In Harvey’s Wake, Houston Rethinks Real Estate Development

In Harvey’s Wake, Houston Rethinks Real Estate Development

HOUSTON—For years there hadn’t been much debate over how to regulate land use here. Developers in the nation’s fourth-largest city mostly built what they wanted, where they wanted.

Now, after Hurricane Harvey killed at least 50 people and caused roughly $180 billion in damage, a battle is shaping up over how best to oversee real-estate development in Houston.

“If Houston does not change, it will not survive from an economic standpoint,” said Jim Blackburn, a professor of environmental law and the co-founder of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center. “This absolutely should change our policies and our trajectory.”

Two men in particular will have a large say in Houston’s path forward.

Stephen Costello, whose official title is chief resilience officer, but who is known to many as Houston’s flood czar, says the go-go culture of growth is here to stay. “I don’t think you’re going to see a dramatic change in the way we are developing,” he said.

Regulating development through, say, a stricter zoning code is a nonstarter, he said.

“Zoning is never going to happen here, not in my lifetime,” he said.

Instead, he believes the city needs to build its way out of its flooding problem by investing in a better system to more quickly and efficiently move rainwater out of town and into the bayous during heavy rains.


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