How Houston gets along without zoning

Posted by: Peter Coy on October 01, 2007

HoustonHouston is a different kind of town. Brash, booming, it has sprawl and air pollution, but also vibrancy and a can-do spirit. One of the things that really makes Houston different is its absence of a zoning code. That absence strikes many people in the rest of the country as quirky in the extreme, if not downright dangerous. CB Richard Ellis, the big property company, fields a lot of questions about land use in Houston. The following is an article in the second-quarter edition of Investment Research Quarterly, a publication of CB Richard Ellis Investors LLC.

What No Zoning Really Means …

Houston is well known as the only major U.S. city with no formal zoning code. Such a seeming lack of order is difficult to grasp by those unfamiliar with the area. The absence of a comprehensive land use code conjures up images of a disjointed landscape where oil derricks sit next to mansions and auto salvage yards abut churches. To some degree these anomalies exist, yet for the most part Houston is like any other large North American city.

What is unique about Houston is that the separation of land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning. While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen. Developers employ widespread private covenants and deed restrictions, which serve a comparable role as zoning. These privately prescribed land use controls are effective because they have a legal precedence and local government has chosen to assist in enforcing them.

Some investors are understandably apprehensive about the lack of clearly defined rules. Houston developers have long recognized these concerns and have responded, particularly in suburban markets, by producing planned business and industrial parks that have rigorous covenants and deed restrictions. Not surprisingly, the sites receiving the attention of institutional investors, especially in suburban markets, tend to be in planned parks.

Is Houston a relic of the past of land use, or the wave of the future?
——
Addendum:
Right after I posted the above item I got an email from Nancy Sarnoff, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, pointing out that land use remains a very live issue in Houston. Mayor Bill White, for one, is trying to stop construction of a 23-story high-rise in a neighborhood of single-family houses.

Here’s a link to her article in today’s paper. Thanks, Nancy.

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Reader Comments

Piotr Pasciak

November 2, 2008 08:35 AM

Interesting, this lack of zoning in Houston is on my spatial planning exam. Quite a peculiar city this is, especially to Europeans.

Stephen Smith

December 13, 2008 02:10 AM

It's disingenuous to say that Houston has no zoning without mentioning that it does have strict, minimum parking regulations, strict minimum lot size regulations, and wide streets and long blocks. Though it might not have traditional single-use Euclidean zoning regulations, it does have a lot of strictures that limit density and discourage walkability and feasibility of mass transit.

http://rationalitate.blogspot.com/2008/12/is-houston-really-unplanned.html

Bob

February 12, 2009 01:04 PM

I used to live in Houston. Interestingly enough, since pretty much any residential area in Houston is covered by CC&Rs due to no zoning, I actually have more property rights where I live now with zoning than I did in Houston. Libertarians would have you believe that things like zoning result in fewer freedoms, but in reality that isn't the case.

downtowner

July 1, 2009 03:17 PM


Houston is this huge, complicated city that is hard to pin down or even understand. The suburbs are endless beige McMansions and Wal-Marts, while central Houston has an energetic and for-real arts scene including the largest art car parade in the world. The suburbs are strictly controlled by their unelected 'Homeowner's Association's that make sure everyone paints their house beige and has a nice car in the driveway (in extreme, but common cases). In town, there are no homeowner associations, no zoning, no controls of any kind beyond basic ticketable offenses like never mowing your lawn (though nothing that says you have to have a lawn if you don't want to!). And hey Stephen, the lot size and setback requirements were all repealed within the I-610 loop ten years ago, which is why they're now building 3-6 three storey townhomes, attached to each other buy independent structures, on the lots that formerly held a single 1920s-1950s home. Yes, parts of central Houston are approaching European density and higher- most of the townhomes in London have small backyards, the new ultra-dense central Houston neighbourhoods have zero or nearly zero land around them at all- only driveway entrances to each unit's 2 car garage that occupies the entire first floor. So yeah, Houston is a peculiar city.. but not simple or easy to put in a cubby-hole. If you visit, just don't make any opinions until you have seen CENTRAL Houston. Give the suburbs a pass..

Daniel

September 4, 2009 09:02 AM

What's the difference between a city with zoning and one without? The cities with zoning have endless re-zoning hearings.

MAB

October 16, 2009 01:20 PM

I like the lack of zoning. It gives this great, underrated city much character. I like the fact that I can see a church, bar, strip club and warehouse all along the same street!! haha. Gives you VARIETY! I don't know of any other big city where you can live in a lovely neighborhood w/kids playing in the street and neighbors you know, while simultaneously being in-town. That's GREAT! (I despise developments! Country or City and nothing else matters!)
I do NOT however condone building massive 25-story buildings in a neighborhood that doesn't surpass 6-floor level. They look horrible and destroy the aesthetic beauty and quirkiness of certain areas.
And I leave with something I heard an Italian friend say; which sums up Houston quite beautifuly and acurately:
"It's true what they say about Houston: You cry when you get here and you cry when you leave!"

MAB

October 16, 2009 01:24 PM

I like the lack of zoning. It gives this great, underrated city much character. I like the fact that I can see a church, bar, strip club and warehouse all along the same street!! haha. Gives you VARIETY! I don't know of any other big city where you can live in a lovely neighborhood w/kids playing in the street and neighbors you know, while simultaneously being in-town. That's GREAT! (I despise developments! Country or City and nothing else matters!)
I do NOT however condone building massive 25-story buildings in a neighborhood that doesn't surpass 6-floor level. They look horrible and destroy the aesthetic beauty and quirkiness of certain areas.
And I leave with something I heard an Italian friend say; which sums up Houston quite beautifully and accurately:
"It's true what they say about Houston: You cry when you get here and you cry when you leave!"

Elizabeth

October 19, 2009 03:41 PM

Central Houston is a mess of adult entertainment shops juxtaposed to the swank homes and handful of commercialized villages filled with chain stores. If you step outside the highland villages or rice villages of the city, you are stuck with dilapated buildings. Good luck living even in the wealthiest of neighborhoods - from West U to med center to Galleria - without having crack or sex thrust onto you. In "central houston," you'll see neighborhoods without homeowners associations so the houses have disturbing businesses running out of them. The best located neighborhoods are unsafe and usually abutting some cheap 2 story apartment complex. There is no great place to live in Houston even if you have $1.5 mm to spend. My junior high school was right next door to a chemical plant and I remember evacuating one day because there was a spill at the plant.

I am grateful that I now live in a city where I can enjoy drinks in a swank lounge without facing the glowing lights of the strip joint across the street. I can now shop in mom & pop stores, see water not filled with ships, enjoy a landscape, view a breathtaking skyline, breathe the air, ride metro, and walk from my home to the grocery store or dinner or shops. Houston needs zoning. Desperately. I would consider moving back if it had proper zoning. I know there are other educated, wealthy professionals like me that went east for college/grad school and refuse to return to that mess of a town.

Houston should create zoning areas. Restrict any new business development of a certain nature in certain areas and start to transition out existing businesses to other areas. Let's try to keep all the "massage parlours," strip joints, and adult novelty shops away from residential areas, for a start.

It also needs an expansive metro system (the light rail is just stupid). And it should try to attract businesses that focus on more than just energy or chemicals. Diversify the economic development by offering tax incentives and cheap land. Get financial services companies, for instance. You could start with commodities firms that would consider being near the energy hub.

NA

December 5, 2009 11:05 PM

Elizabeth, your pompous attitude reeks of the arrogance and intolerance that underlies the thinking of many of our zoning codes: thank you for sharing and highlighting this so well. While I agree that when safety is an issue, interventions are needed (zoning not being the only and certainly not best solution though), much of what you have advocated for is nothing short of land use censorship based on your moral doctrine. What right do you have to thrust your moral values on others? What gives you the right to sip drinks in a "swank lounge" without looking at the neon lights of a porn shop? Using your standards, what's then to stop me from not allowing your swank lounge in my city because I don't think you should be drinking alcohol? Like it or not, you live in a land of freedom and adult entertainment is part of society and free speech and it is not going away. All zoning can do constitutionally is push it over to the poor side of town that lacks a political voice as annoying as yours to oppose it. And, about those poor people, I would argue we need more of those "cheap 2 story apartment houses" in all our communities because arrogant people like you have zoned them out and made housing unaffordable. Your lovely DC metro area (I'm assuming you live there since you talk of Metro) is a prime example of unaffordability gone wild and, in fact, many of the other unintended side effects that zoning has created in the name of doing good (e.g. low density, long commutes, increased environmental degradation). Also, we need to put those apartment complexes right next to your million dollar home so that you learn how to live and cope with those who are different from you...your zoned bubble needs a bursting. In fact, liberals in DC and many other places are doing so now with inclusionary housing policies so watch your back. In Houston, incusionary housing happens naturally and in fact much of what planners are trying to do elsewhere to deal with zoning's negative impacts has already been happening in Houston or never happened in the first place. In conclusion, Houston is an island of tolerance in a sea of arrogance and intolerance where planning and zoning have been hijacked to protect the values of the powerful and well-connected. Thank you again Elizabeth for exemplifying this often overlooked reality.

NA

December 5, 2009 11:07 PM

Elizabeth, your pompous attitude reeks of the arrogance and intolerance that underlies the thinking of many of our zoning codes: thank you for sharing and highlighting this so well. While I agree that when safety is an issue, interventions are needed (zoning not being the only and certainly not best solution though), much of what you have advocated for is nothing short of land use censorship based on your moral doctrine. What right do you have to thrust your moral values on others? What gives you the right to sip drinks in a "swank lounge" without looking at the neon lights of a porn shop? Using your standards, what's then to stop me from not allowing your swank lounge in my city because I don't think you should be drinking alcohol? Like it or not, you live in a land of freedom and adult entertainment is part of society and free speech and it is not going away. All zoning can do constitutionally is push it over to the poor side of town that lacks a political voice as annoying as yours to oppose it. And, about those poor people, I would argue we need more of those "cheap 2 story apartment houses" in all our communities because arrogant people like you have zoned them out and made housing unaffordable. Your lovely DC metro area (I'm assuming you live there since you talk of Metro) is a prime example of unaffordability gone wild and, in fact, many of the other unintended side effects that zoning has created in the name of doing good (e.g. low density, long commutes, increased environmental degradation). Also, we need to put those apartment complexes right next to your million dollar home so that you learn how to live and cope with those who are different from you...your zoned bubble needs a bursting. In fact, liberals in DC and many other places are doing so now with inclusionary housing policies so watch your back. In Houston, incusionary housing happens naturally and in fact much of what planners are trying to do elsewhere to deal with zoning's negative impacts has already been happening in Houston or never happened in the first place. In conclusion, Houston is an island of tolerance in a sea of arrogance and intolerance where planning and zoning have been hijacked to protect the values of the powerful and well-connected. Thank you again Elizabeth for exemplifying this often overlooked reality.

River

January 29, 2010 05:19 PM

I have lived in Houston since 1973. While there are many gorgeous cities in the world, I doubt few have Houston's attitude or openness to new ideas or it's vitality and energy. We are not Politically correct, nor backwards right wing good old boys. We ARE the future of the U.S ethnically, and we get along great unlike the contentious and pretentious cities located on the other coasts. Our recently elected lesbian mayor got there without so much as a hoot from the nut cases found in other regions screaming at each other.
It is a beautiful city with storied architecture, boulevards and landscaping along the freeways. It is full of opposing and interesting neighborhoods ( inside the Loop ) worthy of study . I live in the Heights, close to downtown. A hiking/biking trail skirts my property so I can walk downtown if I wish. I have a tacqueria across from my incredible property , formerly condemnded industrial site, now looks like Bali due to our climate here. There are million dollar homes around me, bungalows, coffee and Ice Housts . A new bakery opening soon across from a little gallery. I agree with MAB's Italian friend and not Ms Elizabeth. You cry returning to Houston ( especially in summer) but you cry when you leave it. It is the hugest small friendly town I know of,and it fits those with can do spirits to a T. It has miles to go to improve, but I haven't seen another improve as much as Houston in the past 30 yrs either.

LeoDev

March 30, 2010 08:48 AM

I lived in Houston for 25 adult years before moving to Dallas. In Houston, you could find just about anything you wanted just about anywhere you tried to find it. Normal consumptive goods, not contraband. That's a benefit of Houston's no zoning. You can live near your place of work with suitable housing and shopping nearby, regardless of which diverse area of town you choose.
In Dallas you get to pick a standard of living, choose a neighborhood and then find out where you have to go find those goods and services and discover in which part of town. Thanks to zoning.
I've had similar experience and know from essays in other parts of the country, goods and services grouped by 'type'. Thanks to zoning.
Houston has grown into the large, dynamic international city it is without the aid of political control over land use. Why change that now... political gain?

Ron

April 23, 2010 02:09 PM

Maybe Houston should adopt a form-based code instead of a single-use euclidean zoning code. It would keep the variety of building uses that most of the commenters here seem to like, but a consistent city scale.

For example: apartments are fine in neighborhoods as long as it isn't single family homes next to 25 story towers. No one complains when they have to live next to a 16 unit U block apartment in Chicago. Form based codes defend 'air space rights' rather than the imagined right 'not to live next to more than one person'

Another example: who cares if want to run a business out of your house. form based codes allow for uses such as retail, daycares, even manufacturing, as long as your house isn't unfriendly to the public space on the street. no one hates living next to a corner store, but everyone hates living next to a 7-11. They sell the same thing, the only difference is in the form they take.

Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.

 

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BusinessWeek editors Chris Palmeri, Prashant Gopal and Peter Coy chronicle the highs and lows of the housing and mortgage markets on their Hot Property blog. In print and online, the Hot Property team first wrote about the potential downside of lenders pushing riskier, "option ARM" mortgages and the rise in mortgage fraud back in 2005—well ahead of many other media outlets. In 2008, Hot Property bloggers finished #1 in a ranking of the world's top 100 "most powerful property people" by the British real estate website Global edge. Hot Property was named among the 25 most influential real estate blogs of 2007 by Inman News.

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