Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Despite the historic flooding, Hurricane Harvey hasn’t changed their tune on zoning.
Hurricane Harvey inflicted an estimated $100 billion in damage on the Houston area in August and September, a catastrophe that some urban-planning pundits interpreted as a kind of cosmic comeuppance for the city’s decades of untrammeled sprawl. Since 2010, 7,000 units were built in Harris County’s 100-year floodplain. Like a diner at some bottomless barbecue, Houston likes to loosen its belt as it goes: There’s no growth boundary around the metro area, and Houston proper is the largest city in the U.S. without zoning codes. In the suburbs, developer-created utility districts proliferate.
In other words, many critics pointed out, Houston was asking for it by refusing to plan—and if the city doesn’t start growing up, rather than out, it’ll doom itself for good.
But the Center for Opportunity Urbanism says that’s unfair. The Houston-based policy think tank, run principally by urban contrarian/suburban champion Joel Kotkin, has long promoted Houston-style growth as a model for the rest of the country. Because it’s easy for developers to build, its leaders say, housing stock is far more affordable than most other cities, and quality of life remains high. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey hasn’t changed that basic narrative (though rents and home prices are likely to rise in high-and-dry neighborhoods). To rebuild Houston, don’t rethink Houston, they say—double down on what they see as its success.
In a new white paper, authors Wendell Cox and Tory Gattis, both founding senior fellows at COU, say that the “region’s systems worked remarkably well” in the face of Harvey. Despite the widespread street flooding, for example, less than five percent of homes were damaged. “In context, Houston has shown remarkable resilience in the face of widespread devastation from an unprecedented flooding event,” the paper states.
The authors are particularly intent on making sure that post-Harvey recovery doesn’t involve changing the area’s pro-growth mindset. “In our attempts to find practicable solutions to Houston’s problem, it is critical not to throw out our successful development model with the stormwater,” they write. “Fundamentally, there was virtually no connection between the storm and its damage and the area’s successful land use regulation.”
Come again? I spoke with Gattis and Cox to explain that notion further.
So, how is October looking so far in Houston?
Gattis: Certainly better than our September. From what I see on a daily basis, 90-plus percent of the city has bounced right back and is operating normally. Every once in a while, I'll go through a neighborhood and see some debris in front of some or many of the homes, and you're kind of reminded what's going on. You'll see remediation crews. Certainly, large parts of the city were severely impacted. And the people who were impacted were impacted very badly. But you know, most of the city, 90 percent, was relatively unaffected.
Roughly 30 percent of Harris County was underwater at the end of August, but you’d say that 90 percent of the city has bounced back.
Gattis: Obviously, everybody was affected while it was happening. The streets filled with water. But in terms of the number and the percentage of households that actually got water inside, and now have a long recovery period ahead of them, that was less than 10 percent. It is actually kind of amazing when you think about it.
One challenge for journalists in covering Harvey, I think, were the various jurisdictional layers that define Houston. There’s the city of Houston, Harris County, and the multiple other counties that comprise the enormous metro area. When you describe Houston’s future, exactly which Houston are you describing, and on what time horizon?
Gattis: There's a lot of debate right now about what kind of mitigation infrastructure we should build for the future, and what our development requirements should be for the future. As far as rebuilding now, most people in the metro are moving forward and trying to fix their house up as best they can. There’s also talk by the county about a larger buy-out of land.
The bigger question is long term. For new buildings, are we going to have stricter requirements? Are we going to build new flood mitigation infrastructure? What should the regulations be going forward? The mayor of Houston has said that he would like to see tougher requirements on construction.
Cox: I would add that no one is terribly concerned about housing development in the future, because much of the new development is already subject to really good regulations, in terms of water retention and runoff requirements. Any land that gets developed has to have no net new runoff versus when it was raw land.
OK. But are those regulations really sufficient? Some of the newest developments in the metro area were under multiple feet of water.
Gattis: I think those regulations should still be up for review, to make sure there aren’t any loopholes that are getting exploited, and to ensure the permitting is being rigorously enforced. But generally speaking, most people I’ve talked to on the engineering side say that we’ve had good regulations in place, in some cases going back to the 1980s, for retention on new development.
But that doesn’t address the question of where and how Houston should be developing to begin with. Much has been made of Houston’s sprawl into the Katy Prairie—new development paving over what were once rain-absorbent wetlands. And much of the county’s recent development has been in the 100-year floodplain. These seem like clear-cut cases for more regulation on the geography of new construction.
Gattis: I don’t know exactly how to put this, but even activist-types of people have admitted that those wetlands would not have saved Houston. If we’d had all of that undeveloped wetlands, it would have absorbed just a trivial amount of water. Not developing over the last 30 years would not have saved us.
And with the floodplains, much of the flooding happened well outside of the 100-year floodplain, because of the vagaries of where the water falls and how fast the storm water system can drain it. So you’ve got to think there’s risk of water wherever you are in the city.
Going forward, maybe we should take whatever elevation requirements are already in place and push them up another notch. More retention, more elevation, is probably a very good idea.
Some people are advocating for a massive government buy-out to get everybody out of the 100-year floodplain, or even the 500-year floodplain. But I suspect that’s economically infeasible. It’s a matter of what is pragmatic.
But is it pragmatic to let people keep rebuilding in the same flood-prone areas?
Gattis: If you just flat-out say, we’re not going allow any development here, well, then you’ve got the problem of “government takings.” Owners can sue and say, ‘You’ve just destroyed the value of my land.’ And you’ll have court cases for years.
I think if you say, look, we don’t think it’s a good idea to develop in the 100-year zone, but if you do, you’re going to build at a foot above where the Harvey water was, with these kinds of detention ponds. That’s going to add some expense, but a very reasonable expense given the risks being taken. And I think that also kind of heads off any kind of legal case.
Now, in an ideal world, if we had enough money, we’d buy up a lot of this land and turn it into parks. And there has been a plan in the works for a long time to turn more of our floodplains into detention parks and general park space throughout the city. But that takes money, and there’s a limit to the amount of dollars available.
Just as there are limited dollars available to repeatedly rebuild flooded homes.
Gattis: Yes. But that’s more of a FEMA-type of question. I agree that if we’re rebuilding the same property once, twice, or three times, it’s time for a buyout.
But there is also room for responsibility, locally, in dictating where new development can occur. I think that what you are suggesting—stricter flood mitigation regulations for new properties—isn’t really in disagreement with that, at the end of the day.
Gattis: Absolutely. What we’re trying to say is that Houston’s got a very robust development model that’s been very successful at creating opportunity. [Houston has the second-lowest housing cost-to-income ratio in the country.] That model should be looked at being tweaked to adjust for what we’ve learned from Harvey. It should not be thrown out.
We should not be saying, OK, it’s time to go with a very top-down, centralized plan, sort of a Portland-like model, where we’re just going to ban all development and push everybody into density on high elevation. The foundation of Houston’s model of development has been very hopeful for people, and we don’t want to lose that.
Cox: Houston is not at all popular among urban planners. They like to criticize Houston because it doesn’t don't have zoning. And in so many stories about Harvey, the flooding was blamed on that. Fact is it didn’t work out that way at all.
Gattis: You know, Joel [Kotkin] likes to point out that New York has plenty of density. It has plenty of zoning. And it still suffered an enormous amount of damage from Hurricane Sandy. So zoning didn't save New York. Zoning didn’t save New Orleans.
That is a straw-man argument if I ever heard one. Zoning is not the issue when we’re talking about sprawl outside of city limits.
Cox: I think it’s a very reasonable thing to raise. We can’t always anticipate exactly the kind of storm and the kind of flooding we're going to have.
Gattis: Point being, density is not solving these storm problems, and centralized planning isn’t solving them either. I don’t see that trying to force some kind of higher density on Houston would have really mitigated the situation. Plenty of apartment complexes which are quite high density flooded just as well. It really just comes down to good regulation on development.
I would argue that density has many benefits when it comes to recovering from a storm—you’re closer to transportation if roads are flooded or you’ve lost your car, for example.
Gattis: If you want to live in density in Houston, that’s available, too. You can look out over downtown and see tons of high-rise towers. Since we don’t have zoning in the core, we make densification easy. We let the market decide.
In the end, what you’re advocating for are market-based tools that would likely have the effect of tamping down some of the risky development that has been occurring. You’re really not calling for Houston to maintain its status quo, although this new white paper seems to want to be read that way.
Gattis: We need to have well-thought-through market incentives and permitting requirements in place so that that the right quality of development is built. It’s about trying to get that balance right, and the infrastructure investments right.
Speaking of which, you’ve also suggested that Houston invest in a number of large-scale flood resilience projects, including the “Ike Dike,” the long-proposed $15 billion storm surge barrier. Part of what gives Texas cities the affordability you rightly praise is the lack of state income or property taxes. Locals are reticent to approve municipal tax increases. How does the region pay for something like this?
Gattis: It would be great to have regional authority, with a broad taxation base, that did fund things like the dike. Honestly, that’s where the politics really get dicey—who’s going to pay for what. Taxpayers don’t always have the longest-term sense of cost-benefit.
That sounds like an area where stronger planning could play a role.
Gattis: I’m confident that we’ll look at all of this through a rigorous cost-benefit lens, and work out what the right answers are. We just have to keep kind of tuning our permitting regulations. And figure out the right kinds of incentives. Imagine if you gave every local property owner a tax credit to put a rain barrel on their roof. That’s a market-based incentive that would let a thousand flowers bloom.
I don’t think there’s any investment that could have prevented the flooding from something like Harvey. But if we could find the right mix of investments and regulations, we could have scaled it back by maybe half.