Creatures of the State

Mayor Bill White's efforts to speed traffic on Houston's freeways spawned the "Safe Clear" program, under which any car stalled on a city highway would immediately be towed away, even if it were in an emergency lane and the driver could fix the problem. Cost of the tows: $75. The public response was overwhelmingly negative. After a few weeks, White softened the program, directing that people with flat tires would be towed for free.
by | April 2005
 

Mayor Bill White's efforts to speed traffic on Houston's freeways spawned the "Safe Clear" program, under which any car stalled on a city highway would immediately be towed away, even if it were in an emergency lane and the driver could fix the problem. Cost of the tows: $75. The public response was overwhelmingly negative. After a few weeks, White softened the program, directing that people with flat tires would be towed for free. But that wasn't good enough for John Whitmire, a powerful state senator from Houston, who quickly whipped up a bill to end the program. White met with Whitmire and agreed to more changes, thus heading off a humiliating defeat. But the incident is a reminder that cities are "creatures of the state" (to use the legal terminology) and some states are quick to micromanage their offspring. Under home rule, any Texas city of more than 5,000 population can pass ordinances without the state's permission, but the Texas legislature reserves the right to pass a law voiding them. "That's the reality," said a Texas Municipal League official. "City officials don't like to hear it or see it in practice, but the state has purview over cities. [Legislators] can and will inject themselves in any way they want to."

RETURN OF THE DAY TRADERS

Remember the day traders, those guys who quit their jobs to play the stock market? Their angle was making quick, complicated investments in the hopes of making a killing. When the stock market tanked, it was the day traders who got killed. The same thing is happening now in housing, as amateur investors buy up houses (sometimes sight unseen) on the bet that the overheated housing market will keep getting hotter and they'll make a tidy sum. According to the Arizona Republic, out- of-state investors are buying nearly one in four of the homes sold in the Phoenix area, double the rate of two years ago. Some investors are buying new homes, others are snapping up rundown houses in marginal neighborhoods, fixing them up and selling them. In St. Petersburg, Florida, one real estate agent estimated that 15 percent of the buyers he sees are looking to buy a cheap house and resell it quickly. "The market is flooded with them," the agent said of the amateur investors. "It's amazing. It's a feeding frenzy." Places such as Phoenix, Orlando and Miami depend on housing for a big part of their economy because they are major retirement and second-home markets; if the bubble bursts, their growth could be slowed. As for more balanced economies, a wipeout would probably have about the same effect as the demise of the day traders.

BRAHMS IN THE 'BURBS

The Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, recently opened the Strathmore Music Center. Built with $100 million of public funds, the venue will house the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which will also still have a home in its traditional concert hall in Baltimore. Will Washington crowds warm to an orchestra bearing Baltimore's name? Will having two major symphony orchestras in one metro area--the National Symphony Orchestra plays just 19 miles away-- divide concert goers and diminish both orchestras? Stay tuned. But there is a larger question: Why the concert hall at all? Increasingly, affluent suburbs see the arts as a way of deepening their hold on footloose residents and businesses. Said the county commission chair of Prince William County, Virginia, another D.C. suburb considering a performing-arts facility, "We look at [arts centers] as an economic accelerant. When corporations are looking to locate to a community, they want to see a full spectrum of the community."

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