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The Price Rises On Houston’s ‘Cheap’ Housing

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The Price Rises On Houston’s ‘Cheap’ Housing


Reprinted with permission from Creators.


As the floodwaters recede, much of Houston’s famously “affordable” housing may seem less of a bargain. We’re not just talking about rising rents, inevitable with so many units destroyed. We are talking about the emotional cost of having to move in with friends, rebuild and buy new furniture more than once in a lifetime.

Floods have been a regular occurrence in Houston, but the city’s lack of zoning and sloppy land-use practices made matters worse. Developers had covered land that could absorb water and built willy-nilly in floodplains.

The disaster in Houston has put many conservatives on the defensive. Houston was their urban model. Developers could put almost anything anywhere, which lowered the cost of living. By unfavorable comparison, “elite” coastal cities that regulate development have relatively high housing costs.

But it’s an extreme creed that portrays regulation as the enemy of investment. In the real world, smart regulation can protect investments.

Libertarian Joel Kotkin has long touted Houston as “America’s Opportunity City” — the product of its freeway-driven sprawl and no zoning. “The once-depopulating Fifth Ward,” he wrote approvingly, “has seen a surge of new housing — much of it for middle-income African-Americans.”

That was pre-Harvey. Last week, Fifth Ward residents found themselves waist-deep in water, their possessions ruined. Now they fear that nearby industrial sites may be leaking toxic compounds into the mix.

Kotkin’s Center for Opportunity Urbanism now blames the area’s clay soil (doesn’t absorb water well) and flatness (doesn’t drain well) for much of the flooding. Well, isn’t that all the more reason to preserve wetlands and pave less?

The constant carping at expensive coastal cities tends to ignore that their land areas are hemmed in by major bodies of water. Houston could grow and grow into the limitless Texas plains. The Atlantic Ocean curbs New York’s sprawl. The Pacific limits San Francisco’s.

In praising the Houston way, Kotkin points out that the average one-bedroom home rents for 60 percent less in Houston than in San Jose, California. It’s odd how free-marketeers often ignore free markets. The cost of housing is high in San Jose because lots of people want to live there. It’s a supply and demand thing.

Some people consider long commutes in heavy traffic a fair trade for more square footage. Others want a walkable environment ensured by urban planning and are obviously willing to pay for the privilege. It’s a free country.

Conservatives unwilling to seriously confront climate change are trying to avoid evidence of its role in the Houston calamity. The Wall Street Journal fights the notion, widely shared by leading climatologists, that global warming has made storms like Harvey fiercer.

“No amount of flood control could have prevented damage from a once-in-500-years storm,” an editorial said.

Perhaps true, but Harvey was Houston’s third 500-year flood in three years. Something’s happening up there, ya think?

Of course, all debates on Houston’s affordability must now be conducted in the past tense. With an estimated 60,000 housing units no longer viable, rents are sure to rise. Furthermore, the “affordable” housing seems to have suffered far more in the floods than the luxury buildings.

Another risk is that taxpayer hearts will harden toward the National Flood Insurance Program. In the wake of Katrina, Sandy and now Harvey, this subsidy for homeowners who live in flood-prone places has come under increasing attack. Serious reform would place the risks more squarely on the owners of vulnerable properties.

However one feels about the Houston way, our fourth-largest city has excelled as a vibrant center for commerce, culture, medicine and education. May Houston recover as Opportunity City — but also add to its list of nicknames Responsibility City.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.


Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop’s nationally syndicated column appears in over 150 newspapers. Media Matters ranks her column 20th nationally in total readership and 14th in large newspaper concentration. Harrop has been a guest on PBS, MSNBC, Fox News and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and is a frequent voice on NPR and talk radio stations in every time zone as well.

A Loeb Award finalist for economic commentary in 2004 and again in 2011, Harrop was also a Scripps Howard Award finalist for commentary in 2010. She has been honored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and the New England Associated Press News Executives Association has given her five awards.

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  1. Lynda Groom September 6, 2017

    Regulations we don’t need no regulations. Let freedumb ring!

    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth September 7, 2017

      Mel Brooks could have used that line in “Blazing Saddles”—“Regulations? We don’t need no stinkin’ Regulations! “.

  2. Paul Williamson September 6, 2017

    Let these non-regulators and climate change deniers drown in their own mud. Old Texas cowboy saying :”Life is tough. It is even tougher when you are stupid”

    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth September 7, 2017

      Well said and to the point. Being knaves, the GOP by and large can only learn by having a hole bored through the head.

    2. MariaDMartin September 7, 2017

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family!!!
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it >>>http://GoogleFinancialJobsCash161TopLove/GetPay$97/Hour……

  3. Dapper Dan September 6, 2017

    So we’ve now had three 500 year storms now. Where did those 1500 years go anyway ? ????

    1. PrecipitousDrop September 7, 2017

      Time flies…

  4. dpaano September 6, 2017

    Typical republican state that fails to understand or agree that climate change DOES have a consequence; i.e., hurricanes, what do they expect? Until they change their hard-headed views and realize that this is a REAL thing, they will see the same thing happen over and over again!

  5. Beethoven September 7, 2017

    We need to give them a tough choice. We need to say that we will help them rebuild and pay for their flood losses, but only if they agree to regulations that reduce the chances of flood losses in the future and reduce the costs of rebuilding from future flood losses. If they want our help, they have to agree to the regulations; if they don’t like the regulations and don’t want to accept them, then we need to tell them they’re on their own as far as paying for their losses and the costs of rebuilding.

    1. PrecipitousDrop September 7, 2017

      You’re making too much sense!

    2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth September 7, 2017

      ABSOLUTELY! The Conservatives bitched and moan—and still do—about the previous Administration’s plan of bailing out the Auto Industry. And so, it would be fitting to demand that Houston officials and the GOP readjust their brains by switching off the “I Hate Regulation” module implant in their collective heads.

    3. FireBaron September 7, 2017

      WHAT! You are encouraging Socialism by allowing the Federal Government to help Houston rebuild? Why that’s not what Ayn Rand would tell them to do! According to her, “The Market” should be able to take care of this!
      Of course, please note that Rand and her husband both enjoyed the benefits of Social Security and Medicare in their later years – something the GOP tries to ignore.

  6. Aaron_of_Portsmouth September 7, 2017

    The recent Houston is proving to be a graphic metaphor of the moral and intellectual failure of Conservative thinking. With such a numbskull perspective on life, humanity, and an absence of clear thinking and perception, the GOP apparatus has shown itself the ultimate folly in administering the affairs of society.

    God does work in mysterious ways. Were it not for Harvey blowing in, the Neanderthal Homer Simpson mindset of the GOP would still be planning the erection of “Houston” ‘s all over the country, dotting the coastal regions with concrete-encrusted landscapes.

    Will the GOP learn from this one tragic mistake of conservative-motivated greed?Probably not.
    Will the GOP continue a pell mell rush to self-destruction? Most likely.
    Will Trump continue his rampage like a maniacal bull in a china shop? Most definitely.
    Is the GOP concerned with the well-being of ALL Americans? No, they are not.

  7. FireBaron September 7, 2017

    Houston has been the poster child of what is wrong when you don’t have zoning or proper planning. Here are some examples of Houston Property Development:
    Hey, let’s build a refinery in the middle of that residential neighborhood!
    Hey, let’s build a residential neighborhood around that chemical plant. That means the workers can walk to their jobs.
    Hey, let’s build this high rise on this block with three story buildings.
    Hey, let’s backfill that bayou and build a development there.
    Hey, let’s pave over that field that used to provide drainage.
    I could go on, but I won’t.


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