Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Exactly what are we subsidizing in Downtown Houston again?

Big news this week as groundbreaking is announced for a 336 unit, 24 storey luxury high-rise somewhere in the vicinity of Downtown Houston.  This has supporters of a hip, urbanist downtown core all atwitter.  Judging from the early response it's either the 'priming of the pump' for Houston's core residential development or the beginning of the re-making of our fair city, take your pick.  A closer look at the numbers is needed, however, to get a full picture of just what it is we've decided to subsidize to the tune of $15,000 per residential unit. (That's just over $5 Million in total).

The moniker for this steel and concrete paean to sustainable, green, urban living is going to be "SkyHouse: Houston" and there are some previous examples on the market to tell us what we're getting.  SkyHouse Midtown for example, is located in Atlanta, a city very similar to Houston in layout and rents.  A quick look at the available floor plans for the unit reveal rates ranging from $1225 - over $3000 not including what are sure to be fairly hefty condo fees.  Searches for other SkyHouse properties revealed their prices not yet ready for public consumption, but, given their location in D.C. and New York City, I'm sure rents will be much higher there.

Given that information it can be assumed fairly-safely that SkyHouse Houston is going to feature rents somewhere in the $1500 - $4000 range, again not including condominium maintenance fees that I'm figuring will run somewhere between $300-$500.  That puts total rents, not including utilities I'm guessing, at somewhere around $2000 minimum assuming the best case scenario. 

Ouch. But not unexpected.

A long-held criticism, by me, of the goals for Houston's new-urbanists has been their tendency toward elitist social goals.  The idea that the European model, and not say...the Mexico City model, is where ideal urbanism lies.  While Paris is, rightly, considered an ideal 'new-urbanist' environment (by Houston's practitioners of the craft, I'm not lumping them in with National new-urbanists) it is a city not without some glaring faults.  Google "Paris suburban riots" if you're not sure what I'm on about here.

Another issue that I have with Houston's central planning set is that Houston could already be a collection of walkable, urban neighborhoods whose lack of central planning promotes this type of development (now that the market is demanding it more) although (admittedly) few residents take Houston up on it.  Much of that has to do with the weather and the fact that American cities have grown up around the concept of the automobile as a primary mode of transportation.  It's not easy to undo 100-plus years of social programming nor am I convinced we should be trying all that hard to do so.

Then there's the issue of class-warfare and whether or not Houston should be in the business of subsidizing play-pens for a certain (upper) class.  While it might be OK for .025 percent of Houstonians to think that 20-somethings in 7 for All Mankind jeans, $80 sparkly T-shirts and Italian loafers running from their downtown jobs to their downtown hair salon to re-frost their tips before heading out to a happy hour for gourmet cocktails or J├Ągermeister dropped into PBR before heading over to the local farmer's market to purchase some locally-sourced sustainable weeds for dinner are the epitome of urban cool that doesn't mean that the majority of us do, or that said behavior is really all that worth subsidizing to the tune of $5 Mil.  Yes, there are people who do not wear designer jeans or hang out at hipster bars who value that lifestyle but they are a small sub-set in the overall urbanist population.

Then you have the general NIMBYism that pollutes the sample of all of this.  Many people feel that public transportation is something that must be funded to get so many others off the road in order to make their car-based commute quicker.  Given that Houston has infrastructure problems so severe we were told all of us would drown in a flood of water leaks did we not pass a huge increase for projects that weren't clearly defined I'm thinking $5 Million could be put to some good use somewhere else.  And yes, because I know this is coming, I think it's ridiculous to provide a 100% exemption for production of shale gas as well.  A partial tax exemption?  Sure.  Because the costs of drilling said wells are much higher, but a full exemption? No way.

After looking at this there is one, disturbing, thought that comes to mind: What we're doing is not trying to spur downtown residential growth, but instead making sure the growth is of a type that's preferred by the elites.  I don't care your political persuasion, that should ring more classist to you than not being able to touch the Queen.  It also suggests the poor are somehow "bad" and even, dare I say, untouchable.

In reality, what the poor are mostly is unprofitable to the developers and that, in and of itself, is the biggest sin.  In order to remedy that groups like Houston Tomorrow are advocating a future Houston where the pretty (and wealthy) people live inside the Loop while the unwashed and, by their definition, unwanted scraggy set are relegated to a segregated existence outside the Beltway with reduced options for crashing the palace. It's everything wrong with the Paris model with none of the fun things like the Louvre or Eiffel Tower, throw in 100 degree heat to boot.

A few years back a bleak picture of future Texas was painted where well-off Caucasian Republicans spent their days at work and then retreated by car daily through a pock-marked wasteland of suck to the safety and security of gated communities.  This was, admittedly, a thoroughly awful picture that thankfully doesn't appear to be coming true.  Unfortunately, in it's place we're getting a secondary vision where well-off Caucasians live and walk in tightly controlled environments while the the grunt workers are relegated to the suburbs to/from which the elites have ensured it's very hard to commute.

That latter vision is hardly better than the former, it just changes the location of the pock-marked wasteland.  Yet, by subsidizing high-rent condominiums in the city-center at the expense of other locations, we're pretty much ensuring that it's going to come to pass.

Is this really the vision of HoustonFuture that we've decided we want to have?

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