But what if, like most Americans, you are neither a partner at Goldman nor a penniless immigrant? Consider an average American family with skills that put them in the middle of the U.S. income distribution—nurses, sales representatives, retail managers—and aspirations to a middle-class lifestyle. What kind of life will such people lead in Houston and New York City, respectively?
For starters, they’ll probably earn less in Houston, though not as much less as you might think. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the typical registered nurse made $50,000 in New York and $40,000 in Houston. A retail manager earned $28,000 in New York and $27,800 in Houston. Let’s be generous to New York and assume that our middle-income family would earn $70,000 there but just $60,000 in Houston.
If our Houston family’s income is lower, however, its housing costs are much lower. In 2006, residents of Harris County, the 4-million-person area that includes Houston, told the census that the average owner-occupied housing unit was worth $126,000. Residents valued about 80 percent of the homes in the county at less than $200,000. The National Association of Realtors gives $150,000 as the median price of recent Houston home sales; though NAR figures don’t always accurately reflect average home prices, they do capture the prices of newer, often higher-quality, housing.
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The average home price in New York City is dramatically higher. In 2006, the census put it at $496,000, and $787,900 in Manhattan—way out of reach for a family earning $70,000 a year. There are cheaper options: a perfectly pleasant Staten Island home with three bedrooms and two baths for $340,000, for instance.
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Ah, but doesn’t it cost a lot more to get around sprawling Houston? The Houstonians must have two cars: the poor public-transit system leaves them no other choice. American families earning $60,000 typically spend about $8,500 a year on transportation—and sure enough, in Houston, that’s sufficient (barely) to cover gas, insurance, and payments on two relatively inexpensive cars.
Just as with housing, however, there’s a significant difference in the quality of transportation in Houston and New York. In Houston, the middle-class breadwinner likely will drive an air-conditioned car from an air-conditioned home to an air-conditioned workplace, and take 27.4 minutes to do it, on average. Commuting via New York public transit is more complicated. If you live in Queens, the average commute to midtown Manhattan (if that’s where you work, as we’ll say) is 42 minutes, and longer if you’re coming from Far Rockaway.
The question, I believe, that urban planners must contemplate is “How do we engender the higher quality of life, at least quantitatively speaking, enjoyed in Houston in real cities, cities designed well, in ways that embrace high standards of aesthetics, decrease reliance on the automobile, and facilitate community (vague term, I know!) in meaningful ways?” New Urbanism, I believe, has a role to play, but it, too, proves to be problematic. In fact, it’s that, when done properly, New Urbanism can be too good for its own good, driving up the market rate on properties, turning “gentrification” into a force of division and inequality, rather than the positive phenomenon that it can, and should, be. It bears on my aforementioned concern about property valuation, but, again, I’m not entirely sure how to address this properly, in a way that improves communities, as discussed above, without requiring more dastardly government intervention in the market.