Thursday, September 04, 2008

Milwaukee commentary on Houston

A 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.

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.

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.

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At 7:46 AM, September 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With so many outsiders clamoring over how great we are, I get confused by people in Houston trying to change our model of success.

Milwaukee would be a great place to implement a development model we utilized. Geography only restricts them on the east. The north, south, and west are quite flat and ready to be developed.

At 9:02 AM, September 05, 2008, Blogger JMW said...

I think they meant "sewer socialist"
in the context that typically the modest means that middle class folks have to accept in other cities tends to compel them to "act their wage."
Where in Houston, our own success at giving middle class people the good life has lead to many anti-social behaviors.

Another point is that TXDOT and METRO are at best riddled with corruption; one can always tell the political affluence of a neighborhood by the condition or improvement of the roadways, shameful.

At 3:04 AM, September 06, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While Houston has been making significant steps towards public transportation for the last ten years, you seem inauthentic when saying that we

"have a moderately good history of investing in transportation and other infrastructure."

Is the "moderately good" used to refer to the history of investment of "other infrastructure" or of "transportation?" Because I would say that if your claim is that Houston has a moderately good history on “transportation” then I'm Elvis Presley…and I'm posting from Mars.

Houston's road transportation history is bullet-riddled with incidents of corruption and its public transportation history tells a story of a crippling lack of foresight: having lagged like molasses behind its other major infrastructure and capacity movements forward.

What was your point in revising Houston’s story?

At 8:44 AM, September 06, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I actually think we've done a pretty good job on transportation infrastructure, esp. the freeway network, which may be the most extensive in the world for a city our size. Many cities gave up on additional freeway capacity years ago, and they're feeling the pain now. We also have the most extensive HOV lane network in the country.

Our airport and port infrastructure is very strong.

I hedged with "moderately good" because I've had people tell me we didn't keep up with water, sewer, and drainage infrastructure over the years as well as we should have, although there seems to be some recent progress there - esp. on drainage since Allison.

At 1:59 AM, September 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And public transportation?

Does is not require comment?

At 9:44 AM, September 07, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think we've been reasonably intelligent on public transportation. We have a great express bus network, and one of the better local bus networks in the country - completely appropriate for a low-density, dispersed city with multiple job centers and less than 7% of jobs downtown. Rail was not appropriate - and astronomically expensive. We are *now* in a situation where *some* rail (local and commuter) may make sense, and we're building it. The Main, University, and Uptown lines all make sense to allow express bus/vanpool/carpool commuters get around during the day for errands, meetings, and lunch. I personally believe that the money for the N, SE, and E lines should be redirected towards commuter rail in very specific corridors (249, 45S) where the freight track capacity is available and where it generally doesn't compete with HOV service.

At 11:58 AM, September 08, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


FYI. The long version of the Glaeser/NYSun piece has been posted over at the City Journal site. You can find it here.

At 4:22 PM, September 08, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks! Much appreciated, John.


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