January 23, 2008
The planning and anti-planning debate continues

Here's a little tidbit from anti-planner Randall O'Toole's op-ed on Sunday that caught my eye:

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. In the long run, these problems tend to suppress urban growth and job creation.

The national real estate firm Coldwell Banker reports that, in 2007, a Houston family could buy a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square foot home for $170,000. The same house would cost more than twice that much in Portland and more than eight times as much in San Jose.

I didn't give his statistic much thought at the time, but then I read this story about the new hotness that is the East End, which had some interesting statistics of its own:

The greater East End, which stretches between downtown and the Port of Houston, has long been an ethnically diverse area most recently inhabited by working-class Hispanics.

But a new crop of upwardly mobile homebuyers are coming in from other close-in parts of town where property values have spiked.

"In the Heights and Montrose, if you don't have $300,000, you're not looking at much of anything," said [Robert] Searcy, of Texas Real Estate & Co. "Eastwood has filled that niche for people seeking a house in town and want that urban experience."


The average sale price of a single-family home in Eastwood was $190,918 in 2007, up 31 percent from 2006 and 59 percent since 2002, said East End investor William McWhorter, citing data from the Houston Association of Realtors.

Bill England, a 24-year Eastwood resident who restores old homes in the neighborhood, said bargains are hard to find.

"It's virtually impossible to find a house for under $100,000, and if you do it needs everything in the world done to it," he said.

Prices in Idylwood, a more exclusive nearby community with gently sloping topography, are more stable, but a bit higher, averaging $204,118 in 2007.

"It's always had excellent curb appeal, forced deed restrictions and it's always been cocooned by institutions that surround it," Searcy said, referring to the Villa de Matel Convent and Gus Wortham Golf Course.

Which makes me think that O'Toole is playing a little fast and loose with his terminology here. I haven't seen the Coldwell Banker report that he references, so perhaps I'm about to make a fool of myself, but I'd bet that the $170,000 average price for a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square foot home isn't for the city of Houston only. I'd bet it takes in a good chunk, if not all, of the eight-county greater Houston area, which needless to say is quite a different animal than the city of Houston. If so, this is not even close to an apples-to-apples comparison.

As such, if I'm right then O'Toole's argument pretty much falls apart. If we're not just talking about Houston here, but also Sugar Land and Pasadena and Spring and the Woodlands and Dickinson and Pearland and the vast stretches of unincorporated county lands, then we have to take into account the laws and regulations that those places have. Which, as David Crossley and Christof note, may be as strict or stricter than what Houston has, and may include both "planning" and "zoning". And yet the region continues to grow like gangbusters.

Now of course, Houston is the focus of the debate here, because Mayor White has, however gingerly, suggested that maybe we ought to give some thought to what we're doing in certain places, which has some fat cat developers' panties in a wad. The point we're making here is that this issue is a whole lot more complex and multi-faceted than just "planning" versus "not-planning", and I think it's a disservice for folks like O'Toole to characterize it that way.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, today's letters to the editor run strongly against O'Toole.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 23, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

I also do a little Randal O'Toole fact-checking, particularly vis-a-vis his statements about Portland, OR, where I lived for a while. I love Houston, but Portland was a fantastic place to live, and if anyone tries to paint it as a bad place to live, as O'Toole sort of did, then he is nuts.

Anyway, here's where I write about him and his mathematically dubious comparison of Houston and Portland: http://robertwboyd.blogspot.com/

Posted by: RWB on January 24, 2008 12:56 PM