Will recession really helpm Houston?

The city hasn't quite hung out a sign saying "Recession Welcome Here." Houstonians are no more fond of job layoffs, depressed wages, and the other negative effects of an economic downturn than residents elsewhere in the United States.But for the nation's fastest-growing major city of the 1970s, recession has a certain appeal.

"We've assumed that growth is helping. But no city can grow at our rate indefinitely," declares James J. Didion, senior vice-president of Coldwell Banker commercial brokerage company here.

Mr. Didion, whose bread and butter is an expanding real estate market, concedes slower growth in Houston could allow lagging city services to catch up with the population. That could improve the quality of life in Houston.

Indeed, many urbanologists see Houston facing the same growth-related issues that Lost Angeles faced in the late 1960s when several decades of rapid growth brought tremendous strain on city services in that West Coast metropolis.

Sentiment is strong favoring more moderate growth in Houston, where the population ballooned an estimated 41 percent between 1970 and 1980 at a time when many other large US cities stagnated or declined.

"It is becoming a majority view" among Houston residents that the city is growing too fast and that expansion is the root cause of many of the area's problems, claims Richard E. Ryan, a vice-president with the polling and research firm, V. Lance Tarrance & Associates Inc. A clear majority favored growth just six months ago, according to the firm's regular polling survey, Mr. Ryan reports.

Still, growth shows no signs of cooling off. Annual net population increase in the Houston metropolitan area has hovered in the 90,000 range over the past three years. Some feel that rising unemployment in the older industrial regions of the United States currently is forcing more job seekers to Houston and other relatively prosperous Sunbelt cities.

Despite the population influx, Houston's unemployment rate has been running more than 2 percentage points below the national average, due partly to the city's strong and growing energy industry.

Yet in some respects, the prospect of more newcomers is distressing to those living here. Harris County, which includes Houston, registered 239 new motor vehicles every daym in 1979, making an already bad traffic situation worse.

"When you're competing for a canopy at the beach, or a spot on the jogging track, or a space on the freeway, you can't help but see this kind of growth as negative," says Kent Fuller, manager of economic development for the Houston Chamber of Commerce.

Of course, rapid growth also creates all kinds of opportunities, and there is no clamoring here for a no-growth policy. Houston's expanding job market and growing tax base have brought steady gains in income for city residents, and great job stability. Noting these benefits, Mr. Fuller points out that the city's growth has been on balance a plus.

Yet there is near consensus in Houston that city services must be improved. The police chief speaks of a severe manpower shortage, park and recreation space is inadequate, flooding occurs regularly in some parts of the city, the streets are in poor condition, and public transportation is minimal.

Houston Mayor Jim McConn has acknowledged these problems in vowing no further annexation of neighboring communities through 1981 because of the city's inability to provide adequate services. Houston has historically practiced an ambitious annexation policy and now sprawls over 556 square miles.

Also, Houston voters will decide in August whether to grant police, fire, and municipal workers requested pay increases of about 18 percent, which some claim are necessary to improve vital city services.

There is generally growing pressure for tax increases in Houston to upgrade services and some feel this will bring the question of growth to a head.

"Higher taxes are the one thing that will really get people's attention here, and force them to look at growth," predicts George Hampton, professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Houston.

Although there is no zoning in Houston, the City Council has acted to extend certain types of controls. A hotly debated law was passed recently limiting the proliferation of billboards particularly portable signs on wheels that line some of the city's busiest streets.

Traffic congestion remains the most common source of grumbling. But public transportation has improved noticeably over the past year, and the Houston Metropolitan Transit Authority has substantial expansions plans including the possible construction of the city's first fixed-rail system.

Like most city services, public transit will be hard pressed in a period of high inflation and recession to catch up with the city's rapid growth of recent years, much less keep pace with future expansion.

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