Ice House

For Better or Worse

Working out Houston's future over a beer.

By Catherine Matusow March 12, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

It was late afternoon on a recent Sunday down at the West Alabama Ice House. The smell of steaming tables of crawfish mingled with the sight of skirmishing dogs and flying billiard balls, the distant sound of a basketball and an impromptu game of Horse. It was, it seemed, the perfect place in which to sit and ponder Houston’s quality of life.   

Sitting across from us, as it happens, was Lester King, a researcher at Rice University’s Center for Sustainability and something of a quality-of-life expert. King authored his most recent report on the subject last November, stating in no uncertain terms that Houston’s quality of life was eroding. His report also detailed a long list of actions necessary to reverse this trend, from improving public transportation, to building housing closer to jobs, to improving air quality.

“I don’t want you to think that I think Houston is bad,” said King, who had somehow managed to live in Houston for 16 years without ever visiting an ice house. Still, we couldn’t help mentioning another recent portrait of life in Houston, a far rosier one, by noted urban economist Joel Kotkin of the Manhattan Institute. King considered his bottle of Negro Modelo.

“I’m not interested at this point in my career in going up against Joel Kotkin,” King said. Soon, however, he seemed to warm to the topic. “I knew we shouldn’t have met at a bar,” he laughed.

Kotkin is based in Los Angeles and has never lived in Houston, although he’s a regular visitor. His consistently cheery assessment of the Bayou City’s quality of life is a source of local pride. His latest work, for instance, holds up Houston as “the clear center of the Third Coast economy,” and the Third Coast region as a whole as a strong growth center with lessons to teach the rest of the country. That report, “America’s Growth Corridors,” details the many things Kotkin loves about us, from the expansion of our port to our business-friendly climate to the resurgence of the energy industry. “There’s a growing realization that Houston is probably the next great American city,” Kotkin told us by phone.

One of his boldest and more arguable claims is that Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown has the country’s highest average household income—$75,256—once wages are adjusted to reflect housing costs. Back at the ice house, King was skeptical.

“I’m sorry, but the median household income in Houston is not at $75,000,” he said. “[Kotkin] was using the income for the metropolitan area; he was adjusting for all kinds of perks that we might have in Houston, but he’s using the region, not the city of Houston, which was the biggest flaw in his work.”

Moreover, we’re actually spending a greater portion of our income on housing than we did in the past, continued King, who apparently didn’t mind going up against Joel Kotkin after all. “My calculations show that in 2000, 20 percent of our people were paying 30 percent or more of their income on housing. In 2010 the amount rose to 30 percent of people paying that.”

Furthermore, King said, you have to factor in transportation costs, something Kotkin doesn’t do. “People recognize that transportation makes up such a large portion of their budget. It’s not appropriate to just do housing.” In 2010, 46 percent of the income of the average Houston household went toward housing and transportation, said King, and by that measure, our city ranks 26th in affordability.

Back on the phone, Kotkin was skeptical, to say the least.

“That’s insane,” he said. “There’s no question that Houston has the most affordable cost of living of other major cities.” It’s “a big city where there’s actually opportunity.”

For his part, King said he was just reporting what the numbers told him. “I didn’t make up what the median income is, he can’t either, that’s census data,” he said. (By the way, according to the census the median income in the city of Houston as of 2010 was $42,962.)

There are some in academia, Kotkin told us, who will always ignore positive news. Saying that “things are crappy,” as he put it, is attention-grabbing. But being a cheerleader can also be attention-grabbing. “I’ve seen others come from this position of trying to promote,” said King. “They play down the stuff that doesn’t look that great.”

By this time it was becoming clear that the quality-of-life issue was not going to be settled on a single Sunday afternoon at the West Alabama Ice House, especially after a beer. Then again, looking around at the happy crowd, it occurred to us that maybe the issue had already been settled, long ago, by the ice house itself. 

“It’s great that we have these wonderful things,” King said, smiling and motioning around him. “Houston is awesome; we can do this on a Sunday at the beginning of March. You can’t do this in New York. This is great.”

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