Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kiss My Ashby

Monday's Chronicle contained an OpEd titled "What Ashby high-rise teaches us" from two members of the Stop Ashby High-Rise Task Force. Unfortunately, they have learned the wrong lesson:
Southampton and Boulevard Oaks surround the site and are protected by deed restrictions, but the Ashby high-rise site is unrestricted. And there are dozens of established Houston neighborhoods whose deed restrictions have lapsed or that were never protected by deed restrictions. Deed restrictions, by themselves, have been demonstrated time and again to be a weak and inefficient mechanism for protecting neighborhoods.
Such a claim ignores the entire context in which deed restrictions are enacted and enforced. Because their deed restrictions do not provide the protection they desire, they dismiss the entire concept.

Deed restrictions are voluntary, contractual agreements between property owners. They limit how a property owner may use his property, and those limitations are consensual. By their very nature, deed restrictions will have boundaries--they extend only to the edge of the neighborhood which has enacted them. Properties beyond the neighborhood are not subject to those deed restrictions.

The residents of Southampton and Boulevard Oaks do not find this acceptable. They are unhappy that the voluntary agreement to which they subscribed is not applied to those who did not agree to it. In response, they seek to use government coercion to impose their desires upon the Ashby developers.

The article concludes:
Recent surveys show that large majorities of Houstonians want better land-use protection for their neighborhoods. Isn't it finally time for the city of Houston to decide that the fate of its neighborhoods cannot be left to the hubris of irresponsible developers? Isn't it finally time for rules to protect the interests of both developers and homeowners?
The authors imply that because "large majorities of Houstonians" allegedly want "better" land-use controls, the only solution is the heavy hand of government. They imply that the city must dictate how property may and may not be used, and any use contrary to the city's mandates should be a criminal act. This, we are to believe, will protect the interests of both developers and homeowners.

While decrying the hubris of the Ashby developers, the authors display their own patronizing arrogance:
No one except the Ashby developers believes that this makes sense. Even Bob Lanier, the tireless champion of Houston developers, agrees this project is misplaced.
Since no one--not even former mayor and developer Bob Lanier--thinks the project makes sense, then the city has a right to force the Ashby developers to act contrary to their own judgment. Imagine what the world would be like if that same attitude had been taken towards Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright brothers. Whether the project makes sense is not an issue for the authors, city officials, or anyone other than the developers to decide.

The proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. Government's purpose is to create and protect a social environment in which individuals can act according to their own judgment in the pursuit of their own values. But nobody--including government--has a moral right to force anyone to act contrary to his own choice (so long as he respects the mutual rights of others).

Apparently, the only lesson the "stop Ashby" gang has learned is that they do not have enough political muscle. And so they seek to enlist like-minded thugs from around the city to join them in their crusade to clamp down on anyone who has the hubris to go against the mob.

The great innovators and independent thinkers of history did not succumb to the mindless threats of the hordes. Christopher Columbus, Robert Fulton, and Ayn Rand did not surrender their own vision merely because some authority did not see the truth that they saw. They simply sought the freedom to pursue that truth. They did not want or need the permission of others to determine what to believe, what values to pursue, or what actions to take.

The developers of Ashby believe that their project makes economic sense. If they are wrong, their project will go bankrupt, their reputation will be damaged, and they will suffer the consequences of their decisions. Nobody--not Bob Lanier, not the city of Houston, not the meddling residents of nearby neighborhoods--has a right to make that decision for them. And I sincerely hope that they develop the courage to tell anyone who tries to do so to "kiss my Ashby".


Cooper said...

Great blog Mr. Phillips. I'm a student at UH doing research on zoning policies in Houston.

Urban sprawl is inevitable in a growing city like Houston. It seems that theres pompous attitude speaking for all the residents. Do you see any long term negative effects for the high rise? (neighboorhood value, transportation, etc.)

What pros has zoning given to contractors (such as yourself) or other individuals for businesses in economic terms?

Thanks for any help.

Brian Phillips said...

I don't like the term "urban sprawl," as it is usually used to denote something negative. If individuals choose to live in suburbs, for whatever reason, that should not be a concern of government.

More significantly, "urban sprawl" is often caused by government policies, specifically zoning. In many cities, zoning makes housing so expensive that residents have no choice but to live in the suburbs.

It is hard to say what the long-term impact of Ashby would be. The market will determine that, if the project is ever allowed to proceed.

Zoning provides no benefits to anyone. Some, such as those with the right political connections, might "enjoy" short-term benefits because of their connections. But those connections could disappear and the contractors/ developers would be left groveling for permission to operate their business.

I'd be happy to discuss this further via email. If you'd like to do so, leave your email address.