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3 Lessons on Balancing Growth and Housing Markets

Turf wars among different community groups can derail smart growth. Ngai Pindell, an expert in community development law, shares three observations about Southern Nevada's development.
People  |  Aug 14, 2013  |  By Kate Stowell
UNLV Boyd School of Law Professor Ngai Pindell. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

When Ngai Pindell came to Las Vegas to teach at UNLV's Boyd School of Law 13 years ago, everything, both inside and out of the university, was different. The law school, still in its infancy, was located in an old elementary school located across from UNLV. Out in the community, the city was experiencing massive expansion and the phrase "real estate bubble" was completely foreign.

Pindell liked the idea of teaching in a new school and working in a growing community. And what was going on played directly into his background as a community development lawyer.

Pindell since has seen housing values skyrocket, plummet, and slowly creep back up again. So he has focused his research on how local governments accommodate this kind of robust growth while keeping housing affordable. "This encapsulates the issues Las Vegas and neighboring cities have faced in the last several years," Pindell explained. So in researching how local governments can best manage housing and planning issues, Pindell shared these three takeaways:

Growth Management

Local governments across the country have been very creative in approaching growth management. The approaches that have been the most successful involve advance planning among the many different stakeholders -- citizens, developers, local governments, the state and others -- as well as a commitment to core values like affordable housing, public transportation, and environmental protection.

Many successful communities employ a version of transit-oriented development, developing residential and commercial land uses near transit stations to limit the impact of new development on existing roadways and to limit dependence on private automobile travel. This advance planning also increases the number of opportunities for affordable housing close to job centers.

Researchers have long known that the economic, social, and spatial characteristics of neighborhoods have a significant impact on individual and family welfare. A recent study by economists at Harvard and University of California, Berkeley illustrates the importance of location to economic mobility. This new research dramatically illustrates the impact of location on intergenerational mobility. In short, where you live, locally and nationally, dramatically affects your chance for upward mobility.

Regional Coalitions

I have long supported regional governance systems, and there's room for more of this in Southern Nevada. Because the cities in the Valley are so close geographically, and so few in number, the pathways to regional cooperation are a bit clearer to see than in other areas of the country.

We already have some very good, established regional coalitions. For example, the Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition has facilitated cooperation and collaboration among the local cities and the school district on transportation, land use, air quality, homelessness, and other issues. Similarly, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has rightly centralized the efforts of local cities around water issues.

Newer efforts, like Southern Nevada Strong, leverage federal grants to integrate regional planning of land use, transportation, and jobs development. And the number of sophisticated, local partners engaging in regional efforts will continue to grow. For example, Brookings Mountain West at UNLV has been a wonderful resource for identifying regional strengths and trends, and linking these regional characteristics to national ones.

The challenge for these regional efforts lies in their connection to local implementation. Local governments often chafe at the idea of regional or statewide organizations impinging on local autonomy. Though many good ideas emerge from local governments because of their closeness, geographically and psychically, to their constituencies, this closeness can also foster insularity and exclusion. The promise of regional coalitions and planning is that these efforts, done well, strike the right balance between local autonomy and regional perspective.

City-State Power

Most people are surprised at the relative "powerlessness" of local governments. Cities exist at the pleasure of state legislatures; they have no inherent legal status. But we know cities are powerful entities, and we could not imagine New York without New York City, Illinois without Chicago, or Nevada without Las Vegas. How cities establish themselves as social, economic, and cultural destinations is fascinating -- at least to me.