Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Houstonian for Houstonians for Responsible Growth

Houston Strategies (authored by a fellow Rice grad and MBA, Tory Gattis) comes down more-or-less in favor of H.R.G.

Overall, I'm glad the Mayor and city council is going to hear from people like [Randal] O'Toole [the Cato Institute free market activist] and [Wendell] Cox with lots of stats and stories on the impacts of over-regulation. It's too easy for political representatives to pass regs as a knee-jerk response to vocal constituents while ignoring the costs, long-term impacts, and problems they cause for the silent majority. It's good for them to hear both sides and try to chart a balanced course that's good for the city as a whole as well as individual neighborhoods.


On one hand, it is true that political representatives can pass ill-considered regulations in response to vocal constituents, but at the same time it's true that the for Houston's history, most of the action by government (local and state) has been done for the benefit of developers and builders--the way the freeways were built, the MUDs, etc. So for the city to slowly start responding to some, you know, citizens seems frankly a good thing. Furthermore, it is obvious that the people who ran this city have never fully considered the long term results of their actions or inaction, anyway.

Gattis goes on:

Unfortunately, the pressure is building. If the new Lanier PAC fights everything with a "give no ground" posture, the citizen pressure will continue to build until some sort of catastrophic event happens, like voters sweeping in a pro-planning Mayor and council that do some really radical damage to our unique and very successful model.

My recommendation: take advantage of the favorable political climate while we have a reasonable Mayor and city council, and while the well-respected 82-year-old Lanier is still healthy enough to engage. Come up with a comprehensive approach to how development should work here (as opposed to the current patchwork), including a set of principles and streamlined code on deed restrictions to make it easier for neighborhoods to enact consensus (i.e. super-majority) restrictions. In essence, find a free-market policy framework that makes 80% of the citizens happy and marginalizes the radical 10-20% anti-growth controllers, aesthetes, busybodies, and NIMBYs. Instead of duking it out between developers and planning advocates, find a "third-way" that acknowledges and addresses citizen concerns, but with a flexible free market approach instead of top-down comprehensive planning. Now that would be a fine and enduring legacy for Mayor White's final term in office...

Aside from his dig at "radicals" and his belief in a Nixonian silent majority that must obviously be in agreement with him, this is fairly sensible. He seems to be calling for reasoned compromise. Certainly I agree that deed restrictions (which are, in fact, regulations--horrors!) should be easier to enact.

But where I think he and many like him get it wrong is assuming somehow that the City of Houston is some sort of free market alternative to "Communist Portland" and that as a result, Houston is the ultimate bargain for folks buying homes, etc. Save the Bungalows has some fairly breathless facts about that, including this one:

1. The Big Lie. The builders have long claimed that lack of zoning is what keeps housing prices low in Houston. According the National Association of Realtors, the median price for a home in the 3rd quarter of 2007 was $149,100 in Houston, $149,500 in Dallas and $141,700 in San Antonio. The latter two cities have zoning. The main variables that determine price are supply, cost of land and cost of labor. Demand hasn’t exceed supply in these cities because we continue to have lots of cheap land and low labor costs.


I'm all for market-based solutions, as long as they actually work and aren't merely cosmetic. But Cato types are fundamentalists. Essentially, for them, if a problem can't be solved by the market, it shouldn't be solved. Unfortunately, their fantasies don't apply in the real world, and especially not in cities where you inherently have lots of government action and capital spending (which in turn subsidizes business and development--and that's a good thing!), and where you have lots of externalities (every business, home, and commuter in Houston can and does affect his or her neighbors and their property). Regulations such as building codes already exist for this purpose, and I suggest we may need more, as long as they are well-considered and provide real benefit, and as long as we are willing to amend or get rid of them over time as needed. Finally, Houstonians for Responsible Growth are basically a trade group, trying to protect their own profits.

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