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Debunking Texas Exceptionalism: De-Regulation Will Not Save Us

Houston has a de facto zoning problem.
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Houston, Texas. (Photo: Silvio Ligutti/Shutterstock)

Houston, Texas. (Photo: Silvio Ligutti/Shutterstock)

Myths and folktales populate unknown geographies. Here be dragons, monsters, or some other fierce creature. Because we don't know a place, we should not go there. Other geographic myths mirror the art of cartography. An atlas with everything in it isn't very useful. The mapmaker edits, displaying a few key pieces of information. The map reader sees only what the cartographer deems relevant. Economist Edward Glaeser sketching the landscape of Texas exceptionalism:

Harvey Molotch and Joshua Logan’s 1988 classic, Urban Fortunes, described the “urban growth machine”: a collection of local business interests that unite to push economic expansion. Over 150 years, just such a machine, led by the Houston Chamber of Commerce, has worked tirelessly to turn Houston into an urban giant. It has made sure, above all, that nothing gets in the way of building. Indeed, the city is unique in America in not having a zoning code. Many deeds include land-use restrictions of various kinds, true, but these are voluntarily chosen by developers, not decided on high by government bureaucrats. Occasionally, groups rally to try to institute zoning regulations, but the growth machine invariably beats them back, often supported by some of the poorest people in the city. Houston’s builders have managed—better than in any other American city—to make the case to the public that restrictions on development will make the city less affordable to the less successful. ...

... Houston’s success shows that a relatively deregulated free-market city, with a powerful urban growth machine, can do a much better job of taking care of middle-income Americans than the more “progressive” big governments of the Northeast and the West Coast. Still, it’s a bad thing for the country that so much growth is heading to Houston and Sunbelt sister cities Dallas and Atlanta.

In general, the Sun Belt (i.e. Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta) is more de-regulated than the Northeast and the West Coast. Within the Sun Belt, Houston is a special case. The city is "unique". The city lacks a zoning code.

Glaeser puts his chips down on more than Houston's lack of zoning. He explains how unrelenting sprawl helps keep housing affordable for the middle class. In fact, as I have argued, greenfield real estate development does an excellent job of modeling low prices everywhere. Texas isn't exceptional. Houston isn't exceptional. De-regulation abounds.

The focus on zoning is a bogeyman, a cartographic ruse promoting a normative geography. Matthew Festa, a land use professor at South Texas College of Law, finds the lack of zoning claim to be without merit:

Regardless, as Festa sees it, Houston today has zoning – whether it wants to admit or not.

His evidence? For one thing, Houston doesn’t look that different from other major urban centers, especially other sprawling cities in the American Sunbelt. If Houston really lacked zoning, one would assume the effects would be more dramatic.

“One thing I started thinking about is why doesn’t Houston look all that different from Dallas?” Festa said. “We don’t have brothels next to churches. For the most part, we don’t look all that different from other big cities that do have zoning.”

If zoning was all that and a bag of chips, shouldn't Houston look significantly different from Dallas or, gasp, Columbus, Ohio?

For a long time, I've been interested in the shape of cities and I suspect that if you're reading this you might be similarly afflicted. By 'shape' I mean their political boundaries as opposed to their general urban footprint. The latter can be seen by driving around or from a plane window, particularly when it's dark, but the political boundaries are much less obvious. This is particularly true of US cities. Take Houston, Texas - the first example below.

Look closely at this and - at least if you're not used to the political geography of American cities - you might be very confused by this fragmented, segmented mess of boundaries. Then go to Google maps and try different search terms, such as 'city of los angeles' or 'city of columbus' (Ohio) and you'll soon discover that Houston isn't that unusual at all.

Concerning urban morphology, Houston isn't that unusual at all. Houston is downright all-American! Zoning, or lack thereof, is a red herring. Back to Matthew Festa:

For Festa, the evidence is clear: there’s something that seems a lot like zoning in Houston. It’s almost useless to debate whether it exists.

Instead, what’s more important is to have a discussion about whether the de facto zoning system is working for all residents. That doesn’t seem to be happening. The problem, Festa said, “is there’s no comprehensive plan.”

As decisions about building are made, they’re often not done in a way that examines how they positively or negatively affect each neighborhood.

Instead, it’s the communities with the time, resources and political clout that essentially have the power to restrict development within their borders. That pushes it to other areas without a meaningful discussion of the citywide implications.

NIMBYism thrives in Houston, Texas, just as it does in cities with zoning restrictions. To combat this problem, Festa suggests more regulation (i.e. a comprehensive plan), not less. The free market will not save us from high real estate prices. There aren't any Texas silver bullets to slay anti-development werewolves.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.