Baker works to make that possible. Baker helps run the Center for Advanced Careers, where Alief students train to work in construction, IT, health care, and other high-demand industries that don’t require college degrees for many well-paying jobs. There are state-of-the-art robot arms in the advanced manufacturing lab. There’s a working pet day care in the veterinary science lab and a working auto shop. In the wood shop, they build furniture for Mattress Mack at Gallery Furniture. “They have to make money to pay for our operations,” Baker said.
With Hispanic Texans on pace to be the dominant demographic group, their lower average educational attainment looms as a crisis for the state’s economy. Whereas nearly 95 percent of non-Hispanic white Texans aged 25 and over have at least a high school degree, that number is less than 70 percent for the Hispanic population. One of the ways that students who are starting at a disadvantage can gain an edge, superintendent Chambers believes, is by getting vocational training that directly meets employers’ needs. Vocational programs are nothing new in high schools, of course, but the scope of the program in Alief looks more like that of a community college, and its partnerships with employers run deep.
“You know the company Trio Electric?” Baker asked me, referring to the Houston-based commercial electrical contractor. “They wrote our electrical curriculum. Their workforce shortage is tremendous. They provide all the equipment, all the supplies. And then after the students’ junior year, they give them an internship in the summertime that pays four thousand dollars. Kids in this neighborhood making four thousand dollars—you might as well tell them they’re making a million bucks. So then, senior year, they’re more excited to finish out the program. And then they go in for interviews, and up to twenty-five of our kids will have a good chance to get hired.”
As she spoke, a voice periodically boomed out of the PA system advising prospective students to rotate to the next lab. Signs in the lobby welcomed a delegation of recruiters from CenterPoint Energy. “I’ve given over five hundred tours of this building,” Baker said, her voice catching, “and I spend a lot of time showing people what my kids can do. A lot of them get it, but we’re still in the baby stages of businesses realizing the gold mine of talent they have here.”
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
The Not-So-Great Sorting
Peter Rex’s Texas journey doesn’t have much in common with that of the students at LINC. The 39-year-old embarked on a career in business, he told me, when he realized, after consulting with the abbot at a Catholic monastery, that capitalism would be his best avenue for serving Jesus and helping people on the widest scale possible. Rex subsequently made a bundle of money for himself and his investors by buying and managing undervalued apartment complexes in Texas and Florida after the Great Recession, from what at the time was his base, in Tampa. In 2016 he moved to San Francisco to start a portfolio of real estate and insurance tech businesses, and then moved to Seattle in 2018 to be closer to Amazon’s and Microsoft’s headquarters and learn from their empire-building prowess.
In both of those West Coast tech hubs, he realized, some of his employees couldn’t afford to buy homes. But more importantly, he wrote in a June 2020 WSJ op-ed, “both [cities] have become hostile to the principles and policies that enable people to live abundantly in the broadest sense.” In Rex’s view, he wrote, not only were West Coast state governments stifling free enterprise, but the culture was stifling freedom of speech and freedom of religion. “In both San Francisco and Seattle, many of our Christian and Muslim friends and employees have expressed concern that their deeply held views are being driven from the public square.”
Rex wrote the op-ed to announce his move to Austin. “In Texas, the quintessential American ideals of family, faith, and freedom still reign supreme,” he wrote, adding that “as the West Coast becomes more insular and exclusive, other parts of the country will become the biggest drivers of tech innovation.” The column came out at the height of the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic and the presidential campaign season. Conservative media and the financial press quickly elevated Rex’s move as a signal moment—and talked up Rex as a tech titan (which he’s not). As the pandemic drove a wave of individuals and companies to move to Texas and Florida from California and New York, Rex’s story came to define part of the narrative: migrants were leaving the coastal hubs not just because they couldn’t justify overpaying for shoebox apartments during a lockdown but because they’d finally had it with failed liberal policies that created expensive cities riddled with crime and homelessness and livable only for the superrich.
“We didn’t feel safe talking about having voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” Marie Bailey told me.
For Marie Bailey, a realtor who lives in Prosper, just north of Frisco, that line of thinking sounds familiar. When she and her husband moved their family from El Segundo, California, to North Texas four and a half years ago, they were effectively giving up on their lifelong home for reasons she cites as “cost of living mixed with politics. We didn’t feel safe talking about having voted for Donald Trump in 2016,” she told me. “And then you get a seven-hundred-dollar car-registration bill, and voters vote in higher gas prices—I mean, who does that?” The Baileys bought a new-construction home in the Windsong Ranch community, across the street from a lagoon with an artificial beach, and Marie quickly spotted a business opportunity to help other escaping Californians find similarly soft landings. She got her realtor’s license and, to find clients, started a Facebook group called “Move to Texas From California!” Today that community has 34,700 members, and Bailey’s business is booming.
From her perspective, conservative Californians’ desire to flee has grown throughout the pandemic, as frustrated families sought a place where their kids could return to school sooner. “I had people coming here crying when they’d see kids playing on playgrounds,” Bailey said. “They couldn’t do that in California.” Although she shares those sentiments and sees migration to Texas as a “red wave,” Bailey also knows the full picture is complicated.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
In fact, Bailey and Peter Rex landed at the center of an argument that has circulated in political circles for years. It holds that a great ideological sorting is underway, in which like-minded people gravitate toward one another, often across state lines. Those who see California as a nanny state will escape to a more enlightened Texas, while those who see Texas as a fundamentalist petro-state will escape to a more enlightened California or Colorado. Swap California for New York and Texas for Florida, and the argument stays largely the same.
At the same time, many Texans have seized on Governor Abbott’s rallying cry “Don’t California My Texas.” Indeed, his 2018 reelection campaign played out against a changing electoral map. Barack Obama lost Texas by sixteen points in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost the state four years later by nine. And Joe Biden came within six. Some previously deep-red suburban counties now trend purple or even blue. Abbott was arguing that new Texans might be responsible for the change and that it wasn’t welcome (though he’s also, at various times, argued the opposite: that folks coming from California are conservatives who should be embraced).
But according to Derek Ryan, a GOP political consultant who leads voter-
targeting efforts for candidates up and down the ballot, there’s very little data to support either argument—that Texas is growing more conservative because of ideological sorting or that it’s becoming more liberal at the hands of Californians. One of Ryan’s clients is Congressman John Carter, whom I’d met earlier at that bar in Austin, and who represents several fast-changing suburban cities. Ryan has watched the evolving Texas suburbs closely; he’s seen migration patterns in person and in the data.
To identify likely new Texans in the data, Ryan looked at those who registered to vote after the 2018 election and ended up voting in 2020, and then he zeroed in on the subset over the age of thirty—to rule out young people, including longtime Texas residents, who were probably registering for the first time. He turned up 1.3 million voters, “but trying to figure out their political ideology is tricky because they haven’t necessarily voted in a Republican or Democratic primary,” he said.
Photograph by Tamir Kalifa
So, he turned to modeling data, the kind of information voter-targeting groups use to identify friendly targets based on their consumer spending habits, income levels, homeownership, and so on. “There are literally hundreds of data points to model people and determine if they’re likely Democratic or Republican voters,” he explained.
According to Ryan’s best analysis, 50.4 percent of his possible new Texans were likely Democratic voters, and 49.6 percent were likely Republicans. “So, you know,” he said, “we hear a lot about these people moving from blue states and bringing blue-state politics with them, but it doesn’t necessarily appear that that’s the case. It’s closer to right in the middle. There are certainly some hard-core liberals moving here that are still voting that way, but it appears that it’s a wash as far as Republicans versus Democrats.”
Rice University’s Bill Fulton has looked at myriad possible explanations for the ebb and flow of migration from California and found that, as he wrote in a post on the Kinder Institute’s website, “the driving force is not a pull into Texas but a push out of California: home prices.” That is, when the price of a house goes up on the West Coast, people come to Texas. When the prices ease, fewer make the move.
Of course, Fulton published that piece before the governor signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, effectively outlawing the procedure, as well as one of the nation’s most severe restrictions on voting—on top of a law discriminating against transgender students and one permitting the open carry of handguns without permits or training. The City of Chicago’s economic development arm took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News trying to lure alarmed Texans away. The real estate bonanza had, meanwhile, prompted northwest Arkansas to begin trying to lure away Austinites being priced out, and California-based companies such as Salesforce began offering to help any of their Texas employees to relocate in the face of Abbott’s actions.
Still, Fulton speaks for many who study migration into the state when he says he doesn’t expect the flow of new Texans to slow down anytime soon. “Texas may be hot in the summer, and you may not agree with the politics. It may be sprawling, and you may have to buy an F150 pickup. But it is probably unparalleled in the country right now as a place of economic opportunity.” For many, he said, it’s still “a place where you can get ahead.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The New Golden State.” Subscribe today.