Thursday, June 18, 2009

Houston: The City I Love, Part 4

Housing and Development
While many clamor for the government to do something about our congested freeways, they conveniently ignore evidence that demonstrates how the free market provides options to individuals without violating rights.

The absence of zoning in Houston has allowed developers and builders to respond to changing market conditions with relative ease. They can change land-use to its most efficient purpose without wading through mountains of red tape and groveling at the feet of bureaucrats.

One of the remarkable features of Houston is the fact that the city has multiple business districts—downtown, Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, and the Energy Corridor are just a few. Where other cities force businesses into specific areas—often downtown—Houston has largely allowed the market to determine where businesses locate.

This fact provides significant relief on transportation. Rather than forcing all workers to commute to the center of the city, many work in other areas of the city. Rather than all roads leading to downtown, many lead to other areas of the city.

This allows employees options not found in other cities. A resident of The Woodlands or Kingwood can work in Greenspoint and significantly reduce his commute. A resident of Katy can work in the Energy Corridor and do likewise.

The development of these business centers did not occur because of government mandates. They were built because businesses and developers saw a need and found a way to satisfy it. They did not need government planning, controls, or regulations to tell them that it made sense to build outside of the central business district. They relied on their own judgment, and that of their investors.

Just as freedom in land-use has provided multiple options in regard to the location of businesses, and hence employment, freedom in land-use has also provided many options in regard to housing. Recognizing that many Houstonians desire shorter commutes, developers have transformed many downtown buildings into lofts and other housing. They have converted lots with single-family homes into multiple town homes, which eloquently illustrates how the market responds when it is left free.

The price of land has risen dramatically inside The Loop in response to greater demand for housing in that area. Using this land for a single-family home makes little economic sense—the cost for a home would be out of reach for most Houstonians. However, if a particular lot is used to build four single-family town homes, the cost of the land per unit is greatly reduced. New housing can be built much more affordably. And the greater density of the housing meets the increased demand. This is what has happened in Rice Military, the Heights, Montrose, the Museum District, and many other areas of the city.

Again, developers did this without mandates from the city government. They acted according to their own independent judgment, in response to the market. And in fact, in some instances—such as the Ashby High Rise—they have been opposed by the city government.

In short, where individuals have been free to act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values, everyone has benefited. Where government has imposed restrictions and prohibited such freedom—such as transportation—everyone has suffered.

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