The Houston v. NYC debate is about anything and everything in urbanism

Who would even compare cities as diametrically opposed as Houston and NYC?

The Texas Monthly, a really excellent news magazine, made other headlines recently with an article claiming Houston is now more expensive than NYC. The article was picked up by Planetizen, Reason, Nerd Wallet, and others – and Houston itself has always been a poster child for market urbanism and people who write about that sort of stuff. I spent my elementary school years growing up in the Bayou City, enamored with its lush landscape and gleaming towers, but completely unaware of the world outside of Texas.

The perfect theoretical capsule

It’s true that Houston is the nation’s largest city without formal land use (Euclidean) zoning, but this fails to recognize that Houston is instead tightly regulated by urban design codes, parking ratios, and unfortunately – archaic covenant restrictions. The Market Urbanism blog has written about the role of Houston’s covenant and deed restrictions in going far beyond how Euclidian zoning regulates land use planning. In Houston, a subdivision developer (perhaps even before the Civil Rights era) would place a deed on homes regulating landscaping, design elements, prohibitions on home businesses, among other aspects that may affect enduring home values – including racial biases.

On the flip side, Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. This is a fact, albeit a surprising one for folks who have never been to the nation’s 4th largest city – and corroborated by sources such as Rice U’s Kinder Institute, the LA Times, Austin Statesman, Wallet Hub, and others. Houston is less than 25% non-Hispanic white, whereas NYC is 33%. NYC might be the financial capital of the world, but the conventional logic behind Houston’s success is that the city’s low-cost environment buoys opportunity for immigrants from around the world.

Joel Kotkin is an intellectual who has made a career out of fighting progressivism and urbanism, the bard behind the pro-Trump New Geography blog, and the founder of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His central thesis is that sprawl is good for housing affordability, which is good for families and the economy, ergo we must oppose urbanism and density. His model city is Houston.

Kotkin is not wrong about sprawl and affordability, but the next jump to that being a good thing is complicated. It’s good if you have a ton of kids, a minivan or a big truck, and need a large ranch house; it’s bad if you’re trying to build equity with an asset, or if you like to walk or support local businesses over chains. It’s not carte blanche either way, and as Houston has grown to Chicago’s size and scale, the Bayou City increasingly wants “nice things” as well: urban parks, walkability, transit, infill, historic preservation, and social services. When you broaden the discussion of the urban transformation (or evolution) of Houston to include the very real climate threat facing the Bayou City, there is a very real battle underway for the soul of Houston, as Kotkin calls it.

Where the rubber meets the road

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Kotkin never seems to consider transportation in Houston, which as a former Houstonian, is arguably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that city in particular. I grew up on the far west side of Houston – my mother commuted about 1 hour each way to Greenwood Plaza (inner southwest) and my step father commuted about 2 hours each way to the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake. My parents just weren’t around much during our time in Houston. Most of my friends’ parents commuted several hours a day. While time is money, commuting is also real money, and this gets us to the central thesis of Texas Monthly’s rebuttal of Houston’s affordability premise: Cost of living is relative.

“The annual median household income in Houston was just under $61,000 in 2016, while in New York that same figure was just over $69,000. As a result, Houstonians spend just under 50 percent of their income on those combined costs, whereas New Yorkers spend just over 45 percent.” – Texas Monthly, 1/17/20

You always start with income levels, which in Houston actually aren’t low. The ratio of housing expense to income tells one story, while the ratio of transportation expense tells a vastly different story. You can do this for any city via the H+T Index (Housing and Transportation). This is actually an incredible resource where you could spend hours. One of the coolest features are their H+T affordability maps, for which here are just a few major cities:

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NYC

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Houston

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Denver

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LA

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Dallas

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Chicago

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Philly

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Twin Cities

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Atlanta

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Bay Area

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Beltway

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Boston

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Columbus

The main takeaway from these metropolitan views is the difference that transportation makes. For instance – DC and SF are fairly close in terms of housing cost and household incomes, but DC’s Metro is far superior to SF’s BART. As a result, DC appears to be a relatively affordable place when you take the broader view. The cities with subpar transit – LA, SF, Denver, and Atlanta – appear to be less affordable when you take the broader view.

For me, this comes down to far more than dollars and sense. I will always choose to live somewhere that I like, maybe even with an occasional change of scenery. Right now that is Denver which is not affordable, while previously that was Columbus which was affordable; I am happier in Colorado (you can’t buy mountains). However, I know a slight majority of people generally live where they were born, many people live where they can get a good job, and when combined you see that the overwhelming majority of people don’t really choose where they live (sorry, Richard Florida). They take the good with the bad. Regardless of where we live, we should all find ways to live together and spread the prosperity.

That said – IF Houston and cities in its class depend on affordability to draw residents, and that doesn’t come through in the end – then that should be the ballgame, right? How many people really prefer cheap sprawl over interesting cities?

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