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Houston Through a Bus Window

May 23


Last Friday, the Antiplanner joined other participants at the Preserving the American Dream conference on a bus tour of Houston. The first half of the tour focused on the downtown-Galleria area, while the second half zipped to the suburbs to see a master-planned community.

This classic bungalow is in a neighborhood of fine homes that are probably protected with deed restrictions.

In the city, we saw stately manors, skinny houses, granny flats, mid-rise housing, and high-rise condos. We saw gated communities with strict covenants, and in areas with no covenants we saw mixed-use, mixed-income, and mixed-density neighborhoods.

With garages facing an alley, this little complex reminds me of some of Portland’s New Urban developments.

Despite Houston’s lack of zoning, we could not find any gravel pits next to homes, which is the evil planners often say they are trying to prevent through zoning. We did see one neighborhood where nearly every home was festooned with signs protesting a proposed high-rise. But we also saw a neighborhood where nearly every home was decorated with signs protesting a proposed light-rail line.

A four-story apartment complex in Houston? I always though four stories were not marketable because they are too big for people to walk up and too small to justify an elevator. It is possible that this is getting subsidies for being on a planned light-rail line.

Here we have an office building in what otherwise appears to be a residential area. The sign reads, “NAACP Houston Branch.”

What we also saw was a combination of stable neighborhoods protected by deed restrictions and neighborhoods that were rapidly changing in response to market demand. Some of those changes were things that planners would support: higher densities, mixed uses, and mixed incomes. Ironically, some Houstonians think that zoning would protect their neighborhoods from high rises while in cities like Portland planners are upzoning neighborhoods to require higher densities.

My seatmate J.P. Singh examines some 1930s-era skinny houses.

Perhaps half the homes in the city of Houston are under deed restrictions. In many cases, these simply limit the property owner from building anything other than a single-family home. Other cases are more restrictive, including limits on the size of homes. The restrictions typically lapse after 45 or 50 years unless renewed by the homeowners’ association. If you live in a neighborhood with no or lapsed restrictions, you can start them up again by petitioning and getting the support of a majority of your neighbors.

Come back Mondayfor photos of a master-planned community.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner