Iconic image of American McMansions from Plano, Texas

I’ve seen this picture of a Plano, Texas McMansion numerous times around the Internet:

DeanTerryPlanoTXMcMansionI’ve wondered at the origin of this photo and now I see: see this image and others from the same area as part of Dean Terry’s Flickr stream with the photos originating from his 2007 documentary Subdivided.

What makes this particular McMansion photo stand out? Some reasons:

1. The home has a “typical” McMansion design: brick exterior, multi-gabled roof, clearly a big home, lots of big windows in the front at various levels, a two-story foyer.

2. The surrounding area: the looming water tower, the big power lines out nearby, a neighborhood of similar sized houses with little evidence of anyone being around. (Some of the later photos in the Flickr set illustrate this further: the home backs up to a wide right-of-way for power lines and that water tower really is huge.) Setting the picture beneath a stop sign and lamppost seems to add to the ominousness of the photo.

3. This is Texas, a place where everything is big, including the homes, water towers, and sky. And not just any part of Texas: Plano is a booming suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area that went from just 17,872 people in 1970 to 259,841 people in 2010. That is explosive, sprawling suburban growth.

Now, I may just have to get my hands on this documentary to see more of the home and its context…

Texas is America’s future?

A libertarian economist argues Texas is a bright spot for America’s future:

Since 2000, 1 million more people have moved to Texas from other states than have left.

As an economist and a libertarian, I have become convinced that whether they know it or not, these migrants are being pushed (and pulled) by the major economic forces that are reshaping the American economy as a whole: the hollowing out of the middle class, the increased costs of living in the U.S.’s established population centers and the resulting search by many Americans for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

To a lot of Americans, Texas feels like the future. And I would argue that more than any other state, Texas looks like the future as well — offering us a glimpse of what’s to come for the country at large in the decades ahead. America is experiencing ever greater economic inequality and the thinning of its middle class; Texas is already one of our most unequal states. America’s safety net is fraying under the weight of ballooning Social Security and Medicare costs; Texas’ safety net was built frayed. Americans are seeking out a cheaper cost of living and a less regulated climate in which to do business; Texas has that in spades. And did we mention there’s no state income tax?

There’s a bumper sticker sometimes seen around the state that proclaims, I WASN’T BORN IN TEXAS, BUT I GOT HERE AS FAST AS I COULD. As the U.S. heads toward Texas, literally and metaphorically, it’s worth understanding why we’re headed there — both to see the pitfalls ahead and to catch a glimpse of the opportunities that await us if we make the journey in an intelligent fashion.

Joel Kotkin would likely agree. A few thoughts after reading the full story:

1. There are several examples of people moving to Texas from California or the Northeast and finding that they really like Texas. But, the examples tend to emphasize Austin, a city known for plenty of cultural amenities. With its culture, UT-Austin campus, and tech companies, Austin looks like a cool place for the creative class. What about the other major areas in Texas? Why not stories about moving to Houston and Dallas, bigger cities and metropolitan areas with their own industries (oil, etc.)? How representative of Texas is Austin?

2. There is little discussion in the story about Latino residents. The primary focus in on Americans who have moved to Texas from other states but what about the influx of immigrants from Mexico? How are they doing? Are there some differences in their experiences as a whole versus those who are held up as successes in the article?

3. This is another article in a long line of opinions about which American state best represents the country or provides a glimpse into the future. What about California, a more progressive melting pot? What about the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, home to a number of the wealthiest counties in the United States? How about Illinois, held up in a more negative light in recent years for pension woes, too many governments/taxing bodies, bullish politicians, foreclosures, and violent crime? Perhaps we should look to Florida, specifically at the diversity in the Miami area or the aging population throughout the state? I realize people are interested in spotting trends but it is hard to select ideal types from 50 states and hundreds of big cities.

4. The story plays out Texas’ connections to the American pioneer and frontier story. This works but there is also a different culture and set of social norms in Texas. Even if business is thriving and people are moving in, does this necessarily mean many Americans would want to act or live like Texans? Is it all simply about a decent job and affordable housing? Yes, everyone may be American but outsiders and Texans themselves will tell you that the state is a land onto itself.

Houston a relatively unknown city despite being the 4th biggest in the US

An interesting profile of Houston as the “next great American city” includes this bit about how the city is viewed:

If nothing else, the Kinder Institute’s reports underscore how little the country really knows about Houston. Is it, as most New Yorkers and Californians assume, a cultural wasteland? “The only time this city hits the news is when we get a hurricane!” complains James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. “People have no idea.” Its image in the outside world is stuck in the 1970s, of a Darwinian frontier city where business interests rule, taxation and regulation are minimal, public services are thin and the automobile is worshiped. “This was boomtown America,” says Klineberg of the giddy oil years. “While the rest of the country was in recession, we were seen as wealthy, arrogant rednecks, with bumper stickers that read, ‘Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee.’” Today, he adds, “Houston has become integrated into the U.S. and global economies, but we still like to think we’re an independent country. We contribute to the image!”

Several thoughts about Houston’s profile:

1. Part of the issue may be that Houston is trying to join the group of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that has been set for decades. Houston is the newcomer and perhaps besides oil, doesn’t yet have the broad appeal these other three have. Plus, these top three are world-class cities, top ten global cities, and that comparison can be harsh.

2. It sounds like Houston could benefit from a strengthened booster campaign. Cities often have to sell themselves and their assets. This requires business, civic, and political leaders (the growth machine) to band together behind some common appeals. What might draw people to Houston? What would attract businesses and tourists?

3. I wonder if there is some conflict between being part of Texas and being from Houston. From the outside, perhaps particularly from the coasts, it is easier to lump all of Texas together, even though it has a variety of communities (some big differences between Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). Additionally, Texans tend to like to play up the uniqueness of their state. Compare this to cities like Chicago where there is a very sharp divide between the metropolitan region and “downstate.” Perhaps Houston needs more of a city-state mentality to separate it from Texas.

Texas governor not the only one after Illinois businesses; also Florida, Wisconsin

The Texas Governor campaigned for Illinois businesses and he spoke earlier this week at a conference. But, he is not alone – other states also want Illinois businesses:

Perry is not the only governor out to siphon commerce this week. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker on Tuesday attended the same Chicago conference, touting his state’s business environment and standing as a bioscience leader. A day earlier, Florida’s Rick Scott sent a “Wish you were here” letter to Illinois business owners, noting that his state is “nipping at the heels of Texas every day” as a place to do business and pointing out that “Illinois’ formula of more taxing and spending ISN’T WORKING.” (Never let it be said Scott is undercapitalized.)…

Perry isn’t just selling Texas in a state weighed down by budget crises and the lack of political will to make the tough choices that solutions will require. He is on a trip financed by a public-private partnership to sell the concepts of lower taxes, less government interference, “a legal system that doesn’t allow for oversuing,” lower workers comp rates…

In this, pitting one state against another is good, Perry argued, in “the same way that it’s good for the White Sox and the Cubbies to compete against each other. If you don’t have competition, you’re not going to get pushed out of your comfort zone. That’s the simplest form I can put it in. I think our Founding Fathers understood that you had these laboratories of innovation and the ones that were good at it would be successful.”

Perry ignores one area of competition present in the Chicago area: between cities and suburbs. There have been numerous discussions in recent years about the tax breaks offered in different communities (here is an example in Hoffman Estates) or Chicago attracting headquarters and businesses back to the city and whether this harms the suburbs. Granted, all of these communities have to deal with the issues and regulations of the State of Illinois. But, it appears a number of businesses have still found places they like including in the Loop, Schaumburg, Northbrook, Deerfield, Naperville, Oak Brook, and other places. Between these localities, businesses can look for favorable settings and take advantages of the peculiarities of each place.

There was also one issue that highlighted a possible problem in Texas that may have been highlighted by a recent tragedy:

Take a good look at how close the fertilizer factory that blew up last week was to a middle school and nursing home in West, Texas, and decide for yourself whether you endorse Texas’ stance on zoning (“We respect local control,” Perry said) or think the state should intervene. Laissez faire isn’t always the way to go.

I assumed Illinois provided for local control over zoning as well…though I’m not sure what happens when it comes to potentially dangerous fertilizer plants.

Rahm Emanuel fires back at Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to entice Illinois businesses to Texas with recent radio spots but Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired back yesterday:

Emanuel made pointed reference to a campaign gaffe Perry committed while running for president. At a Republican debate late in 2011, Perry said he had plans to eliminate three federal departments, but could remember only two.

Asked about Perry’s visit at a Monday news conference, Emanuel used the opportunity to tout Chicago’s infrastructure improvements and wealth of well-educated residents thanks to its universities, both of which he said were lacking in Texas.

He pointed to the 14 major businesses that have moved their headquarters to Chicago during his administration, and also drew attention to Texas’ drought.

“In the City of Chicago, we don’t have to measure our showers like they do in Texas,” said Emanuel, a Democrat who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff…

After a similar effort earlier this year in California, that state’s governor, Jerry Brown, called Perry’s $26,000 ad buy there “not a burp…it’s barely a fart.”

“If they want to get in the game, let them spend $25 million on radio and television,” said Brown, according to the Sacramento Bee.  “Then I’ll take them seriously.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn lashed back at Perry last week, telling reporters “We don’t need any advice from Gov. Perry.”

If Perry’s main goal was to draw the fire of Democratic leaders, he seems to have succeeded. I’ve seen some experts suggest ads like those Perry was in do little to attract businesses. At the same time, they might help insert Texas into conversations in a way that often don’t happen in the Chicago area.

It is interesting to note Emanuel’s defense: Chicago has well-educated residents and well-regarded colleges (the University of Chicago and Northwestern are a pretty good pair), has plenty of corporate headquarters, has spent on infrastructure, and don’t have droughts (but apparently does have flooding). Is this the best case for Chicago? I could imagine adding Chicago’s standing as a global city, transportation advantages, central location in the United States, continued leadership in commodity trading, beautiful parks along Lake Michigan, tourism, and well-developed metropolitan region.

By the way, it is fair to compare a state to a city or region? Sure, Chicago may be the center of Illinois life but there still is the rest of the state that may take exception (and vote with Perry to boot).

Texas Governor Rick Perry advertising for Illinois businesses to move to Texas

There is a new radio spot running in the Chicago area featuring Texas Governor Rick Perry suggesting Illinois businesses should move to Texas. Listen to the radio spot here and check out the associated web site texaswideopenforbusiness.com. Here is what the website says:

If you’re a business owner in Illinois, I want to express my admiration for your ability to survive in an environment that, intentionally or not, is designed for you to fail.

With rising taxes and government interference on the upswing, your situation is not unlike a burning building on the verge of collapse. If you’re thinking of “just riding it out” you might want to reconsider.

There is an escape route to economic freedom… a route to Texas. The Lone Star State has proven that limited government, low taxes, and a pro-business mindset work wonders when it comes to job creation and a robust economy. If you’re ready for a fresh start in a place that appreciates job creators like you, it’s time to check out Texas.

This echoes the glee in Indiana and Wisconsin when Illinois raised taxes several years ago.

Texas is indeed growing at a rate that a number of states, including Illinois, can only envy. Texas is known for warmer weather (actually, quite hot weather), lower taxes, and is a Republican-dominated state in recent decades. Metropolitan areas like Dallas, Houston, and Austin are booming. And yet, there are still businesses that are willing to locate in and near Chicago. Perhaps it is the world-class city with international connections as well as unique character. Perhaps it is the base of human capital with both high-skill and low-skill workers. Perhaps Chicago’s location in the middle of the country and at the center of transportation networks still matters to some.

I imagine many businesses are already aware of the business climate differences between Illinois and Texas. Is this just an attempt to trumpet the successes of Texas and poke Illinois in the eye?

A downtown law firm no more

A law firm in Austin, TX is leaving its downtown location for the suburbs:

Law firm Bowman and Brooke LLP [website] is vacating its current location at 600 Congress Ave. and heading to more suburban digs southwest of downtown [about 6 miles away, map here]….“Yes, price was a consideration but we’re not getting a tremendous difference in rent costs. There are other things that entered in like tenant improvement costs, and parking had a significant impact,” [Michelle Bailey, chief of operations] said.

The company had no parking allocation downtown and at its new location it will have 96 complimentary spaces for 44 employees — more than enough.

The article notes that “finding large blocks of office space [in downtown Austin] is somewhat akin to going on a treasure hunt” and suggests that lawyers “are now being challenged for territorial rights by emerging technology and energy firms.” In other words, plenty of businesses still want a downtown presence, and rents are being bid up by new entrants. This sounds more like a story of urban revival than suburban sprawl to me, though the two are clearly linked here.

Perhaps a more fascinating revelation, however, is Bowman and Brooke determination that it “wasn’t necessary for its attorneys to be downtown, close to other law firms and courthouses” because “[w]e tend to be a national firm with our attorneys flying all over the country” and “we don’t have a lot of local interaction.” What does it mean to practice law without significant local interaction, especially when one is “a nationally recognized trial firm that defends corporate clients in widely publicized catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims“? While simply having a downtown (rather than a suburban) office location may do little to humanize a corporate law firm, it seems telling that Bowman and Brooke seems to place such a low priority on engaging its local community.

Leader in Texas adverse possession movement hasn’t been successful yet

The adverse possession advice being peddled through a Texas man’s website and e-book hasn’t exactly worked out yet:

If you direct your browser to 16dollarhouse.com and plunk down $9.97 for an e-book, you can still learn from Ken Robinson ( “poised, measured, insightful and wise” and an AMERICAN, all caps, as the site informs you) how to use adverse possession, a once obscure Texas law, to get a house on the cheap.

Be forewarned that Robinson’s legal theories haven’t worked out so well in practice. Earlier this year, he was evicted from his $350,000 Flower Mound McMansion after a judge decided that his claim to the house was bullshit. His disciples have fared little better.

Following news of Robinson’s scheme, officials in Tarrant County made the rounds evicting squatters who moved into homes after filing adverse possession claims. Eight of them were charged with theft or burglary.

David Cooper was the first to go to trial, which wrapped up today…

But Texas law also says you can’t steal people’s stuff and, in Cooper’s case, the house actually wasn’t abandoned. It belonged to a couple who were spending a lot of time in Houston, where the wife was undergoing cancer treatment. When it became clear that the home wasn’t abandoned, Cooper was arrested and charged with burglary and theft.

See more about the ruling on Robinson’s Flower Mound case here.

This would be an interesting protest movement that someone like Occupy Wall Street might want to take up: identify and then occupy Texas houses.

The financial reasons The Woodlands, Texas does not want to incorporate

Many communities want to incorporate so they can control land use as well as fund and provide local services. But The Woodlands, Texas has resisted incorporation for financial reasons:

For one, The Woodlands is one of the nation’s best case studies when it comes to weighing the costs and benefits of incorporation. According to Bruce Tough, Chairman of the township’s seven-member Board of Directors, his community boasts an unprecedented level of success when it comes to governance, public services, and environmental excellence. Just 20 years after it was founded, the township had won a Special Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute and a LivCom Nations in Bloom Gold Award. Residents enjoy more than 190 miles of hiking and biking paths. A little over 20 percent of the township’s acreage is set aside for green space, greenbelts, and golf courses…

Unlike similarly successful (and now former) townships including Irvine, California, The Woodlands has reliably refused to incorporate as either a standalone city or part of Houston, even as the issue is raised every few years by developers, residents, or the city of Houston, which provides municipal services such as waste removal, water, and local law enforcement from the sheriff’s department. Tough points to the township’s one-of-a-kind public service provider agreement with Houston and the fact that the township is run more like a business than a municipal government as the primary reasons why The Woodlands doesn’t need to incorporate. Houston agrees not to annex The Woodlands during the next 50 years. In exchange, The Woodlands continues to make service payments to Houston.

Among residents, the question of incorporating is primarily a financial concern. Research indicates that becoming a standalone city could raise property taxes in The Woodlands from 32.5 cents up to anywhere from 58.14 cents to a staggering 81.5 cents per $100 valuation. (By comparison, the property tax rate in Houston hovers around 63 cents.) The costs would include road maintenance, setting up new sewage and water provisions, and establishing a separate police department. Estimates for just those few basic services reach into the hundreds of millions, costs residents fear would be added to their annual tax bills…

For now, The Woodlands residents can relax. For its population, the township has one of the lowest tax rates in the United States but more and better services than similar counterparts. There is no local income tax charged in The Woodlands, and Texas is one of seven states without state income tax. The bulk of their tax money comes from sales tax levied against visitors who flock to the downtown promenade and amphitheater.

This is an interesting case but it sounds like the primary reason The Woodlands has not incorporated is because it can afford not to. In other words, it can afford to contract with Houston for municipal services and it can rely on visitors to provide a lot of revenue rather than having to tax its residents at a higher rate. The community of over 93,000 residents has a median household income of $103,229, is 88.4% white, a poverty rate of 5.1%, and 59% of residents have a college degree. Many communities do not have this luxury.

Judge rules against man who wanted to claim Texas McMansion through adverse possession

Last July, I wrote about a Texas man who claimed he could occupy an abandoned McMansion and then claim possession of the home after a certain amount of time. His “adverse possession” case has moved forward as a judge ruled that the bank can indeed remove him from the home:

Anyone who was rooting for the man who used Texas’ adverse possession law to snag a McMansion for only $16 will be bummed to hear that he’ll be forced to leave the home after Bank of America claimed ownership of it. Drat!

Kenneth made waves in Flower Mound, Texas in July when he claimed the right to take over a $340,000 home in suburban Dallas, after filing a simple document and paying $16 to the city. He cited a law which said he could legally take possession of the house after living there for three years. His neighbors grumbled while he watered the lawn and paid utility bills, and now a judge says he has to move by Valentine’s Day.

The Associated Press says Bank of America can boot Kenneth, as they hold the lien on the house. Foreclosure was completed last month, says BOA, and now it’s time for Kenneth to vacate the premises…

“I’m just thankful for Flower Mound and Denton County for following the proper lawful procedures,” [Kenneth] said. “I went in doing this strictly by following a lawful process.” And now that the process has played itself out, he says, “I’m neither happy nor disappointed.”

I would venture to guess that Bank of America and some other people paid special attention to this case in order to forestall efforts by others who might be interested in using adverse possession to claim homes.

It would be helpful to have more information here:

1. Are the neighbors now happy that the home has officially gone through foreclosure? Did Kenneth make peace with any of the neighbors?

2. Does Bank of America have a quick timetable for moving this house to the market and selling it or will it be another home that languishes while the bank decides whether to accept offers?

3. Has Flower Mound changed its rules yet, like perhaps upped the $16 application fee, in order to avoid cases and attention like this in the future?

4. Where will Kenneth live next?