Regulating for Density in the City With No Zoning

The City of Houston may be as well-known for its low-density sprawl as it is for. . . um. . . oil and the Astros? (What is Houston known for, anyway?) But even Houston has caught the density bug. City Council is considering a development code rewrite that (among other things) will allow densities up to 27 units per acre in the parts of Houston currently classified as suburban, where densities are currently capped at 16 units. A summary of the code changes and other City explanatory material are here, and the full proposed text is here.  Although many cities justify density in terms of sustainability, in Houston the official message is affordability. True, the rewrite won’t address the lack of affordability in central Houston that drives some to farthest exurbia. However, by allowing more units per acre in what we might call middle suburbia, the mayor hopes to create more affordable options by splitting the cost of each acre of dirt between more future homebuyers.

It is a common bit of city nerd trivia, however, that Houston does not have zoning. So how does it implement development regulations? The fact of the matter is that Houston is not a land-use free-for-all: in the absence of zoning, most of the city is covered by by private deed restrictions put in place by the developers who originally built the subdivisions. They play such a major role in regulating land that the city has been empowered by state law to enforce them. In addition, Chapter 42, Houston’s development code that is the subject of the rewrite, covers the usual gamut of lot size, setbacks, and so on — pretty much everything except land uses. So although you might see a strip club next to a church in Houston, you probably won’t see a skyscraper.

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About Rachel Proctor May

Rachel Proctor May is a 2L at HLS. Before law school, she was policy director for the mayor pro tem of Austin, Texas, and covered the environment and education for the Austin Chronicle.
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