Houston's Housing Lessons

Samuel Staley's picture

The planning profession's ambivalence toward Houston has always been a little frustrating. In part, the profession's attitude is understandable. Houston hasn't embraced planning's conventions, so why should the profession embrace Houston?

Fair enough. But the downside is losing the opportunity to look at core issues and problems from a completely different lens. This is especially true when it comes to housing development where Houston performs remarkably better than its peers.

The planning profession doesn't have to embrace Houston to appreciate its value as an alternative framework for place building, urban development, and even revitalization. Any visitor to Houston who spends a little time in the neighborhoods and growing sections outside of downtown will find a robust, diverse housing market. As zoning expert Jerold Kayden wrote recently in Zoning Practice: "Houston properties are not encumbered by conventional zoning, and the results are there for all to see." Within the city, mixed uses and high density residential and commercial projects abound. These developments are spontaneous responses by the local housing market, aided and abetted by a regulatory approach that has shunned conventional development controls.

Development is not completely unregulated. Private regulation occurs through private covenants that run with the land and restrict some land uses. The city also has a number of regulations governing infrastructure development and placement. But, land use, mix and density is for all intents and purposes entirely market driven.

While a comprehensive analysis of Houston's housing dynamics has not been done for almost three decades, my recent review of the Texas housing marketsuggests an extraordinary level of resilience and dynamism in the face of the today's steep and protracted recession. This resilience is evident in both single family and multifamily markets.  While the Houston metro area has not been immune to the national housing depression, it continues to issue more residential building permits that Dallas-Fort Worth and all other Texas cities.

The metropolitan area's housing market decline also has been far less severe. Between 2005 and 2007, Houston's residential permits fell 18% percent while Dallas-Fort Worth experienced a decline of 44%. San Antonio experienced a decline of 36%, and Austin's fell by about the national rate of 28%. This resilience means that Houston accounts for about 36% of the residential housing permits issued in Texas as of December 2008.

One would think, at the very least, these results would trigger intrigue and interest within the planning profession. Unfortunately, too many planners aren't willing to take off professional blinders to see what value this experiment in market housing dynamics might provide for other cities, even when the city accomplishes many of the same goals (e.g., higher densities, greater mixed uses, etc.). In fact, one prominent New Urbanist planner editorialized that he was "agnostic about [Houston's] lack of zoning," but then wrote "Houston is no place for the rest of the nation to emulate in terms of land use policies." His criticism seemed to be almost solely based on Houston's lack of transit availability.  (Although, as I point out in my book The Road More Traveled, Houston is one of the rare US metro areas that used its road-based policy to increase transit's market share.)

This is unfortunate, because Houston has a lot to teach the planning profession about housing dynamics, the viability of mixed uses and density, the timing of appropriate transit in urban settings, and the potential for markets to spontaneously create the kinds of places many planners aspire to achieve through more heavy handed approaches elsewhere. In my travels, I don't see the kind of eclectic, diverse and broad-based housing development that is part of the normal way of doing business in Houston in other US cities.

Houston is by no means perfect. Its neighborhoods, while strong and cohesive, have a long way to go to become more pedestrian friendly. Mixed-use projects struggle with creating interconnectedness that can make them successful. Even the few regulations Houston applies sometimes interfere with innovation and thwart experiments in neighborhood design. But these deficiencies are not unique to Houston, and this dynamic metropolis shouldn't be ignored for the broader lessons it can teach.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.


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