Sunday, June 06, 2021

Reason video on Houston, Texas MUDs as an affordability model, Houston's pioneering reduced minimum lot sizes, and some very cool maps

The lead item this week is a very cool video from Reason, "Density or Sprawl? How To Solve the Urban Housing Crisis", and specifically starting at 11:38 when Scott Beyer and Randal O' Toole start talking about the Houston example.

Reason: "The city of Houston gets it more or less right" on densification vs. sprawl, with a variety of housing types. Free market with deed restrictions, but no zoning and no urban growth boundary.

A great video, although I wish they hadn't shown the beer can house (talk about poster-child for terrifying people about eliminating zoning!) and had used a map less than 50 years old, lol. It didn't even have a completed 610 Loop on it! 

Moving on to this week's other items:
"Houston is known for its lack of Euclidean-style zoning, but the city still has various ordinances that control land use. In 1998, Houston reformed its subdivision rules to allow for parcels smaller than five thousand square feet citywide. In this paper, we discuss the unique land-use rules in place in Houston prior to reform and the circumstances that led to reform, including the “opt out” provisions, which mediated homeowner opposition to substantial increases in housing density. We then analyze the effects of reform. After relief from large lot requirements, post-reform development activity was heavily concentrated in middle-income, less dense, underbuilt neighborhoods."
Finally, a great piece in Governing magazine from Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the power of Texas MUDs to create affordable housing supply.
Municipal utility districts seem to work in the Lone Star State. They have increased the housing supply, using lighter regulations, resulting in downward pressure on costs. Now, they may be catching on elsewhere.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Be Someone City Opportunity Urbanism event, relaxing min parking reqs, HTX #1 building homes, hurricane risk, and more

The lead item this week is a Houston event I'll be speaking at Wednesday evening June 16th: Building a 'Be Someone' City: Houston and the Rise of Opportunity Urbanism

"Cities have historically been the gateway to America and our nation’s promise of opportunity and upward mobility. Today, however, many of our nation’s highest profile cities have become ‘luxury products’ affordable only for the highest income earners. Houston and other ‘opportunity cities’ have historically bucked this trend by embracing policies that lower the cost of living, create jobs, and enhance the quality of life for all. But a continuation of this success is under threat from an array of proposed ‘command and control’ policies that will erode our city’s dynamism. Houston’s success is no accident, and it’s future is worth fighting for.

Join the Liberty Leadership Council and the Urban Reform Institute for a vibrant discussion of Houston’s market-centered, ‘people-oriented’ approach to urban policy, planning, and development.

We’ll talk zoning, transportation, infrastructure, housing, and everything in between—all while enjoying views of downtown and toasting the Bayou City."

You can register here and I hope to see you there!

Moving on to this week's items:

  • City Journal: End of the Road for Parking Requirements - They serve as a tax on housingHouston should pass a plan to automatically reduce parking minimums citywide by 8%/year - enough for real impact over time w/o public blowback. Why keep building parking that autonomous taxis will make obsolete in the 2030s or even sooner?
  • Excerpts from a Market Urbanist Scott Beyer Facebook post after his most recent trip to Texas:

"Texas is already known for high econ freedom and autonomy from the feds. The more I learn, the more unique it seems on this front. Counties without zoning. Toll roads galore. Limited land handed to the feds. Independent not unified school districts. Separate energy grid. Higher speed limits. And I could go on. The governance here is truly different. 

A culture of exceptionalism: Texas wants to be the best, and has built an unapologetic brand around it - “everything’s bigger in Texas.” Coastal urban America used to have that bravado, but is now overcome with Nimbyism and guilt-mongering."

"More permits (48,208) were issued last year for new-home construction in the Houston area than anywhere else in the U.S. DFW ranked second (43,884), and Austin held the No. 5 spot (21,653)."

  • Houston and NOx and SOx – Companion Pollutants
  • Drive & Listen: Wow this is super cool and mesmerizing. You can set the speed of the vehicle, street noise, music - even change radio stations while driving in 50 different cities around the world, spending as much time as you like in any one of them. Someone needs to do this for Houston!

Finally, we'll end with a little dark humor meme that makes a great point:

Ever-growing layers of bureaucracy are how societies stagnate, and it's the direct cause of increasing unaffordability in cities across the country.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Astrodome as the world's largest climate-controlled festival park, smart traffic lights, HTX eating out vs other cities, relaxing parking minimums

The lead item this week is the Astrodome Conservancy's survey and public engagement on the future of the Astrodome.  I've made a *lot* of posts over the years on the Astrodome - so many that I recently discovered the Astrodome tag on my blog only shows posts back to 2015 but not before.  Before that I found them in 2014 (twice), 2013 (twice), 2012, and even as far back as 2005.  After all of that debate, the best affordable solution I've settled on is the world’s largest climate-controlled park with a focus on weekend festivals. People love going to parks, but not during Houston’s extreme weather, especially summers.  Having an activated park full of activities and festivals on weekends that is always protected from heat and rain would be a very popular spot for Houstonians, especially families desperate to find affordable activities every weekend (minus Texan home games or the Rodeo). And it could easily start very modestly and then expand over time with parking fees + philanthropy, like has been happening with the Zoo, MFAH, and HMNS. Imagine Levy Park + Discovery Green x10... or The Gathering Place in Tulsa (pictures)... pretty cool, right?! Be sure to let them know your own thoughts here.

Moving on to some smaller items this week:
  • NYT: Smarter Traffic Lights, Calmer Commuters. Holy crap Houston needs this! I think Uptown and TMC would be really good test cases. The AI could learn optimal traffic light timings based on time-of-day as well as make dynamic adjustments for unexpected surges.
  • Cities Spending the Most on Eating Out in 2020We found that Houston, Texas ranks #11 for spending their annual income at restaurants. Houston residents spend an average of $357 each month on eating out and 5.7% of their annual income at restaurants. Houstonians spend about the same amount eating out vs. in. We eat out a lot, but at low prices. We eat out a lot more than Dallas residents, which surprised me a bit until you think about how hyper-competitive Houston's restaurant scene is from the lack of zoning.  That hyper-competition applies to grocery stores as well, which shows up in how much less we're able to spend on food than most of the cities in their graph.  Houstonians spend $300 less per year on groceries than the average American, but $1,000/year more on eating out due to the high incomes and great affordable restaurants here.
  • City Journal: End of the Road for Parking Requirements - They serve as a tax on housing. Houston has been expanding its "market-driven parking" zone beyond downtown to Midtown and EaDo, and hopefully to additional areas in the future.  Let developers decide how much parking they need, not arbitrary formulas. Hat tip to Jay.
  • This makes me nauseous. Planners actually like tight zoning regulations like high minimum parking requirements so they can extort more out of the developer to relax them! 

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

My online event Tues, HTX #1 BBQ and #2 tech growth, R voters moving to TX, post-pandemic city shifts, ATX vs. HTX home prices, housing craziness humor, and more

Before we get to this week's items, just a reminder that my Mercatus online panel event on Land Use without Planning is 2pm CT on Tuesday. I'll be covering some of Houston's land use and zoning history as well as what other cities can learn from Houston. You can learn more and register here

Moving on to a large backlog of items for this week:

  • NYT: There’s an Exodus From the ‘Star Cities,’ and I Have Good News and Bad News. Excellent summary of many different analyses forecasting post-pandemic urban geography. I’m not sure they’re right that pandemic migration will push R counties/states more D though.  A lot of frustrated Rs are using the pandemic to escape D states and move to R states. For every D techie moving from SF to Austin, I'd bet 2 frustrated California Rs are moving to Texas. Actually, a recent survey found 57% of California migrants to Houston voted for Ted Cruz, which validates what I've been hearing.  Here’s the most upvoted comment:

"Kotkin nails it 'Meanwhile, the working class struggles to pay rent, possesses no demonstrable path to a better life and, as a result, often migrates elsewhere.' I mean seriously is there anything worse than being poor in New York City, working a job in food service, barely able to pay your rent, knowing that you'll never own anything but an endless struggle against being evicted? Or you can move to Georgia, live cheaply in a far larger house / apt, and work towards gaining equity of something. No smart poor person would ever stay in NYC."
"Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data."
"The big story among the nation’s major metros over the past decade has been the persistence of urban core out-migration and suburban in-migration...Houston had the 2nd-largest gain at 1.2 million, with a 20.8% increase, and remains the 5th largest metro." 
"Certainly, Houstonians will be pleased with that result, but the notion that Austin might be Texas' third best city for barbecue will likely cause considerable agita in the state capital." ;-D
"It’s a melting pot, and that’s one of the things that stood out that I absolutely loved about the city. The fact that there’s a lot of positivity going on and people doing great things here, those are really some of the main reasons I stayed in the city. 
Their turkey legs are decadent, sure. Like other rodeo-adjacent foods, they’re large, indulgent and full of flavor. They, in essence, are Houston."
Finally, I'll end with an absolutely hilarious short video skit on the current craziness in the housing market - enjoy ;-D

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Monday, May 10, 2021

Houston meetup 6pm Thursday

Scott Beyer from the Market Urbanism Report and Charles Blain + myself from the Urban Reform Institute - A Center for Opportunity Urbanism are holding a Houston meetup 6pm this Thursday, May 13th at The Pit Room. Look for us at a patio table next door. Hope to see you there! 


Sunday, May 09, 2021

Four drivers of Texas' rapid growth

A few weeks ago I interviewed Washington Post journalist David Byler on the drivers of Texas' growth, which resulted in an excellent piece he published last week with great analytics, map animations, graphs, and articulation of the drivers: Texas’s population and political power are growing. Here’s why. It concludes with this excerpt:

"Texas has found a simple formula for success — economic opportunity and a low cost of living — and stuck with it. People want simple things: good jobs, affordable housing and room for kids. And they’re willing to move to states that offer them." 
For this post, I wanted to pass along the four growth drivers I shared:
  1. Texas does not allow zoning/land use regulation in unincorporated counties on the edges of cities, so developers build large, affordable, amenity-rich master-planned communities that attract lots of people using Texas Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs), where a developer can float private bonds to build the infrastructure (streets, utilities) paid back by taxes in that community.  It creates a thriving, competitive free market in housing development – much more than you’d see between incorporated cities.  The Woodlands is one of the most famous of these, but there are hundreds (Bridgelands and Cinco Ranch as large examples).  Here’s a giant one going up near DFW.
  2. High standard of living, especially shared among immigrant networks: they know what kinds of houses their extended family members can afford all over the country, and they see the newest and biggest at the most affordable price in Texas (combined with job opportunities). They end up choosing Texas when they come to America. (and remember it’s more than just median house prices – it’s what you get for that price: that $635k in California gets a very old, small house – in Texas $278k gets you a larger, newer house) 
  3. Family-friendly: Declining fertility is a problem all over the developed world, most especially in places where housing has grown expensive. If families can’t afford more space, they shrink the family size to compensate.  In Texas, it’s very affordable and common to get large 4, 5, even 6 bedroom homes in the suburbs with good school districts, which keeps the birth rate up here.
  4. Opportunity Cities: This blog post of mine has a fairly good list of attractive elements in Houston specifically and Texas in general.
Anything I missed? Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, May 03, 2021

Texas and HTX growth secret, what kind of Texan are you? major climate change solution, TX miracle is more than oil, and more

My lead item this week is a comment I made on the Market Urbanism Report Facebook group: 

Going beyond all the usual reasons given for Texas' high growth, here's the technical overlooked one that I think is a big key: Texas does not allow unincorporated counties to regulate land use (i.e. create zoning), which creates pretty much a totally free market in development just outside cities. Combine that with MUDs (municipal utility districts) that allow private developers to float bonds to pay for master-planned community infrastructure paid back by property taxes on that development, and there is complete flexibility in the suburban/exurban housing market.  And those master-planned communities compete fiercely on price and amenities (far more than incorporated cities do). That, in turn, forces the core incorporated cities to "compete" for private development dollars by not over-regulating - otherwise they'll just jump outside the city limits. It's an overall balance of forces that keeps welcoming development and newcomers with a strong value proposition (high amenities with relatively low costs).

Moving on to some smaller items this week:

"Civic Pragmatists are optimistic yet pragmatic when they think about a changing Texas. Their ideal Texas is one where the state is a leader in the knowledge-economy industries, as well as a Texas where everyone feels safe and like they belong."
“The zoning issue is tough and complex. It balances principled libertarian objections to zoning and the interests of developers, on the one hand, against core principles of federalism and local control, on the other.”
I’d say Houston’s secret sauce is less about not having SFZ (deed restrictions are pretty much the same) than allowing pretty much anything else everywhere that’s not single-family: apartments, towers, retail, mixed-use, offices, you name it.
"In India alone, the equivalent of a city the size of Chicago will have to be developed every year to meet demand for housing. ... 
Michael Ramage of the University of Cambridge told the meeting of a 300-square-metre four-storey wooden building constructed in that city. Erecting this generated 126 tonnes of co2. Had it been made with concrete the tally would have risen to 310 tonnes. If steel had been used, emissions would have topped 498 tonnes. Indeed, from one point of view, this building might actually be viewed as “carbon negative”. When trees grow they lock carbon up in their wood—in this case the equivalent of 540 tonnes of co2. Preserved in Cambridge rather than recycled by beetles, fungi and bacteria, that carbon represents a long-term subtraction of co2 from the atmosphere. 
If building with wood takes off, it does raise concern about there being enough trees to go round. But with sustainably managed forests that should not be a problem, says Dr. Ramage. A family-sized apartment requires about 30 cubic metres of timber, and he estimates Europe’s sustainable forests alone grow that amount every seven seconds. Nor is fire a risk, for engineered timber does not burn easily." 
"So Vyas picked another metropolis that's increasingly become young people's next-best option — Houston.

Now 34, Vyas, a tech worker, has lived in Houston since 2013. "I knew I didn’t like New York, so this was the next best thing,” Vyas said. “There are a lot of things you want to try when you are younger -- you want to try new things. Houston gives you that, whether it’s food, people or dating. And it’s cheap to live in.”
Hear hear!

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

My Land Use without Zoning event, TX #1 for small biz, HTX #1 for diversity, urban transit after covid, sinking I69 in Midtown, and the Be Someone sign is back!

The lead item this week is an event announcement: I'll be one of the speakers/panelists at the Mercatus Center's "Land Use without Zoning: Putting Ideas into Practice" online event on May 18th.  Here's the overview:

"Zoning and land use policy regulations present the greatest barriers to affordable housing and increased urban density. 

Understanding how to navigate and remove these barriers allows for a dynamic housing market and paves the way for successful community development efforts. 

The study of the impact of land use and zoning policy began with Bernard Siegan in his pioneering 1972 study, "Land Use Without Zoning." In his book, Siegan first set out what has today emerged as a common-sense perspective: Zoning not only fails to achieve its stated ends of ordering urban growth and separating incompatible uses, but it also drives housing costs up and competition down. 

Drawing on the unique example of Houston—America’s fourth-largest city, and its lone dissenter on zoning—Siegan explored the impact of a different approach to land use policy and demonstrated how land use will naturally regulate itself in a non-zoned environment and yield a greater availability of multifamily housing. 

While we have gained a greater understanding of the issues created by overly burdensome land use restrictions, these policies still remain in place, restricting the growth of communities and keeping housing costs high. Join us for a discussion of how land use reform battles have evolved over time, how community groups are working to remove these barriers and increase urban density, and how barriers to development can be challenged in court."

Register here - hope to see you there!

Moving on to this week's items:

  • Big piece of good news buried in this one - let the sinking and debottlenecking begin! 
"Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year."

"As of December 2020, the most fuel-efficient means of commuting was the car, followed by light trucks—but only because occupancy embedded in the transit calculations was so drastically low. ...

A major premise of the Biden administration’s transportation agenda is to greatly increase federal spending on transit, compared with only modest, constrained increases for highways (with very little scope for adding highway capacity). This approach poses major risks of putting billions of taxpayer dollars into projects that will have costs far greater than their benefits (e.g., light rail systems for medium-sized cities, megaproject expansions of heavy rail and commuter rail systems, etc.).

At the very least, it is premature at this juncture to commit funding for major new rail transit projects before we have some idea of the extent of transit ridership in the first several years after nationwide vaccinations."
Finally, I'd like to end with a small celebration for whoever repainted the iconic Be Someone bridge - love it!

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