Houston is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation. But, as Hurricane Harvey reminded us, growth can’t just happen without consequence. Many aspects of urbanization have to be dealt with — from the subdivision of land and the design of infrastructure at the front end to the ongoing problems of providing a wide variety of services ranging from road maintenance to police protection and flood management.
Over the last 30 years, the original systems designed to manage Houston’s urbanization have gradually broken down. They’ve been replaced by a fragmented collection of rules and practices involving the city of Houston, Harris County and hundreds of municipal utility districts (MUDs). Up to now, this system has been effective in many ways. But as a new report, Growing A Governing Region , from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research suggests, stresses and strains are now becoming obvious:
- The city of Houston, strained to provide services to its own residents, has stopped annexing new territory.
- Harris County is hard-pressed to maintain roads in unincorporated areas.
- MUDs have been good service providers up to now, but many of them face enormous costs tied to upgrading their sewage treatment plants.
- The 400,000 residents of unincorporated Harris County who live outside MUDs receive few services at all.
Under the system set up by Texas decades ago, the city of Houston was supposed to manage most of the region’s urbanization. The idea was that Houston would approve all development in its expansive “extra-territorial jurisdiction” (ETJ), then annex the newly developed areas into the city and provide a full range of municipal services to those areas.
And, indeed, Houston continues to control review of development projects over a vast area — almost 1,200 square miles in the Houston ETJ. The Houston city planning commission reviews and approves development plans deep into Waller and Fort Bend counties. But with the exception of Kingwood, Houston has engaged in virtually no annexations for the last 40 years. Thus Houston still controls the front end of the development process but does not provide services in the long term. Yet the city’s large ETJ makes it impossible for residents to consider incorporating or annexing to a different city.
As a result, more people now live in unincorporated areas in Harris County than in any other county in the nation – close to 2 million, a 45 percent increase in just the last eight years alone. But Harris County itself has no power to pass ordinances and limited power to raise revenue. (For example, unlike cities and some MUDs, the county receives no sales tax.) That’s why MUDs have emerged as the leading service providers for new subdivisions in unincorporated areas.
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