Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Portland: Myth and Reality

Monday the Gulf Coast Institute had a presentation on "Portland: Myth and Reality" by Robert Liberty, who has played in integral part in shaping Portland over recent decades through multiple organizations there, including Metro Councilor (their all-powerful regional metropolitan planning organization). It was quite interesting. Len and I attended out of simple curiosity, realizing only after we had been there a while that Mr. Liberty was responding directly to our Chronicle op-ed on planning a few weeks ago - to the point of including quotes in his slides. Unfortunately, the presentation doesn't seem to have made it to their web site yet, and my notes are sketchy, so my responses won't be as detailed as I'd like - but here it goes.

Overall, I felt like our arguments were countered somewhat obliquely (the reasoning was not straightforward to me), and with very selective data. Mr. Liberty was very pleasant (and humorous), said some nice things about Houston (more on that later), and I enjoyed the presentation - but I didn't find the arguments very convincing, and felt some of the more pointed questions by the audience were dodged.

I particularly disagreed with the mobility/congestion comparisons to Houston. You simply can't compare a metro of 5.5m with a metro of 2m - they're just not on the same scale. Of course Houston is going to have more hours of delay. More interesting to note is that Portland's delay has increased faster - by 32 hours per year per person since 1982 vs. 24 for Houston. Also worth noting is that Houston has a travel time index of 1.42 (ratio of rush hour travel time to off-peak), which is in the middle for a "very large city", wheras Portland has a TTI of 1.37, near the very upper end of the "large city" category (i.e. cities that are fairly comparable to Portland). Austin is down in the "medium city" category, and has a lower TTI of 1.33 - if that gives you a reference point - and I find Austin's traffic quite painful. In sum, Houston is doing quite well for a metro of its size, and Portland is doing quite badly for one of its size.

I will give Portland credit in one respect though. Most cities let NIMBYs dominate development decisions, making density very hard to achieve (most neighborhoods fight it tooth and nail). Portland's all-powerful Metro seems to have been able to push the NIMBY's aside and get substantial density built along the rail lines, including affordable units. Houston has also been able to densify (with apartments, townhomes, condos, etc.), but with a polar opposite approach of minimal land-use controls, instead of very strong controls like in Portland.

Here are some things he noted that he had seen and liked in Houston:
  • "Neat land uses" in Montrose from a lack of zoning
  • Dense corridor development along Westheimer near Montrose
  • Allen Parkway
  • And, of course, the Main St. light rail line.
Summing up my views on Portland: It's a nice town. It really is. I just visited last summer and quite enjoyed it. They made an explicit decision as a community to preserve open space and wilderness outside the urban growth boundry, discourage car use, maximize transit, and densify in the core like a European city. My objections are two-fold:
  1. They don't seem to acknowledge the high costs of their decision: unaffordable housing, people forced to rent most or all of their lives, driving out the middle class that want to own a home, traffic congestion and parking nightmares, heavy development and transit subsidies, a steep drop in families with children, most growth shifting to the Vancouver/WA side, compromised property rights and the Prop 37 backlash, etc.
  2. It's not a model appropriate to Houston, which lacks the people-drawing scenic beauty/mountains/wilderness and relatively pedestrian-friendly weather (they have lots of London-like drizzle, but that's pedestrian-tolerable, a category I do not put our May-Sept summer heat/storms in). Throw in our independent, anti-big-government culture, and we'd have an open revolt on our hands if we tried to do what Portland's doing (and it sounds like even they're facing somewhat of a revolt - with prop 37 plus he described the development commission as "under assault").
As the session wrapped up, Barry Klein gave out handouts with a link to a site titled "Debunking Portland - The Facts Behind Portland's Claims", if you want to drill down in more detail.

37 Comments:

At 8:42 AM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Kevin said...

* And, of course, the Main St. light rail line.

Did he say what he liked specifically about the Main St line, or was this just generic praise for light rail as a concept?

Since that line is not segregated from traffic and was laid down a busy corridor, it's created problems that segregated rail placed more smartly would not have created. Plus in mixing the train with motor traffic (and with lights that sometime stop it, even though the train is supposed to have priority), the planners made the train act more like the bus people supposedly don't like.

But maybe he doesn't have a detailed understanding of what he was praising, and was just praising the concept of light rail?

 
At 9:02 AM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think it was a more generic praising of light rail.

 
At 9:20 AM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I think they've done density better than we have, in that their density is pedestrian friendly, whereas our "dense" areas are basically just compressed suburbs, with a resulting rise in traffic. We could have pedestrian-friendly development here - plenty of us still walk in the summer - but the developers who would bring it are too afraid of what might be built across the street.

That said, I would never want us to be as extreme as Portland. I like our independent nature. But that doesn't mean we can't do some things better.

 
At 10:28 AM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think developers are less afraid of what will get built across the street than they are of empty commercial or residential space due to limited or inconvenient parking. It's hard to get the critical mass so that people will put up with the hassles, as they do in the Rice Village.

 
At 11:29 AM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several responders on this blog have covered this ground in numerous other posts - Portland's housing is inexpensive relative to other west coast cities, and studies have shown that the urban growth boundary has had little influence on the cost housing in Portland. Take the time to read those studies and perhaps respond to them on the blog, but until you do so, you should probably put the unaffordable housing comment on hold because it seems incorrect.

Second, there are corridors in Portland where roughly 25% of commuters choose light rail over freeways. That is quite impressive. Imagine how that would have changed the Katy Freeway project.

 
At 12:12 PM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Other west coast cities have restrictive planning/land-use too. It's just not reasonable to say "look, we're cheaper than California." This survey also confirms their housing is overpriced:
http://www.demographia.com/dhi-ix2005q3.pdf

The economics are indisputable: restrict supply, price goes up.

 
At 12:14 PM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Also, in theory, they should be able to roughly match home prices with less-restricted Vancouver, WA across the river, but Vancouver is far more affordable.

 
At 12:22 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Brian Shelley said...

Mike,

I'm not being snide here, but I'm not aware of a part of town that would be pedestrian friendly even if the developers had changed the architecture. Midtown has a few blocks here and there, but there are plenty of undeveloped plats that prevent a walking environment. Even that two block stretch on Gray in Midtown has parking in the rear. Besides a handful of walkup business from the apartments I suspect most of the business arrives via car.

Is there anything that prevents retrofitting buildings in the future that have chosen to put up a fence but still have a modest easement, into a broad sidewalk and walkup entrances? I still think that we are a decade or so away from reaching that critical mass where land becomes so precious that pedestrian friendly is inevitable.

 
At 12:23 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the record, people in Vancouver Washington can shop in Oregon, which has no sales tax, and live in Washington state, which has no state income tax. That is the city's attraction. On the face of it, you're suggesting a comparison between a city (Portland) and a suburb (Vancouver, WA), and housing prices tend to fall as you move away from a city center. Plus, Vancouver Washington just doesn't have the amenities that Portland does.

But I'm still confused by your unwillingness to address the research by economists that suggests little influence by the urban growth boundary on Portland's housing prices.

 
At 1:08 PM, January 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And here are some PhD economists that say the opposite, with a specific focus on Portland:

A Line in the Land:
Urban-growth Boundaries, Smart Growth, and Housing Affordability
http://www.reason.org/ps263.html

 
At 3:18 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No offense, but the research that says that Portland's urban growth boundary has little effect on housing prices appears in refereed academic journals like Contemporary Economic Policy, and the Journal of the American Planning Association.

What you cited is an unreviewed paper from the usual Reason, a key part of the broader Libertarian milieu, agenda and all. I am not aware of peer-reviewed research that supports Reason's position on this issue.

 
At 4:33 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Len said...

While the impacts of Portland's UGBs are a contentious issue, it's important to remember that UGBs alone are not the only influence on land supply, prices, and housing affordability. UGBs are visible, but the “smart growth” planning approach imposes many hidden costs that influence real estate and development--this would be the proverbial "red tape." By "red tape," I mean things like jumping through all of the procedural hurdles involved in the planning & permitting process (time=money in the development business), impact fees, negotiations with staff, significant public participation in the planning process, permitting delays, environmental reviews, etc.

In other words, the distortive effects of "planning" are not just about the regulatory tools themselves, but also the procedural and "red tape" issues that come along with it. Let's call it the "regulatory environment," rather than just focusing on the regulatory tools themselves. The peer-reviewed work of Harvard's Ed Glaeser and other academics (some of it linked from the Debunking Portland site) do a good job of highlighting these issues. While the relative influence of UGBs on housing prices and land markets may be more or less then the influence of "red tape," what's important is the combined sum.

But certainly, the basic laws of economics hold true in Portland, as well as anywhere else. We've done some research on UGBs in San Jose and de facto UGBs in Ventura County (BTW, Bill Fulton, who authored the VC study is one of the foremost experts on California planning). Supply restrictions have an impact. The Ventura scenario is particularly interesting, as it illustrates the process end of things.

Another hidden side of UGBs is that at some point, the choice land for development runs out, and developers are then left to deal with the scraps of less desirable land that can be much more difficult and costly to develop and less appealing to consumers. There was a great piece on this in the Oregonian in 2005. And even though Portland's UGB has technically been expanded a few times over the years to bring new land into it, nothing is actually allowed to be built on it for many years while planning takes place and infrastructure issues are sorted out. Some of the land incorporated into the UGB years ago won't come online until at least 2010. With such time lags, UGB expansion does little to alleviate any supply pressures in the interim.

Thanks to Tory for providing this forum for discussion of these issues and for all of the hard work he puts in on this blog in his "spare" time. I wish I had the time to weigh in more frequently, but alas, I don't. I'll try to check this post's comments to continue the discussion, but I may not be quick to respond.

(BTW, anonymous, the pure research that we do at Reason is peer-reviewed, and we try to solicit input from an array of different voices, whether they're "on our side" or not. I just confirmed that the study Tory posted was indeed peer-reviewed, and the reviewers are probably thanked in the acknowledgments. My colleague Sam Staley, the main author, also teaches urban economics at an Ohio college, and another of the authors, Gerry Mildner, is currently a professor in the planning program at Portland State University. Sam's been published in JAPA, JUPD, and a number of other academic journals, as well. Yes, we are libertarian in our outlook, but the research stands on its own merits.)

 
At 5:29 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Len,

Respectfully, I am much more likely to be convinced by the double- and triple-blind peer review processes of academic journals than by Reason's own approach. You just acknowledged that the authors of the Reason article likely know the identities of their reviewers and thanked them in the acknowledgements. They shouldn't know their reviewers - only the journal editors should know this. Reason has a clear agenda for a particular outcome, an top quality academic journal does not.

 
At 7:17 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Journal of the American Planning Association.

yea there is no way this Journal which is probably mostly read and bought by planners would in way let that influence them into being pro planning.

 
At 8:44 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Len said...

Anon, it's certainly your choice whether you want to view our work as credible or not. But just because we have a point of view shouldn't discredit our message. We're a think tank, with a different purpose and audience than an academic journal, but that doesn't make our voice or research any less relevant or rigorous. We have to compete in the policy marketplace just like everyone else, and good research is the only way to succeed.

As far as "agenda" goes, I've been called a "sprawl lobbyist" more times than I can count, which always amuses me. I actually prefer dense urban environments and vibrant, eclectic cities. I'm an inner-Looper, not a suburbanite, but I respect the choices that suburbanites make with respect to their own location decisions. I'd like to see the regulatory obstacles to affordable housing, mixed land uses, and density removed to allow the market to better meet the needs of all segments of demand. This much I share with smart growthers and new urbanists. Where we diverge is on the solutions. When I was a full-time urban planner, I actually used to be a smart growth advocate...until I saw it in practice and worked to implement it. Then I came to realize that smart growth advocates tend to oversell the "benefits" of planning and tend to discount the hidden costs and trade-offs necessary to make their plans work.

I'd welcome your opinion on the rest of my post. Did you read through the Ventura County study I linked? Even if you're not a fan of Reason, Google Bill Fulton and check out his credentials, then go back and take a spin through the study. I'd like to hear your thoughts.

 
At 10:40 PM, January 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Len,

I didn't intend to discredit the role of think tanks and their research, so I shouldn't have brushed Reason aside with such a broad stroke. And no, I don't think your affiliation makes you a sprawl lobbyist... after all, sprawl is often an outcome of regulation and subsidy.

I do think that when it comes to research, the top of the pecking order belongs to articles that are published through a blind peer review process with multiple referees. But yes, many think tanks produce high quality research, I don't dispute that. I shouldn't have been so dismissive. But that brings me to my question to Tory. A consistent theme of his has been to call Portland unaffordable and to blame their urban growth boundary amongst other factors. The point that several people have made in recent postings was that there is research that has made its way through the rigorous multiple blind referee process that reviews the cost of housing in Portland and the role of the growth boundary, and those articles indicate that Tory is incorrect. I think the onus is on him to review these works, because he's otherwise presenting a "straw man" argument, which undermines the quality of discussion.

 
At 8:09 AM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the process at peer-reviewed scientific journals is as anonymous as the above poster is trying to portray.

When I have been published in the past, I have known the identity of a few of the reviewers. They sent me back a comments (for clarification), so I HAD to know at least one person. Plus, if your field is narrow enough, there aren't that many people in the world that could review the paper, so you can probably safely guess at least one other reviewer.

True, this paper did not appear in one of the traditional peer-reviewed journals, which could lend it instant credibility (rather than us having this discussion). But, I don't think, overall, having the reviewers' names would make the content in the paper less reliable. If a reviewer is willing to put his/her name on the paper (as having reviewed/approved it), they are probably more careful, even if it's just in the unofficial acknowledgements section. (For instance, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_Affair Anonymity could have partially contributed to this mess.)

 
At 8:10 AM, February 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree with Len that it's a whole range of planning/regs that make housing more expensive, and the UGB may be a relatively small part of it (at least until Portland starts bumping up against it more strongly).

The factor that gets ignored is what quality/quantity you can get for the money you spend. Portland's median is moderately high, but it also may only buy you an condo where it would buy you a nice house on a 1/2 acre in another city.

Here's the progression:
-Houston: wide open, affordable and you can pretty much get any type of housing you want
-heavily controlled "superstar" cities: limit both land and density, so median prices skyrocket
-Portland: also heavily controlled, but pushes past NIMBYs and creates lots of dense housing, causing prices to rise more moderately because the supply is closer to being there to meet demand, it's just smaller than the buyers would generally prefer if they could get more for their money (lots of condos instead of houses).

 
At 8:38 AM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now that we've established the minor role of an urban growth boundary in housing prices, it's time to take on the quality/quantity/regulation thread. Houston's cost of housing is so low thanks to virtually no geographic barriers, a year-round building season, and an endless supply of cheap (often uninsured and undocumented) labor in the construction trades, amongst other factors. Very few major cities have such conditions, and it highlights the flaws in making sweeping city to city comparisons and drawing conclusions that point to regulation as a major factor.

To expect other cities like Portland to provide housing of similar size and similar prices to Houston's highly unusual market situation when they have a shorter building season, more geographic barriers, and more expensive labor thanks to fewer illegals and immigrants in the construction workforce is simple unrealistic. Even in the absence of any difference in regulatory environments, the market in a city like Portland will deliver a smaller, more expensive home than it would in Houston, and further it will deliver fewer of those homes in a given year.

So while you are absolutely correct that Houston is wide-open and affordable from a housing standpoint, the progression you outlined beyond that is heavily flawed.

 
At 9:26 AM, February 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

People argue an endless number of factors for housing prices: desirability, weather, geography, labor, economy/growth - you name it. And clearly they all play a factor in a very complex system.

Dr. Ed Glaesar at Harvard did a comprehensive study showing a direct cause and effect between land use regulation and higher prices - he's famous for it in fact, and has gotten lots of publicity for it, esp. in his hometown of Boston, which has one of the worst problems.

On top of that, economists have noted, and it's pretty much an iron law, when supply is constrained vs. demand (by whatever means), prices increase. Period. Land use regulations are a de facto restriction on supply. Very limited or loose regs - like say Dallas or Atlanta - lead to a relatively small increase. And the tighter they get, the more supply they remove, and the more prices will go up (as long as there is demand - you could probably put all the regs you want in Detroit and not see much impact).

 
At 10:02 AM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

brian s.,

Tory said we had dense areas comparable to those in Portland, except that we did it without land use regulations. I was merely pointing out that the dense areas in Portland are pedestrian friendly; the dense areas in Houston are not. The Rice Military neighborhood has become "dense," as have parts of Midtown and Fourth Ward, but from the street level, most of these neighborhoods are practically hostile to human life - a sea of garage doors, poor sidewalks, gates and walls. It's almost like someone's cruel mockery of an urban neighborhood, an anti-neighborhood, if you will.

Take the same level of density, and with some intelligence, it might have looked like Back Bay. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone that their neighborhood might have been beautiful and walkable - that the whole could have been greater than the sum of its parts.

 
At 10:46 AM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, you are underestimating the role of market factors and overestimating the role of regulation. Those articles on the Portland urban growth boundary do cover this if memory serves me right.

Last year, the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (Vol 25 No 2) published a paper by Wassmer and Baass that concludes with the line "Nevertheless, our research casts doubt on the common criticism that higher housing prices are a cost of a successful effort to encourage the greater centralization of urban America." They found that centralization can even lower housing prices.

If I recall correctly, Glaeser did not address Portland in his study, and interestingly he identified quite a few cities that were less expensive from a regulatory standpoint than Houston (such as Philly, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh).

Mike, good comments.

 
At 12:04 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Brian S. said...

To help with future land planning discussion I think we need a vocabulary that gets us on the same page. Most people typically refer to zoning as an either/or situation, where it would be more helpful to refer to zoning on a scale of “liquidity” between 0 and 100%. Authoritarian zoning would be 0%, or “completely illiquid” and pure market would be 100%, or “purely liquid”.

I think that when some people are saying that we need zoning they still want Houston to be “very liquid”, but other people’s definition of zoning falls in the “illiquid” side of the spectrum. Let’s say Mike is arguing for 85% liquidity, but Tory is hearing 20% liquidity because that’s his concept of “zoning”.

I would argue that Houston is not completely liquid. We are likely one of the most liquid major markets in the country, but we do still have illiquid rules for land use such as parking requirements, easement rules, and maximum units per acre. Other cities have non-zoning illiquidity built into historic preservation. While this doesn’t match the definition of “zoning” these are still limits on what you can build. I would also not compare Dallas’ liquid zoning to San Francisco’s illiquid zoning, and say that these are qualitatively the same thing.

In the discussion about Portland, obviously an urban development boundary is a non-market mechanism, but prices in Portland can still stay low if they have liquid zoning. A city that has strong restrictions against density, but has no natural or legal urban growth boundaries may see greater price and development distortions than Portland because their zoning is less liquid than Portland’s.

I believe that the market is most efficient as it approaches a purely liquid state and that competition will move businesses and population to the more liquid locations, all else equal. Illiquid locations will have prices that tend to diverge from the surrounding area. If the existing developments are desirable (Malibu) prices will diverge upwards, if the existing developments are not desirable (Galveston) prices will diverge downwards (liquid areas on the west end skyrocket, illiquid inside the city stagnate).

Many cities create “liquid islands” where density happens because it can’t happen anywhere else, such as Dallas' Victory project. However, if the liquidity of different locations in a market is changed than dramatic price and occupancy swings can happen as development chases liquidity. An illiquid market is more volatile because developers can not respond to all economic and demographic trends because they are bound by rules created for a different economic and demographic set and must wait for rule changes that are slower to response to market changes.

What I think Mike is arguing is that “illiquid islands” may provide some utility that the market has not figured out how to capture. He may be right, which begs the question of whether we can create a marketable illiquid island without damaging the liquidity of our market as a whole.

 
At 1:38 PM, February 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> (such as Philly, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh).

I'd call that lack of demand from economic stagnation.

> "Nevertheless, our research casts doubt on the common criticism that higher housing prices are a cost of a successful effort to encourage the greater centralization of urban America." They found that centralization can even lower housing prices.

I think I remember that study now, and I'm pretty sure I posted on it. My problem was that its data set included tons of old, declining, midwestern and northeastern cities with concentrated cores but stagnant housing prices. Include enough of them in your study, and, of course, you see a *correlation* of concentrated core cities with reasonable housing prices - but that's not the same as *causation*. Their prices are kept down by economic stagnation and lack of demand - it really has nothing to do with their urban form.

Brian: liquidity concept is a very interesting one. Good comment.

 
At 2:18 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Great comment, Brian. I would definitely put what I desire in the upper range of liquidity. I just think certain abuses need to be prevented, and certain really desirable things need to be facilitated. Maybe we can accomplish this in the next few years - and without zoning.

 
At 3:47 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory - you must be thinking of a different study, though perhaps by the same team. This paper uses a 2000 data set from the 452 Census designated urban areas in the US.

Brian - great comment re: the liquidity concept. That gets to the fact that while Portland has a growth boundary, they have to keep something like a 20-year supply of land for development within it.

 
At 3:54 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the point to take away from Glaeser is that those cities I cited, which do have zoning, still had a lower regulatory burden in terms of cost on the development process than Houston.

I'm not too familiar with Philly, Milwaukee, or Pittsburgh, but I don't think I'd call Pittsburgh stagnant, and the other two certainly have shown signs of life.

 
At 4:28 PM, February 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Houston dev regs could use some streamlining, as Mayor White has said and has done. Clearly zoning would add to the burden, rather than reduced it.

Pittsburgh has done a few nice things around downtown, but continues to lose population and not add jobs:

"Pittsburgh's population declined nearly 10 percent during the 1990s, in sharp contrast to the 13 percent nationwide population increase. Since 2000, the city's population loss has continued unabated. Census Bureau estimates released in late June peg the loss at about 1 percent annually through 2003.

And while 18 percent of metropolitan Pittsburgh's population is 65 or older, only 12 percent of the nation's population is in the elderly category."

 
At 4:37 PM, February 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think that was the same study I was thinking of - it had hundreds of cities in the data set. That means you're weighting hundreds of small and midsize (and even some large) stagnant, old, concentrated cities in the northeast and midwest the same as a Houston, Portland, or any other substantial metro where the real growth is occurring (say, the top 50 - which are getting weighted down by the other 400 in the study).

Basically, there are a few dozen metros in the country that have tried to force concentration/density in the core and created unaffordable housing (demand>supply), but they get diluted/swamped out in the study by a couple hundred stagnant, old, midsize towns that are also considered "concentrated" because their urban form was substantially built up before the car - but there's no demand for their housing, so they're plenty affordable.

 
At 4:00 AM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

One of the ideas that would probably help people think a bit more clearly when looking at studies on urban growth boundaries (UGB's someone called them in this thread) are that the social demand curves for housing do slope down and to the right as do all other demand curves, but the thing about housing is that the social demand curve for housing is pretty inelastic. The reason for makikng this statement is that very few people are not willing to spend their nights outdoors and will often go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that there is a roof over their heads. That includes having to, if need be, doubling up with roommates, moving into smaller accomdations (a recent 77 sq. ft closet in London with no electricity and heating went for $335,000), staying with family or relatives, working two or more jobs, or surrendering in some cases up to 50% or more of their take home pay in an effort to make sure that they are not exposed to the wind and rain at night.

Now some of you might read this and say - Duh! But I would strongly suggest not overlooking the obvious. What this means is that if the powers that be in an urban area decide for whatever reason that they are going to implement a UGB, then cetris paribus, if any newcomers come to the urban area, the housing will either have to be concentrated into greater and greater densities (smaller houses, apartments, townhomes, condos, or high rises) to accomdate them, available open space will have to be used, or there will be a bid up of the available housing stock and prices will rise. In so many words, that is the underpinnings of Len Gilroy's statements.

It's pretty clear to me that the Portland region has seen some pretty significant price rises since 1990 or so. From some recent Census data (circa 2005-2006) it appears the City of Portland's population has effectively stagnated since 2000, while the broader urban area continues to post modest population gains. Incomes in the area are above the national averages. From reading various stories about Portland on the Internet, I've garnered that the City's public school system is losing enrollments, affordable housing groups have been agitating for more help and so on. These signals seem to indicate that the Portland area is becoming more of a boutique city, for a lack of a better term.

Some people have made commentary that Portland is still "affordable" relative to other areas of the West Coast. But one has to remember that Portland is not only competing against other West Coast areas. Portland is competing against every other city in the America and the world. Population size really isn't too bad of a way of measuring the desirability of a city and in my book Houstonians doesn't have much to hang their heads over.

 
At 9:09 AM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This discussion is quite interesting, but one wonders if, once a region acquires its overarching characteristics, it is actually possible to induce significant changes to those characteristics. I've lived in Houston for about 35 years. In that time, some of the particulars of the city have changed for the better, but the generalities remain essentially the same as they were 35 years ago. Is it realistic to advocate either for or against concepts of urban growth as if they could somehow be imposed on an organism as vast and dynamic as Houston? I view the Houston region as a collection of "clusters of interest" which exist in a web of mundane urban infrastructure that is so entrenched and far-flung that it will be forever resistant to attempts to "improve" it. We will consider ourselves lucky if it all can even be maintained more or less in its current condition. Houston excells at creating pockets that embody the urban potential which is being discussed here. It seems content to let the rest be ordinary. The desires of the vast majority of the people who live here are already expressed in the physical reality of the city and its surrounding unincorporated areas. Pedestrian-friendly zones? We have them; they are for the most part inside. The downtown tunnels and The Galleria come to mind. The hefty sums spent on development of the bayou public spaces downtown have yet to lure downtown workers out of the tunnels, even on really nice days. The lack of a significant promenade along Post Oak Blvd in Uptown, north of The Galleria, speaks volumes about the basic lack of interest that Houstonians have in walking outside while shopping or conducting other business. From a market perspective, there is very little measureable demand for outside pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and the "market" has responded by providing almost none. In my opinion, this is an immutable characteristic of the city and its inhabitants that will not respond to the desires of the few here who realize that it could all be different.

 
At 9:49 AM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

No one is arguing that the whole city needs to be different. Just that certain areas could benefit from intelligent planning. It's easy to say that no one wants to live in a walkable neighborhood when YOU don't want to. I know plenty of people in this town who would love to have a more walkable neighborhood. Sorry, but a shopping mall and downtown tunnels don't cut it.

 
At 12:36 PM, February 02, 2007, Anonymous Joe said...

Mike said...
"I know plenty of people in this town who would love to have a more walkable neighborhood."

That's why Houston annexed Kingwood. Try the 80 miles of greenbelt trails that link all the 17 villages together with stores and schools and pools and parks.

 
At 1:02 PM, February 02, 2007, Blogger Gavin said...

In response to Neal's Portland Housing Price Comment:

Concerning the housing prices and growth management connection in Portland, OR, there is still plenty of debate on whether the zoning or planning in Portland is attributable to planning efforts. Actual academic studies, controlling for socio-economic, economic and geographical factors find that
Portland's growth in housing prices is more attributed to increased housing demand, increased employment, and rising incomes
than its urban growth boundary. Also, after an initial spike in housing prices between
1990 and 1994, attributed by economists to rapid increases in jobs and wages, Portland’s
housing prices since then have risen at about the national average. The reason may be that despite limiting the amount of land, Portland's growth management policies actually increase housing supply relative to demand. (Nelson et al 2002; Downs 2000; Phillips and Goodstein 2000; Nelson and Knapp 1992)

 
At 5:04 PM, February 03, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Sorry Joe, but not everybody who wants their neighborhood to be walkable should have to move to Kingwood!

 
At 5:06 PM, February 03, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

And besides, since when is Kingwood walkable? How many errands can you run in Kingwood without having to get into a car? Do you even know what the term "walkable" means in an urban context?

 
At 2:37 PM, February 04, 2007, Anonymous random thoughts said...

Back Bay and North End - walkable.
Kingwood - Not walkable.

Houston is not a walkable city, which is too bad. Hopefully that will change in the future, but given the Texas love affair with the car (well, more like a massive SUV), I am not holding my breath.

 

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