Houston is famously cheap. Gov. Perry is buying radio ads touting the benefits of cheap to Yankees who may be puzzled by Texas’ success in delivering such a wondrously low cost of living. As a Texan in exile, I can fill in some of the gaps in Perry’s message and explain where the costs are hiding inside Perry’s Texas miracle.
For years after taking a job in the Chicago area I would engage in a sad, annual ritual. Every spring I would shop for homes in Houston.
Why spring? They say the winters here will kill you, but it’s spring that really kicks you in the crotch. The Chicago winter is a spectacle, like watching tornados spawn in a giant thunderstorm. It may be bad, but it’s entertaining as hell.
Spring, on the other hand, is cold, wet, snowy and cruel, without any compensating amusement. Spring is the season of half-frozen mud and chunks of grey ice. Spring is the season for planning to go home.
My spring ritual ended a few years ago when I got serious, briefly, about going back to Texas. What started with euphoria melted into surprise, which puddled down to resignation as I realized what it would really cost my family to return to Houston.
Housing was the first cruel shock. Conventional wisdom says that we should be able to own a big, beautiful home with every feature but the gold Elvis-toilets for a fraction of the cost of our home in Chicago. That is not the case. The calculations get squirrely real fast when you start comparing more than just square footage.
I started making a list of what we had in our Chicago home and began looking for a comparable value. We have fantastic schools in walking distance. A community around them fanatically dedicated to education. A library like nothing I had ever seen, in walking distance, which including the ability to request any book online and go pick it up.
We have a suburban home with a white picket fence (literally), but we only need one car. We put about 12k miles a year on that car, a quarter of which comes from our annual trip to Texas. The train station is a ten-minute walk. The town center, with grocery store, restaurants, movie theater, coffee shops, bars, and so on is just a ten minute walk. Church is a little farther, but we ride our bikes there sometimes in the summer. The kids walk to meet friends. The airport is 15 minutes away by cab.
Though we don’t live in Chicago, I can walk with the kids to the train station and be there in 25 minutes. We used to go see the Astros at Wrigley every season (until their move to the repugnant AL), maintain a different annual museum membership each year, and occasionally ride there just to play around at Millennium Park.
Understanding that you’re not going to get Wrigley or Millennium Park in Houston, I went looking for something otherwise comparable and found nothing at any price range. There is no option for urban, or near-urban living in Houston with effective mass-transit, great schools, and well-maintained public infrastructure. Unless you have an additional $10-15bn to spare, you aren’t going to move to Houston and buy your own commuter trains.
And to get just some of the items on the list along with a driving commute reliably less than an hour I would have to pay significantly more than I would in Chicago. Plus the property taxes would be stupendous.
If I gave up everything else just to get good schools at an affordable price, I would have to sign up for a lengthy commute from a sprawling suburb, at costs still comparable to my house here in Chicago’s near-suburbs. And with five million people packed into a place with no zoning, I still can’t be confident someone won’t build a 20-story condo on the lot next door.
If Rick Perry is to be believed then the tax burden for all this “government dependence” must be staggering. When we first moved here in 2004 I was shocked by the decline in my taxes. I didn’t earn as much money back then so the shift to an income tax state was a significant savings. The property tax rate on our Houston home was double what we experienced in Chicago.
Many years later I earn a lot more and my tax burden is higher than it would be in Texas, but I don’t care. Now that my income has increased I can afford it and I do not want to give up what that tax burden buys me.
I could save thousands of dollars a year in taxes by heeding Perry’s call, but what would I do with that money? It would disappear immediately into the second car I would need to get around. Then I would buy hundreds of gallons of gas and maintenance for the hundreds of additional driving hours I would have to spend each year.
Those thousands dollars would not be enough to buy a walkable community, schools that teach evolution and sex-ed without flinching, a useful library, well-maintained parks, trails and other open spaces every few blocks. The money I could save on taxes would not buy me commuter rail.
There is good reason to expect that Houston is America’s future. That’s a disturbing prospect. As we grow steadily less capable of working together to improve our lives, our public spaces will get uglier and the private costs of our public dysfunction will mount. The wealthy can absorb some of these losses, but not all of them. Mostly they just wall themselves off. Meanwhile middle earners watch their future dim in return for a few hundred dollars a year in tax savings.
Chicago may never be home for me. I still harbor a fantasy of living on a piece a land somewhere in the Hill Country with a few cows and a creek. The longer I live here the harder it may be to one day live without urban amenities, but I still sit on the porch with a Shiner and my monthly copy of Texas Highways and get misty. We’ll see what happens.
As I still have kids to raise I’m going to resist Perry’s off-key siren song. He can have his low taxes and sprawl and I’ll keep that empty second bay in my garage. For now, if he wants to get rid of my “government dependence” he’ll have to come and take it.