Comment of the Day: Breaking the Cyclical Expansion of the Donut of Despair

COMMENT OF THE DAY: BREAKING THE CYCLICAL EXPANSION OF THE DONUT OF DESPAIR Flaming Donut“Nobody is suggesting that we go back to the old, post-war, car-centric way of developing. Even single family, suburban communities are now being built with something resembling walkability in mind. They have made the houses much more dense, and they have made efforts to link retail to the neighborhoods. But what we risk doing is creating donut cities: with a core of walkability, older suburbs that are not walkable, and a ring of new, sort-of-walkable suburbs. Worse than that, if we continue to starve those older suburbs of investment (on the idea that we don’t want to ‘throw good money after bad’ or whatever), we will create wealthy cores, poor old suburbs, and middle-class new suburbs. Still worse, if we allow this to happen, we will cause more sprawl, because middle class people won’t see the old suburbs as an option, so they’ll keep driving further and further out. At some point, like it or not, we will need to reinvest in those older suburbs – and it’s for the sake of building more sustainable, equitable cities.” [ZAW, commenting on Bellaire’s Hong Kong Chef Serves Last Customers; Sunbelt Cities Are Just Misunderstood; previously on SwamplotIllustration: Lulu

22 Comment

  • First, a walkable core does not have to preclude affordable housing. There are several projects within the loop to provide low-income housing already. Much more needs to be done here, but there are heartening examples emerging like community land trusts and Berlin’s housing cooperatives. This is a problem that can be solved, we just have to be willing to look beyond the for-profit developer model. Yes, this town is built by and for profit-driven development companies but we ought not be doomed by our history.
    Second, I think you’re falling victim to a sunk cost fallacy. Just because we dumped a bunch of money into car-centric post-war suburbs doesn’t mean we have to keep investing. Investing in affordable housing in a walkable core is going to go a lot further on a long-term basis than trying to disperse money into a much wider geographical area to try and marginally improve walkability for a few people.
    Overall, this really boils down to a GDP-per-gCO2 issue. With the prospect of new climate policies and a shift from fossil fuels, we will be at a severe economic disadvantage if we continue to rely on a transportation system with the highest energy intensity. Trying to nibble away at suburbia with overly-complex (and fanciful) solutions like electric driverless cars and cul-de-sac retrofits isn’t the smart move here. At the very least, we can’t keep subsidizing more suburban expansion with new freeways and thoroughfares.

  • This is ignorant point of view… If you are going to center around the west side expansion only, then use a different metaphor. Developers will build what they can sell. If you want affordable, buy in an area that isnt at its peak. Developers are building nice homes in shady areas for affordable pricing, but no one will look there because its not a hot spot.

  • ….and how is this not what we already have in Houston?
    Doesn’t matter what coast, state or city you belong to; even now the US is continuing to suburbanize and with new developments geared towards older/wealthier households this is not a trend that will be changing course in my lifetime (older millenial).

  • You people need to realize that not everyone can afford to live in the center of town. People drive because they have to. These comment sections are full of a bunch of inner loop snobbery, NOT EVERYONE CAN MAKE PAYMENTS ON A $600,000 MORTGAGE FYI.

  • @Derek: a handful of projects isn’t going to solve Houston’s affordable housing problem. It needs to be a systemic approach – a tax credit or whatever to incentivize investment in housing city-wide. And even if that handful of affordable housing projects did make as big a difference as you think, at some point you’ll find that there just isn’t room for everyone in the urban core. You will have to build (read: invest) on the periphery. The question then is: do we keep developing in the exurbs (the periphery of the periphery), or do we go to the edge of the urban core, into (you guessed it) the postwar suburbs that nobody wants to talk about? I would vote for the latter, because it’s closer and it will mean less sprawl.
    Your second statement, about the “sunken cost fallacy” really makes my blood boil. You are saying that we should let the older suburbs rot? When drainage pipes break just leave them broken? To make people move, like you say they should, (for the sake of driving less) to the dense urban core? Leave large portions of Houston (and Phoenix, and other cities) in ruins?
    Please correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t want to be pissed off like I am at this. But your plan to divest from older neighborhoods would have catastrophic effects on people AND the environment.

  • People “have to” live farther out because they “have to” have absurdly oversized houses. Nothing wrong with a big house if you have the money and it makes you happy, but the idea that a family of four needs a 2800 square foot house is kind of dumb.

  • @walmart – I bought my inner loop house for $180k. I can walk to Hermann Park and the Science Museum. But I’m on the “wrong” side of the freeway, so most people don’t consider my neighborhood when shopping for a home. I think what you mean is, people can’t afford a $600k mortgage to live in the white, low-crime and popular parts of the center of town. I’m with MrClean on this one.

  • There’s lots of affordable housing, and lots of space for it, in Houston. How many houses do we see getting knocked down in Denver Harbor, the Third, and the Fifth, with no replacement on the DDR? But if you have to put affordable housing at the corner of Westheimer and Fountain View, you’re going to blow a lot of money on it without housing that many people.

    The affordable housing is not that high quality, and if you want to invest money in improving its quality, that would probably be a lot cheaper than building a few one-off projects in already densely populated areas.

  • @Superdave, if you buy in town, but on the wrong side, it’s quite likely that you’re looking at a similar commute time to work as if you lived in the suburbs. Reducing rush hour commute time is one of the biggest reasons to throw down big cash to live in town, if not the single biggest reason. The reason there’s a right & wrong side that has even developed in the inner loop has everything to do with distance and commute time to the high paying jobs which are located more in the western/northern districts of town. If it was the opposite you can be assured the other side of the loop would have gentrified a long time ago. If I can’t live inside the loop without having to cross through downtown and with easy access to I10 then I would be living in Katy. Same thing for a lot of folks putting up with the overpriced housing in the montrose/heights areas.
    @John (another one), While size of the house is important for many people, I’m quite certain the primary driver is lot sizes. I honestly haven’t seen any difference in square footage between new builds in-town and new builds in the suburbs. People want yards and personal space (perhaps not need, but it’s a massive lifestyle change for a family) which does not come cheap in the loop.

  • @ZAW I’m not saying abandon the inner ring, it certainly has to be maintained. However, we don’t need to be spending money on new infrastructure for those areas or on trying to retrofit them. If we focus on good urbanism and transit in the core areas, the inner ring suburbs still have value as a detached housing choice that, if you _really_ want to drive everywhere, at least it’s a shorter drive/bike than the exurbs.

  • I don’t agree with the quasi-suburban-tract home design, but that is a nice house in a very convenient location, MrClean. The problem is that most families will steer clear because of the schools. (They’re horrible: the middle school is the highest ranked and it scores a 3 out of 10 on the Greatschools scale. The elementary and high schools get 1s.). You can slice it and dice it all you want, but for a lot of people with kids, schools really matter: if they’re going to spend $225k on a house they will expect good schools. Actually if they don’t care how far they commute (and don’t care about the environment) they could go out to Rosenberg, save $60k on their house, and be in schools that score 7s and 8s on the Greatschools scale.
    This is really my point. It’s time to stop pointing fingers and start investing in the things that will make people return to inner AND MIDRANGE neighborhoods. Whether it’s the Fifth Ward or Sharpstown (whether it’s prewar or postwar development), there are environmental merits to living there, but also significant hurdles (like failing schools) that need to be addressed.

  • Y’all are overthinking. Improve the school options and people will come in droves to the “donut of despair.” Don’t improve the school options and you can build all the amenities in the world and they won’t move back in at a critical mass. The key is magnets where misbehaving students lose privileges to attend. The students that want to learn, learn, and the education is what you make of it.

  • @Superdave, I’m guessing you don’t have kids. I live on the “wrong side” of the highway too, which is great without children. But the schools on this side of town are terrible, and when you factor in the cost of private school (plus the likely cross-town commute involved in getting the kids to private school), you might as well put that money into a house or move out to the burbs.

  • @joel I think it has less to do with the location of high-paying jobs, and more about proximity to the Ship Channel and its pollution. If you look at wind pattern maps, all the historically least-desirable areas are where prevailing winds off the coast end up tending to blow pollution originating from the Ship Channel. The high-income jobs are located west of downtown because that’s where the high-income people wanted to live, not the other way around.

    This isn’t specific to Houston, either – the west side of most North American cities tends to be the more desirable side, owing to prevailing winds and the location of dirty industrial areas. Chicago is an excellent example – the south side being less desirable owing to its location downwind (south and east) of the massive stockyards that existed there a century ago.

  • I don’t think it’s home or lot size driving people to newer development in the outer suburbs instead of inner or middle suburbs. It’s perception of school quality, most importantly, followed by the desire for newer homes and their associated features instead of 1960s to 1990s houses. Most of the public schools in the inner and middle suburbs are viewed by the upper middle class as undesirable or flat-out failures.

  • Since relevant to discussion thought I’d post this. Was results from a BoA poll released today. Not that America could ever have a more urban population compared to other industrialized countries due to our taxes and income structure, this just confirms that the suburbanization of America will continue full throttle unless you drastically change how we price carbon footprints. The reason we call it gentrification is because it’s primarily only high-income whites trying to move back into the city right now.
    “52% of first-time home buyers want a home in the suburbs. Only 26% said they wanted to live in the city and 22% said they wanted to live in a rural area. A full 75% of first-time home buyers want a single-family home.”

  • I’m curious about any correlation between number of children and self identifying as an “urbanist”.

  • TONS of afforable homes / apartemnts near the core and inside the loop. Just have to look east of 288.
    We have nice clean 2 bed units, central air, steps from a light rail stop. a few miles from 288 and med center, for under $700. I won’t link them because I’m not trying to advertise — but people act like you have to be a 1%’er to live in a walkable area. No, you just have to look outside of 77006

  • Basically I’ll echo what Superdave said. He’s 100% right on.

  • @cody – I think you should link them because only 5 hits came up on HAR east of 288 with 2 bedrooms for 750 or less. The only one under 700 was not nice.

    Also, schools. Cody and Dave just ignore that entire point.

  • I think gutting and renovating homes to be LEED Certified (and also acoustic/vibration and air-filtration-purity certified) would be a good move. It’s one thing if a neighborhood moves up the ladder based on valuation alone, it’s something else entirely if you could convince buyers that the price of a renovated detached single-family house includes serious and well-documented quality improvements.
    Though I’m no expert by any stretch, it also stands to reason that valuation-based property taxes wouldn’t affect nearby non-improved properties since those properties would by definition not be improved in the same way if they didn’t have the same certification. That would alleviate concerns about gentrification, and also wouldn’t shut the door to late-adopters and late-arrivals pursuing the same course of home improvement expecting identical results.
    About the schools thing – Houston seems progressive enough about charter schools and the like. If enough people demand it, and given enough time, there would have to be a solution.

  • @Commenter7, back in the 80s, the way to find cheap clean individual-owned (or small-company-owned) apartments was to ride your bike around the neighborhood looking for yard signs that were either handwritten or cheaply printed and reused. Most of these places — garage apartments, duplexes thru quadplexes, small bungalows — never advertised through the big-time channels, which back then was the Chron. Sometimes you’d find their ads in the Greensheet. These days, I’d imagine there are probably still some long-time owners who rent property this way. I’d say some of them might advertise on Craigslist, but that’s gotten sketchy lately.