Tuesday, June 14, 2016

False sprawl tax, DART's rail fail, raves for Houston's 'zoning lite', racist red tape for aspiring Uber drivers, and more

Our featured item this week is the so-called "sprawl tax", which I argue against in the Chronicle here and on local KPRC TV here (I start at 1:15). I always struggle to keep my answers crisp in these interviews, but they worked a miracle in editing, distilling 10 minutes to 12 seconds, lol.

In short, I object to the label – sprawl tax – because it implies you have no choice (taxes are not voluntary). In these cases, people are explicitly *choosing* to live further out, whether for a bigger, more affordable house or better neighborhoods or schools. They’re voluntarily making that tradeoff. People are accepting this cost they calculate to get those benefits.  In every city they could choose to live closer to work, but that house might be smaller/older/more expensive/worse schools.  It makes about as much sense as calculating a “luxury car tax” for those who choose to buy a BMW, Mercedes, etc.  “Why are they choosing to do that when they could buy a Toyota Corolla for much less!?” Kinda obviously absurd when stated that way.  I’ll also note that the big metros that are low on their sprawl costs also have some of the highest housing costs in the country – those people are definitely not living at a lower cost.  Maybe someone should calculate a “urban housing tax” or “smart growth tax” for metros that restrict new development and push up prices?

This week's items:
“Holder explained that while fingerprint checks are a valuable law enforcement tool, they “often do not indicate whether a person who was arrested was even charged or ultimately convicted.” Thus, mandatory checks “can prevent people from getting a job even if they were never found guilty of a crime.” Because black men are arrested more than white men, the policy affects men of color disproportionately.”
Finally, despite some recent questioning of the value Houston's lack of zoning, we've recently gotten some great outside recognition for the strength of approach from both Bloomberg and Market Urbanism.

Justin Fox at Bloomberg refers to our approach as "zoning lite" and has this awesome observation in his piece:
"Houstonians do seem to understand a basic economic truth that many people in other cities have a remarkable amount of trouble getting their heads around -- that allowing more housing to be built makes housing more affordable."
He also has a companion piece, "They Know How to Build Apartments in Houston"
"If developers are building lots of apartments in and around Dallas and Houston, it's because they think they think there's demand. 
Some of that demand  is about living close-in, in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation close by. Yes, even in Houston, that's becoming a thing. But a lot of it is surely just demand for housing that a non-wealthy person can afford. Houston and Dallas have been building lots of it. Despite strong job growth in recent years, San Francisco, San Jose and the cities around them have not. That's partly because they're already more tightly packed than Houston and Dallas, and face geographical limits on expansion that Texas cities generally do not. But it's also just because it's so danged hard to get permission to put up apartment buildings there. Which is a shame."
Lastly, Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism has written one of the best pieces I've ever seen on Houston's approach to development: "Houston’s Beautiful (Yet Partial) Embrace of Market Urbanism".  Here's one good excerpt, but it's packed with them and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, many US cities have a lot to learn from Houston. With tight development restrictions, out-of-date urban planning regimes, and burdensome regulations forcing middle- and lower-class Americans out of West Cost and Northeastern cities, Houston’s mix of affordable housing and economic opportunity is more valuable than ever. As other cities have attempted to maintain tight, centralized control on urban and economic development - exemplified by a recent push by Dallas to shutter local businesses in order to attract chains - Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development and crafting urban communities... It is well past time that we start taking Houston’s success seriously."
I'm heading to California on business for two weeks - not sure if I'll blog again before July.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Big news, METRO's future, our traffic and gentrification is better than you think, cars safer than rail, and more

Apologies for the delay since my last blog post. A lot has backlogged so this may be a long one...

First, the big news: I got mentioned in David Brooks’ New York Times column last week ("Where America Is Working", Chronicle reprint here) which I believe is the most read column in America (the column is consistently in the top ten most popular NYT articles which is unique among NYT’s regular columnists).  He’s also my favorite writer of all time, so it’s kinda made my day/week/month… :-)  The key excerpt:
"There are two kinds of places that are getting it right... The second kind of cities we might call Joel Kotkin cities, after the writer who champions them. These are opportunity cities like Houston, Dallas and Salt Lake City. These places are less regulated, so it's easier to start a business. They are sprawling with easy, hodgepodge housing construction, so the cost of living is low. Immigrants flock to them. 
As Kotkin and Tory Gattis pointed out in an essay in The City Journal, Houston has been a boomtown for the past two decades. It's America's fourth-largest city, with 35 percent metro area population growth between 2000 and 2013. It's the most ethnically diverse city in America and has had a surge in mid-skill jobs. Houston's diversified its economy, so even the energy recession has not derailed its progress."
Moving on to the other items this week:
  • I was able to attend a METRO blogger luncheon last week with the new chairwoman, Carrin Patman.  It was clear she had done her homework reading up on us and that resulted in a productive exchange of ideas.  They've begun work on a new regional transit plan, and I'm cautiously optimistic it will go in a more realistic, cost-effective, future-oriented (i.e. autonomous vehicles), and less rail-centric direction than what I saw last month.  If we're really lucky they'll get innovative with the coming new technologies, but that's pretty rare for government agencies that are usually more comfortable being a follower than a leader - with the refreshing recent exception of the bus network re-imagining (maybe the first of a forward thinking trend?!).  You can read more about it here.
  • Speaking of transit innovation that might combat declining ridership:
"And then there's this from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. At a transportation conference in Norway last month, Musk mentioned that his engineers are working on a self-driving bus-like vehicle that would help address urban congestion. He added that it could offer better service than transit buses because it would take people all the way to their actual destinations. No further details have been disclosed."
"The article says that cities shouldn’t hesitate to build light rail just because self-driving cars are about to make transit completely obsolete. In fact, light rail is the accident waiting to happen. In 2012, light-rail trains killed 40 people in the process of carrying less than 2.5 billion passenger miles; that’s more than 16 fatalities per billion passenger miles
In the same year, vehicles on urban roads and streets killed 7.7 people per billion vehicle miles, which at 1.67 persons per vehicle (see table 16) is less than five per billion passenger miles. The goal of Volvo and other self-driving car companies is to reduce that by 90 percent or more."
Finally, a pretty cool graph I came across on Twitter showing change in home values vs. expansion of developed residential area.  Houston is at the bottom with the most stable home prices among all metros, even while doubling our metro population with less sprawl than many comparably growing metros. The power of no zoning and the free market! (click the graph to see a larger version)

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Fix our pensions like AZ, passing Chicago for #3? avoiding over-regulation, MaX Lanes, and more

I want to open this week by getting a little contrary with this call for more planning, control, and zoning in Houston to prevent future flooding problems.  While I'm sure there's more we can do to make sure new developments retain their runoff, I get a little tired of the call for more controls and regulations every time an averse event happens.  This is how stultifying bureaucracies get built, and once built they're almost impossible to remove.  Repeat after me: "planning does not lead to utopia" (if it did, please point to such a city for me).  If strong centralized planning led to thriving communities without disasters, then the USSR would have won the Cold War and Chernobyl would never have happened. (mic drop)

Moving on to this week's items:
"What would happen if your city, in the name of progress, started giving poorer residents vouchers for landline telephones rather than smartphones? Or if, rather than stocking public libraries with computers, so that people could write emails, your city installed fax machines? You would consider these unnecessary expenditures on outdated technologies. Yet when it comes to public transit, many cities splurge on modes designed for a different time and place—namely light rail.
Instead these officials, often backed by federal grants, are throwing money into a century-old transportation concept that is unfit for most U.S. cities. This is a lazy approach, and insofar as it perpetuates the congestion crisis, it undermines the urbanist cause, by making dense living less convenient. It’s time for transportation planners to emphasize the future over the past."
"And Houston, which lacks a formal zoning code, has become a city that, contrary to its reputation, features numerous skyscraper clusters and whole neighborhoods dominated by new townhomes. 
These trends point out a glaring contradiction in modern urbanist thinking. The people who claim they like density—such as planners, architects, environmentalists, and self-described progressives—also tend to prefer government centralization for cities. And they tend to oppose, as a broader principle, ideas that are market-oriented, anti-regulatory, capitalist, and pro-growth. But they seem not to have pondered how any of these variegated ideas actually work in practice within cities. Centralization has led to a stifling regulatory climate—most notably zoning—that prevents cities from adding new buildings and people, a point demonstrated by the New York Times. A hands-off approach, meanwhile, is what has proven to liberalize cities for this human influx, making them dense and dynamic."
Finally: Arizona has solved pension reform, can we do something similar?

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Houston's new mobility vision, how no-zoning works for us, NYT on TX, we need a police overhaul, and more

Before getting to this week's smaller items, I'd like to feature a great piece by Market Urbanist Scott Beyer in The Federalist: How No Zoning Laws Works For Houston. It makes a great case for how Houston has been able to stay affordable while booming through enabling easy growth of housing supply (i.e. not strangling it with regulation).  I'm extensively quoted in it, and although usually I would pull out excerpts here, this one has way too many great points - you'll just have to read the whole thing (honestly, it's not that long).  Enjoy.
“Houston has a wonderful opportunity because it doesn’t have an ossified, traditional Euclidean zoning structure that separates everything out by use,” says Festa. “If you want to develop mixed-use, smart growth, walkable urbanism, there are still some barriers, but you already have a head start over more traditionally zoned cities.”
But my favorite reaction is this tweet from the Urbanophile Aaron Renn:
"Better question: what if other cities fell out of love with it?"
  • Kinder and the Chronicle react to the NextCity piece, to which I ask why would we want to empower NIMBYs to stop development? That's what happens in every city, and it cuts off housing supply rapidly leading to unaffordability. Is that what we want too?  The Wall Street Journal just recognized us for growth without unaffordability - why do we want to eliminate one of our great strengths?  If you're afraid of development in your neighborhood, make sure you move to one with deed restrictions, otherwise buy your house with your eyes open to how the neighborhood may change over time.  
  • GHP May issue of Economy at a Glance looks at apartments, industrial space, sales taxes, employment and foreign trade.
  • Hat tip to Jay for this crime ranking of cities, which unfortunately we don't do so well on: "It's 'sortable' by investment in police, crime rank and community risk factors. What struck me is that Houston has among the highest investment in police, is only middle-high on risk factors, but is still second highest on crime. Clearly money spent is not money spent well."
Finally, I was able to attend the Mayor's State of Mobility address today.  It was a long, detailed, balanced, well thought-out speech on a strategy for addressing Houston's mobility needs.  I agreed with almost all of it, with one notable exception being the claim that the Katy Freeway expansion was a mistake because it's just as congested as it used to be.  That may be, but it moves twice as many people as it used to, and if we hadn't done it, congestion would be far worse out there, and I'm sure many employers in that corridor would have abandoned Houston for Katy, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land.  One interesting item of note from the Mayor: he will *not* force rail on neighborhoods that don't want it, which means the University Line is essentially dead west of Shepherd as long as he's in office (not that I think METRO has the funds available in any case).

At the same event, TAG had this graphic with the consensus $69B Regional Mobility Vision.  Two things really jumped out at me.  The first is that METRO is showing $24 *billion* of new rail lines as a "minimum need"!! Not sure where that funding is supposed to come from, or if it did magically appear, whether all these lines would be the best use of it.  The other thing that jumped out at me? Well, if you look closely, evidently the downtown CBD is moving to the East End... lol.

TAG Houston Regional Mobility Vision

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Sunday, May 01, 2016

11 signs Houston will succeed, cheap traffic reduction, winning at affordable housing, TIFs, MUDs, and more

Just a few small items this week:
  • Market Urbanist Scott Beyer on the pros and cons of tax increment financing. (TIFs) 
  • The WSJ on how to make city housing more affordable, which basically comes down to allowing more supply and variety rather than affordable housing programs, which are inherently very limited.  Houston might be the best at the country at this, including the lack of zoning easily enabling townhomes, duplexes, apartment mid- and high-rises. Also has the novel - although exceedingly difficult - suggestion of improving schools so homes in those districts become more competitive.  Love this chart - Houston wins, as you'd expect (and I expect that rent number to come down as thousands of new apartments finish construction during our slowdown).
"IN A TRUE fairy tale of a transportation project, Texas spent a measly $4.25 million widening a highway and, in defiance of conventional wisdom among transportation planners, doubled the speed of rush hour traffic on a notoriously congested highway in Dallas."
Finally, The Atlantic on Eleven Signs A City Will Succeed.  I think Houston scores pretty well - would love to hear your thoughts in the comments:
  1. Divisive national politics seem a distant concern. I think we're a pretty pragmatic and balanced "purple" city and metro.
  2. You can pick out the local patriots.  Too many to name.
  3. “Public-private partnerships” are real.  Houston First comes to mind - other suggestions?
  4. People know the civic story.  I think Klineberg's annual Houston Area Survey helps a lot here. I would also argue for Houspitality here - whether people use the term or not, it definitely exists.
  5. They have a downtown.  Has come a long way.
  6. They are near a research university. UH, Rice, TMC, and TAMU not far away.
  7. They have, and care about, a community college. HCC, plus Lone Star is growing rapidly with many innovative programs.
  8. They have unusual schools. KIPP, YES Prep, Harmony, Talent Unbound, and many others.
  9. They make themselves open.  Huge strength of ours, especially with both domestic and foreign immigrants.
  10. They have big plans. See the bayou greenways, bikeways, and arboretum projects, among many others.
  11. They have craft breweries.  St. Arnold's, 8th Wonder Brewery, and many others.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

WSJ features innovative Houston, reviewing drainage regulations, the problems of zoning, who's moving here and why

A few quick small items before the main item:
  • Lots of op-eds calling for new development regulations after last week's flooding. I do think it's a good idea for the city and surrounding counties to form a joint commission (like this one at H-GAC) to review water runoff retention regulations for development and come up with a list of recommendations.  The city can't do it alone - what really matters is the fast growing areas outside the city, especially to the west and north that drain to bayous through the city.  The Grand Parkway is going to add a lot of new development, and that development has to hold back its runoff or things will only get worse in the city.
  • Great infographic on Houston's growth and migration patterns, including where people are coming from and our affordability (unfortunately too big to embed here).
  • Eight ways exclusionary zoning makes our communities more expensive and less just. A really strong, comprehensive list. Many cities are getting seriously messed up by this.  Again, give thanks we don't have this issue in Houston - it's all but impossible to fix once a city goes down that path.
  • WSJ: Why the Great Divide Is Growing Between Affordable and Expensive U.S. Cities. Turns out if you allow supply to keep up with demand, prices stay reasonable - surprise!  That especially applies to outward suburban growth.
Finally, yesterday the Wall Street Journal had a special section on The Future of Cities, including the lead article, "Five Cities That Are Leading the Way in Urban Innovation".  Guess who made the list?! The excellent blurb on Houston, in its entirety: 

HOUSTON: Thriving but affordable
Pro-growth policies and light regulation, especially the lack of traditional zoning. make it easier and faster to build—and help keep housing more affordable for middle-income families than it is in coastal cities.

Many successful cities—most notably, London and San Francisco—have a glitch in their operating systems: Though they are growing rapidly, too many people are finding they can’t afford to live there.

Not Houston. From 2010 to 2014, the Texas city added more than 140,000 people, a 6.7% increase and second only to New York in the U.S. But the difference between Houston and other high-growth cities is that it has expanded its housing stock to accommodate its new residents. In roughly the same period, the Houston metro area issued construction permits for 189,634 new units, the most in the nation. It is not surprising, then, that more than 60% of homes in the larger Houston metro area are considered affordable for median-income families, according to the National Home Builders Association, compared with about 15% in the Los Angeles area.

Houston has “shown a capacity to grow without the kind of massive real-estate inflation that makes settling into places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, as well as London, all but impossible for middle-class families,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Many factors contributed to the recent growth spurt: Houston is the hub of the recently booming oil industry, which is now going through a painful bust. It boasts a nationally recognized medical center and is home to a thriving port. But affordable housing also contributed, Mr. Kotkin and others say, thanks to pro-growth policies and a light regulatory touch, especially the lack of traditional zoning.

No zoning makes it easier and faster to build, especially in response to changing economic conditions. A developer can avoid a lengthy and expensive rezoning process to build a townhome complex in a declining neighborhood of aging single-family homes. It might have to upgrade sewer lines and streets, but development costs are still low compared with other places. Although prices have risen some as builders replace older homes with nicer housing, the city stays affordable because so many new homes can quickly come on the market to keep up with demand.

The lack of zoning “actually does give the developer and design communities the ability to do things unlike anywhere else,” says Tim Cisneros, a Houston architect.

Says Mr. Kotkin: “While many on the ocean coasts yearn to restore the 19th-century city, the Texas cities are creating a template for this century.”

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Our philanthropic and culinary cultures, Chicago you have a Houston problem, Austin's over-regulation, and the fading American Dream

Some smaller misc items this week:
"According to Charity Navigator, Houston sits near the top among major U.S. metros in total philanthropic assets, percentage of income given to charity, and financial health of its largest charities. In 2015, the organization ranked Houston number one, just ahead of San Diego, in overall philanthropic culture."
"Chicago ... you have a Houston problem. Chicago is no longer the only global game not on the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard. The Texas Triangle beckons Iowa college grads. "
"With full recognition that our credibility is suspect, I nonetheless come today to proclaim Houston one of the great eating capitals of America. I mean (and here I mount the mechanical bull) far better than anywhere else in Texas, better than anywhere else in the Southwest, better for that matter than in my current place of residence, Washington, D.C. That the nation’s fourth­ largest city is no longer one gigantic steak platter for oil barons should not constitute breaking news. One can go on about the city’s indigenous assets, such as its array of Gulf Coast ingredients and its surprising multiculturalism. 
But the main reason for Houston’s culinary ascent is economic. ...the Bayou City “is very affordable and full of people who like to go out at night and spend money.” It costs probably one-third less to build and design a restaurant here than in California, he said, adding, “I can afford to pay sous chefs full time and be able to spend the weekends fishing and duck hunting with my boys.” 
Such cost savings are passed on to Houston’s consumers, who can enjoy a first­-rate meal here for maybe two­-thirds of what such a dinner would come to in New York or San Francisco."

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Defending the Pierce Elevated and other thoughts on TXDoT's plans

After my post a few weeks ago on Purple City's alternative I45 plan through downtown, TXDoT very graciously brought in myself, Oscar Slotboom, and the editor of Purple City (preferring anonymity) to discuss the suggestions.  They had pretty comprehensively analyzed the plan and raised many issues for discussion.  It's unclear how much of it will be incorporated (I didn't get the impression it would be much), but they were very open-minded and analytical throughout the conversation. Clearly everybody wants to come up with the best possible plan, and their existing one is very good - but even very good plans have potential for improvement.

My biggest concern still exists: the MaX lanes don't connect continuously through downtown, meaning that express transit services trying to get from one side of the city to job centers on the other side are going to have trouble.  The Purple City plan attempted to fix this by keeping the Pierce Elevated, which is certainly controversial.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are advantages beyond mobility/traffic capacity/MaX Lanes to keeping the Pierce Elevated that are not being considered.

Right now, the Pierce creates a clear dividing line between two very distinct neighborhoods (and management districts): downtown and midtown.  If it weren't there, would giant downtown office towers start being constructed in midtown? Would they destroy the character of midtown? Would the land suddenly appreciate to downtown levels and make simple retail, apartments, restaurants, or bars financially infeasible? Midtown is one of Houston's great neighborhoods - do we really want to put it at risk? (full disclosure: I live there)

Imagine if the Pierce had never been built: downtown and midtown may never have evolved as distinct neighborhoods - it might have all been one big downtown. That would have diluted downtown over a larger land area, probably with more surface parking lots.  The current land area constraint of downtown forces intensification in a way that is probably good for downtown, and allows midtown to flourish separately with a distinctly different character.  They're almost like Manhattan vs. Brooklyn (on a much smaller scale, of course) - would Brooklyn even exist in its distinctive way if the East River didn't divide it from Manhattan?  Maybe the Pierce Elevated is the East River of Houston?  Kind of puts it in a different context when you think about it that way, eh?

There have been other discussions over at HAIF on keeping the Pierce, mainly to help preserve many blocks of newly thriving EaDo from being consumed by the widened 45+59 on that side under the new plan.  In any case, I hope this sparks a wider conversation about the potential value in keeping the Pierce and/or modifying the new I45 plan.

Speaking of TXDoT plans, they're holding a public meeting tomorrow/Tues on their plan for express bus lanes along 610W connecting the NW Transit Center to Post Oak.  Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways believes the plan has very serious flaws, which he has detailed here, include diagrams for a better design (and I tend to agree).  In this case, it looks like TXDoT - in a well-meaning effort to be responsive to public input - has made some crippling compromises to satisfy the Uptown Park folks.  While I respect TXDoT's efforts to be responsive, they also have a duty to build good systems that serve the entire region well, even if that sometimes means that narrow special interests don't get their way.  Please check out the critique and alternative, and if you agree then please send feedback to TXDoT, whether online or at the public meeting.  If enough of the public says these kinds of bad compromises are unacceptable, maybe they'll make changes.  And while you're at it, maybe mention that the Pierce Elevated isn't so bad... ;-)

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