To Protect Against the Next Harvey, Forget Zoning and Roll Back Government Meddling Instead

Existing regulations impoverish our cities, and perverse subsidies increase the damage done by catastrophic storms.


"Houston's lack of zoning left city vulnerable to catastrophic floods," nags a piece by Nicholas Deshais in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. Quartz's Ana Campoy and David Yanofsky agreed that "Houston's flooding shows what happens when you ignore science and let developers run rampant."

Uh oh! It looks like we better clamp down to prevent this from happening again. Better a little zoning than to risk another hellscape of destruction from the next Hurricane Harvey.

Except… it's all nonsense. Any city would have suffered from a storm like Harvey. And government meddling has already done enough damage—which would only be made worse by land-use regulations meant to protect us against the sort of event that happens every few centuries.

For starters, Harvey was a soaker of near-unprecedented power.

"For the United States, Harvey is a record breaker," notes Randy Cerveny, a professor of geographical sciences at Arizona State University and Rapporteur on Extreme Records for the United Nations/World Meteorological Organization. "It's the wettest storm we've seen since records have been held."

But we're going to get more storms like this, right? Because of global warming and all that? Maybe. Or maybe not.

"For the 21st century, some models project no change or a small reduction in the frequency of hurricanes, while others show an increase in frequency," according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. "More recent work shows that there is a trade-off between intensity and frequency—that as warmer oceans bolster hurricane intensity, fewer storms actually form."

But, again, Harvey is a real outlier by any measure of storms. It's not the sort of event you expect on a regular basis—a "1-in-1,000-year flood event" according to the University of Wisconsin's Space Science and Engineering Center.

How do you plan for that? You really don't

"50 inches of rain would have devastated any city," points out Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns, an organization that advocates for flexible and financially viable approaches to urban planning. "The loss of wetlands from 1992 to 2010 accounted for about 4 billion gallons of lost capacity to absorb storm water. Harvey had already dropped 15 trillion gallons as of two days ago." (He wrote on August 30.)

Herriges also reminds us that Houston isn't exactly a private property free-for-all (unfortunately). The city does without use-based zoning, "but it regulates land use in many other ways, such as minimum-parking requirements. Many neighborhoods have homeowners associations and deed restrictions that limit what can be built. And Houston's suburbs largely do have zoning."

It's difficult to see how adding more traditional zoning to the mix would have kept neighborhoods from being drowned by sheets of rain pouring down at a rate we might expect to see once in a millennium.

But would it be worthwhile to tighten land-use rules, just in case?

That sort of calculation works only if you assume that tighter restrictions come with few or no costs. But mandating that cities be built to be proof against the sort of storm that our distant descendants might see again will make those cities unaffordable and unwelcoming to people in the here and now.

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand," the Obama administration warned last September. "The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."

That concern isn't a theoretical one. Examining declining American mobility, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, "While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move."

Decreased mobility hurts workers, but also knee-caps entrepreneurs, since "[t]his drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful."

Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that "employers in Napa and Marin were challenged with filling their full-time positions and keeping them filled due to the high cost of local housing and the extreme traffic congestion that comes with moving to lower cost areas."

Those high California housing costs "are self-inflicted," according to a report from Chapman University's Center for Demographics and Policy. "The result of misguided policies that have tended to inflate land prices and drive up the cost of all kinds of housing." The report specifies that "land use policies have generally included 'urban containment' strategies that impose 'urban growth boundaries' and related policies that significantly restrict or even prohibit new suburban detached housing tracts from being built on greenfield land."

So the zoning rules and other land-use restrictions that some people call for to protect us from the destructive force of the next Hurricane Harvey instead leave our communities poorer and with fewer resources to deal with the next storm—without offering any actual protection.

But there's still a place for changes in government policy to deal with destructive storms. For starters, we could stop taxing the population to subsidize the housing preferences of people who build in areas prone to flooding.

"Congress has mandated federally regulated or insured lenders to require flood insurance on mortgaged properties that are located in areas at high risk of flooding," the Federal Emergency Management Agency trumpets on a Web page touting the government's National Flood Insurance Program. "But even if your property is not in a high risk flood area, your mortgage lender may still require you to have flood insurance."

But why a national—meaning government—flood insurance program? Because insuring properties against floods in areas prone to be submerged from time to time is a bad bet. Any company issuing such polices at other than high premiums is likely to lose money, so private companies backed away from the market, and the government stepped in in 1968. The federal government promptly discovered that taxing everybody to keep premiums low and spread costs is still a bad bet. The National Flood Insurance Program was $24.6 billion in the hole before Hurricane Harvey.

"Critics say the program's subsidies encourage people to live in flood-prone areas since they are spared the full cost of insuring them," Pro Publica noted in a piece after the latest storm.

Florida—no stranger to water falling from the sky or roaring in sideways—has been rolling back limits on rates and limiting access to state-subsidized insurance. The result has been a return of private insurers, who charge premium that reflect actual risk. That has the added effect of encouraging people to consider the full cost of settling in flood-prone areas—and maybe looking to higher ground instead.

With the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire at the end of this month, it's as good a time as any to consider similar reforms for the national program.

Will asking property owners to shoulder the full costs of living in risky area (if they still choose to live there) prevent another Hurricane Harvey? No. Nothing can fully prepare us for the devastating results of once-in-1,000-years storms. But ending subsidies for risky development makes more sense than imposing restrictive policies that reduce opportunity and prosperity, and deprive our people and communities of the resources that will help them deal with disasters to come.

Planning for the future doesn't mean designing our lives around the occasional catastrophe. It means refraining from encouraging people to off-load their costs on their neighbors, and allowing for a dynamic and free society that has the means to respond to what life brings our way.