Dissecting Rice's sustainability report on HoustonLast week the Shell Center for Sustainability at Rice released their report on Houston, and some breathless "quality of life is falling!" headlines ensued. While I'm all for data and analysis like this, I do have some issues with some of the findings and recommended strategies. Broadly speaking, it follows a typical pattern I find worrisome:
- Selectively pick stats and trends that look bad
- Comprehensive planning and government intervention are required!
- All will be solved, utopia will ensue, there are no downsides or tradeoffs
- Holding up NYC, LA, and Chicago as models: I'm not saying we're perfect and they have nothing to teach us, but Houston has been performing better than those cities on a lot of indicators for a very long time, so I'd be really careful what lessons we learn from them.
- Combining percentage of income spent on housing and transportation to argue Houston is an expensive city to live in and get around. I'm really not a fan of that stat. When people save on taxes with no income taxes, they splurge on houses. When people save on housing, they splurge on their cars. That's a personal choice and it doesn't mean Houston is expensive to get around. Look around at all the fancy cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs you see around Houston. Those high-depreciation, low mileage vehicles are discretionary, not a cost of basic transportation. They are certainly not required to get around town. You can dramatically cut your cost of getting around - both gas and depreciation - with a nice used Prius or Civic, just as you can in any other city. Cost of living indexes, like I mentioned last week, equalize for that - and show that Houston has the highest cost-of-living adjusted average incomes among the country's major metros. Another issue I have with that stat is that it ignores taxes that go to transit, esp. in the heavy transit cities like Philly and NYC. Using the farebox as the only cost of transportation is inaccurate, since it covers only a small portion of the cost of the transit system.
- Subsidizing housing near job centers: There are plenty of apartment complexes and other housing near each of Houston's job centers. If people want to live close to their job, they almost certainly have plenty of options. But most people choose not to do this for a host of varied reasons, including home, school, and neighborhood preferences - not to mention dual-income households (whose job do you live next to?). Commute time is not the deciding factor for most people. If we're somehow restricting or discouraging new housing supply near job centers, then by all means let's fix that - but pouring tax dollars into programs to incentivize apartment development near job centers just doesn't seem like a wise use of limited government resources. The market will provide housing where there is demand.
- Comparing our rail unfavorably to Chicago: See the middle of my TEDx talk and slides explaining why commuter rail makes sense for centralized, older, pre-WW2/pre-automotive cities like Chicago but not for decentralized, newer, post-WW2 cities like Houston. Express bus HOT lane networks are the right solution for multi-centric Houston.
- Limited health insurance coverage: Isn't this more of a federal (Affordable Care Act) and state (Perry accepting additional federal Medicaid dollars, as requested by County Judge Emmett) issue?
- That a loss of anglos inside the city limits implies an unattractive quality of life: what has happened over the last 30+ years is that middle-ring anglos (610 to BW8) have moved out to newer nicer suburbs in unincorporated Harris County, Sugar Land, Katy, The Woodlands, Pearland, etc. and aspiring minorities and immigrants have moved in as mortgage rates dropped and home ownership hit record levels (this happened to cities all over the country). Yet nobody can argue that the inner loop and westside of Houston isn't attracting plenty of anglos with a strong quality of life, including mass gentrification of previously blighted areas. Houston's core is definitely healthy and has plenty of quality of life - not perfect, but healthier than most cities - and a great balance of diverse demographics.
UPDATE: link to the complete report.
Labels: affordability, commuter rail, demographics, development, economic strategy, economy, home affordability, land-use regulation, Metro, mobility strategies, perspectives, planning, quality of place, transit