Monday, October 23, 2023

Strong Towns is a weird urbanist cult + Tokyo's Houston-like minimal land use regulation

Strong Towns is a weird urbanist cult that can’t produce hard numbers to back up their assertions suburbia is financially unsustainable (how many suburban municipality bankruptcies have you heard of?). If you really think about it, every suburban home has a few tens of thousands of dollars of city infrastructure that go with it (some pavement and pipes), a very reasonable replacement burden from property taxes spread over 30+ years on a multi-$100k home (and most infrastructure will not need to be replaced that often).

That said, this author is not wrong describing what’s happening in Houston with the adapting, densification, and wearing away of deed restrictions. But I would call the statement below a gross over-exaggeration: 
“A municipality deep in decline, facing decaying infrastructure and accelerating poverty can hardly afford lengthy legal battles.”
The metro is booming. The City has challenges but is doing ok, especially vs. many other similar-sized municipalities. The accelerating poverty comment is flat-out wrong – immigrants move here, make a life, and move up and out to the suburbs to be replaced by a new wave of immigrants. And many parts of town are positively booming. Property values move up every year and the City laments the tax cap forcing them to cut the tax rate to keep overall revenue at inflation + population growth – does that sound like “accelerating poverty”? 🙄


A couple of interesting pieces on Tokyo this week along with some excerpts I pulled.
"The median Japanese tenant spends about 20% of their disposable income on rent (in America it's 30%). Rent for a studio or one-bedroom apartment in Tokyo, which Americans are fawning over as "the new Paris," is a quarter of what it is in New York.

In September, when New York City Mayor Eric Adams unveiled his plan to build 100,000 new homes, he pointed enviously to Tokyo's ability to keep "housing costs down by increasing the supply of housing." "How are we allowing Tokyo to do things better than us?" he asked."
"Most American consumers probably wouldn't want to live in the studio or one-bedroom apartments that Japanese people just sort of take for granted," Schuetz said. But, she added, we shouldn't have many of the minimum size regulations we have. Instead, we should let consumers decide what tradeoffs they're willing to make. "Allow the market to build stuff, and the market will figure out what people are willing to pay for," she says. 
Just like Houston does...
"As housing prices have soared in major cities across the United States and throughout much of the developed world, it has become normal for people to move away from the places with the strongest economies and best jobs because those places are unaffordable. Prosperous cities increasingly operate like private clubs, auctioning off a limited number of homes to the highest bidders.

Tokyo is different.

In the past half century, by investing in transit and allowing development, the city has added more housing units than the total number of units in New York City. It has remained affordable by becoming the world’s largest city. It has become the world’s largest city by remaining affordable.
But the benefits are profound. Those who want to live in Tokyo generally can afford to do so. There is little homelessness here. The city remains economically diverse, preserving broad access to urban amenities and opportunities. And because rent consumes a smaller share of income, people have more money for other things — or they can get by on smaller salaries — which helps to preserve the city’s vibrant fabric of small restaurants, businesses and craft workshops. (sound familiar? ;-)
In Tokyo, by contrast, there is little public or subsidized housing. Instead, the government has focused on making it easy for developers to build. A national zoning law, for example, sharply limits the ability of local governments to impede development. Instead of allowing the people who live in a neighborhood to prevent others from living there, Japan has shifted decision-making to the representatives of the entire population, allowing a better balance between the interests of current residents and of everyone who might live in that place. Small apartment buildings can be built almost anywhere, and larger structures are allowed on a vast majority of urban land. Even in areas designated for offices, homes are permitted (this is one of my easy recommendations for traditionally zoned cities). After Tokyo’s office market crashed in the 1990s, developers started building apartments on land they had purchased for office buildings.

“In progressive cities we are maybe too critical of private initiative,” said Christian Dimmer, an urban studies professor at Waseda University and a longtime Tokyo resident. “I don’t want to advocate a neoliberal perspective, but in Tokyo, good things have been created through private initiative.”

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At 6:19 PM, October 23, 2023, Blogger George Rogers said...

There are a few, Orange County, CA; Southern Cook County suburbs in Chicago are in bad shape.

The big advantage for suburbs is that the tax base is easier to maintain.

At 6:33 PM, October 23, 2023, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OC I know was because of risky investments of county funds, not the costs of suburban infrastructure.

At 6:42 PM, October 23, 2023, Blogger George Rogers said...

Exactly. There are a few suburbs in bad shape but it's because the municipal jurisdiction is too small so if the area goes in decline it's game over.

At 12:47 AM, October 24, 2023, Anonymous Bill Reeves said...

One thing that makes Texas metro municipalities far less susceptible to financial distress than in other places is the apparent difficulty in creating new suburban municipalities. The result is that suburbs in Texas tend to be very large and contain a mix of residential and commercial uses which yields a more sustainable revenue stream. In other places I've lived (st. Louis, Chicago) it is relatively easy to create new municipalities and sometimes the result is poor short tem thinking as existing residents prioritize a peaceful life and suppress commercial development. And the next generation pays the piper.

At 1:06 AM, October 24, 2023, Anonymous Bill Reeves said...

That being said while Robert Rice is right, his whole tone is classic NE snob. Clearly he feels the pressure of "received opinion" while he pretends that Houston is a bigger "mess" than NYC or Chicago. He even cites Houston's 19.6bb in debt without mentioning that per capital his hometown NYC's is 50% higher per capita without having to support much population growth at all. Not to mention that in 2023 8 million New Yorkers have a $105.6bb budget that is only marginally smaller than the circa $120bb the entire 31 million resident state of Texas will spend.

Parochialism is a serious contagious disease in our late, great "legacy" metropili, even infecting those that should know better.

At 8:09 AM, October 24, 2023, Blogger George Rogers said...

Exactly, was arguing with one of those morons on Youtube.

At 8:16 AM, October 24, 2023, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Great links George and great stats and point Bill. Totally agree. The cities in the most distress these days are the great urbanist centers Strong Towns loves - NYC, Chicago, SF.

At 9:24 AM, October 24, 2023, Blogger George Rogers said...

City enforcing Deed Restrictions are the price to pay to not have zoning in a Euclidian world.

At 12:30 PM, October 27, 2023, Blogger Neil Strickland said...

Opportunity and Market Urbanists are comfortable pointing out that many a mass transit system, including METRO, judging from mass ridership on the decline, is not necessarily giving the people what they want.

But you also most definitely hate it when professors say that people who want suburbs are not wanting what they should want. That if they knew what they were really getting, in social and economic profit and loss, they would not want it. But if people say that they want light-rail-heavy mass transit systems, it is your turn to be comfortable again saying that people are not wanting what they should want. That if they knew what they were really getting, in social and economic profit and loss, they would not want it.

Kookiness is not reserved to ideologues; pragmatists can be ignorant too, and neither Marohn nor Kotkin is particularly ignorant nor kooky. There are many more angles to slice a city than can fit comfortably in one analytical worldview.

But Strong Towns (of which I am not a member) likes to foreground the economic profit and loss at a parcel level. They argue that an informed democracy needs both leaders and voters to understand the dollars-per-acre implications of a CVS versus a strip of junky local enterprises. Most civic leaders have never thought that the latter could be healthier than the former, especially not in sales tax returns per acre minus the price per acre of civic services and infrastructure supplied.

If you disagree that a municipal balance sheet is the sum total of those profits and losses, then you and they both need to examine why the sum doesn’t add up. Maybe they, or you, don’t understand yet where the rest of the balance lies, or where some extra funding comes from. It’s possible that their logic doesn’t extrapolate from their basic acreage numbers to the entire municipality somehow. But an ad hominem dismissal that their logic is simply “weird” wouldn’t have flown at Rice or McKinsey I hope.

At 1:32 PM, October 27, 2023, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It wasn't meant to be a detailed examination, just a summary of my views before getting into the meat of the article and my objection. They feel a little like conspiracy theorists, throwing up a lot of numbers and hand waving and smoke and claiming it will all financially implode (while municipal bankruptcies remain incredibly rare), but I can't get a straight answer when I put it in simple terms: why can't 30-50 years of reasonable property taxes on a multi-$100k home cover the replacement of a few tens of thousands of dollars of pavement and pipes? Now you can state that cities neglect long-term obligations - totally true - but that happens with all types of cities, urban and suburban, and has nothing to do with land use.

At 6:32 PM, October 29, 2023, Blogger George Rogers said...

Saying you want X, is not the same as revealed preference for X. Actions talk, words don't.


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