Property Rights and Disaster Recovery

In this recent Wall Street Journal op ed, historian David Beito and economist Daniel Smith explain how respect for property rights enabled the city of Joplin, MO to recover from a devastating tornado much faster than similarly stricken Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which severely restricted property rights in order to pursue a “top-down” redevelopment plan:

Last April 27, one of the worst tornadoes in American history tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., killing 52 people and damaging or destroying 2,000 buildings. In six minutes, it put nearly one-tenth of the city’s population into the unemployment line. A month later, Joplin, Mo., suffered an even more devastating blow. In a city with half the population of Tuscaloosa, a tornado killed 161 and damaged or destroyed more than 6,000 buildings….

n Joplin, eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city’s Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed. Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a “record-setting” three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa’s main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport.

The reason for Joplin’s successes and Tuscaloosa’s shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery….

The Alabama city’s recovery plan, “Tuscaloosa Forward,” is indeed state-of-the-art urban planning—and that’s the crux of the problem. It sets out to “courageously create a showpiece” of “unique neighborhoods that are healthy, safe, accessible, connected, and sustainable,” all anchored by “village centers” for shopping (in a local economy that struggles to sustain current shopping centers). Another goal is to “preserve neighborhood character” from a “disproportionate ratio of renters to owners.” The plan never mentions protecting property rights.

In Joplin, the official plan not only makes property rights a priority but clocks in at only 21 pages, compared with Tuscaloosa’s 128. Joplin’s plan also relied heavily on input from businesses (including through a Citizen’s Advisory Recovery Team) instead of Tuscaloosa’s reliance on outside consulting firms. “We need to say to our businesses, community, and to our citizens, ‘If you guys want to rebuild your houses, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,’” said Joplin City Council member William Scearce in an interview.

Instead of encouraging businesses to rebuild as quickly as possible, Tuscaloosa enforced restrictive zoning rules and building codes that raised costs—prohibitively, in some cases. John Carney, owner of Express Oil Change, which was annihilated by the storm, estimates that the city’s delays and regulation will cost him nearly $100,000. And trying to follow the rules often yielded mountains of red tape, as the city rejected businesses’ proposals one after another….

Joplin took a dramatically different approach. According to interviews with local business owners, right after disaster struck the city council formally and informally rolled back existing regulations, liberally waving licensing and zoning mandates….

The owner of one Joplin construction company told us that when it came to regulations, the “city just sort of backed out. . . . We had projects that we completed before we got building permits.” Said another Joplin resident: “When you have the magnitude of that disaster, really the old ways of doing things are suspended for a while until you create whatever normal is. . . . The government was realistic to know that there is a period of time when common sense, codes and laws that are in place to protect people are suspended for the sake of the greater good.”

UPDATE: In the original version of this post, I accidentally omitted the name of one of the co-authors of the WSJ op ed: economist Daniel Smith. I have now corrected the mistake.