January 27, 2008
Regulations and growth

This article on the continuing planning/anti-planning debate is quite good, partly because it gives some depth and nuance to the question about how much effect regulation has on housing prices, and partly because it shows the inanity of the anti-planning arguments. Well, actually, it just let some of the louder voices speak, and they did the rest.

Experts agree housing tends to cost more in heavily regulated cities, but they disagree on the importance of this factor compared to others such as land availability and quality of life.

A 2002 report by the Brookings Institution, reviewing previous studies on the relationship between growth management policies and housing prices, says the impact of such policies was difficult to isolate.

"Housing prices are actually determined by a host of interacting factors, such as the price of land, the supply and types of housing, the demand for housing and the amount of residential choice and mobility in the area," the report states.

One measure of a city's housing affordability is the ratio of its median income to its median housing price. By this standard, houses are more affordable in Houston than in Austin, the same as in Dallas and less affordable than in Fort Worth or San Antonio, according to 2006 census data.

All four of the other Texas cities have zoning and comprehensive plans -- tools that Houstonians for Responsible Growth and its advocates argue make housing less affordable.

Wendell Cox, a consultant and writer who met with City Council members recently on behalf of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said an ordinance Houston is developing to regulate certain high-density developments "looks like zoning to me."

"There's almost a one-to-one relationship between regulation and housing affordability," Cox said. He said he could not explain why other Texas cities with zoning have lower median housing prices than Houston's.

"To try to parse why San Antonio's prices may be slightly lower -- that's a very difficult thing that we haven't had time to parse," he said.

It's hell trying to make facts fit into a predetermined theory instead of finding a theory that fits the facts, isn't it? But hey, Wendell Cox is an "Expert" on this subject, so I'm sure he'll come up with something.

Even funnier:

[Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard University economics professor who has studied the relationship between regulation and housing prices,] said problems such as traffic congestion -- the focus of the new high-density ordinance the city is working on -- might be a small price to pay for the economic health associated with new development. If the city feels compelled to enact new regulations, he said, the best approach might be a reasonable fee paid by developers to help offset traffic snarls or other development impacts.

Others are more blunt in arguing that Houstonians should put up with inconvenience in exchange for healthy growth.

"Congestion is actually a sign of prosperity," said Barry Klein, the president of the Houston Property Rights Association. "It's really a minor problem in the big picture."

That's very interesting, because in his anti-planning manifesto from last Sunday, Randal O'Toole said the following:

Cities with strong planning authority, such as Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., almost invariably have the least affordable housing, the fastest growing traffic congestion and growing taxes and/or declining urban services.

Emphasis mine. So Portland, that den of planning and iniquity, has some of the fastest-growing traffic congestion in America. That's bad. But congestion is a sign of prosperity, so it must also be one of the most prosperous cities in America, too. That's good! Well, except that it's Portland, so it must be planned prosperity or something like that. Clearly, we can't have that.

You know, I'm beginning to think that the more these guys talk about planning and growth, the less I'm going to have to. They make my case better than I can. Keep it up, fellas.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 27, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

The incoherency coming from the "planning is evil" crowd is just stunning. First, we have plenty of examples of cities with a high level of planning that are economic superstars - hello, NYC, London, LA, Boston, DC, etc.? Yes, they are expensive and crowded and face many challenges - and people keep flocking to them.

Second is the bizarre assumption that without regulation, housing will stay affordable and everything will be great. As you point out, it already seems not to be borne out in reality.

Finally, there's the idiocy of assuming that this is a binary argument: planning, is it good or bad? Well, bad planning is bad. Good planning is good. This isn't an either/or, and by pretending it is, anti-planning zealots are doing everyone a real disservice. It's an important discussion, and it's not helped by true believers comparing any attempt to plan things to some kind of Soviet-style oppression.

Posted by: John on January 28, 2008 8:10 AM
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