Monday, August 10, 2020

Tax and regulatory burden rankings, lot size reform, increasing walkability, superstar cities vs. Covid and Spiderman, and much more

I apologize for the longer delays between what are usually weekly posts. My day job in alternative education and edutech has absolutely blown up with covid and remote learning, leaving little time for blogging. But I'm using a gap hour between meetings today to get this post cranked out, so here are some catch-up items:
"Returning to Texas, the Austin Business Journal piece cited a survey that found that Austin was the top-ranked city for tech workers to relocate worldwide, just ahead of Seattle and Amsterdam. That ranking is largely based on past decisions that allowed the city’s housing market to keep up with demand. But unfortunately, Austin’s city council has shifted to the left over the past few years and has become increasingly hostile to both new development and road construction, with the city becoming more expensive and congested as a result. Were it not for the fact that most other tech havens are even further to the left politically, Austin would likely lose its No. 1 ranking."
"Next, we examine how this reform impacted Houston’s neighborhoods. Did developers flock to the most affluent neighborhoods? Or did this shift subdivision activity to lower-income neighborhoods with lower land values? Using both GIS data and regression analysis, we find that the new 1,400 square foot lots were overwhelmingly developed in two types of areas: First, in neighborhoods where there was substantial underutilized former commercial and industrial land, and second, in largely underbuilt middle-income residential neighborhoods. 
The scale of this change in much of western Houston is hard to overstate. Many neighborhoods, such as Shady Acres and Rice Military, have been completely transformed. In many cases, this has involved the subdivision of conventional post-war 5,000 square foot lots into three townhomes, effectively tripling population densities. We hypothesize that the wealthiest areas avoided subdivision activity through existing deed restrictions, while middle-income neighborhoods absorbed much of the demand, minimizing redevelopment pressure in low-income neighborhoods. 
We draw two lessons for planning practice from this case study. First, allowing the most extreme opponents to “opt out” of land-use reform may help clear a path for citywide liberalization. While planners and policymakers should be prudent, such compromises may make sense where local politics otherwise blocks reform. In Houston, the compromise was deemed acceptable, and the result has been over 25,000 new housing units close to major job centers. 
Second, citywide land-use liberalization is likely to direct growth into middle-income and underbuilt neighborhoods, barring other institutional constraints. While this comes with separate risks—such as disinvestment from lower-income areas—it may help to ease concerns regarding displacement."
  • NYT: Coronavirus Threatens the Luster of Superstar Cities - Urban centers, with a dynamism that feeds innovation, have long been resilient. But the pandemic could drive a shift away from density.  The article does a good job looking at all the different forces involved and potential outcomes, but seems to ignore the potential of safer car-based cities to still generate plenty of innovation and support amenities - places like Houston, Austin, and Silicon Valley. Excerpts:
“A survey by the market research firm Reach Advisors found that companies facing high real estate and labor costs were the most interested in pursuing remote work into the future. “The biggest shift away from density will likely be in markets such as the Bay Area and New York City,” said the company’s president, James Chung. By shifting to remote work, “they can dramatically widen their labor pool and evade the labor-wage trap that they are in.” … 
"But for a city like New York, he said, Covid-19 offers an opportunity for redemption. “New York was running into a dead end, turning into a paradise for the rich,” he said. “Culturally dead.” Moving back to a cheaper, messier, more diverse equilibrium may carry a silver lining."
Finally, a really clever video by Nolan Gray explaining high NYC housing costs through the lens of Spiderman. Enjoy!

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