Tuesday, June 14, 2016

False sprawl tax, DART's rail fail, raves for Houston's 'zoning lite', racist red tape for aspiring Uber drivers, and more

Our featured item this week is the so-called "sprawl tax", which I argue against in the Chronicle here and on local KPRC TV here (I start at 1:15). I always struggle to keep my answers crisp in these interviews, but they worked a miracle in editing, distilling 10 minutes to 12 seconds, lol.

In short, I object to the label – sprawl tax – because it implies you have no choice (taxes are not voluntary). In these cases, people are explicitly *choosing* to live further out, whether for a bigger, more affordable house or better neighborhoods or schools. They’re voluntarily making that tradeoff. People are accepting this cost they calculate to get those benefits.  In every city they could choose to live closer to work, but that house might be smaller/older/more expensive/worse schools.  It makes about as much sense as calculating a “luxury car tax” for those who choose to buy a BMW, Mercedes, etc.  “Why are they choosing to do that when they could buy a Toyota Corolla for much less!?” Kinda obviously absurd when stated that way.  I’ll also note that the big metros that are low on their sprawl costs also have some of the highest housing costs in the country – those people are definitely not living at a lower cost.  Maybe someone should calculate a “urban housing tax” or “smart growth tax” for metros that restrict new development and push up prices?

This week's items:
“Holder explained that while fingerprint checks are a valuable law enforcement tool, they “often do not indicate whether a person who was arrested was even charged or ultimately convicted.” Thus, mandatory checks “can prevent people from getting a job even if they were never found guilty of a crime.” Because black men are arrested more than white men, the policy affects men of color disproportionately.”
Finally, despite some recent questioning of the value Houston's lack of zoning, we've recently gotten some great outside recognition for the strength of approach from both Bloomberg and Market Urbanism.

Justin Fox at Bloomberg refers to our approach as "zoning lite" and has this awesome observation in his piece:
"Houstonians do seem to understand a basic economic truth that many people in other cities have a remarkable amount of trouble getting their heads around -- that allowing more housing to be built makes housing more affordable."
He also has a companion piece, "They Know How to Build Apartments in Houston"
"If developers are building lots of apartments in and around Dallas and Houston, it's because they think they think there's demand. 
Some of that demand  is about living close-in, in walkable neighborhoods with public transportation close by. Yes, even in Houston, that's becoming a thing. But a lot of it is surely just demand for housing that a non-wealthy person can afford. Houston and Dallas have been building lots of it. Despite strong job growth in recent years, San Francisco, San Jose and the cities around them have not. That's partly because they're already more tightly packed than Houston and Dallas, and face geographical limits on expansion that Texas cities generally do not. But it's also just because it's so danged hard to get permission to put up apartment buildings there. Which is a shame."
Lastly, Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism has written one of the best pieces I've ever seen on Houston's approach to development: "Houston’s Beautiful (Yet Partial) Embrace of Market Urbanism".  Here's one good excerpt, but it's packed with them and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, many US cities have a lot to learn from Houston. With tight development restrictions, out-of-date urban planning regimes, and burdensome regulations forcing middle- and lower-class Americans out of West Cost and Northeastern cities, Houston’s mix of affordable housing and economic opportunity is more valuable than ever. As other cities have attempted to maintain tight, centralized control on urban and economic development - exemplified by a recent push by Dallas to shutter local businesses in order to attract chains - Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development and crafting urban communities... It is well past time that we start taking Houston’s success seriously."
I'm heading to California on business for two weeks - not sure if I'll blog again before July.

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At 9:58 PM, June 14, 2016, Anonymous Local Planner said...

Thank you Tory for pointing out the "sprawl tax" falsehood for the very reasons you state. Frankly your whole point touches on something that I find pretty disturbing. Educated professionals - the work force that brings the most value to our economy - are choosing to live in the outermost suburbs, despite (1) the costs of commuting - time, tolls and mileage / vehicle wear and tear - even to our suburbanized employment centers (Fulshear is still pretty far from the Energy Corridor and Westchase) (2) home prices which are considerably higher than housing (even pretty new housing) in the middle suburbs and (3) property tax rates often much much higher than what one would pay in Houston or middle suburban areas. So, it's not a question of trying to escape density - the middle and outer suburbs have similar physical housing product (though the newest MPCs have more bells and whistles, true). So the answers must lie elsewhere.
I personally think it generally revolves around the desire for economically homogeneous schools - homogeneity at the middle / upper end, that is. That is something lacking in almost all inner and middle suburban areas - where the housing and commute costs tend to be much lower (because people of higher means are shunning them, so the prices aren't bid up). And this desire is predicated on the parents' belief that having working class kids sharing school classrooms and campuses will somehow harm the education and general life prospects of the middle and upper class kids. Some of ethnic diversity seems to be tolerated (there really aren't that many all-white/Asian schools, even in the outer suburbs), but not economic diversity. Is this belief substantiated? I don't know. Understanding this issue is key to understand our suburban growth patterns.
Finally, I'll add that what is really disturbing about this is that if core of our white collar workforce is choosing to live so far from even our suburbanized office activity centers, is the outlook for Houston's white collar employers dim? Will they eventually be forced to the Grand Parkway because that's where most of their workforce lives, instead of along the Sam Houston Tollway?

At 8:54 AM, June 15, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You raise a good point about where employers ultimately end up. I think if we invest in MaX lanes with good express service from the suburbs, they'll stay in the core. Alternately, they may end up more along the Beltway, with suburban family employees commuting in and young single employees coming out from inside the loop - sort of in the middle between the two. IF we start losing employers out to the Grand Parkway, Houston will definitely have a problem.

As far as housing choice, I think it does come down to something along the lines of "I could buy a house around the Beltway, but if I go ten miles farther out for the same price I get a much newer house with better amenities and a more highly rated school district." I do think diversity, and peoples' comfort with it or lack thereof, also makes a difference.

At 9:39 AM, June 15, 2016, Anonymous Local Planner said...

Tory, I definitely support the MaX lanes concept and hope it's widely adopted - it seems that the leaders of several major activity centers (Uptown, TMC, Energy Corridor) also agree, which will certainly help it become more popular politically. That said, while express buses do lessen some of the pain of a long commute, they still take time; ultimately there's only so fast they can go (60 mph or whatever), and it still adds up over say 25-30 miles. Plus add the congestion between the home and the P&R lot (is there some way to mitigate that? Should be looked into) and it's another time factor. Ultimately the perception of educational opportunities for the children of educated professionals in the middle suburbs has to be dealt with.

As an anecdote, before the current O&G downturn, I was talking with public officials in northern Fort Bend County. They said they had dialogue with a developer who wanted to do a large Class A office development near 1093 and the Grand Parkway, which would attract employers away from Energy Corridor and Westchase because their employees found commuting to those activity centers from the Katy / Fulshear area too painful. Obviously any such development is going to be on hold for awhile, given the economy, but it demonstrates the risk. Greenspoint has already lost out to The Woodlands and Springwoods Village, for example.

At 9:49 AM, June 15, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All good points. I have not heard that the activity center leaders support MaX lanes - can you send links or more details?

At 12:53 PM, June 15, 2016, Anonymous Local Planner said...

Tory, I should have been clearer - the activity center leaders would like to have express bus service serving their employers, from both urban core locations and suburban residential areas. Uptown's investment in Post Oak BRT is primarily about this idea (though it will likely require a transfer at a transit center to the north or south of the district). Energy Corridor and Westchase have both expressed the desire for such service, preferably in a manner that avoids typical freeway congestion. Not much of a leap to the MaX lanes concept from there - they may not have yet picked up on your specific named concept yet.

It should be noted, though, that some important commute corridors that suffer from terrible congestion and long travel times are not necessarily freeway-served. Energy Corridor to Cypress and Fort Bend County are good examples. How can the MaX lanes concept be modified for non-freeway thoroughfares?

At 2:08 PM, June 16, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the clarification.

In those cases, they would need to be along Beltway 8. I also think 610 needs them


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