Saturday, April 22, 2017

Big Brother is WWWatching You - feat. George Orwell [RAP NEWS 15]

The Internet. Will it remain the one open frequency where humanity can bypass filters and barriers, or become the greatest spying machine ever imagined? The future is being coded as we type. Across Oceania, States have been erecting and installing measures to legalise the watching, tracking and storage of data of party-members and proles alike. If such plans materialize, will this place ever be the same? Join our plucky host Robert Foster as he conducts an incisive analysis of the situation at hand. Joining him are newly appointed Thought Police General at the Pentopticon, Darth O'Brien Baxter, and a surprisingly lucid Terence Winston Moonseed. Once again, in the midst of this Grand Human Experiment, we ask tough questions about our future. Will it involve a free internet which will continue to revolutionise the way the world communicates with itself? Or is our picture of the future a Boot stamping on this Human InterFace forever?

Written & created by Giordano Nanni & Hugo Farrant - on Wurundjeri Land in Melbourne, Australia.

Published on May 23, 2014

RAP NEWS 25: NET NEUTRALITY. Having covered conflicts in distant lands, we now turn our attention to our own native homeland, the Internet; where the battle for the hypersphere has reached new heights, as netizens take up arms against Telcoms and the FCC, to preserve the fundamental ethos that made the Internet what it is today: Net Neutrality. What is Net Neutrality, and why is it so important to the future of the Internet? Find out by joining Robert Foster as he takes a whimsical trip into the World Wide Web, with its founder Tim Berners-Lee. Let's just hope no shady mega-corporatist, elite oligarchic malefactors pop up to mess with us on the way...

Written & created by Giordano Nanni & Hugo Farrant in a suburban backyard home studio in Melbourne, Australia, on Wurundjeri Land.

Published on Nov 29, 2014

The New World Order: They control the world's governments; THEY rule over all of us from the top of the pyramid. While WE suffer at the bottom. Right? Today we blow open the truth about the NWO in order to shed light on this widespread conspiracy which has frequently been invoked to explain the state of our world. Join intrepid host Robert Foster as he takes control of the lever of critical inquiry, alongside special guests Russell Brand, conspiracy guru Terrence Moonseed, and NWO representative William De Berg, in order to ask: who is the New World Order? And how can we stop it?

Warning: This episode of Rap News has been in the making since we started the show, 5 years ago. No punches will be pulled, no quarter will be given, and no depth will be left unplumbed on this arduous quest for the harsh truth. Welcome to the New World Order, bitches.

Written & created by Giordano Nanni & Hugo Farrant in a suburban backyard home studio in Melbourne, Australia, on Wurundjeri Land.

Uploaded on Oct 27, 2010

Who let the Logs out!? Wikileaks drops 400,000 classified documents shedding new light on the Iraq war—the biggest leak of classified military documents in history—sending shockwaves across the Fourth Estate. Rap News marks the occasion by inviting into the studio the former US Secretary of Offense, Donald Rumsfeld. But what starts out as a conventional Rap News interview soon descends into mayhem as the live feed is hijacked by News World Order, eager to spin the record like a disc jockey on crack. Enter Bill O'Really, the champion of Fair & Balanced journalism, dragging us screaming into the No Spine Zone. Only divine intervention can save us now, from a fate worse than death. But beware of imitators; not all is what it seems to be! Join us for a rollercoaster episode of Rap News, featuring a very very special guest appearance.

Juice Rap News: written by Giordano Nanni; lyrics and performance by Hugo Farrant. Created by Farrant & Nanni in a back-yard studio in suburban Melbourne.

Novato expands City Manager Office while Pat Eklund and Pam Drew vote no.

After the departure of two managers in Novato, the new City Manager determined he needs a highly paid "Assistant General Manager.  Pat Eklund and Pam Drew vote "No" because it simply is adding more executive overhead when hands on managers are in short supply.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A warning about the SMART train from the California Public Utilities Commission

Full Meeting segment below

Director mistakenly congratulates SMART for "converting to electricity" which is of course, false.  He was referring to the proposal by CalTrain on the San Mateo peninsula to electrify.  Also, his praise of SMART is wholly unfounded. SMART has been plagued with landslides, faulty engines,  crossing controls, engineering challenges and budget over runs.

We pay these folks hundreds of thousands of dollars to mismanage the tax payers funds.  Buses are ONE HUNDRED times less expensive.

23 Tax Facts and Tips in Two and a Half Minutes (for next year)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

California high court sets stage for major pension ruling

California high court sets stage for major pension ruling

18Apr, 2017by Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO – The battle over reforming California’s underfunded system of pension benefits does not involve any particular legislative proposal or initiative idea at this time but is centered on a coming state Supreme Court battle over an arcane legal concept.

Legislators have largely avoided the pension issue since passage of a reform law that went into effect in 2013, and reformers have struggled to settle on an initiative strategy to take to voters. That’s unlikely to change. But last week the high court agreed to review a union appeal of a decision involving an obscure concept known as the California Rule. The decision could change everything.

The California Rule is not actually a rule, but a legal doctrine that emanated from a 1955 court case. Essentially, it states that no vested public-employee benefit such as a pension can be reduced unless public employees are granted another benefit of equal or greater value. Unions claim that a 2013 state law unfairly deprives them of vested benefits.

The rule remains the stumbling block for most efforts to reduce pension costs, given that it severely limits public agencies’ efforts to slice current pension costs. Hence, pension reformers and unions alike are eager to get a final verdict on the matter.
In the private sector, companies that offer defined-benefit pension plans – those plans that guarantee a pension payout based on a formula, as opposed to 401(k)s – are free to reduce the benefits going forward. In other words, employees must be made whole through today, but may start receiving lower benefits tomorrow. By contrast, in California and other states that follow this rule, government workers must be paid the full amount of the promised benefits until they (and their spouses) pass away.

The accepted interpretation has been that a benefit hike, once approved by a government agency, is permanent. It can never be rolled back. As a result, most pension reform proposals deal only with shaving benefits for new hires, who won’t start retiring for 25 or 30 years. That leaves service cuts and tax hikes as the only way to deal with increasing pension debt.
Some localities have tried to take on the rule. In 2012, for instance, San Jose officials put a pension-reform measure on the ballot that required current city employees to choose between new pension plans that offered fewer benefits than current plans. It passed with 70 percent of the vote, but the courts later gutted that measure. They relied on the California Rule.

But now the California Supreme Court is ready to address the issue, at least around the margins. Last week, the court, without comment, agreed to a union challenge of a San Francisco appeals court that put limits on the application of the rule. Last summer, unions appealed a similar Marin County case, in which an appeals court also put some limits on the rule’s application.

At issue is the California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act, which went into effect in January 2013. Most analysts viewed the law as a modest attempt to get control of the state’s growing unfunded pension liabilities, or debt. Most of it applied only to newly hired state workers. But it did include a handful of provisions that affect current workers.

On Dec. 30, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco rejected a challenge by a state firefighters’ union claiming that PEPRA’s elimination of a 2003 benefit that let firefighters purchase up to five years of additional credits (airtime) before retiring was in violation of the rule.
“The unions argued that their members had a legal right to the pension benefits that were in effect when they were hired and that the state broke its contractual promise to them by eliminating those benefits,” according to a San Francisco Chronicle analysis. The 3-0 written opinion found that public employees have a right to a “reasonable pension” but they aren’t guaranteed “fixed or definite benefits immune from modification or elimination.”

“(P)laintiffs assert a vested contractual right to purchase up to five years of airtime service credit that is not subject to elimination or destruction by legislative amendment or repeal ‘even before the benefit has been accessed or the time for retirement has arrived.’” The court said plaintiffs “disregard the fact that, when amending the statutory scheme governing pension rights, the Legislature in fact provided (eligible public employees) … a several-month window in which to purchase the airtime service credit before the option terminated.”
The high court could uphold the rule or overturn it, or put certain limits on its application and deal narrowly with the “airtime” issue. In that separate Marin County case, five unions challenged PEPRA’s limitation of various ways that public employees enhance, or spike, their end-of-career salaries (bonuses, unused leave, etc.) to boost their lifetime retirement pay.

Unions argue that the reform reduced their vested pension benefits and was therefore in violation of their constitutional rights, as upheld by – you guessed it – the California Rule. “(W)hile a public employee does have a ‘vested right’ to a pension, that right is only to a ‘reasonable’ pension – not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating that pension,” ruled Justice James Richman, in language similar to the San Francisco ruling. He wrote that the Legislature may “prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pension.”
As reporter Ed Mendel has explained in Calpensions“The high court will wait until an appeals court rules on three similar spiking ban suits consolidated from Alameda, Contra Costa and Merced counties.” That might take some time, but this issue is definitely coming to the state’s high court in one form or another, sooner or later.

Battle lines are drawn. The unions claim that state and local agencies may not reduce any pension benefits. Pension reformers – and the courts, in recent decisions – say that while a reasonable pension remains a right, that doesn’t stop localities from reducing some things. These cases deal with pension-spiking enhancements and the purchase of airtime – controversial and somewhat limited practices. But the future of pension reform is on the line.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at

Eminent Domain in the Trump Era

Little Pink House, a new feature film written and directed by Courtney Balaker, looks at eminent domain abuse by recounting the true story behind of an epic 2005 Supreme Court case. Though President Trump is no longer directly managing his real estate business, the story depicted in the film is more relevant than ever given his authoritarian tendencies.

Marin residents have much to worry about with new laws recently enacted providing sweeping powers of redevelopment agencies in California to condemn properties.  Among the targets are low density neighborhoods near a transit corridor.  Virtually all land within 1/2 mile of the 101 Freeway in Marin is considered part of the "101 Priority Development Area" by Plan Bay Area.   Many people in regional government demand that Marin urbanize  with high density development to "take the pressure off" their own communities.  

It is a rocky road ahead.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Free To Cruise: Creating Curb Space For Jitneys

Free To Cruise: Creating Curb Space For Jitneys

Public buses can’t compete with private automobiles because bus rides usually involve long waits, slower commutes, limited route and destination choices, and less privacy. To improve transit, it may be necessary to overhaul our current government-owned bus system by legalizing private transit services. Consider one promising alternative, “jitneys” – small private vehicles that carry passengers over regular routes but allow flexible schedules.
Public buses can’t compete with private automobiles because bus rides usually involve long waits, slower commutes, limited route and destination choices, and less privacy. To improve transit, it may be necessary to overhaul our current government-owned bus system by Free Image 1legalizing private transit services. Consider one promising alternative, “jitneys” – small private vehicles that carry passengers over regular routes but allow flexible schedules.
Freely competing with buses in an unregulated transit market, jitneys can greatly increase transit riding. But open competition would let jitneys steal bus riders by interloping on established, scheduled routes. For this reason, jitneys have been almost universally banned in the United States.
Following national urban transit policy, local governments have created monopolies for scheduled bus service by prohibiting competition along given routes. Subsequently, bus operation has become highly regulated, subsidized, bureaucratized, and politicized.
We believe that jitneys and buses can coexist if government sets new rules, based on property rights, governing passenger pick-up areas. Instead of giving buses exclusive operation over routes, they should have exclusive rights only to designated bus stops, sharing routes with jitneys that have their own curb space.
We want to highlight three examples of successful jitney operations-the 1914-1916 jitneys in the United States, jitneys in less-developed countries, and current illegal jitneys in New York City. We then want to show how to introduce jitneys into the system of regulated bus transit.

The Jitney Episode Of 1914-1916

At the tum of the century, the most popular urban transit option was the electric streetcar, which enjoyed a monopoly in the form of exclusive franchises for routes. By 1914, however, automobile owners began using their private cars to provide mass transportation. These jitneys-named after the slang term for a nickel-often ran just ahead of the streetcars, picking up waiting passengers.
Jitneys offered service comparable to private automobiles because they were quick and convenient, often providing door-to-door service. Jitney drivers operated independently. They were usually people between jobs, working part-time, or simply commuting to work themselves. They could adjust for the weather, congestion, time of day, and day of week.

Jintneys are faster and cheaper than buses, and they offer a more comfortable ride, with drivers who speak languages other than English.

By 1915, there were 62,000 jitneys operating nationwide, spurring formation of industry customs, voluntary associations, and company fleets that helped drivers obtain insurance, pay maintenance costs, and, in some cases, coordinate routes and schedules.
Jitneys undoubtedly interloped on streetcar business, yet they also filled specific market niches. People chose jitneys mainly for short distances, especially if they were not served by streetcars. The number of jitney passengers far exceeded the number of riders intercepted from streetcars, suggesting that jitneys were attracting new transit riders. But the streetcar companies saw the jitneys as infringing on their monopoly right and lobbied government to end the “jitney menace.” Municipalities gave in to their demands, in part because streetcars paid taxes and gave free transportation for police officers and fire fighters.
The 1914-1916 jitney episode illustrates the freewheeling type of transit that came with the automobile. It also introduced a fundamental issue in property rights: Does interloping on scheduled service constitute thievery? Or is it fair competition? Back then, government believed it was outright thievery. Instead of developing a framework to accommodate competitive coexistence, freewheeling transit was stamped out in favor of large-scale monopoly.

Transit in Less-Developed Countries

Jitney services similar to the early ones in the United States are operating in hundreds of cities throughout less-developed countries (LDCs) such as Peru, India, and the Philippines. There, official bus services receive subsidies, but illegal jitneys flourish by interloping on scheduled services. There are laws governing jitney safety, routes, and fares, which are meant to limit interloping; but those laws are rarely enforced.
Free Image 2Jitney operators often create informal route associations to regulate service with explicit rules setting routes and fares, and prohibiting interloping. The associations achieve a degree of order sufficient to control wasteful conflict among individual operators, but they also operate as a cartel. Jitneys that initially transgressed on buses’ curb rights at bus stops eventually establish curb rights for themselves. To protect those rights from new interlopers, they usually resort to physical intimidation and strong-arm tactics.
Once organized, route associations may turn to government for official recognition. After much lobbying, bribery, and petition gathering, route associations may acquire official status and receive permits or licenses. Along with official recognition, however, come political obligations and regulations – and invasion by new operators remains a threat
Ultimately, the transit history of LDCs illustrates that without curb rights – established officially or otherwise – no street transit system can survive.

Illegal Jitneys in the United States Today

Illegal jitneys continue to operate in the United States today, most notably in New York and Miami. People who ride illegal jitneys here cite various reasons for preferring them to public buses. They say jitneys are faster and cheaper than buses and that they offer a more comfortable ride, with drivers who speak languages other than English.
Jitney riders believe jitneys are safer than buses. Since jitneys arrive more frequently than buses, riders don’t have to wait as long at street stops, where they may get mugged. Further, jitney drivers tend to reject passengers who are drunk, disorderly, or pose other threats.
Jitneys flourish in cities where transit is popular and enforcement efforts either have not succeeded or have not yet begun. In New York, modern jitney operation began during the transit strike of 1980, when illegal jitneys emerged to provide local service and feeder service to the Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica (Southeast Queens). Jitney service first developed in neighborhoods of Free Image 3Caribbean immigrants, perhaps because those riders were accustomed to riding jitneys in their native land. Jitneys thrived even after bus service resumed because enforcement against them was only sporadic.
The New York Times reported that in the eighteen-month period preceding December 1991 a special task force issued 11, 773 criminal summonses against jitney operators. But jitneys remain uncontrollable, with many vans driven by Caribbean immigrants who pay little attention to the legal citations. The Wall Street journal found that over a one year period in 1990, jitneys were assessed fines of over $4 million, but the city collected only $150,000. The New York example suggests that unsubsidized private enterprise can supply fixed-route transit despite governmental prohibitions, as long as private operators can establish sufficient curb rights.

The Jitney’s Role in Different Transit Markets

The determining factor for the viability of both jitneys and buses is whether jitneys have free run of the streets and access to curbs.
As we mentioned earlier, U.S. cities typically protect bus systems from interlopers by giving them exclusive rights, or franchises, to specific routes. These rights prevent all interloping. If interloping is effectively prohibited, bus companies have an incentive to establish routes and schedules. They publicize their services and may enter new markets, trying to attract more riders, because they reap the benefits. However, giving Free Image 4buses exclusive curb rights leads to inadequate competition and an inert monopoly, which may lead to low-quality service, lack of innovation, and higher fares.
In contrast, consider what happens where there are no franchised routes and no ban on competition – no exclusive rights at all – either because they are not granted or not enforced. In this case, the entire route is open to any operator. The jitney systems in LDCs and in New York City illustrate this situation. With open competition, the viability of both jitneys and buses depends on whether the market is thin (low demand) or thick (high demand).
If the market is thin, interlopers will run just ahead of scheduled buses collecting the waiting passengers and leaving few for the buses. Scheduled bus service may cease to operate due to lack of passengers. In tum, jitney riders will be less enthusiastic about congregating at the curb because they won’t have guaranteed scheduled service. Further, without scheduled service, there won’t be set arrival times at the stops. In a sense, scheduled service is the “anchor” of the market, and the entire market-buses and jitneys-may be destroyed if that anchor is dissolved.
If the market is thick, the lack of curb rights may not be a serious problem. Even without the anchor of scheduled bus service, the market may be thick enough to sustain jitneys alone. However, other problems may occur, such as low quality, irregular service, confusion over terms, and lack of trust among participants.
The choice between exclusive rights for buses or none at all poses a dilemma. Giving buses exclusive rights may create an ineffective transit monopoly, but legalizing jitneys to bring competitive energy into the market may dissolve bus service entirely. Instead of choosing either extreme, however, we propose an arrangement that takes a middle ground.

The Solution: Curb Rights

The dilemma between monopoly and anarchy can be transcended by an option that maintains limited exclusive rights for scheduled service, yet permits freewheeling competition on the route. Our solution is based on a previously unnoticed policy opportunity: creation of exclusive and transferable curb rights that allow buses and jitneys to coexist.
Figure 1 depicts how curb rights can include both exclusive areas for buses where their passengers congregate, and nonexclusive stops elsewhere along the route – designated as “commons” – where jitneys can pick up other passengers. These rights don’t have to be static, but can vary to accommodate the market. For example, in nonpeak hours, the commons may become additional bus-only zones.
Free Image 5
Our scheme relies on government enforcing the designated curb rights. We think this is possible with video cameras that record illegal “trespasses.” Riders of trespassing jitneys can also be held liable, to ensure that they wait for jitneys in legal areas outside exclusive bus zones.
Further, suppose government deregulated and privatized our current bus system. If this happened, exclusive curb zones could be leased to private bus companies – either sold at set prices or auctioned off. Imagine, further, that companies may sublet or resell their leases. This may spawn an industry of curb rights: entrepreneurs who buy available curb zones, sublet rights, and manage and monitor bus stops.


Current transit practice grants exclusive rights to scheduled bus service, which leads to monopoly. The alternative, permitting lawless competition, may destroy the market entirely.
Our proposal, which gives curb rights to both buses and jitneys, takes advantage of both transit options. It will eliminate government control and overregulation, avoid market imperfections, and rejuvenate transit entrepreneurship and innovation. Property rights for both will help assure competition between jitneys and buses, thus improving overall transit service.

Why This Bar Built a Labyrinth Outside Its Front Door

Why This Bar Built a Labyrinth Outside Its Front Door

The bar is now, technically, over 500 meters from the street.
By Cara Giaimo
APRIL 14, 2017


Last December, India’s Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 500 meters (about a third of a mile) of national and state highways. Meant to reduce drunk driving, the law bothered many of the country’s hotel, restaurant, and bar owners, who saw only two choices: move their establishments, or lose vital revenue.

The employees of Aiswarya Bar—located 150 meters from Highway 17, in Kerala—saw a third option. A few days before the law went into effect, they began building a small maze out of prefabricated concrete walls, leading from the building’s entrance to the street. When they finished, the distance from barstool to road had stretched three times its original length.

“We have constructed an extended way to reach the bar,” Aiswarya’s manager, Shiju P., told the Times of India. “Now it is 520 meters from the highway.”

“A walk before and after a drink will actually be good for health,” a neighboring vendor, who is considering a similar strategy, added.

It's so expensive to live in San Francisco, almost half of millennials want to leave

It's so expensive to live in San Francisco, almost half of millennials want to leave

San Francisco The Negev tech houseIvy Zheng, 26, and William Harris, 29, relax during a "family" dinner at a communal living space for tech workers in San Francisco, California.Gabrielle Lurie/Reuters
A staggering 46% of millennials living in the San Francisco Bay Area say they're ready to leave the nation's hottest rental market.
new poll from the Bay Area Council showed millennials (defined as people ages 18 to 39) led all age groups who said they're looking to leave the region in the next few years.
Cost of living was the biggest motivating factor, with 65% of millennial survey respondents ranking it among the top three problems facing the Bay Area.
The group behind the poll painted a gloomy picture for the Bay Area's future.
"Losing our youth is a very bad economic and social strategy," Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, said in a statement. "But until we get serious about building the housing we need we're going to continue seeing our region drained of the young and diverse talent that has helped make the Bay Area an economic powerhouse."
The Bay Area draws in millennials with its top-ranked colleges, vibrant culture, and proximity to Silicon Valley, where the promise for young entrepreneurs of becoming the next tech billionaire never dies. The region has added about 100,000 new jobs every year since 2011, though growth is starting to wane, and unemployment levels are at their lowest in 15 years.
Even still, millennials are struggling to make ends meet.
San Francisco The Negev tech houseIn 2013, millennials made up about 30% of San Francisco's population, according to US Census data.Gabrielle Lurie/Reuters
The Bay Area is one of the most competitive rental markets in the US. In San Francisco, the median rent tops $4,200 a month, according to real estate site Trulia.
One analysis from rental listing startup Radpad suggests mid- to senior-level engineers at companies like Google, Uber, Airbnb, and Twitter can expect to pay between 40% and 50% of their salary renting an apartment near work in order to avoid a gnarly commute.
These urban dwellers are finding creative — and sometimes uncomfortable — solutions to make it work. They live in sailboats, tiny houses, vans, and even wooden boxes of their own making. An increasing number of millennials are squeezing into apartments and homes with large numbers of people. Communal living, or "co-living," is often more affordable than traditional rentals because it comes with perks, like free internet, maid service, and new friends.
The results of the Bay Area Council's poll shows millennials may no longer see a future there.
Wunderman, of the Bay Area Council, told The San Francisco Business Times that young people flocked to the Bay Area after graduating college or completing graduate programs. Now that those transplants are entering their 30s, they're thinking about starting a family or owning a home. It's less and less doable as the housing affordability crisis continues.
"I would say the thinking amongst younger folks that the Bay Area doesn't hold their future is really settling in and that's concerning," Wunderman said.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Portland Housing Stupidity Grows (Lessons for Marin)

Aerial view of Portland, Oregon

Portland Housing Stupidity Grows

Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.
That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.
I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.
Update: Despite my pessimism, 580 homeowners have “inquired about hosting a homeless family in their backyards.” Initially, the county will build four, and if it can raise the funds, it will build as many as 300 more.
More important, this plan is stupidly expensive. The county estimates that each 220-square-foot tiny house will cost $75,000. That’s $341 per square foot! There are an estimated 3,800 homeless people in Portland, so housing them all this way would cost $285 million. That assumes one person per tiny house; some may house two, but housing people in tiny homes will also attract more homeless people into the area.
There’s also a not-so-hidden agenda here: “creating a denser, more affordable city.” At least, that’s the plan. The reality is density doesn’t make cities more affordable. In fact, the densest cities tend to be least affordable.
In Portland, people who build tiny houses in their yards face a huge increase in property taxes. That’s because, under Oregon law, their existing home is taxed at its 1996 value, plus a small annual increase for inflation, while new construction is taxed at today’s value. Thus, a new, 220-square-foot tiny house may be taxed more than the 2,000-square-foot house it shares a lot with.
Multnomah County says it will “try” to waive property taxes for people willing to accept tiny houses for homeless people in their yards, at least for the five years that homeless people live in them. How generous! Mercy, thy name is Multnomah County! Except really, it’s name is Stupid.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

How Spontaneous Order Keeps Houston Affordable

How Spontaneous Order Keeps Houston Affordable
A metropolitan economy, if it is working well, is constantly transforming many poor people into middle-class people, many illiterates into skilled people, many greenhorns into competent citizens. … Cities don’t lure the middle class. They create it.
– Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
If you follow urban issues in the press, you might be forgiven for thinking that there are only three cities in America: San Francisco, New York, and Portland. All three are victims of their own success, as rising demand for housing has increased rents to unsustainable levels. Despite their best efforts, from rent control to doublespeak “inclusionary zoning” mandates, middle- and lower-class households are increasingly forced to leave these cities as each progressively transforms into a playground of the rich.
Yet there is a fourth city, a city which must not be named except to be derided as a sprawling, suburban hellscape. This fourth city has managed to balance a booming economy, explosive population growth, and affordable housing. This city has—as cities have for thousands of years—steadily grown denser, more walkable, and more attractive to low-income migrants seeking opportunity. This city is Houston, and it’s well past time for her to come out of the shadows.
Explosive Economic Growth, Booming Population, Functioning Housing Market
Before jumping into the nitty-gritty of how Houston has handled explosive growth in the demand for housing, it is worth first getting a handle on the magnitude of the challenge facing the city. When many people think of the Houston economy, they understandably think of large energy companies. Indeed, energy companies dominated Houston’s economy for much of the last century and continue to play a major role today. But in the years following the 1980s oil glut, Houston’s economy has been diversified in large part by startups and emerging small businesses. Mixing the Lone Star State’s light regulatory touch with the inherently entrepreneurial spirit of domestic and international migrants, Houston and other Texas cities have shot to the top of entrepreneurship rankings like the Kauffman Index. These entrepreneurs aren’t just wealthy oil barons in bolo ties either; Houston ranks high among cities in creating brand new entrepreneurs, well above cities like Portland and New York City.Almost like an Econ 101 practice problem, booming demand for labor at all skill levels has translated into wage growth in Houston.

Supplementing this healthy, emergent economic development has been a deluge of existing companies arriving in Texas from high tax, high regulation states like California and Illinois. Between 2008 and 2014 alone, 219 California companies moved to or expanded in Texas. Houston’s high number of engineers per capita and affordable energy have attracted manufacturing in particular, turning the city into the third largest manufacturing hub in the country.
Almost like an Econ 101 practice problem, booming demand for labor at all skill levels has translated into wage growth in Houston comparable to affluent cities like San Jose, Boston, and New York. Adjusting average annual wages for the cost of living, including consumer prices and services, utilities, transportation costs, and—most importantly—housing, Houston tops the list of all major US metropolitan areas. This shouldn’t be written off as torturing the numbers, either. This means middle- and lower-class Houstonians enjoy a higher standard of living than even their higher paid counterparts in high-cost cities on the West Cost and in the Northeast.
This blend of good governance, high real wages, and an urban ethos described by researchers at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University as “tolerant traditionalism”—an attractive mix of conservative personal values and toleration on social issues—has attracted hundreds of thousands of new residents over the past two decades. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the Houston metropolitan area welcomed 159,083 new residents, far more than any other city outside of Texas.  The city is projected to pass up Chicago by 2025, bumping America’s “Second City” from third to fourth largest in the country. Ample opportunities for new immigrants from across Latin America and Asia have transformed the city into one of America’s most diverse metros, offering a glimpse of America’s dynamic demographic future. Houston has also grown into a magnet for domestic migration. Since 2010, the city has welcomed nearly 100,000 black residents fleeing untenable rents along the West Coast and economic stagnation in the Midwest in what some are calling the “Third Great Migration.”
Even while experiencing much milder population growth, cities along the coasts have struggled to get a handle on exploding housing costs. Between January 2014 and January 2016, median home values in Portland, San Francisco, and New York City increased by an average of approximately $188,000. During the same period, in which Houston experienced a population boom far outpacing any other city in absolute terms, the median home value in Houston increased by approximately $9,000. Even expanding out to account for a recent downturn in oil markets, the median home values only increased by $28,000 between January 2012 and January 2016. It’s not just houses either; even beyond luxury cities along the East and West coasts, Houston remains one of the most affordable Sun Belt cities for renters. So what gives?
The Fruits of Market Urbanism
Houston’s remarkable affordability might seem strange to policymakers in high-cost cities along the East and West coasts. After all, the city has no rent control, whether of the now-discredited twentieth century kind or the new, shiny, equally counterproductive “inclusionary zoning” kind. Houston has less public and subsidized housing than the other top five major US metros. The fact is that Houston’s affordability doesn’t flow from top-down plans or strict land-use regulations. Rather, its affordability flows precisely from its lack of top-down plans or strict land-use regulations.
A growing consensus of economists and policymakers have argued for permitting more development in order to meet rising demand for urban living. The challenge facing high-cost cities is not their remarkable economic success and the subsequent rise in demand for housing—this is precisely the kind of success cities should yearn for—but their ongoing commitment to an out-of-date planning regime designed to keep cities frozen in amber. In its most extreme form, cities like San Francisco continue to enforce startlingly low densities in and around downtown despite burgeoning demand. Yet even in comparable Sun Belt cities friendly to new development, including Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix, much of the city is zoned and regulated in a way that effectively mandates low densities and prohibits urban, mixed-use development.

The kind of unpredictable diversity that calls to mind Jane Jacobs’ Hudson Street: a TV station and a US Secret Service office nestled among a beautiful neighborhood mixing single-family homes and apartments. (Google Maps)
Where nearly every other city attempts to tightly control emergent urban growth and restrict the mixing of urban uses, Houston has adopted what Justin Fox of Bloomberg View recently described as “zoning lite.” As researchers at the Wharton School have pointed out, Houston has some of the least restrictive land-use regulations in the country. Houston never adopted the bundle of orthodox urban planning policies that made spontaneous urban development impossible, and insomuch as Houston implemented land-use regulation, many of these rules have been liberalized in recent years. The city famously never implemented use-based zoning, a policy that mandates the separation of residential, commercial, and industrial activity, and effectively bans traditional urban development and forces automobile dependence on residents. This means that urban land in Houston can naturally shift alongside changing market demands, enhancing the flexibility of housing markets and empowering residents and business owners to collectively determine the right mix of uses in a decentralized process.
Gradual densification underway in Uptown, far from the 20th century downtown. Without parking requirements, it’s unlikely lots and garages would take up so much space. (Google Maps)
Houston has also benefited from a liberal approach to urban density, which was kicked into high gear by reforms in 1998. Nearly two decades ago, Houston policymakers dramatically eased density controls within the 610 loop, breaking the city down into “urban” and “suburban” classifications. In urban areas, regulations controlling lot coverage, setbacks, and height limits were significantly liberalized and in some cases eliminated altogether. The most visible result of this hands-off approach to land-use regulation has been the proliferation of high-rise developments both in downtown and the mini-downtowns scattered in and around Harris County. Yet possibly more important are the coveted “missing middle” developments underway across the city. Ranging from duplexes to live-work units, these developments offer an attractive compromise between the walkability of high-density environments and the human scale of low-density developments. Such developments, alongside innumerable apartment and mixed-use developments, are helping to keep desirable neighborhoods like Montrose, Midtown, and the Heights accessible to normal Houstonians. This explosion in medium-density, infill developments has turned Houston into a national leader in new multifamily units, creating a greater diversity of housing options than nearly every other Sun Belt city. These developments are helping to preserve and expand access to urban living in Houston, and they’re possible thanks in large part to the city’s lack of centralized urban planning and relatively light regulation of land-use.
New “missing middle” development within biking distance of downtown. (Google Maps)
The fruits of Houston’s unique approach to urbanization are also evident in the city’s lack of interest in aesthetic control. While many cities require design or aesthetics-oriented architecture reviews for most developments to take place, Houston places no such burdens on new building. This live-and-let-live approach to urban development gives residents, developers, and business owners the freedom to experiment with new designs. The result is a kind of “tolerant traditionalism” physically manifested, as architectural styles playfully mix within neighborhoods. A stressful experience, perhaps, for the orthodox planner who prefers conformity and order, but an exhilarating experience for residents who appreciate the spontaneity and novelty offered by urban life.
Beyond allowing diverse and exciting streetscapes, Houston’s lack of design-oriented, top-down planning has allowed the emergence of multiple urban centers. Where many US planners continue to plan cities around an industrial era model of one urban center—typically a twentieth century downtown—Houston enjoys multiple downtowns. In Metropolitan Revolution, researchers Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley describe how Houston’s lack of centralized planning has allowed the gradual development and densification of distinct urban centers. As Katz and Bradley describe in the book, urban centers like Gulfton and Pasadena gradually developed from low-density neighborhoods optimized for middle-class whites into mixed-use, medium-density neighborhoods optimized for newly arriving immigrants. Where the conventional planning regime that controls most US cities would have required hundreds of hours of hearings, committees, and paperwork, Houston’s liberal approach allows communities to organically change and adapt to shifting community needs.
The magic of toleration manifests itself physically in odd neighbors on W Mckinney Street: Intriguing, unconventional townhouses sit next to… (Google Maps)

…a beautiful, conventional single-family home. Houston’s light regulation of design allows for residents with different conceptions of the good life to peacefully live alongside one another. (Google Maps)

None of this should be taken to mean that Houston is perfect. As Stephen Smith and Daniel Hertz have rightly pointed out, regulations related to mandatory parking minimums, minimum lot sizes, and wide minimum street widths have served to restrict urban development and make Houston more spread out than it naturally might have been. More troublingly, the city has opened up opportunities for neighborhood majorities to push for mandated increases in minimum lot sizes and various historical preservation restrictions, potentially creating a two-tiered system of development restrictions in affluent neighborhoods and a relaxed approach everywhere else.
State subsidized enforcement of private covenants likely exacerbates this issue. To be sure, these problematic policies probably need to go. But the presence of these lingering restrictions above all speaks to the potential of even partial liberalization of urban land-use controls. Insomuch as Houston has adopted a market urbanist approach, it has resulted in a city that is more affordable than cities along the East and West coasts and denser and more walkable than most other Sun Belt cities, all while offering unparalleled economic opportunities for middle- and lower-class residents.
But What About Transportation?
Aside from “sprawl,” the other stereotype typically associated with Houston is endless traffic. While the city diverged with orthodox urban planning, it unfortunately fell in line with orthodox transportation planning. Like most other US cities, Houston spent most of the second half of the twentieth century building a congested web of freeways and expressways. Combined with policies like wide minimum street widths and mandated parking spots, the public provision of unparalleled and unpriced road capacity helped to build a city largely dependent on the automobile.
Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development.

Thanks in part to Houston’s decision to forgo conventional urban planning, many traditional urban developments were able to survive and reemerge—likely an important factor in the city’s high Walkscore among Sun Belt cities. To supplement existing walkability and accommodate rapidly rising demand among young Houstonians for walkable communities, the city adopted a Complete Streets ordinance in 2013. The policy requires that all new and redeveloped roads be designed in a way that accommodates pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. Houston City Hall even invited chief walkability evangelist Jeff Speck to speak earlier this year, responding positively to low-cost, high-value ideas like adding street trees, installing protected bike lanes, and converting downtown roads from one-way to two-way. The city also adopted its first bike plan in early 2016, declaring its intent to build 300 miles of “high comfort” bikeways.
High density office space, apartments—and yes, parking—playfully mix. A Whole Foods sits in the middle, easily accessible to pedestrians and cyclists in the surrounding area. (Google Maps)
Houston has also started taking the need for transit seriously. Last year, the city transformed its bus system into a high-frequency grid without increasing operating costs, substantially increasing the feasibility of car-free living. While the city has unfortunately taken an antagonistic approach to ride-sharing services, local jitney services—private buses operating on fixed routes with fixed rates—have emerged to supplement the city’s public bus system. The planned expansion of bus rapid transit—essentially buses operating as light rail—offers an attractive way of addressing commuter traffic without the enormous costs and inflexibility associated with light rail transit.
Of course, not everyone can or will ditch their car for bicycles or buses and improved pedestrian, cyclist, and transit infrastructure can only do so much to address traffic congestion. In fact, Texas may soon have something to learn about traffic management from states like California and Oregon. In recent years, the two West Coast states have started experimenting with mileage-based fees, an alternative to the regressive gas tax that would charge road users based on actual mileage travelled. When combined with congestion pricing, a mileage-based system offers incentives for road users to find ways to avoid driving when road demand is high and shift necessary trips to when road demand is low. While observers often assume that Houston’s traffic jams are the byproduct of unrestrained markets, it is ironically the lack of a market for road use that puts publicly-owned roads in a tragedy of the commons situation.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, many US cities have a lot to learn from Houston. With tight development restrictions, out-of-date urban planning regimes, and burdensome regulations forcing middle- and lower-class Americans out of West Cost and Northeastern cities, Houston’s mix of affordable housing and economic opportunity is more valuable than ever. As other cities have attempted to maintain tight, centralized control on urban and economic development—exemplified by a recent push by Dallas to shutter local businesses in order to attract chains—Houston has opted to take a back seat to residents, entrepreneurs, and civil society groups in cultivating economic development and crafting urban communities.
Some continue to blame Houston’s unique approach for everything from flood damage—as if imposing side setbacks and keeping delis out of neighborhoods would avoid statewide flooding—to remaining pockets of poverty within the city. Certainly some form of citywide coordination on data collection and service allocation in pursuit of efficiency and equity makes sense. Yet past attempts to impose greater centralized urban planning on Houston have been defeated by overwhelming working-class opposition every time. Those residents know something many in the urban planning world don’t. It is well past time that we start taking Houston’s success seriously.
Republished from Market Urbanism.