Tag Archives: Houston

Zoning Wouldn’t Have Saved Houston

The rain hadn’t stopped falling before numerous commentators blamed Houston’s flooding on a lack of zoning. This is simply untrue.

First, flood-plain zoning focuses on “high-risk” areas, which by definition means areas in the 100-year floodplain. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac require that homes they mortgage be covered by flood insurance if they are in zone A or V, which means the 100-year floodplain.

But the Houston flooding resulting from tropical storm Harvey was a 1,000-year flood. That means neither zoning nor insurance would have made a difference for the homes outside the 100-year floodplain. At least half of all the homes damaged by Harvey flooding were in the “moderate-risk” zone in the 500-year floodplain but outside the 100-year floodplain, and more were in the low-risk area outside the 500-year floodplain. Continue reading


Seattle Millennials Should Move to Houston

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it has found the best Seattle homes for Millennials. Judging by the paper’s suggestions, Seattle Millennials should move to Houston. Houston may not have Mt. Rainier, but it has beautiful lakes, a sea coast that is just about as nice as Washington’s (though not as nice as Oregon’s), and most important, it doesn’t have urban-growth boundaries which means it has much more affordable housing.

Click any photo to go to the listing for that property.

The P-I‘s first suggestion is a 720-square foot, two-bedroom, one-bath home on a 5,000-square-foot lot. On the plus side, the living room has hardwood floors. On the minus side, the asking price is $259,950–and if Seattle’s housing market is anything like Portland’s, it will go for more than that. At the asking price, the cost is $361 per square foot.

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Whose Rights?

Early this month, a Texas judge ruled that developers can proceed with the Ashby high-rise in Houston, but that they have to pay nearby residents $1.2 million for damaging their property values. Planning advocates say this makes the case for zoning, while zoning critics say the damage award will merely encourage NIMBYs.

Developers plan to proceed with construction even as they promise to appeal the damage award. The case has been in court for seven years, damaging Houston’s reputation as a place where developers can easily get permits and build for the market.

Planning advocates should be careful what they wish for. As residents of Vancouver, BC, Portland, Seattle, and the San Francisco Bay Area have learned, zoning can be used to impose high rises and other high-density developments on neighborhoods that didn’t want them just as easily as it can be used to prevent such developments.

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Houston Housing Prices Rise

“Houston Housing Hits Hurdle,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The rapid growth of fastest-growing metropolitan area in America–gaining more than 120,000 people per year in the last decade–is fueled by cheap housing, but prices rose 12 percent last year.

Housing in the Woodlands, the Houston area’s oldest and largest master-planned community. Developers usually dedicate at least 20 percent of the land in such communities to parks and open space.

What’s made rapid growth possible is the growth of master-planned communities in which developers assemble thousands of acres, install streets, water, and sewer lines, and then sell individual lots to homebuilders and homebuyers. One the infrastructure is installed, a homebuyer can purchase a lot, get construction permits, have the house built, and move in within 120 days of closing on the land.

Developers eventually pay for the infrastructure by creating “municipal utility districts” or MUDs that then charge an annual fee to the homebuyers for 30 years–something like a property tax. This is a better way of financing infrastructure than through impact fees or other up-front costs, because such fees then get added to the general cost of all housing in a region. MUDs can be found throughout Texas, but about 40 percent of them are in the Houston area. In the short run, though, MUDs can only work if developers can find the funds needed to initially install the infrastructure.

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Densifying Houston

Houston doesn’t have zoning, which means that it doesn’t say how land can be used. As far as the city is concerned, you can buy land anywhere in the city and use it for commercial, retail, industrial, multi-family, or single-family residential. (About half of all residential areas in Houston have protective covenants limiting uses.)

This is a city that needs more affordable “workforce housing”? This three-bedroom, 2-1/2 bath, 2,140-square-foot house on a 7,500-square-foot lot is currently for sale in Houston for $60,000.

Though it doesn’t regulate how you use your land, Houston does have some basic development codes such as minimum lot sizes, set back requirements, and height limits that vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Now, in an effort to compete for newcomers against its suburbs, Houston is considering the first changes to its development code in 14 years.

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