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Houston and urban sprawl: Why can’t we get cities right?

When the rains of Hurricane Harvey came, the vast paved-over area meant that rising waters had nowhere to go.
When the rains of Hurricane Harvey came, the vast paved-over area meant that rising waters had nowhere to go. TNS

The waters are receding in Houston, and so, inevitably, is national interest. But Hurricane Harvey will leave a huge amount of wreckage behind, some of it invisible. In particular, we don’t yet know just how much poison has been released by flooding of chemical plants, waste dumps, and more. But it’s a good bet that more people will eventually die from the toxins Harvey leaves behind than were killed during the storm itself.

Oh, and if you trust the current administration to handle Harvey’s aftermath right, I’ve got a degree from Trump University you might want to buy. There are already signs of dereliction: many toxic waste sites are flooded, but the Environmental Protection Agency is conspicuously absent.

Anyway, Harvey was an epic disaster. And it was a disaster brought on, in large part, by bad policy. What made Houston so vulnerable to flooding was rampant, unregulated development. Greater Houston still has less than a third as many people as greater New York, but it covers roughly the same area, and probably has a smaller percentage of land that hasn’t been paved or built on.

Houston’s sprawl gave the city terrible traffic and an outsized pollution footprint even before the hurricane. When the rains came, the vast paved-over area meant that rising waters had nowhere to go.

So is Houston’s disaster a lesson in the importance of urban land-use regulation, of not letting developers build whatever they want, wherever they want? Yes, but.

Where Houston has long been famous for its virtual absence of regulations on building, consider San Francisco, famous for its NIMBYism — that is, the power of “not in my backyard” sentiment to prevent new housing construction. The Bay Area economy has boomed in recent years, but very few new housing units have been added.

The result has been soaring rents and home prices. The median monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is more than $3,000, the highest in the nation and roughly triple the rent in Houston; the median price of a single-family home is more than $800,000.

This is one policy area where “both sides get it wrong” — a claim I usually despise — turns out to be right. NIMBYism is bad for working families and the U.S. economy as a whole, strangling growth precisely where workers are most productive. But unrestricted development imposes large costs in the form of traffic congestion, pollution and vulnerability to disaster.

We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction.

In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.

In practice, however, policy all too often ends up being captured by interest groups. In sprawling cities, real-estate developers exert outsized influence, and the more these cities sprawl, the more powerful the developers get.

Can America break out of these political traps? Maybe. In blue states where cities build too little, there’s a growing political movement calling for more housing supply. Until now, there’s been much less evidence of second thoughts about unmanaged development in red states, but Harvey may serve as a wake-up call.

One thing is clear: How we manage urban land is a really important issue, with huge impacts on American lives.

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