Monday, February 09, 2009

$50K In Houston Equals $123K in NYC, study finds

This stat comes from a recent report from the Center for an Urban Future focused on the disappearing middle class in NYC. The Gothamist has a good blog post summarizing, including some nice graphs (#1 and #6 include Houston data). In the sixth graph, note that the average commute in Houston is only 2 minutes longer than the national average, far below NYC, and even beats Boston and LA.
"A new report from the Center for an Urban Future (whose previous report, "Attack of the Chains," sparked a bidding war between Fox and Warner Bros.) confirms the obvious: the so-called middle class can no longer afford to live in New York and are relocating in large numbers to the exburbs or far-flung cities like Houston, where $50,000 a year gets you the same standard of living as a $123,322 salary does in Manhattan. Don't scoff; Space City has theater, opera, ballet, air-conditioned skywalks, a Holocaust Museum—even a lively local weblog, just like the one you enjoy here!"
Then again, the NY Times had a story this morning about how hard it is to live there on a mere $500K per year... (!!!)

Of course, there are plenty of stereotypical disparaging remarks about Houston in the comments, along with a smattering of defenders. I'd like to invite all my readers to get in there and defend our cosmopolitan hometown. Yes - hate to burst your bubble, New Yorkers - but Houston has plenty of culture and restaurants.

If you're interested, there are a lot of Houston stats in the report - just search for "Houston".

Here's one excerpt:
"Someone moving from Houston to Manhattan would pay 68 percent more for groceries, 447 percent more for housing, 54 percent more for utilities, 22 percent more for transportation and 38 percent more for health care."
Wait, isn't density supposed to reduce costs vs. sprawl? At the very least for utilities and transportation?

Hat tip to HAIF.

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14 Comments:

At 2:09 AM, February 10, 2009, Blogger AC said...

The fact is that NYC housing is so expensive because it is not dense enough. Strong demand + tight supply = high prices. Ed Glaeser & Co. have estimated that NYC land-use controls add hundreds of dollars per square foot to the cost of high-rises in Manhattan. NYC can thank its odious rent control and NIMBY campaigns against large condos.

 
At 8:10 AM, February 10, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

NYC is a also a place that enforces the silly concept of views. Many new condo towers have to not harm and existing building's views.

Also, regarding transportation. Even it you just use your god given two legs, your costs are still outrageous to live there.

A motto for Houston:

We have everything NYC has but for a better price!

 
At 8:41 AM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've always liked a twist on New York's motto. Instead of

"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

For Houston it's more like

"If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere."

i.e. we have the most opportunity you're going to find anywhere.

 
At 9:46 AM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

Radical cartography has some good visuals here and here illustrating AC's point.

Still, I think comparing Houston with Manhattan is a little ridiculous. Might as well be comparing River Oaks with Manhattan if we are going to subdivide the metropolitan area like that.

And I can easily see someone defending Manhattan's prices in the same way that Tory defends the expense that Houstonians put into their cars. The people that live in Manhattan are some of the richest in the world - they have more money than they know what to do with. Many of them choose to throw money into their condos and coops (or at least did until recently). They don't have to put that money into their living spaces, but then they would have no fun buying $1200 waste-baskets. So living in New York metro area can certainly be accomplished much more cheaply than averages might suggest, just as driving in Houston can be done on the cheap.

 
At 11:43 AM, February 10, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Michael,

You are only representing a piece of Manhattan. Manhattan's population is of two extremes, extremely rich and extremely poor.

The point I think Tory is trying to make is that the bulk of the population that work in Manhattan can't afford to live near their work.

So this great icon of urbanity doesn't offer equal opportunity for all to live, work, and play in the same area. Isn't that many urbanist's dream for all this to co-exist?

The vast middle class that works in Manhattan has to live quite far (distance and time) from work. Commuting from say the Woodlands to downtown Houston is a short distance for many commuters who work in Manhattan.

 
At 12:33 PM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>So this great icon of urbanity doesn't offer equal opportunity for all to live, work, and play in the same area. Isn't that many urbanist's dream for all this to co-exist?

Well, I think many of the places that have achieved your so called "great icon of urbanity" also have so much demand and generally have 1 or 2 industries where they are the global leader and they attract extremely high-paying jobs and extremely wealthy individuals, and some supply problems as AC mentions, so you end up seeing some extremes in these cities (Tokyo, NYC, Paris, London, LA, etc).

This doesn't mean that if you built a walkable location in Pittsburgh with some dense condos and a rail stop it is going to turn into NYC. It would still be generally affordable Pittsburgh. And if you built enough dense areas like this around a regular city - and probably some government housing, you'd have regular working class people and even lower-class people being able to live, work, and play in the city. Houston's claim to fame - that these working-class people can live in the Woodlands or Fulshear, is in my opinion nothing to hang our hat on. I don't think it's sustainable, for starters - remember we are roughly 1/4 the population of the NYC metro - I'll bet we would have to grow out to east San Antonio with our current growth patterns if we wanted to ever catch NYC.

I also bet if you gave a test group of people a choice of spending $15k per year to live in a 3,000 sqft house in Fulshear with a 6,000 sqft yard or $15k to live in a 2000 sqft condo in Houston fronting a "hypothetical" neighborhood park and good schools - they would mostly choose the latter - also assuming in the latter case that you told them that most of their employment / social opportunities would be in the city as well. In the former case you would tell them that their employment / social opportunities would be scattered - but perhaps they could choose to live close to their present employer and move every 5 years (since in today's world for the lower and middle class we probably have to assume that careers or at least job locations change every 4-5 years). The "dense" choice doesn't exist in today's marketplace, so there really is no choice - IMHO this is a market and government failure to provide people what they want. Sounds like a good sociology study at the least... instead of continuing to assume that 90% of people prefer suburbia just because that is what present highway subsidies and developer patterns have yielded.

 
At 1:38 PM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> I'll bet we would have to grow out to east San Antonio with our current growth patterns if we wanted to ever catch NYC.

Just for fun I thought I'd calculate this. We get about 3,000 people in each square mile around Houston. 20 million people in metro NYC would require about 6,600 sq. miles, which is a circle of radius 46 miles. Not quite to Sealy, which is still 148 miles from San Antonio.

But the real kicker is when you check out the stats on the NYC metro on Wikipedia. Only 2,790 people per sq. mile spread over 6,720 sq. miles!

 
At 2:10 PM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>But the real kicker is when you check out the stats on the NYC metro on Wikipedia. Only 2,790 people per sq. mile spread over 6,720 sq. miles!

Funny, when you check out the Houston page on Wikipedia, only 630 people per square mile spread over 10,000 square miles. That's how you arrive (roughly) at the Houston of 5.7 million people which I consider the Houston metro area.

>>Just for fun I thought I'd calculate this. We get about 3,000 people in each square mile around Houston. 20 million people in metro NYC would require about 6,600 sq. miles, which is a circle of radius 46 miles. Not quite to Sealy, which is still 148 miles from San Antonio.

Again, using a density of 630 people per square mile, you arrive at a required area of 32,000 square miles (roughly 5 times the size of the New York metro) to achieve NYC population levels. This is a circle of radius 100 miles, or more than halfway to San Antonio. That's not the type of growth I would encourage.

 
At 2:17 PM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

Here's the NY metro page, just for reference. Stats on the right-hand side.

 
At 3:01 PM, February 10, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, the Houston density you quote is just from taking the land area of the 10 (!) counties and dividing by the population, including all of the rural areas of all of those counties. That's not a very reasonable number for scaling us out. If you look at the density of Harris County, it's 2,248 per sq. mile, but that still includes huge areas of undeveloped land, esp. in the northwest county, that would obviously fill in as we grew. If you look at the city of Houston, it's 3,828 per sq. mile. That's more like how we would scale, since there's not that much undeveloped land inside the city limits (although there is a bit in south Houston). Average between Houston and Harris County, and you get about 3,000 per developed sq. mile as we grow out. I think you'd also find that number is relatively stable across most post-ww2 car-based or sunbelt cities in America.

 
At 2:26 PM, February 11, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Average between Houston and Harris County, and you get about 3,000 per developed sq. mile as we grow out. I think you'd also find that number is relatively stable across most post-ww2 car-based or sunbelt cities in America.

I still don't think this is an optimal density level, all things considered, for absorbing 150 million more residents in the US over the next 40+ years. Unless some radical innovations in the areas of food production, electric generation, and electric transportation come onto the marketplace soon, I don't think 3,000 people / square mile provides for the most efficient use of our (currently) limited resources. I know you are a big believer in technology solving problems such as this, and I am as well, but it still seems like major changes in these technologies will take time (not only to prove that something works but to make it cost-effective - like new means of food production) - and in the meantime encouraging more density would not be a bad hedge in case some of the new technology fails to materialize.

 
At 3:09 PM, February 11, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the forecast is 100 million population add over the next 40 years (hitting 400m). What I'd like to see is minimized cost distortions so the market will make the right choices (like congestion tolling freeways to more accurately reflect the costs of distant living). I agree we need to allow as much density as possible to meet the market demand. I just don't believe in forcing density on people who don't want it, by, for instance being hostile against low-density development and cars. Their costs should fully reflect their choices, but the govt should not be a nanny state deciding how we should live.

 
At 9:14 PM, February 11, 2009, Anonymous common_sense said...

Hostile? What do you mean exactly?

I have no problem with people living 30 miles from where they work and driving all the time, but they need to pay the full cost of these lifestyle choices. That means paying for the environmental damages caused by such choices, for example.

 
At 10:11 PM, February 11, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Hostile? What do you mean exactly?

For example:
Urban growth boundaries. Downzoning. Overly onerous "impact fees" on new development. Maximum parking limits. Refusing to build roads or other infrastructure where there is clear demand.

 

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