by Joel Kotkin
Like most big cities that get the nod, Houston has spruced itself up for the Super Bowl, planting flowers and concentrating in particular on the rough stretches between Hobby Airport and NRG Stadium. Yet it’s unlikely the city’s reputation will be much enhanced by the traveling media circus that accompanies these games.
The last time the city hosted the Super Bowl, in 2004, the Washington Post called it “super ugly.” The website Thrillist recently named Houston “the worst designed city” in America, with the usual kind comments about porn shops near offices, lack of walking districts, fat people and awful traffic. For good measure, 24/7 Wall Street named it among the 25 worst cities in America.
Casting shade on Houston is nothing new. In his best-selling 1946 travelogue Inside U.S.A., the journalist John Gunther described Houston as having “a residential section mostly ugly and barren, without a single good restaurant and hotels with cockroaches.” The only reasons to live in Houston, he claimed, were economic ones; it was a city “where few people think about anything but money.”
Gunther clearly did not see a great future for the place, predicting that it would have only a million people by now. In fact, the Houston metropolitan area’s population now stands at 6.6 million with the city itself a shade under 2.3 million. At its current rate of growth, Houston could replace Chicago as the nation’s third-largest city by 2030.
Why would anyone move to Houston? Start with the economic record.
Since 2000, no major metro region in America except for archrival Dallas-Fort Worth has created more jobs and attracted more people. Houston’s job base has expanded 36.5%; in comparison, New York employment is up 16.6%, the Bay Area 11.8%, and Chicago a measly 5.1%. Since 2010 alone, a half million jobs have been added.
Some like Paul Krugman have dismissed Texas’ economic expansion, much of it concentrated in its largest cities, as primarily involving low-wage jobs, but employment in the Houston area’s professional and service sector, the largest source of high-wage jobs, has grown 48% since 2000, a rate almost twice that of the San Francisco region, two and half times that of New York or Chicago, and more than four times Los Angeles. In terms of STEM jobs the Bay Area has done slightly better, but Houston, with 22% job growth in STEM fields since 2001, has easily surpassed New York (2%), Los Angeles (flat) and Chicago (-3%).
More important still, Houston, like other Texas cities, has done well in creating middle-class jobs, those paying between 80% and 200% of the median wage. Since 2001 Houston has boosted its middle-class employment by 26% compared to a 6% expansion nationally, according to the forecasting firm EMSI. This easily surpasses the record for all the cities preferred by our media and financial hegemons, including Washington (11%) and San Francisco (6%), and it’s far ahead of Los Angeles (4%), New York (3%) and Chicago, which lost 3% of its middle-class employment.
Voting With Their Feet
Urbanistas may revile Houston but the metro area’s population has grown more than any other U.S. metropolis in the new millennium, up by 1.2 million between 2000 and 2010. The most recent figures show Houston’s population expanded 159,000 between 2014 and 2015, the most of any U.S. metro area.
Much of this is a result of people moving from elsewhere, roughly 500,000 net since 2000. In comparison, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and even the Bay Area have suffered considerable migration losses.
It may be popular to suppose the new Texans are just a bunch of losers looking for cheap rent and low taxes. But the recent rate of increase in the population of educated 25- to 34-year-old educated people in Houston tops that of the San Jose area, and easily exceeds that of competitors like New York, Los Angeles and Boston. Houston has been getting not only bigger but also smarter.