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As Houston rebuilds, its unbridled growth could be key to its success

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What everyone is calling Houston’s weakness could end up being the city’s greatest strength as it recovers from Harvey

Apartments under construction in the Upper Kirby area of Houston. The fourth-largest U.S. city has built enough housing to welcome an influx of new residents.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Before the rain had stopped, the hot takes on what caused Hurricane Harvey had been published—stories berating Houstonians for decades of “unchecked sprawl,” “Wild West growth,” and “lack of zoning” that made the disaster worse.

While it’s important to note that receiving 51.88 inches of rain—breaking the storm-total record for the continental U.S.—would have obliterated any city, no matter how well-prepared it may have been, these types of accusations don’t tell the whole story.

From a planning perspective, at least, Houston hasn’t been any better or worse than other similarly-sized U.S. cities, when it comes to ignoring or embracing its disaster risk. Look at the way any large U.S. city has grown and you’ll see the same trends: swapping green space for hardscape, overbuilding highways, and encouraging car-dependence, while pushing growth out into the suburbs.

However, as the country’s fourth-largest metropolis, Houston is actually very different than those cities in one very powerful way.

Over the last few years, Houston has made room for new residents when other big U.S. cities have not.

Harris County, where Houston is located, is consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S. For eight straight years it added more people than any other county in the country, a streak it finally broke this year. And the surrounding counties are still growing fast. By 2030, Houston is estimated to overtake Chicago as the country’s third-largest metropolitan area.

Houston’s Say Yes campaign aims to bolster support for housing development.
City of Houston

So why don’t you hear about Houston facing the same affordability crises as New York or Los Angeles (or, on a smaller scale, San Francisco or Seattle)? Because Houston has kept up with the growing demand. Just a few years ago, the city of Houston was issuing more housing permits than the entire state of California. Rents have stayed relatively stable compared to other big cities because Houston built enough housing to keep prices down. In fact, right now, an estimated seven percent of rental units are vacant—about 47,000 apartments—which is unheard of in any other large American city.

That means Houston has been able to accommodate new residents and nurture a large workforce population, including many immigrants. Perhaps most famously, the city welcomed evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, between 25,000 and 40,000 of whom are estimated to have permanently settled in the Houston area. Can you imagine any other city that could absorb those kinds of numbers with open arms?

This kind of growth has not only fueled the city’s economy, it has made Houston the most ethnically and racially diverse city in the country.

As it rebuilds from one of the most financially devastating extreme weather events in U.S. history, Houston’s housing won’t be shackled by the restraints of traditional zoning. The city won’t be subjected to the types of arduous approvals which have stunted recovery efforts elsewhere.

Compare the challenges to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where battles around preserving architectural character and a moratorium on subsidized units resulted in a housing shortage that has been blamed for pushing prices up, decreasing neighborhood diversity, and driving longtime residents away.

In New York City, only one of the 33 public housing projects damaged by Hurricane Sandy has been repaired, despite the city receiving $3 billion in aid. The Build it Back program meant to fast-track single-family home repairs was derailed by the city’s high cost of construction.

Houston not only knows how to build, they will build, fast—in a way that will keep its current citizens from fleeing and probably welcome even more residents.

This is not to gloss over concerns about how the city will continue to grow. A column by Mike Snyder in the Houston Chronicle questions if Harvey could be the bellwether that forces the city to undergo some necessary planning reform. The development of floodplains, for example, is a big problem that will absolutely need to be addressed.

The city needs more smart flood-mitigating infrastructure like Buffalo Bayou Park, and a better plan for its downtown. There’s displacement to worry about, as the neighborhoods most greatly affected by the floods were the most vulnerable. And the city has had its own issues with disaster recovery: Houston was slammed for a slow-moving response to Hurricane Ike in 2008, with hundreds of homeowners using infamous blue tarps for their damaged roofs eight years later.

As a resident of Los Angeles, I empathize with the frustration Houstonians are experiencing in the national spotlight. For the past five years, my city received its fair share of finger-wagging during a crippling drought. In fact, the same land-use choices that have been blamed for Houston’s flooding were also, interestingly, blamed for our lack of water: growing too quickly, paving too much of our land. I anticipate all the stereotypical faults we’ll be chastised for—sprawl, freeways—when the next big earthquake strikes. But it’s something like the California Environmental Quality Act, an antiquated law that California’s anti-development people love to use to block new projects, which will do the most damage to LA in the years after a disaster.

No city needs to be told they had it coming when rescue boats are still pulling survivors from flooded neighborhoods. But Houston shade is particularly misguided. Especially takes like this: “If you set out to design a metropolis that is poorly adapted to the future, you couldn't do much better than Houston,” writes Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone’s entry to the tsk-tsk canon.

The truth is that Houston’s supposed shortcomings could prove to be its greatest assets as the city begins the long process to rebuild. A pro-growth agenda is not just a smart tool for recovering from a disaster, but it’s one way more cities should be thinking about their futures.