Texas Shows that Regional Planning is the Key to Affordable Housing

 LBJ All the Freeway? (dallas news)

LBJ All the Freeway? (dallas news)

The US Census released a report last week stating that 5 of the nations's 11 fastest growing cities (by pop %) are in Texas while the state also contains 5 of the 8 big cities that added the most people (by raw numbers) from July 2014 to July 2015.  There are some broad demographic trends as to why Texas is experiencing a population boom and specific economic trends as to why Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin are all growing, but certainly times are good for the state in many ways.  

In this post, we will discuss why this boom in Texas is in fact deeply flawed and unsustainable.  The state's aversion to regional planning, particularly in regards to transportation and density, is bound to diminish the state's gains and in some cases already is.  And although Texas is known for cheap housing, the true costs are hidden and are going to rise significantly if the state don't change its approach. This has huge implications for how and if Texas will prosper in a 21st century that already looks very different from the 20th century.

A Lone Star in a Dark Sky?

Texas prides itself on its unique identity (to be fair, I haven't seen a state that doesn't) but it does have the cred to say that it was its own country for a decade from 1836-1845 (and some want it to be again). Part of this identity, perhaps the biggest part, has thus been its extremely laissez-faire approach to governing.  Bitching about the federal government has been a long-held tradition in southern states (with deeply problematic principles driving them at times), but Texas has taken it to an extreme while also equally bitching about their state government (even though it sort of only meets every two years).  

 It didn't work out for these 'gentrifiers' at the time (lennar)

It didn't work out for these 'gentrifiers' at the time (lennar)

This philosophy has made Texas one of the least regulated and taxed states in the country with one of the smallest reaches of state government.  You can make the argument that those factors have created an ideal business environment, which explains the population and economic boom, and there is, taking a narrow approach, merit to it.  

You can also make the argument that as a consequence, there is a large and growing underclass of increasingly isolated residents (the majority of which are minorities) who don't have access to basic services and economic mobility. Poverty rates in Texas have consistently been higher than the national average since at least 1959.  In addition to a large concentration of chronic poverty along the US-Mexican border, poverty has been exploding in Texas' cities.  This is partly because Texas has allowed loose local housing policies that encouraged racial and economic segregation, which the Supreme Court recently struck down.  This paints a more complicated picture of the boom, one that shows how limited the access to it has been for many in the state. It also shows a troubling sign that Texas is heading for an even more divided, unequal future if it doesn't address these issues now.

Housing is a helpful vehicle to see why the Texas model of low taxes, limited services, and a lack of regional planning is deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable.  It is undeniably cheaper to own or rent a home in Texas compared to most coastal states with similar populations and economic output (I recognize I'm discounting most of the country with that qualification, but go with it for this post).  Take a look at some average home prices from 2015 to compare: LA ($530,000), NYC ($375,000), Houston ($162,000), and San Antonio ($128,000).  

Drawl and Sprawl

Sprawl is the easiest way to explain why housing is so cheap.  Unlike virtually every other major coastal city, there is an abundance of undeveloped, unobstructed land surrounding cities in Texas and effectively no regulations on its use, which makes new development (rather than in-fill) extremely attractive and inexpensive. With a maze of federally-funded highways throughout the state, it is easy and cheap to connect these communities to the larger metropolitan areas.  Sprawl is a deeply polarizing concept for sure and in the future I'll focus another post on it generally, but it certainly defines the built environment in Texas.

How sprawl plays out in Texas reveals some of the frustrating quirks about how we define cities in the US and why planning regionally can be so difficult as a result - whether in Texas or other states. The US Census measures cities in a couple of ways - the actual population of a city as defined by its municipal boundaries and the metropolitan area which generally consists of the main city and its surrounding satellite communities. These distinctions vary greatly depending on how a state allows a city to incorporate and if, like in NYC, the urban region includes communities in other states. Often times this means that the boundaries of cities are artificial and don't accurately represent the reach of an urban region, which can undermine how that region organizes and functions.  Texas is a unique example of this problem because as weirdly anti-government it is on the federal and state level, it allows its cities expansive power to grow. This doesn't necessarily mean that cities are powerful, however.

 San Antonio's annexation history and a recent proposal for more (WSJ)

San Antonio's annexation history and a recent proposal for more (WSJ)

The major cities in Texas are physically huge.  For example, San Antonio (467 sq miles) is nearly identical in size to NYC (469 sq miles). By annexing large swaths of surrounding towns throughout much of the 20th century (partly to increase local revenues in the absence or state sources), the city, like the other large cities in Texas, expanded its population dramatically while not adopting more traditional elements of urban density and infrastructure (and it isn't done). Despite its physical footprint, it only has a population of 1.4 million (vs NYC's 8.55 million) spread out in low-density neighborhoods. So, though it is the 7th largest city in the US, it is only the 25th largest metropolitan region because it includes most of what would be independent suburbs or ring cities in other cities across the country. On the flip side, Boston is 24th in city population (655,000) and 10th in metropolitan region with 4.77m.

All the Pretty Houses

Despite the size of major cities in Texas, there are still many communities surrounding these cities (and in some cases, as you can see in the above map of San Antonio, surrounded by these cities) that are not part of the city population and operate independently. They tend to fall into two categories: wealthy enclaves that are highly white and rapidly growing communities on the edges of city limits that are also highly white.

San Antonio (median family income: $53,000; 26.6% white) offers a good example.  In the first case, Olmos Park ($129,000; 94% white) and Alamo Heights ($87,000; 95% white) which are two cities just north of the downtown core but are entirely surrounded by the city.  They were developed enough, and wealthy enough, to resist annexation by San Antonio in the early 20th century (which was heavily Mexican-American and remains so.)

New Braunfels, the second fastest growing city in America over 50,000 residents according to the US Census report, is just northeast of San Antonio and has benefited from its proximity (while maintaining its own super-weird city limits). I-35 runs right through the center of the city making it easy to commute to and from San Antonio but the city was far enough to avoid annexation.  It has a median family income of about $66,000 and is 84% white.  Given its growth and makeup there is little incentive for them to join the larger city.

This size vs power irony about cities isn't totally unique to Texas (many states have huge metropolitan boundaries for their major cities). Because of their sheer size, cities in Texas could have a greater capacity at regional planning (I use 'regional' since they basically operate at that level given their coverage), but in practice, the weak nature of governing in the state makes it almost impossible, as seen by what communities can 'opt out' of the larger municipality. Having isolated pockets of extreme wealth and rapid growth hurt the ability for these major cities to plan as a whole and deny them the benefits of these communities' resources - while those pockets can selectively benefit from the major city.

Okay, so how does this affect housing in these cities? Sure, Texas doesn't plan regionally, but housing is cheap so why does it matter? The two main things to consider in this conversation are the cost of transportation and the cost of low-density.

 Highly stylized, slowly mobilized (bexarwitness)

Highly stylized, slowly mobilized (bexarwitness)

The Cost of Transportation

As cheap as it is to build housing further and further from the urban core along the highway, traffic and congestion have real costs. Texas has terrible, soul-sucking traffic because there are few, if any, transportation alternatives.  A 2014 study claimed that traffic cost Texans $25 billion a year. This report strictly measures the cost of delays in gas, operating vehicles, and infrastructure maintenance, which is to say it doesn't even count the considerable environmental costs, lost economic activity, and opportunity costs of the people delayed.  

There was also a recent study from the Federal Highway Administration that showed the dramatic difference between transportation costs for auto-dependent households and what they call 'location efficient' households.  The auto-dependent family commuting from the exurbs pays 25% of their income for transportation costs while the location efficient family living in high density and public transit rich locations pays 9%. 

These numbers show that although housing is cheaper, much of those savings are evaporated by transportation costs - both directly and indirectly. The almost-historically low price of gas right now has alleviated some of the personal costs (although it has probably increased traffic in these metros) but the shared public costs - the negative externalities on infrastructure maintenance, lost economic activity, and environmental quality - will continue to have real and lasting affects on these communities.

Despite these traffic problems across Texas, there has been more (unsuccessful) talk about high-speed trains connecting the major Texas cities then there has been about improving the inter-city transportation networks. There are some compelling arguments for a network of high speed trains to connect cities, and not just in Texas.  But the gains of connecting cities pail in comparison to connecting neighborhoods and surrounding ring cities.  

 

 Houston's bus system redesign is a model for regional planning (getty)

Houston's bus system redesign is a model for regional planning (getty)

Houston, often maligned in this blog, has revolutionized its bus system to improve service across its major bus routes by simplifying its coverage to increase ridership along main arteries - all while maintaining current costs. It shows how even small reorganizations of existing systems can improve transit access which has positive economic and environmental results.  It's not a panacea by any stretch, but its a much needed step that shows how a regional approach (again, given the size of Houston, I use 'regional' even though its just within city limits) can produce big gains.

Other cities in Texas should take note of Houston.  Returning to San Antonio for a moment, their public transit system, the VIA, has 91 bus routes, 3 street car lines with 540 stops and a daily ridership of 150,000. That's for a city of 1.4 million people spread over 467 square miles.  There have been discussions of expanding light rail service and a high-speed Austin connection to alleviate traffic on I-35, but both have met resistance from people who say these are expensive solutions that won't bring significant gains.  

 Could be anywhere (but in this case, Houston) (dwell)

Could be anywhere (but in this case, Houston) (dwell)

The Cost of Low-Density

In the short term, those opinions are right, which brings us to the cost of low-density.  San Antonio just won't benefit from either rail project given how low-density the majority of its neighborhoods are.  People would still have to drive to transit stations (a problem that bedevils other light rail projects across the country.) NYC's MTA covers 25 rapid transit routes, and 310 bus routes for a daily ridership of 7.9 million daily riders across the city's 467 square miles. Apples to oranges with San Antonio, but it shows how density makes NYC's system useful. (It also shows how planning for density ahead of time can encourage sustainable high-growth.) If it is easy to walk to the nearest transit station, ridership numbers will increase dramatically.  If you are already in your car, you're less likely to park and ride and more likely to continue with your trip, even if you are sitting in traffic and paying a lot to do so.

It's not to say that all cities should or could have the same hyper-density of Manhattan, but there are studies have shown that regions with more density perform better economically. Some of this is of course a product of the physical geography of many coastal cities and the scarcity of land around them.  But that scarcity has forced land to be used more productively and the benefits of density are clear.  This has related benefits of concentrating services and amenities in easily accessible ways for multitudes of people.  Density makes it easier for non-drivers (whether they are too old, too young, or too poor) to participate in the economic and civic life of a city.  

 San Antonio Riverwalk: A vision of walkable (and boatable, I guess) Texas (ron niebrugge)

San Antonio Riverwalk: A vision of walkable (and boatable, I guess) Texas (ron niebrugge)

This is where regional planning can have a huge impact in Texas.  In addition to thinking spatially, regional planning allows a city to think temporally.  Regional planning is by definition a future-focused endeavor that allows a city to think about the long-term allocation of resources.  San Antonio can't radically alter its low-density over night, nor can it solve its transportation woes with one-off rail expansion.  But if it has the power to plan in terms of years and even decades, it can create the incremental steps now to foster more density (and all of its economic and environmental benefits) in the long-run. For example, if the VIA can use population projections and existing route data to measure where demand will be, just as Houston did, it can plan to steadily improve existing service and increase ridership over a period of years that will have significant economic gains for minimal cost increases - all while building the case to expand rail services.

Please, Mess with Texas

I've already mentioned the growing divide between rich and poor in Texas, but it's important to focus on how disproportionately the costs of transportation and low-density fall on them. It's also important to understand why that is and will continue to be such a huge problem for the state.  Whether those costs are absorbed directly through paying more money to get to where jobs are or indirectly through greater health risks associated with living near highways (which were purposely constructed through poorer, non-white communities across the nation) the poor are losing out under the current boom in Texas, which means they will continue to into the future.

One probable result of this concentration of poverty (and one that is particularly ironic given residents' aversion to taxes and state programs) is that Texas has the largest prison population in the US (155,000 men and women) and spends $3.3 billion a year on its justice system.  The justice system in Texas and the US are complex issues, so I don't want to oversimplify here, but the correlation between poverty and prison populations is simply impossible for us to ignore.  Better transportation and land-use policies do cost taxpayers, but they also have economic benefits and can reduce many social factors that contribute to a massive, expensive criminal justice system.  It is easy to see how regional planning, coupled with social integration programs, can actually save Texas money. 

 The Future of Texas could be bright (dallas news)

The Future of Texas could be bright (dallas news)

Because the non-white population of Texas is expected to eclipse the white population over the next decade, the issues of access and identity that have already started to create political tension in the state, will only increase.  Without laying the foundation now, when the economy is booming,  for expanding regional planning (and by extension, for expanding the inclusive nature of city services and economic benefits), Texas risks becoming a more divided, conflict-riddled state that won't be able to cope with the changing landscape of the country, its climate, and its economy. 

Economies go through booms and busts and Texas is no different. Planning is what separates the ones who have lasting benefits through booms from the ones that have lasting consequences from the busts. Because of the abundance of cheap, accessible land, Texas has never run into natural restraints that force discussions around more productive land-use.  Its cultural history has created a genuine if contradictory hostility to government that resists state and even local municipal intervention.  Its economic history has put significant value on the private ownership of public resources that has embedded a nearly-religious devotion to individualism at the expense of collective organization and participation. In the short-term these qualities might seem like virtues, but climate change, demography, and globalization - elements that are already having an impact on Texas - are turning them into long-term vices. It will be up to Texans of all shapes, sizes, and color to see the upside of planning ahead.