The freedom to grow

William Murchison:

Plenty of us smart-aleck Dallasites, if we try, can work up a crush on hustling Houston, where the air—leave aside the suffocating humidity—has the tang of freedom.

Houston's historic refusal to direct growth patterns through regulation of private property rights isn't the only factor in the city's rise to eminence and success. It hasn't exactly retarded that rise, either.

Zoning-less Houston leaves it mostly to the marketplace—a/k/a people, doing what people do—to figure out local needs and ways of meeting said needs. Everybody, under the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, has voice in the matter. Yet no central authority, squinting down from Mount Olympus, compels and enforces.

You're right probably to wonder how much longer the nation's fourth most populous city can get away with such a generally sensible approach to development.

The state as a whole, and Houston in particular, confront calls to limit or narrow property rights in the interest, supposedly, of the larger good. That a larger good may exist, metaphysically speaking, isn't the issue here. It's whether private property rights aren't part of that "good"—and whether, consequently, they don't deserve the most scrupulous protection available in a democracy.

At the Legislature, a House committee, responsive to an interim charge from the Speaker, is examining the "effectiveness" of a 1995 law meant to protect property rights but weakened since then by judicial decisions (and too-general language).

Not that Houston voters have had a conversion experience. Yet various political and business leaders are plugging a plan that would let local government—without seeking voter confirmation, as mandated by the city charter—impose development restrictions that could be accused of first cousinship to zoning.


Consider other states and cities that have gone into the planning business. By the estimate of a University of Washington economics professor the state's Growth Management Act, which regulates home-building sites, has driven Seattle house prices $200,000 higher than they otherwise would have been. Thanks, folks.


I think it can be argued that regulating growth was one of the primary causes of the sub prime debacle because it restricted the supply of housing driving up the price to where funny financing was needed for many to qualify for a purchase.

Houston on the other hand has some of the most affordable housing in the country in beautiful neighborhoods. It also has the freedom to change. Neighborhoods are protected by deed restrictions rather than zoning. If a developer wants to make a tender offer to home owners in a given area he has to offer them a premium over the current market price to make the deal happen. In fact this did happen in the Greenway Plaza development near River Oaks and inside the loop. It was clearly a win win deal.

West of the loop some neighborhoods have gone through transitions two or three times in the last 30 years and the home owners profited each time.

Control freak development leads to higher costs for getting approvals for projects and sometimes leads to condemnations where homeowners actually get significantly less for a forced sale of their home.

Out in the country there are even fewer restrictions. The only permit I needed was for a septic tank. I actually built my house above code requirements using 2x6 studs on the outer wall and heavier wiring insulated copper pipes for water. It is super insulated to save on heating and cooling expenses with a three foot overhang to prevent direct sun on the windows except during the winter when sun streams into the south side of the house to warm it.


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