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The value of cheap housing

Photograph Houston Sunrise by Cliff Baise on 500px

Houston Sunrise by Cliff Baise on 500px

Urbanists generally don’t like to talk about cities like Houston. It sprawls. It’s car oriented. It’s over air-conditioned. In other words, it’s the antithesis of the dense and walkable cities that urbanists today like to tout as being exemplary. 

But despite all this, Houston is one of, if not the, fastest growing city in America. According to The Economist, the population of the Houston metro area grew faster than any other city in America between 2000 and 2010. And between 2009 and 2013, its real GDP grew by 22%.

So why is that? Here’s a snippet from that same Economist article (“Life in the sprawl”):

Paradoxically, perhaps the city’s biggest strength is its sprawl. Unlike most other big cities in America, Houston has no zoning code, so it is quick to respond to demand for housing and office space. Last year authorities in the Houston metropolitan area, with a population of 6.2m, issued permits to build 64,000 homes. The entire state of California, with a population of 39m, issued just 83,000. Houston’s reliance on the car and air-conditioning is environmentally destructive and unattractive to well-off singletons. But for families on moderate incomes, it is a place to live well cheaply.

So while Houston may not check off all of Jane Jacobs’ boxes, it does provide one important thing: cheap housing. And that’s clearly valuable for a huge number of people.

But the other interesting thing about the snippet above, is that it starts to illustrate how frequently supply constrained markets operate with housing deficits. 

The fact that the entire state of California issued only about 30% more building permits than the Houston metro – which you could easily argue is closer to a “perfect market” – tells me that there’s probably a lot of people bidding for the same housing in California.

That’s less so the case in Houston.

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