Though you’ll find a lot more steel and concrete than wood these days in downtown’s newest towers, you might have heard something lately about the role of lumber prices in Austin’s “extraordinary” housing market, currently commanding the highest sales over asking price for new homes of any major city in the nation — in fact, it’s estimated that rising costs of lumber across the country are adding something like $25,000 to the cost of every new house. This price bump is driven by scarcity, in this case pandemic-related supply chain disruptions colliding with a general increase in demand for materials leaving builders stalled on projects across the country.
#LasVegas #HousingMarket is 🔥! Local home builder falls victim to thieves during lumber shortage; Some new home buyers put on waiting lists. “People are turning to NEW Construction because the re-sale market isn’t what it used to be and more homeowners are staying put.” #8NN 🏠 pic.twitter.com/DC303Wt0UW
— Madison Kimbro (@MADKIMBRO) March 31, 2021
There’s a lesson in this scarce lumber about Austin’s increasing home prices, which obviously aren’t pushed skyward exclusively by materials costs. Housing markets are complex, influenced by factors beyond supply and demand alone, but in our situation it’s actually that simple — Austin doesn’t have enough houses to meet demand, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. Expensive lumber just adds insult to injury.
If the thought of paying approximately seven percent or more above asking price on a new home makes you depressed, you might enjoy a tale of more plentiful wood — in this case the backstory of the Calcasieu Lumber Company, brought to us in the video below by the Austin History Center that deserves far more than 250 views:
As the video explains with some truly unforgettable period photos, Calcasieu essentially built Austin after its founding by brothers William and Carl Drake in 1883, with materials from the lumberyard finding their way into nearly every major project of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In case you were wondering, that mysterious name came from the Louisiana parish of Calcasieu that supplied most of its lumber.
By the 1920s the firm was even financing the construction of new homes in downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, with low-interest loans and installment plans opening homeownership to more Austinites than ever — “the company employed builders and became a one-stop shop for those looking for a new home,” according to the Austin Public Library’s collection of company records. Calcasieu operated a yard at West Second and Lavaca Streets that expanded across several adjacent lots over its many years of success, the site eventually containing a 1940s building that would be repurposed 30 years later as legendary local venue Liberty Lunch.
The business, having grown to hundreds of employees by the midcentury, moved out of an increasingly developed downtown in the 1980s to a new headquarters in southeast Austin, where the company persisted in employing over 1,000 people at its peak until a corporate buyout by conglomerate Carolina Holdings in 2000 took over from descendants of the Drake brothers. You’ll find most of the lumber now used in Austin projects arrives from these larger operations, rather than family enterprises — making it easier for shortages in building materials like the one we’re currently experiencing to become national, rather than regional problems. Still, if you find yourself in a home built in Austin in the first half of the 20th century, there’s a decent chance Calcasieu is keeping that roof firmly over your head.