Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Sky is Falling

It is quite easy, and common, to make dire predictions about the future and demand immediate action. This has been a common political tactic for centuries. There are two interesting aspects to these predictions: they almost never come true, and the proposed solution invariably involves an expansion of government powers.

Consider for example, zoning in Houston. Pro-zoners have been voicing the same dire predictions for nearly 80 years. In a 1960 report, the Houston Commission on Zoning stated that “we must now zone ourselves so that our children may live in a city that is not chaotic.” Twenty years later, Houston Post editor Lynn Ashby wrote in support of zoning: “[W]e are probably creating an unlivable city for our grandchildren. . . .”

Today Houston is regarded as the most affordable major city in the nation. We can only conclude that affordability is not a criteria for livability. The predictions of 1960 and 1980 have not materialized in the ensuing years. What would Houston be like had we fallen victim to those predictions?

While it is impossible to say with certainty, we can get a hint from other cities. In Seattle for example, land use regulations increase the price of a house by almost 90%. The average home in San Francisco, which arguably has the most restrictive land use regulations in the nation, is more than $800,000. In both cities, home prices are beyond the reach of the middle class. This is the result of land use controls-- the city becomes unaffordable for the average citizen.

Given this evidence, why do politicians continue to push for more land use controls? Why do they continue to make dire predictions about the future if Houston does not enact more controls on land use?

The specific motivations of the politicians calling for more controls is impossible to know. However, when we consider that these same politicians will gain more power, one can reasonably conclude that power lust is certainly a part of their motivation. They may make lots of noises about alleged benefits to the citizenry, but the actual facts demonstrate that Houston's lack of land use controls has benefited all Houstonians with lower housing costs and a more affordable cost of living. More government controls over land use give these politicians more control over the lives of individual Houstonians.

The fact is, if we emulate Seattle and San Francisco in regard to land use controls, we will also emulate them in regard to housing prices. If we enact the cause of unaffordable housing, we will get the effect-- unaffordable housing.

The sky is not falling in Houston. Beware anyone who tells you that it is.

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