Tory Gattis debunks recent New Urbanist Houston memes

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Tory Gattis has done excellent work in recent weeks debunking a couple of memes that have been making the rounds among what we often call the local “Houtopian” class (the New Urbanist types who are determined to remake Houston into their vision of an urban utopia instead of letting Houston be Houston).

In this post, Gattis calls out a story posted by a Rice University-affiliated institute that asserts Houston really DOES have zoning:

First, I have to call BS on this.  Yes, we have reasonable land-use regulations, but they are far from zoning and Houston is qualitatively different from other cities like Dallas.

  1. Massive exhibit #1: the townhouses covering the inner loop where single-family homes once stood.  No zoned city would allow that.  Without that flexibility, inner Houston would be much lower density and covered in McMansions that look like Bellaire and West U with similar pricing.
  2. Exhibit #2: residential towers all over the place, instead of clustered downtown or in other skyscraper zones.
  3. Exhibit #3: apartment complexes going up anywhere they can get the land, pretty much no matter what was sitting there before, like industrial or commercial uses – typical zoning doesn’t allow that.

Houston is a denser, more vibrant, more eclectic, and – most importantly – more affordable city because it lacks zoning.  Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.

The Houtopian/New Urbanist types very much want to convince people otherwise, and they don’t seem to get much pushback these days.

In this post, Gattis addresses a recent “study” (also from a Rice University-affiliated institute) that tries to reframe the established affordability of housing in the Houston area:

Another week, another BS to call.  This time on this study claiming Houston is not affordable compared to cities like Philly, Chicago, and even NYC! (Chronicle story)  And yet you wonder why Philly and Chicago are losing population, and people flee NYC because of the cost of living? Maybe there’s a flaw in this ranking? I’d say it’s mostly this: if you live in an expensive city (including taxes), then you naturally have less of your income left over to spend on housing and transportation. It’s not because these cities are affordable, but because you’re forced to live frugally. You live in affordable Houston (albeit admittedly less so the last few years), and you get to spend more on those, which makes your city look expensive by these rankings!  See the confused irony of using income percentage as an affordability indicator?  This kind of affordability ranking is specifically designed to make expensive transit-dependent cities look better, and it gets fully debunked here.

Spot on (and be sure to click on that last link).

One fact that this overly simplistic “study” does get right is the following:

[The study’s author Lester] King says marketing efforts promoting Houston…often refer to an expected population increase of 3.5 million people by 2035. Harris County has been raising its assessment of property values in part based on that projected growth. In fact, the report finds the bulk of that growth is likely to take place in the surrounding counties of Greater Houston, rather than within the city limits.

Most people continue to confuse the rapid growth and increased prosperity of the region (the Metropolitan Statistical Area in particular) in recent years with the situation in the City of Houston proper (where population growth is stagnant, and we are seeing some concerning flight from the city limits, which is likely to accelerate if the City’s financial mismanagement continues to crowd out spending on essential services such as public works and public safety in favor of unsustainable municipal pension promises).

Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX