Friday, April 6, 2007
Last week I wrote about the effort to limit new apartment construction in the relatively unregulated Houston metro area. This morning NPR reported on the flip side of Houston housing market –- its low cost of single-family houses and the fact that Houston is not suffering from the rapid slump in new housing starts that so much of the United States is experiencing. Why is the median price of a house in Houston still only around $150,000, and why are so many of them still being built?
Houston enjoys a number of low-cost, easy-construction advantages. For one, “sprawl” is available in all directions –- there are no mountains or seas to limit growth. Its resource-based economy is doing fairly well in these uncertain times. And most significant all, of course, is that Houston famously holds (lacks? enjoys?) some of the nation’s loosest development laws, including no comprehensive zoning in the city. If I were a free market advocate, I might relate the lack of regulation with the ease of new construction … and the fact that Houston is perhaps the most “affordable” of the nation’s very big metro areas.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Should land use law work to preserve the “character” of a community because of the special characteristics of its residents? This new AP story discusses the phenomenon of city neighborhoods that were formerly gay and lesbian enclaves, but which today are being infiltrated by more and more straight people. The result, from one perspective, is the loss of an identifiable and special “place,” such as San Francisco’s famous Castro district.
For decades, gay people have been at the forefront of rebuilding many urban neighborhoods, including many sectors from which middle-class families had decamped to the suburbs. Unencumbered by children and supportive of the urban lifestyle of patronizing city stops such as coffee shops, art galleries, and theaters, gays and lesbians made great urban “pioneers.” But with city-living back “in” among more straight people, some traditionally gay neighborhoods are losing their special character.
Here’s a tough question: Just as some jurisdictions limit the number of bedrooms in apartment units so as to limit the number of school-demanding children, should a government consider the request of gay leaders to limit the number of family-friendly housing units, as a means of trying to preserve the gay character of a community?
Tuesday, April 3, 2007
[The Wal-Mart wars, continued …]
The latest battle in the Wal-Mart wars arises from Marvin, N.C., where the Union County Board of Adjustment approved a plan to build a new store, only to see that decision set aside by a state court judge, who found that late-stage changes to the plan required starting over the approval process. Last week, Wal-Mart argued to a state appellate court that the changes were not significant enough to require re-doing the process. According to the Charlotte Observer, opponents have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars opposing the plan; no doubt Wal-Mart has spent a similarly large amount.
This is the kind of enormous battle that occurs in local governments all across the nation; often, a Wal-Mart battle is the biggest and most complicated decision a local government has ever made. Sometimes, the issues overwhelm the capabilities of the local jurisdiction. In the current North Carolina matter, the central County government opposes the Wal-Mart plan and is arguing against its own Board of Adjustment.
Should such complicated matters of local decisionmaking be made through some higher-level form of government, such as through a multi-jurisdictional board or a state authority, which has the resources and ability to handle such matters well? Then again, size of government does not necessarily mean that it handles Wal-Mart matters well. The world’s largest retailer recently suffered defeats in its effort to open its first stores in New York City, through a process so expensive and time-consuming that Wal-Mart’s CEO was quoted as saying that it wasn’t worth the effort to try again. The story was also interesting for its focus on labor unions (which of course oppose Wal-Mart’s employment policies and practices) as the chief antagonist of Wal-Mart. I question the wisdom of government’s using labor concerns to make land use decisions.