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Gus Van Horn blog

Reblogged:Yes. Houston Was Quite Affordable.

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Yesterday morning, I came across an economist's critique of a Texas Monthly article that disputed the idea that Houston is generally more affordable than New York City. My data are a shade over a decade old now, but I remember facing the problem of moving away from Houston when it was time for my wife to begin her medical residency.

It is -- or was, then -- highly unusual for a medical school graduate to choose where she would ... reside. Like everyone else, the best we could do was have my wife apply to places that would (a) help her later career that (b) we could afford and which (c) had opportunities for me. After she interviewed at all these places, she ranked them and vice versa -- and then, on "Match Day," we learned our fates.

It did not take long for me to rule out places like New York and San Francisco once I took charge of that part of the narrowing-down process. One requirement of note: Because Mrs. Van Horn would be on call, we needed to live close enough to the hospital for her to be able to get there quickly when needed. More on this in a bit.

Relevantly, the critique notes:

In Houston, I often biked for miles on paths like this, next to the bayous. I took to walking once I moved to Boston. (Image by Random Sky, via Unsplash, license.)
It's easy to compare the prices of average houses in different metropolitan areas, but what about the houses themselves? The envious responses to a viral tweet by a new Houstonian showing off her apartment might suggest a big difference in housing quality, and this is borne out by some figures. Houston proper and Manhattan, for example, have about the same population, but Houston's apartments are about 20 percent larger, averaging 877 square feet compared to 733 in Manhattan. Likewise, Houston apartments have better amenities: 36 percent of them have in-unit washer-dryers, for instance, compared to 20 percent in New York.

The quality of transportation also differs. The biggest expense of travel is not money but the value of one's time, and New Yorkers spend about 25% more time commuting than Houstonians -- the average one-way commute time in New York is 37.6 minutes, compared to just 30 minutes in Houston. [links in original]
Here's my anecdotal data to add to the pile: For the same commute time in Boston that we had in Houston, we downsized to an apartment with about a third of the area of the house we'd rented in Houston -- and had to pay over three times the rent. That far exceeded the savings we realized by getting rid of our cars. And we got to start paying state income tax. Moving later to St. Louis (still more expensive than Houston) was a relief. And then between it and Baltimore was a wash, costwise.

The author ends as follows:
Texas Monthly told a story that a lot of people wanted to hear: loosely regulated housing markets like Houston have long embarrassed ideological opponents of free markets who insist that only rent controls and massive public subsidies can provide affordable housing. There is a ready audience for the argument that Houston's affordability is a mirage. If you ever find an argument like this tempting, though, ask yourself: is it more likely that you're mistaken, or that the millions of Americans voting with their feet are?
Amen to that. (How many other arguments like this can you think of?)

I'll close with another anecdote, thankfully not my own. Once, during my Boston days, I met a couple during a networking event, soon after our move. Still raw from sticker shock, I learned that they had moved from San Francisco to Boston to save money.

Good on me for doing my research and giving my wife a hard No! to the Bay Area.

There is no substitute for doing one's own research ahead of a big move, and part of it is accounting to one's own satisfaction for what large numbers of people are doing.

-- CAV

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