Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Because Everyone Wants to Live in Houston

Right? I grew up there, but don't think I'm moving back any time soon. (Sorry Mom + Dad) Sure its much less expensive, but its really hot and I would have to start using my car again. I've gotten used to my minimal car lifestyle and what I remember most about Houston is that I often had to train at midnight in order to get my mileage up in the summer because it was so hot. Even then I would get back from my run and use the garden hose to cool off even though I was already drenched. (I really like Golf Courses at midnight better than in the day though)

Ed Glaeser says its a middle class paradise when it comes to costs. What do you think? I feel like there is something missing. Isn't giving up something a cost? Isn't there a cost in a primarily car oriented lifestyle which seems to cause Houston to have somewhat of an obesity problem? I know there are a lot of people in New York or even here in San Francisco who would rather be lower on the totem pole than rich in Houston. Would San Francisco be the same place if we reduced regulations? Probably not. I don't know the overall answer to any of this, I just know that pitting one city against another is hard to do because they are such different places. So many different variables.


andrew said...

If I'm understanding it correctly, that article is mostly a comparison of the Houston metro area with New York City only, and occasionally New York City is only Manhattan. The exception is at the beginning when he says that the "New York region" has grown more slowly than "greater Houston." That's true enough, but why then ditch the region part of "New York region"? I don't know Houston at all, so I can't tell if he does the same thing with greater Houston. Certainly

Both greater Houston and Manhattan have about 2 million employees.

seems like an odd choice of geographical units for a comparison.

Elsewhere, New York is an "old port on a narrow island" when it comes to potential for growth. A sentence later, New York is apparently the whole city again, but note that it's difficult to build "especially in Manhattan." Staten Island and Queens do get mentions, particularly Howard Beach and Far Rockaway, but what about New Jersey? Near Jersey is certainly expensive, but shouldn't it and farther out Jersey be factored in since people live and work there and commute into Manhattan and other places? And Long Island? Connecticut?

I'd actually be interested in a more thorough comparison of the two regions, but this is pretty unsatisfying, even leaving aside the question of whether one is more desirable than the other.

Anonymous said...

Another article where the costs of two things are debated, and the value of either thing is left off the table.

Houston and New York are both major cities economically and internationally, and are de facto capitals of the finance and petroleum industries.

Houston has this employment base, a big airport, and cheap housing. But compared to NYC, and to many other US cities, it does not have the same VALUE in terms of urban amenities.

arcady said...

The thing is, if you're lower on the totem pole in NYC or the bay area, you're going to be lower on the totem pole in Houston too. The cost of living may be lower, but so are the salaries. Plus, it's Houston.

AJ said...

Houston is a nice big city and is certainly making a move from a city of rich businesspeople commuting in from miles away to glittering condos and downtown development.

I'm more than certain they'll be able to do things a little smarter than LA did before it started getting the right idea.

Thomas said...

Glaeser is an economist who clearly holds market-based biases about urban development. He's a lot like Joel Kotkin in this regard: certainly more reasonable and believable than complete lunatics like Randal O'Toole, but an apologist for deregulated sprawl nevertheless.

That being said, think this is an interesting read and I think Glaeser does make a few good points, but parts of his article have flaws.

For example, as another commenter notes, his geographical comparisons are inconsistent. Is he comparing greater Houston (which includes thousands of square miles spread over five counties) with greater New York, New York City itself or just the island of Manhattan? He continually interchanges these geographies when it suits his purposes, and there's no consistent basis of comparison.

A couple of his comments are entertaining as well. Here's one:

"Some (houses) have more than 3,000 square feet of living space, swimming pools, and plenty of mahogany and leaded glass. Almost all seem to be in pleasant neighborhoods — a few are even in gated communities."

Oh,boy! Mahogany and leaded glass and some are even in (gasp!) gated communities! Never mind that gated communities represent the worst of suburban paranoia, exclusion and isolation and there is no way I would find them to be "pleasant neighborhoods." Glaeser obviously has a different opinion, which speaks to his personal biases.

Here's another howler:

Our middle-class New York commuter thus spends at least 120 more hours in transit per year than does his Houston counterpart. And except perhaps for the ones spent on the ferry, none of those hours is as agreeable as sitting in an air-conditioned car listening to the radio.

Really? Sitting in traffic on the Northwest Freeway everyday fighting for lane space with Bubba in his extended cab F350 and searching for a parking space once at work is somehow more "agreeable" than sitting on a ferry or a train, reading a paper and listening the iPod? Has Glaeser ever even driven in Houston's rush-hour traffic? There's nothing "agreeable" about it.

Furthermore, why is so much importance placed on commute trip times by themselves? If it takes me 45 minutes to get to work on public transportation, but with much less hassle and stress than it takes me to get to work in 25 minutes in my own car, shouldn't that count for something?

And then, finally:

But Houston's success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city, with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of middle-income Americans than the more "progressive" big governments of the Northeast and the West Coast.

Ah, here we go. Glaeser's pet subject: development regulation. Sprawling unregulated Houston good! Dense and regulated New York and San Francisco bad!

Certainly, Houston might have a more streamlined development process than New York City. But it's not as "free" as it might seem. Michael Llewyn has written about how Houston, in spite of its lack of zoning, actually has a considerable amount of development regulation. And the city, like it or not, is only going to become more regulated in the future, as people from other parts of the country who are used to concepts such as zoning move to Houston, as the city (especially inside the loop) continues to densify, and as more homeowner-versus-developer conflicts such as the Ashby Highrise debacle occur.

As somebody who has lived in Houston almost my entire life and who has no plans to live anywhere else, I do believe that the lower cost of living here is a strong factor in Houston's favor. But the metrics that academic economists like Glaeser and his ilk continually throw out - growth rates, housing costs, commute times and the like - tell only part of the story. There are other quality-of-life concerns that people take into account when they decide where to relocate, and admittedly Houston doesn't do as good of a job in that regard. For example: topography. If you like the ocean, great. If you like to hike in the mountains, you're SOL. There's also the climate: from May to October, it's brutal (although I'm writing this comment from Dubai, where "brutal summertime climate" takes on whole new meaning). Air pollution is also a big concern; Glaeser does mention this but says nothing about the refineries along the Ship Channel that are a major source of that pollution. Then there are cultural concerns: Houston has an excellent high-brow art scene, but doesn't do as well when it comes to casual offerings. There was a story in last week's Houston Press, for example, as to why indie rock bands are skipping Houston gigs altogether. Stuff like that matters.

As another commenter points out: it's all about value. Although Houston might have one value in terms of cost-of-living, it has a different value in terms of quality-of-life. Glaeser might do a good job measuring the former, but he's less successful measuring the latter.

arcady said...

Oh yeah, and one key point to remember about Houston and its lack of zoning regulations: there's still one key zoning law that they do have. Parking minimums. That alone accounts for a huge part of Houston's urban form. Oh yeah, and if you're going to compare Houston to LA, LA already has something that Houston doesn't: rapid transit.

Clarence said...

Glaeser is biased in that he is an academic economist. In fact, he is consistently ranked in the top 50 of living economists in terms of citations/influence and he is probably the most influential urban economist. For all previous posters, he's obviously writing to the average middle class family -- a family that is worried about pocketbook matters more than other QoL concerns. (Houston may not have every urban amenity, but it certainly has fine parks, decent restaurants, several large concert venues, and some interesting neighborhoods.)

@Thomas: To make it clear, Glaeser is a native New Yorker and loves New York and its urban amenties -- see I think he comes from the POV of someone who loves New York and sees the high rate of middle class outmigration from the tri-state area as untenable for a normal, functioning city. From what I remember of his working papers on NBER, he actually has a paper that attempts to quantify the economic benefit of density. He's certainly not anti-density.

Also, Houston certainly has its fair share of regulations, but none affect housing supply in the way that zoning laws affect housing supply in high-demand markets like New York and San Francisco.

Alon Levy said...

The article tries to compare housing prices by comparing the value of a home. However, in New York City most people rent rather than buy.

Because New York's housing costs are high and increasing, many landlords make more money by buying an apartment and selling it a few years later than by renting it. They still rent their apartments out, but their yields are very low, and could never support them on their own. In Monaco, which is subject to the same forces, a typical yield might be 2% - i.e. annual rent is equal to 2% of the apartment's value.

Houston has nothing like that. Its land prices are too stable, which forces yields upward. This means that renting in Houston doesn't cost that much less than renting in New York. A mortgage would be far more expensive, once one factors out the mortgage tax credit, a federal subsidy to owners paid by extra taxes on renters.

Michael said...


>>The thing is, if you're lower on the totem pole in NYC or the bay area, you're going to be lower on the totem pole in Houston too. The cost of living may be lower, but so are the salaries. Plus, it's Houston.

This is not necessarily true. For tech jobs in Houston, you can get paid around 90% of what your counterparts in San Jose / New York make. I know this because I have friends working in the Bay area, and because I've known people that transferred from Houston to San Jose and back. They do get a cost of living bump when they work in other areas, but it hardly pays for the true change in lifestyle. Someone like Forbes recently compared all the major metros for tech jobs and determined Houston had the highest cost-of living adjusted median salary at something like $103,000.

Meanwhile, if you make close to 6 figures in Houston, you can live pretty much like a king - want a 4000 sqft place in the burbs? Not a problem. Want a 2000 sqft brand new place close to downtown - again not a problem. Try doing that in SF or NYC. Of course, overall SF and NYC are still trendier and way cooler than Houston - I don't dispute that. But there is something to be said for living in a "moderately cool" city that is going through a great renaissance like Houston and getting to see it happen all first-hand. Plus you can live in these places and still have a lot of money left over to go to restaurants, bars, take trips, etc...

>>Oh yeah, and if you're going to compare Houston to LA, LA already has something that Houston doesn't: rapid transit.

Not true - Houston already has light-rail, park and ride bus on the most extensive High Occupancy Vehicle network in the country (110 miles), and has just started building one of the 4 (or 5) more light rail lines which should be operational by 2012 and will connect all of the major employment centers inside the loop with plans to extend to the region's 2 airports by 2025. Commuter rail is also being investigated and a few lines could be open sharing tracks with freight within 3 years. But, you are correct that LA's system is more extensive at present.

>>The weather

Yes, the summer is hot in Houston. But aside from California, most places have seasons where the weather either gets pretty hot, or pretty cold (see Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Vegas, NYC, etc). If I had to choose between a place that is 20 degrees in the winter or 95 in the summer, I'll take the warmer climate. Plus the immigrants from Vietnam, Mexico, and India think Houston's climate is great - reminds them of home.


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