Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Houston's lack of zoning held up as a model nationally plus the City Journal on Texas Rising

I'm back from travel and quite a few items have definitely accumulated, especially around the topic of zoning, which I'll focus on this week.  But first, City Journal just released their special issue titled "Texas Rising," including many pieces by Center for Opportunity Urbanism staff and affiliates, including this great sidebar on Houston by COU Fellow Anne Snyder.  I read it cover to cover on my flight back, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  Many fantastic pieces on how Texas works (or does not, in some cases - there's always things to improve), including key ones by Aaron Renn on the Texas Triangle and Joel Kotkin + Wendell Cox on Texas-style Urbanism.

On to zoning. The big news is that the White House is taking on zoning over-regulation as a barrier to housing supply and affordability, including very specific recommendations for enabling more housing to be built.  Pause here for a moment of thankfulness that Houston doesn't have this problem compared to most cities in America, especially on the coasts.  Scott Beyer covered the story in Forbes with this great excerpt:
"But anecdotal evidence shows that global megacities that embrace rapid construction, such as Houston and Tokyo, can maintain affordability despite populations that are both fast-growing and wealthy. The academic literature shows that this isn’t an accident; regulations that restrict supply really do make areas more expensive, while a hands-off attitude creates more elastic markets and lower prices. It’s nice that America’s highest level of government has caught on."
I think the Chronicle's response was excessively negative, seeming to imply we have the same woes when ours are at nowhere near the same scale as the coasts.  Our median housing price to income ratio is a healthy 3.5, while theirs can easily top 6 to 9.  And somehow they lump inequality into the issue, which is just reflective of the high-paying jobs and industries in Houston. The most equal big cities tend to not have those types of jobs or industries, like, say, Memphis or Tampa.
"Housing advocates, urban planners and city leaders have called recently for a more comprehensive plan to address the affordability, preservation and economic issues surrounding housing in Houston."
Didn't we just do that?  And, btw, there's now a whole new Twitter feed dedicated to showing how Houston is naturally densifying in healthy ways.  Even the Boston Globe is extolling Houston's non-existent zoning code:
"More cities should emulate the example of Houston. It has no zoning code, and voters have repeatedly refused to authorize one. There are regulations aplenty in Texas’s largest city, but there’s no zoning. By and large, it is market incentives that determine what gets built where — not buckets of rules imposed from above by omniscient city planners
The results are impressive. Industry, housing, and business sort themselves out without Big Brother’s help. In the process, they have turned Houston into one of the nation’s fastest growing cities — popular, affordable, eclectic, and diverse. Treat private property rights with respect and deference, and what you get is a booming, blooming city. Maybe Boston ought to try it."
And a similar piece extolling Houston's approach from Washington DC:
"Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it's exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that "missing middle" housing—forms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs. 
The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses
But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling."
Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism is now writing detailed pieces on Houston's approach to land use so other cities can learn from it, including this absolutely excellent one with the best-detailed summary on our approach I've seen so far.  If you can only send one link to someone to explain Houston's approach to land-use regulation, this is the one to send.  I'll end with this excerpt from it:
"Houston was the only major city to hold a public vote on comprehensive zoning and it was the only major city to turn it down. For decades, folks scoffed at Houston for refusing to implement residential segregation, mixed-use prohibitions, and density restrictions. It turns out that Houston was right all along, and that’s worth talking about."

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