Drop rules lim­it­ing Hous­ton’s growth

Af­ford­able hous­ing, bet­ter tran­sit, liv­able city will fol­low

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Michael Skelly

Cal­i­for­nia State Sen. Scott Wiener just launched a broad­side against the sort of lo­cal or­di­nances that drive up home prices across the na­tion. Un­der Wiener’s pro­posal, Cal­i­for­nia cities would no longer have au­thor­ity to re­strict hous­ing con­struc­tion or im­pose park­ing man­dates within a half mile of light rail sta­tions and tran­sit cen­ters. The leg­isla­tive pack­age frees de­vel­op­ers to start build­ing the kind of projects that best serve the mar­ket rather than sim­ply con­form to gov­ern­ment build­ing and per­mit codes.

Wiener and a bud­ding Cal­i­for­nia YIMBY move­ment (Yes In My Back­yard) have fig­ured out what should be ob­vi­ous — that the key to lower hous­ing costs is in­creased sup­ply.

In Texas, we have long looked down our noses at the east and west coasts as sky­rock­et­ing real es­tate prices have made the cost of liv­ing un­bear­able for all but the wealth­i­est res­i­dents. Iron­i­cally, al­though we Tex­ans pride our­selves on our free-mar­ket mind­set, it is Cal­i­for­nia that is propos­ing to let the mar­ket de­cide. In Hous­ton, we con­tinue to let bu­reau­crats tell pri­vate en­ter­prise how to de­velop their land.

Here, our low-cost hous­ing strat­egy has been “drive till you qual­ify,” en­abled by toll­way and debt-fi­nanced free­way ex­pan­sion, a tol­er­ance for long com­mutes and loose land-use reg­u­la­tions in the sub­urbs and ex­urbs.

If it wasn’t clear be­fore, Har­vey’s flood­wa­ters now have ex­posed the haz­ards of paving the prairie — the re­sult of our long-stand­ing re­liance on build­ing ever far­ther out to sat­isfy de­mand for af­ford­able hous­ing. Post-Har­vey, flood maps will push de­vel­op­ment to higher ground and force Hous­ton to build more densely on that higher ground.

It is this den­sity of de­vel­op­ment that will al­low Hous­ton to con­tinue its re­mark­able growth — and more im­por­tantly, to grow sus­tain­ably. Build­ing more closely within the ur­ban

core of Hous­ton will make the city more walk­a­ble, en­cour­age smart pub­lic tran­sit, al­low peo­ple to live close to work, shop­ping and recre­ation. To reap th­ese ben­e­fits, Hous­ton must re-ex­am­ine the cur­rent thicket of or­di­nances that cod­ify ur­ban sprawl into be­ing and drive up costs.

Sure, we pride our­selves on not hav­ing zon­ing, but how does that help when Hous­ton build­ing codes call for ab­surdly large street set­backs (that cost a pretty penny and for which the ra­tio­nale has been lost in the mists of time), overly gen­er­ous park­ing re­quire­ments (more pave­ment equals in­creased flood­ing), and min­i­mum lot sizes de­signed to main­tain a sub­urb-like in­nercity. Hous­ton sprawls for many rea­sons, but among the most pow­er­ful are Hous­ton’s far-reach­ing build­ing codes.

For ex­am­ple, to build a house here re­quires a min­i­mum 3,500-square-foot lot. That means for a mod­est town­house, land costs will top $100,000, even in lower-cost neigh­bor­hoods. That town­house will come with two re­quired park­ing spa­ces, which must both be sized for big cars, even if you don’t want or need them (the spa­ces or the cars). If you have a big lot and want to build a “granny flat” out back, as many cities now en­cour­age in or­der to in­crease hous­ing sup­ply, sorry; it can only be 900-square feet, and you have to add a park­ing space for grandma’s Sub­ur­ban. De­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo will point to Hous­ton’s “Tran­sit Ori­ented De­vel­op­ment” statute, which al­lows higher den­sity near rail sta­tions. Since its pas­sage eight years ago, a small num­ber of projects have run this gaunt­let. Al­though a sep­a­rate or­di­nance al­lows busi­nesses to opt out of park­ing re­quire­ments, the city has granted no zero-park­ing vari­ances since the rule’s pas­sage.

Den­sity is al­lowed in Hous­ton, but only by ex­emp­tion. De­vel­op­ers who wish to cre­ate denser, more walk­a­ble and tran­sit­friendly projects can do so, but they must nav­i­gate the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, a time-con­sum­ing and un­cer­tain process. The up­shot is that most de­vel­op­ers don’t bother to try, and only the big­gest projects with the high­est-qual­ity con­nec­tions at­tempt to make it through. By de­sign, there is no con­fi­dence in or­ganic growth driven by small projects, which has been the bedrock of com­mu­nity creation in other cities. In­deed, some of the most cov­eted places in Hous­ton, like 19th Street in the Heights and much of Mon­trose, would be il­le­gal to de­velop un­der to­day’s or­di­nances.

Man­dat­ing low den­sity around rail stops does not foster im­proved trans­porta­tion op­tions for low-in­come work­ers. The city should drop this rule in ar­eas served by Metro­rail in or­der to drive den­sity, which drives rid­er­ship, which would lever­age our multi-bil­lion dol­lar light-rail in­vest­ment. Fur­ther­more, Hous­ton hous­ing pol­icy’s evil twin is traf­fic, so pro­mot­ing hous­ing de­vel­op­ment along our nascent rail sys­tem is crit­i­cal.

In­stead of spo­rad­i­cally grant­ing ex­emp­tions, Hous­ton of­fi­cials should fol­low the brave Cal­i­for­nia se­na­tor’s lead and end this city’s gov­ern­ment-knows-best build­ing man­dates. It’s time to trust mar­kets to drive the den­sity Hous­ton re­quires.

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