Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Protecting residents from dangerous industrial businesses, reducing crime, street parking for mixed-use retail, and rethinking Vision Zero

This week we have a special edition of Houston Strategies focused on... specific strategies for Houston (;-). The specific topics are protecting residents from dangerous industrial businesses, reducing crime, street parking for mixed-use retail businesses, and rethinking Vision Zero plans.

First, Judah passed along this story on zoning (or lack of it) coming up again in Houston since the warehouse explosion on the westside.  My simple observation is that we don't need zoning to address this problem.  If we have laws about minimum distances between adult business or liquor stores and schools+churches, we could certainly do the same for certain kinds of hazardous industrial businesses without adding zoning. More on this at blogHouston.

As far as reducing crime, the Houston police need to be all over using NextDoor as an intel source for neighborhood crimes.  It could make a huge difference in reducing all sorts of minor (and not-so-minor) crimes in the neighborhoods.

Midtown recently lost a very popular long-time bakery at least in part due to a lack of convenient parking near her street retail store in a mixed-use space.  This one hits home since it's my neighborhood.   Here's the quote:
“I’m so sick of Midtown,” Masson says. “The biggest issue is parking. Even though there is a humongous parking garage behind the bakery, no one knows it’s there. No one takes the time to look for it. They drive by, they don’t see a parking spot, they don’t pull over.”
I posted this to the Market Urbanism Report Facebook group and it generated a huge debate in the comments. While mixed-use sit-down restaurants seem to do well (people are willing to hunt for parking if they're staying a couple of hours), I think part of the problem for a quick in-and-out business like hers (bakeries, laundries, convenience stores, etc.) is she needs a couple of dedicated parking spaces right in front limited to her customers.  But since it's City of Houston street parking, they can't do that, so those spaces are always full of longer-term parkers visiting the neighborhood. I've noticed most strip centers (hated by urbanists), will offer their tenants dedicated spaces right in front of their businesses (with signs limiting parking to customers). Maybe the City needs to offer that for street parking as well?  Maybe the businesses pay for it?  For those sorts of businesses, people are not willing to hunt for parking and they’re also not willing to go through the parking meter hassle (it takes several minutes to go through the process at a CoH meter).  Just let the business pay for dedicated spaces during business hours (or, alternately, spaces limited to a quarter or half-hour).

Finally, Vision Zero plans have been adopted by many cities - including Houston - to reduce traffic fatalities, but they aren't working. Excerpts from another piece are a cautionary warning to Houston's efforts:
"Yet Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, among others, saw sharp increases in pedestrian and/or bicycle fatalities after adopting Vision Zero policies. 
This won’t be a surprise to Antiplanner readers. As described in Policy Brief #25, Vision Zero is an overly simplistic strategy that fails to solve the real problems that are causing pedestrian fatalities to rise. 
Vision Zero is based on the observation that pedestrians hit by cars traveling at high speeds are more likely to die than if the cars are traveling at low speeds. So Vision Zero’s primary tactic is to reduce driving speeds. Vision Zero’s secondary goal is to reduce driving period by making auto travel slower and less desirable compared to the alternatives. Neither of these are working very well.
For decades, traffic engineers followed a tried-and-true formula for reducing auto fatalities: improve roadway designs in ways that reduce the number and impact of accidents. Vision Zero has diverted cities from that formula in an overt anti-auto strategy that sometimes actually makes streets more dangerous (such as when one-way streets are converted to two-way operation). So it is no surprise that Vision Zero isn’t working."
As I've said before, I support Vision Zero when the focus is on fixing problematic intersections and other pragmatic safety improvements. I don't support it when it's just a thinly veiled mask for anti-car urbanists (road diets, reduced speeds, one-way to two-way conversions, speed humps everywhere).

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Could Houston get Google? converting the 59 Spur to a linear park, housing crisis drives socialism, millennials are driving, Houston is the future, and more

Apologies for the delay between posts - I've had some busy travel recently. Before getting to this week's items, a couple thoughts on the City's consideration of turning the Bagby and Brazos portions of Spur 527 off 59 into a park.  I live in Midtown, so this affects me directly. I've managed to adapt ok to losing the Brazos exit since the bridge closed for repairs - Louisiana is inconvenient but works - but losing Bagby's southbound entrance is a bigger deal.  I've thought quite a bit about this.  At first I was totally opposed, then I figured I could live with it via Smith and Louisiana but still moderately opposed (even with the benefits of Bagby traffic reduction).  I do think it will substantially negatively affect some of the businesses along Bagby and Brazos that rely on drive-by traffic like Spec's, CVS, and especially the new Midtown Whole Foods (which is already struggling in what was previously a food desert), as well as thousands of commuters that connect between 59 and 45 (which, in turn, will make the already-messy 59-45-288 interchange even worse).  In fact, I'd argue the optics look pretty bad: sacrifice the commutes of a lot of working-class folks on the north and east sides commuting to jobs in the southwest so a few wealthy white people in gated Courtlandt Place can have a pocket park. Not a good look. And I think it is very likely that a City-maintained linear pocket park will turn into a homeless camp (sad, but that's the reality these days) - something I hope the neighbors have considered in their support.  They may come to really regret it...

Updated story.

On to this week's items:

“If we keep forcing them to pay for housing and parks, they will go to Houston or Austin.”
I think the advantages for a Google office here would be pretty strong. Tons of oil-and-gas tech/IT talent that’s easy to poach, a city willing to do anything to land them, plus deep expat communities from nations all over the world that could handle some global functions (esp. Latin America).  It would also work well if Google is considering any health care plays, with the world's largest med center right down the way in the innovation corridor.
 Another thought is, what if you wanted to have a US office where you could bring H1B visa talent from all over the world, and they would be able to afford to live there as well as find a comfortable expat community from their nation? Houston would be a great location for that: huge Asian, Latin American, African, Middle Eastern, and even European communities - many from the long history of the global oil industry here.
Boomer Socialism Led to Bernie Sanders 
Government policies limit millennials’ prosperity, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argues. Will they realize more of the same isn’t the answer?
“The right answer for this is not universal basic income.  The right answer is freedom. Allow people to use their property the way they want to use it.”
"New supply is one reason the median home price in Texas is currently $207,301, while in California, it’s nearly triple that, $605,280. California’s drought in new home production has been caused in part by land-use regulations and the state’s myriad environmental laws.
 A Zillow-backed survey of economists and housing analysts predicted that in 2020, Texas’s relatively affordable big cities (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and especially Austin) will outperform the market average in home value growth, while overpriced California metros like San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles will fare poorly.
The California housing situation, on the other hand, is a multifaceted mess. Prices have skyrocketed. A new apartment in San Francisco costs an average of $700,000 to build—including materials, labor, and land—triple the cost of a decade ago. The average value of a home in Los Angeles County is $635,000—almost double the median price in Austin and nearly triple the median price in Dallas—and many neighborhoods have seen average prices more than double in the last decade. According to the United Way, one in three Californians, or 3.3 million families, don’t have incomes to meet their basic cost of living, and most struggle with high housing costs. The state’s 150,000 homeless residents represent a quarter of the nation’s homeless population. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates it would cost “in excess of $250 billion” to provide affordable housing for all of the state’s 1.7 million rent-burdened households."
Finally, watch this if you can"No Passport Required" on PBS did an episode on West African food and culture in Houston, and it is absolutely fascinating. Will make you proud of our city. Links to Houstonia and Houston Eater stories
"When I came to Houston I did not know what to think. Leaving, I see the future." - Marcus Samuelsson, PBS "No Passport Required"

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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Nobody wants to leave Houston! plus fareless Metro update, more on NYC vs. HTX affordability, our low-carbon future, and more

This week's feature is a followup on my proposal that Metro considering going farelessThe NY Times even did an article on more transit agencies considering and going fareless to increase ridership. Metro's been studying it and had their first results at a meeting this month. If you'd like to watch the presentation, it starts around the 30m mark in the video here, or the Chronicle summarizes their findings here.  The bottom line is that - although the loss of $70m of annual fares might be manageable - there are two major problems:
  1. Providing additional buses and drivers to handle the additional demand of a 36% increase in ridership from going fareless could cost up to $170m a year on top of Metro's roughly $700m budget, and they simply can't afford that.
  2. The safety risks are substantial with "problem riders", which have been an issue when other agencies have gone fareless.  
I was impressed with Metro's thorough analysis of six different scenarios, and satisfied that they came to the right (albeit unfortunate) conclusions.  I agree that the cost and safety concerns are just too high for most of the scenarios they analyzed.  They are still analyzing additional scenarios and I have suggested it would be interesting to add a scenario with a fixed-price unlimited monthly pass, including for Park-and-Ride riders. I’m not sure what the right price point would be - maybe at the equivalent of two local rides a day? - so $2.50 x 30 days = $75/month?  I think that could get a substantial boost in ridership (especially Park-and-Ride commuters) without the safety concerns or major loss of revenue.  We'll see what comes back...

Moving on to some additional items this week:
"Texas Monthly told a story that a lot of people wanted to hear: loosely regulated housing markets like Houston have long embarrassed ideological opponents of free markets who insist that only rent controls and massive public subsidies can provide affordable housing. There is a ready audience for the argument that Houston’s affordability is a mirage. If you ever find an argument like this tempting, though, ask yourself: is it more likely that you’re mistaken, or that the millions of Americans voting with their feet are?"

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Monday, January 20, 2020

Houston Is Now Less Affordable Than New York City?!

 "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." -Mark Twain
This week the big Houston ruse was uncovered - the illusion unveiled.  I know you're thinking I'm talking about a certain baseball team, but I'm talking about Texas Monthly's expose that Houston is less affordable than New York City.  Evidently Houston has been suckering millions of people to move here with the false promise of affordability - and they all fell for it! (I guess because they're all bad at math?)  Suckering that many people has to be one of the greatest frauds perpetrated in history, right?  Well played, Houston, well played.  But now the truth is out and it's all going to come crashing down.

As news gets around, hundreds of thousands of Houstonians will soon be putting their house on the market to move to NYC.  Why wouldn't they?  Clearly it's cheaper to live there.  Texas Monthly and an "unbiased" nonprofit say so.

"Martha, call our real estate agent: we're selling the home and moving the family!  It says right here we can give up our four-bedroom house and two SUVS, move to a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, and come out ahead!"

"Oh Bill, that's a great idea! I'm so ready to trade in the Escalade for standing-room-only subway rides - we'll save a fortune!  But what about the taxes?"

"Well, it doesn't look like the study says anything about taxes, so they must not be an issue in New York..."

April Fools came early this year.  Thanks, Texas Monthly.

Now we can move on to the dry, fact-based part of the response to the study:
  • There is absolutely no normalization of size or quality of what people get for what they pay - all they look at is what people are actually spending.  In NYC, you might get a cramped apartment with roommates vs. your own house in Houston.  Same with the transportation: tax-subsidized subway fares (and those taxes are ignored in the calculations) vs. your own nice car/truck/SUV.
  • By the calculations in this study, if you move from NYC to Houston and spend the tax savings on a better house and car, your life got worse because their percentage of your income went up! 🙄
  • Conversely, using the methodology of this study, NYC can zoom up to #1 by jacking up their taxes high enough to leave less than 40% of income available to their citizens for housing and transportation! 
  • As I've said on this blog before, spending on a luxury vehicle (including depreciation) is *not* a basic cost of transportation, yet they include it in their figures.  A person can get around Houston quite cheaply with a used Toyota Prius if they choose to.  The fact that lots of people choose to splurge their extra discretionary income on a nice ride does not mean Houston is an expensive city to get around!  The same line of thinking would say that people in West Hollywood spend a lot on clothes, so they must not have access to affordable clothing! 😅
  • According to this study, if you move from Houston to LA, you'll actually save money!  Could that be because, after taxes, you'll just have less money to spend?
  • Also according to this study, if you move from Houston to San Francisco, you'll reduce housing and transportation from 49% of your income to 42% of your income!  And yet for some reason, masses of Houstonians don't seem to be picking up and moving to San Francisco?
And some additional facts courtesy of Wendell Cox, a fellow Fellow at our Center for Opportunity Urbanism:
Comparison of the costs of living in Houston v New York (MSA)  
The test of whether one metropolitan area is more expensive than another is the cost of living --- the cost of all goods and services, not only housing and transportation. The latest regional price parity (RPP) data from the US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis indicate that the New York metropolitan area has an RPP of 122.3 for all items (100.0 being the national average). The Houston metropolitan area has an RPP of 101.7. The cost of living for renters is thus 20 percent higher in New York than in Houston. 
 Other factors would make this difference even more. The just-issued 16th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey indicates that the median house cost in New York is 50 percent more expensive than in Houston (comparison of the Median Multiple, the median house price divided by the median household income). This is a bigger difference than among renters, with New York median rentals being 30 percent higher than in Houston, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. 
 Finally, state and local taxes are far higher in New York than in Texas. According to 24/7 Wall Street, New York taxation is about two thirds higher than in Texas. New York has the highest state and local taxes according to this analysis, while Texas ranks 45th.
Finally, just a self-reflection question for Texas Monthly: are you still actual critical-thinking journalists, or just clickbait publishers now?...

UPDATE: Reason offers their counter-arguments and quotes me! 

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Sunday, January 12, 2020

Media coverage for eliminating Metro fares, HTX accolades, growth, and density revolution - and are we really gentrifying that fast?

The featured news this week is that I was interviewed on both local NPR/KUHF and KPRC about my proposal that Metro eliminate fares.  Hopefully, we'll hear some positive news on it from Metro during their upcoming board meeting.

Moving on to other items this week:
  • Chronicle: Houston gentrifying faster than other Texas cities, Fed analysis finds. What I think this analysis misses is that Houston's lack of zoning allows densification much more easily than other cities, and we have created tens of thousands of new apartments, condos, and townhomes near downtown in recent years allowing higher-salaried newcomers without necessarily displacing existing residents.  I'm not saying gentrification and displacement is not happening (I'm sure some is), but average incomes can certainly move up substantially by adding new residents to new density without displacing existing ones.
  • This Texas-Sized City (Houston) Lets You Earn Big and Live Cheap. Some great excerpts:
"When you choose a place to live, you have to strike a balance between what you want and what you need. Big cities have lots of amenities and job opportunities, but they're often extremely expensive. Smaller areas tend to be a lot more affordable, but you might not be able to come close to earning as much money as you want in order to achieve your financial goals. 
But if you want the best of both worlds, there's one city among the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. that strikes the right balance. As research from The Ascent into salaries and costs of living discovered, the Texas city of Houston should be high up on your list if you want a major population center that won't strain your wallet. 
One reason Houston has been able to keep itself as affordable as it has is that it lacks the extensive land use regulation that many similarly sized communities have. In many cities, zoning laws make it difficult for real estate developers to build new projects to provide more housing for residents, and that can keep housing prices artificially high. That hasn't been the case in Houston, where ample land has allowed the city and its suburbs to expand outward and support a growing population. 
For those seeking a big-city experience but wanting to stick to a budget and even put some money in the bank, Houston offers an attractive balance. With everything a major metropolitan area can offer at a fraction of the price tag you'll find in many similarly sized cities, Houston's worth a closer look for those who want it all."
"Perhaps more impressive is how much Texas expanded from April 2010 (when the last official U.S. headcount was conducted) to July 2019. During that period, Texas added 3,849,790 residents, according to the Census Bureau. To put that into perspective, nearly 4 million people live in the entire state of Oklahoma. Texas' population jumped 15.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, the third highest growth rate behind the District of Columbia and Utah. 
Experts cite economic and job growth — along with a low cost of living, a low cost of doing business, and low taxes compared with many other states — as drivers of Texas' population boom. Helping fuel the boom are substantial population spikes in the state's four largest metro areas: Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio."
Finally, I'd like to end this week's post with a video of one of our COU events. It's a bit long, but a good one to leave on in the background while working at your computer. SMU-Cox Folsom Institute for Real Estate, the SMU Economics Center, and the Center for Opportunity Urbanism presented a lively discussion on Cities, Suburbs, and the New America, and Minorities, Immigrants, and Millennials in America’s Favorite Geography.  The event featured presentations from former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, author Joel Kotkin, and MIT Professor Alan Berger.

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Sunday, January 05, 2020

Three perfect days in HTX, growth forecasts, increasing our density, reducing homelessness, protesting property taxes, and more

Happy New Year/Decade everyone! Hope you enjoyed your holidays as much as I did (OC/LA w/ family). Lots of backlogged smaller items, but before we get to them, a short word about our sponsor: if one of your new year's resolutions is to save big money on electricity this year, My Best Plan is incredible at absolutely optimizing the lowest-cost electricity plan for you.  I've known David over there for years (fellow Rice MBA), and his optimization algorithm is the best, bar none. And completely unbiased too, which can't be said for some of the other optimizers out there that have been uncovered as fronts for electricity marketing companies.  Send him (or me) your latest electricity bill to get an estimate of your potential savings - it's free, and you have nothing to lose while potentially saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars (as he's saved me over the years).

On to this week's items:
Finally, I'd like to end with this United's Hemispheres magazine video on 3 perfect days Houston. Hat tip to George.

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

2019 Highlights

Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays.  Time for our annual round-up of the best posts of 2019.  Looking at the list, I think it was a very good year relative to most of my others.  Hard to believe we're coming up on the 15th anniversary of this blog. I'll have to do a big retrospective post in March for that.

These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box at the bottom of the right sidebar. An RSS feed link for newsfeed readers is also available in the right sidebar (I'm a fan of Feedly).

As always, thanks for your readership.
And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the best posts from the first dozen years and million pageviews.


Saturday, December 14, 2019

More on free transit, Houston densifying, CA vs TX, hard economics for TX HSR, Bastrop city plan, and more

Large backlog of items this week:
"Even if Texas Central could manage to attract 6 million passengers a year, the annual payment on a $20 billion loan at 3 percent interest over 30 years is just over $1 billion. That means it would have to collect nearly $170 per passenger above its operating costs in order to repay loans or give funders a return on their investments. Since airfares are already far lower than that, I don’t see any way for this to ever happen."
“1,545 people per day settled in Texas last year, with Harris County seeing the greatest influx from out of state than any other region,” according to Yardi Systems."
"The new code is very lean—based on the rural-to-urban Transect, it does not regulate uses, only nuisances. The thinking is that if the use creates no problem, why regulate it? There are no minimum lot dimensions or parking requirements. Shared parking is encouraged. Every lot is automatically allowed to have two accessory units. So, rather than the continuing the single-family zoning that is fiscally unsustainable as a dominant pattern, every lot can have three units. "
Finally, I'll end with a little good humor piece: Texas Luring Jobs Away From California With Promises Of Electricity:
"California Governor Gavin Newsom was dismissive of Texas's claims, though. “They’re making false claims of being able to deliver electricity 24/7,” Newsom said, “but it just can’t be done.” Newsom was also dismissive of the Lone Star State's other claims, such as affordable housing, plenty of water, cheap gas, plastic straws, and not constantly being on fire. "

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