Land Use Policy in Houston

| August 31, 2015


You probably know that Houston is the largest city in the United States with no zoning ordinance. Can you name the second-largest unzoned city? It’s Pasadena, Texas.

Most cities, in the name of smart planning and common sense, have an official color-coded map of their city showing exactly what can and can’t happen on every piece of property in the city limits. This site is in the middle of a neighborhood – it’s zoned R-1, for single-family-residential-only. This other site is on a busy street, but it’s across the street from a church. We’ll zone it to be ok for a retail store, but not for a noisy bar or restaurant, or for anything industrial. You get the idea. Without the government to decide what goes where, it would just be chaos!

Houston has never used zoning. Houston lets property owners decide what works best for their property – essentially letting the market, rather than the a city zoning commission, control land use. Additionally, most areas (especially single-family neighborhoods) are governed by “deed restrictions,” where owners voluntarily agree to certain restrictions when they buy property. How has that worked? It depends on who you ask.

U of H Architecture Dean Patricia Oliver describes her shock in finding “finding one of the fanciest restaurants in town facing a tattoo parlor or sitting next to a laundromat, or your dentist’s office being next door to the car repair shop” in this CultureMap article. On the other hand, Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy argues in this article that Houston’s lack of zoning may be a significant reason why Houston escaped the real estate bubble and subsequent crash seen by most other U.S. cities. Maybe the biggest challenge to Houston’s market-based system in recent years has been the “Ashby High Rise,” a proposed 23-story apartment building on a mostly-single family residential section of Bissonnet near Rice University. “Property rights” can get complicated. If the government tells me what I can and can’t do on my own property, it’s treading on my property rights. But, since you have that freedom too, if you build a junk yard on your property next door to mine, and your junk yard reduces the value of my property by 70%, have you violated my property rights?

Oliver quotes author Stephan Fox’s description of land use policy in Houston as an “exclusive dependence on individual citizens committed to planning; the apathy, if not hostility, of the general public to the purpose and mechanisms of public planning; and the ambivalence of public officials who supported the ‘progressive’ appearance of planning, while only reluctantly according statutory authority and financial support to public planning agencies.” Sound a little like that “individualism” idea in your textbook section about ideological context?

Write a 2 -5 page (double-spaced) essay about land use planning in Houston, the lack of zoning, and how you think this relates to Dr. Elazar’s “Individualistic-Traditionalistic” political culture discussed in your text.

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