Building more housing in Bethesda is good for the world
Life sciences have global reach
As the world confronted the threat of a new global pandemic in early 2020, scientists, doctors and researchers at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD got to work. Decision makers at the NIH called their counter parts in Washington D.C., doctors from nearby hospitals reported what they were seeing on the front lines, and researchers who had previous experience or friends in the dozens Life Sciences companies headquartered in Montgomery County spoke about what they were seeing and doing. This rapid exchange of information was heavily coordinated by the NIH through a complex set of personal relationships that had formed over the previous decades. A vast network of scientists, researchers, doctors, public health experts, engineers and countless other professions has formed the basis of Montgomery County’s Life Sciences economy for decades.
The output of this industry has had an enormously positive impact on global public health with its impact being felt in every corner of the world. The reason that Montgomery County has such an outsized impact on global health is because of the economics of agglomeration. As Harvard economist Edward Glaeser describes
Agglomeration economies are the benefits that come when firms and people locate near one another together in cities and industrial clusters
When multiple biotech firms are located near each other, the networks effects of that proximity allow the firms to produce more than if they had been further apart. They have a larger talent pool to hire from, allowing the firms to compete for the best of the best. Workers at these companies are neighbors and talk to each other regularly over lunch, a child’s soccer game or while getting the mail about the latest research and techniques in their field. Glaeser continues
Hospitals that are surrounded by higher-quality hospitals tend to improve in quality. One interpretation of these results is that doctors in one hospital learn how to practice better medicine by interacting with doctors in nearby hospitals. If this is the case, then the flow of ideas across people in metropolitan areas is actually saving lives.
This is the same reason the majority of television media comes out of New York and Los Angeles. Getting lots of people within close proximity to each other creates innovations and ideas that would not have existed had those people been further apart.
Novavax, headquartered in Gaithersburg, recently began shipping the first doses of its locally developed vaccines to Europe. This is an achievement that should be celebrated, it’s a testament to what can be achieved when lots of smart people are allowed to live close together to innovate. The key ingredient to this success was people, so question must be asked. Why does Montgomery County put up so many barriers to building new housing and attracting more people? The population of Greater Bethesda, made up of the zip codes 20812, 20814, 20815, 20816, 20817, 20818, 20895 is 134,622. What could be achieved if that population were allowed to double? A staggering number of new scientists, doctors, engineers, researchers and thousands of workers who support these businesses would come together to create more new vaccines and research that would be distributed around the globe, saving millions upon millions of lives and powering Maryland’s economy. Smaller competitors would begin to sprout promising new innovations as employees at rivaling firms decide that they can do it better than their employer.
The chief barrier to an explosion in economic growth & productivity is the barrier to building new housing. When land is limited as such in Greater Bethesda, the market will build creative and attractive forms of new housing on a smaller footprint, but only if it’s allowed to do so. Currently via a Gordian Knot of parking, height, setback, density, zoning and other regulations, population growth it kept low and high housing prices become enforced via county regulation. High housing prices signal 2 important facts:
A lot of people would like to move here
A lot of people move elsewhere because it’s too expensive here
On aggregate this loss is immense. Every apartment project that is scaled back due to opposition at a community meeting is not just a loss of physical space, but a young graduate who dreamed of working the National Institutes of Health but moved to another city due to lack of housing in Bethesda. Every old home that is torn down and turned into a 7k square foot mansion instead of a row of 3 of town homes or small apartment building because of zoning laws is a loss of a potential human beings who could have discovered the next vaccine breakthrough. The lost human capital will be less productive because they weren’t around to cluster in an area brimming with activity and instead moved to a place with less opportunity. It’s a loss for the businesses that wanted an expanded labor pool to hire from, a loss for the county in tax revenue, and a loss for the world in innovations that were never made.
It’s time for the Montgomery County council to recognize the limits it’s set on itself with burdensome land-use regulations and let more people move here for the benefit of the world.