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Housing market needs real gains, new people

January 25, 2019

The numbers are coming in for area home sales in the new year, and they’re not bad. Even during a government shutdown and in one of the year’s toughest months, business is steady. Realtors are on pace to exceed sales in Jefferson County from January of 2017 (153), which was an unusually active month.

The real test will come in a few weeks. The partial shutdown of the federal government should be resolved. (At least it had better be over.) As the weather warms up and people get adjusted from the holidays and holiday bills, homebuying should pick up.

This is when Southeast Texas needs to see real progress. A nagging problem in this area has been the lack of population growth. Hardin County has surged, but mostly with residents who moved there from Jefferson or Orange counties. Overall, particularly in the northern counties, totals haven’t increased much — or at all — in 20 years. That’s concerning in its own right, but especially because the rest of the state has boomed in that period.

Granted, Ike and Harvey didn’t help, but they’re not the sole reasons. Florida is repeatedly battered by hurricanes, but it keeps growing anyway.

Another point: One of the bright spots in housing lately has been current residents who want to upgrade to better homes in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. That activity is welcome, but it doesn’t represent new families. It’s people who already live here, people who might be vacating one property to live in another.

What Southeast Texas really needs are younger workers and younger families buying homes here. Because they’re just starting out, they’ll need houses at the lower end of the price range. Local governments in the region should always be supportive of plans for affordable housing, including apartments. That sector is usually in short supply, and it can mean the difference between a young couple putting down roots in Southeast Texas or some other place.

In turn, this region needs the jobs and amenities that attract new residents. This is why quality-of-life issues are important. Some Texas cities, most notably Austin, have so much to offer outsiders that they are drawn to it. Other cities can’t be Austin, but they can understand this issue and do all they can to be more compelling.

In one sense the lack of population growth in the region is puzzling. This area has most of the assets that other areas crave — an interstate highway, ports, plenty of water, railroad links, four higher-education campuses, etc. We seem to have the building blocks for sustained growth, but it never seems to get started. That needs to change in 2019, and beyond.

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