Milwaukee commentary on HoustonA while back, an editorial columnist from Milwaukee called me to talk about Houston's free-market land use and development philosophy. His column finally came out last week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and it has some great stuff in it.
OK, "sewer socialist" is probably not the right label for what Houston does (particularly that second word in this capitalist mecca), but we do have a moderately good history of investing in transportation and other infrastructure.
This notion that more houses are good isn’t universally accepted. Exurban towns oppose it when they tell smart-growth planners they’d prefer horse estates to subdivisions. The state is spending taxpayer money to keep big tracts of farmland undeveloped. Planners call new growth “sprawl” and discourage it.Yet economists are clear: Restricting the amount of land people can build on leads to higher housing prices.
Milwaukee, looking for a way to end decades of comparative stagnation, could take a clue from some Sun Belt cities that have excelled at attracting prosperity. One common element: low housing costs.
“The fact is that most people will go to places that are affordable,” said Joel Kotkin. A scholar of urban affairs, he cites Houston as a model of a place that makes itself attractive by not making housing costly.
Houston’s been getting a lot of buzz lately, with Chicago and New York newspapers reporting how well it avoided the housing bubble. Kiplinger’s, the personal finance magazine, just ranked it tops on places to live and work, while Forbes magazine in July called it the best place to buy a house and in June the best place for college grads to move. Milwaukee, by the way, was sixth on Forbes’ July list of increasingly unaffordable cities.
Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, writing in the New York Sun, explained, “Houston’s great advantage, it turns out, is its ability to provide affordable living for middle-income Americans.”
Fairly nice living, too, says Tory Gattis, a business consultant and commentator on Houston affairs. The myth is that Houston, famously unzoned, is cacophonous sprawl, but in most places, that’s simply untrue, says Gattis. Private deed restrictions enforced by neighborhood associations keep most parts orderly. There are rules, but they’re simple. “It’s a bias toward allowing development and only stopping things that have a clear problem,” he says. “Our default answer is ‘yes.’ ”
So Houston’s median home price is two-thirds that of Milwaukee’s, according to the National Association of Realtors. Yet as it spreads, Houston is seeing a boom in condos and apartments, since zoning doesn’t let the NIMBYs stop infill. This makes rentals affordable, too, says Kotkin: “At every level, they’re offering more opportunity.”
But surely this cowboy sprawl is doomed by $4 gas? Unlikely, says Kotkin. Suburbia is distant only from the city center, which in Houston, as in Milwaukee, holds only a small fraction of the jobs. “Multipolarity is the wave of the future,” said Kotkin. Even assuming people moving to the former duck farm in Yorkville don’t telecommute or drive hybrids, they’re just as likely to work in the burgeoning industrial parks on I-94 a few miles away.
Still, aren’t autocentric suburbs dull? It hasn’t worked out that way in Houston, Gattis says. The place scored high with Kiplinger’s because of a high concentration of “creative-class” workers. It has nice museums, lots of fine dining. When people pay less for their housing, he points out, “it frees up money that makes your city more attractive.”
Milwaukee’s differing history and circumstances mean it can’t just ape Houston, says Kotkin. But its “sewer socialist” history of building infrastructure to accommodate growth admirably let middle-income families afford what most wanted, a house and yard. The opposite view, that “we’re going to force everyone to live very densely,” as he puts it, may suit a hemmed-in San Francisco, but it means middle- and lower-income families must accept modest circumstances.
“We have to accommodate people’s aspirations, not squelch them,” he said.