A brief, belated response to Christopher Hume

(I know council just made a royal mess of things this week, but I have nothing left to say on that conspiracy of dunces. I just canx. So instead, I offer this.)

A few weeks ago, the Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume wrote:

In Texas, where anything goes, planning has apparently become a dirty word. Houston, for instance, is proud of its zoning-free approach to growth. Civic officials argue that housing costs are lower in Houston than in most American cities because it has eliminated planning. But as these same planning libertarians might also point out, the market has assigned Houston a value — and it’s not much.

Now, he wrote this in the context of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion. The fact that Toronto (a thoroughly-planned city) had a propane explosion not that long ago and that natural gas explosions are semi-common throughout North America might suggest to some people that regulatory enforcement, not land-use zoning per se, is the factor that’s doing the work (or not) here. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

Hume, in the passage cited above, doesn’t even try to dispute the argument that Houston’s lack of zoning lowers the cost of housing. There are, in fact, some good reasons to suspect that un-planning doesn’t explain all of Houston’s affordability[1] but since Hume decided not to spend his column inches naming them I’m not going to help him out[2]. If he concedes that Houston’s unplanning makes thing more affordable, this has to mean that planning systems like Toronto’s make housing more expensive. But Hume does something weird–or at least, something that should be weird. He makes the same mistake the left is always accusing economists of. He confuses cost with value.

Homes in Houston, Hume concedes, cost less. But there’s no evidence that the people in Houston value their homes less than I do mine–they just get theirs at a discount, and have more disposable income (which they also value, presumably.)

Computing power spent most of relevant history (since the words “computing power” had an english meaning) getting cheaper every year, and there’s no evidence we’re any less fond of megahertz. To say that something is cheap, therefore something is less valuable, is an elementary mistake.

But of course, it’s the kind of mistake that too many people in Toronto, including too many elected officials, are eager to make. To urbanists like Hume (note: not all urbanists), Toronto’s high cost of living is a feature, not a bug, and comparisons to a city like Houston are worthy of nothing more than “if you like Houston so much why don’t you marry it?” But affordability is an honest-to-God problem in this city, and Houston has an answer (based on the agreed facts) that no other large city in North America seems to have.

I don’t particularly want my city to be Houston, but if urbanists can’t come up with a better answer than Hume’s glib back-patting, then we need to acknowledge that urbanism as an ideology isn’t affordable. Instead, it’s a philosophy whose goal is to create ethnic enclaves for rich people.

Disagree? Fine, then take the challenge of cities like Houston seriously.

[1] Houston has a massive network of city- and state-funded freeways that induce sprawl, it’s a “right-to-work state”, and Texas of course sits beside the massive cheap labour pool called Mexico.

[2] Okay, fine, I helped.

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