Houston's Not Resilient? Really?

Alert reader Jessie sent me this article about Houston ranking "very low" on a "resilience capacity index".  For real.  I was dumbfounded too. And now I'm going to post out-of-character and get a little snippy...

Let's skip right past the parade of articles and data showing Houston and Texas weathering the great recession better than just about everywhere else in the country.  It's so strong Rick Perry might win the Republican presidential nomination based on it.  That alone should make them question their entire methodology.  Go back to the dot-com and Enron crashes, and you'll find the same minimal impact.  Sounds like we're pretty resilient to me.

Then there's their explicit declaration that it represents the ability of a city to weather the shock of a major storm or flood.  I'll point to both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike.  Both were devastating - yet we bounced back relatively quickly from each one.  You might note on their map that New Orleans ranks higher than Houston, yet Hurricane Katrina knocked New Orleans on its back for years.  Maybe they need to add a "levees upkeep" variable to the index?

Let's look at some of the problematic variables that make up the index:

  • Economic diversification: I'll admit there's some value here, but it's also worth noting that some of the wealthiest and most successful cities in the country built that success around one strong, dominant industry: NYC and finance, DC and govt, SF/SV and tech, Houston and energy, etc.
  • Income equality: also a proxy for "we don't have any high-paying industries" - nor the corresponding tax base.  How is this helpful for resilience? (more on the value of income disparity here)
  • Educational attainment, being out of poverty, and home ownership: a proxy for using tight zoning and land-use regulation to keep out apartments, new and affordable housing, and immigrants.
  • Metropolitan Stability: aka "stagnation".  Cities that aren't growing have amazingly stable populations because nobody wants to move there and none of the residents can sell their houses.

My cynical side thinks that, since the University of Buffalo put this out, they intentionally chose variables that made Buffalo look good, even though it's one of the most stagnant metro economies in the country.

All in all one of the worst designed indexes I've ever seen - and there are some doozies out there.

OK, I feel better.  End venting (and snippyness).

Read more from Tory at HoustonStrategies.com.