Friday, January 24, 2014

Talk of the Townhouses: Density in Houston

At the end of a recent trip to the YMCA, I overheard some interesting chatter in the men's locker room. No, nothing about women, money, or oil, and not even about athletics. Two older gentlemen were complaining about the recent addition of townhouses in their neighborhood somewhere here in Houston.

From: Google Street View
This is a very common complaint here in Houston, where there is no zoning code for land use. (There is a development code, so there are rules here!) Most residents support a lack of land-use restrictions, except when it borders their own property. (In 1993, most recently, Houstonians voted against a zoning ordinance referendum). Many cite traffic concerns or a resultant raise in taxes as their opposition. Unfortunately, there are many areas in Houston that lack subdivision deed restrictions (which are a Houstonian's best protection against perceived noxious land use or development), and the absence of these protections is what makes this such a common complaint. In recent years, the Ashby high-rise in Houston's Boulevard Oaks neighborhood has been the poster child for fighting unwanted development. Even though this is not a townhouse development, this example still gets to the root of the issue. Unfortunately, a jury, which should not be considered a group of development experts, awarded several neighbors with $1.7 million in damages because of the anticipated negative effects the development will have on the adjacent neighborhood.

Why should we penalize developers who follow all of the rules of our city's development codes? By accepting and filing lawsuits against any development that you may feel inconveniences you, a precedent begins to be set that favors low density, single family land use within the City of Houston in a time where Houston finally seems to be getting a bit more dense, as evidenced by a greater number of multi-family developments and residential towers being built. Residents want to have it both ways; being able to limit the rights of property owners other than themselves, while also without being told what to do or how to use their own property. There seems to be a loss of vision for what this city can become, and what it should become for Houston to compete with other world-class cities. This is all part of the culture in Houston, where development regularly happens at a faster pace than most other American cities. To quote my friend Kyle Bryant,
"Many of us want growth and development as long as it comes at no cost to us. We want to become a premiere urban environment, but only if we don't have to drive on crowded streets, or give up our sense of sprawling space (or our parking space). We want the ideal without the toil and trade-offs it takes to get there. Because we are kings within ourselves, and the people around us are our subjects. No one will admit it, but I believe that's the real issue." 
We are entering into a time where Houston cannot afford to continue with its suburban development style. Delivery of services costs more as the city continues to expand, while we limit the tax capture that is able to be had within the city by opposing development. The more the city grows in area, but does not grow in population or in its number of single family residences, it becomes more and more challenging to actually offer the services that citizens demand. Detroit can be look at as an example, although this comparison is very extreme. But the idea is relative. When you have a larger area of land in which to provide services, without a growing proportion of income like Detroit, you are forced to make difficult decisions, such as limiting lighting in certain areas of the city or reducing police and fire coverage. Detroit needs residents within its city limits, and so does Houston.

When we compare our city to others such as Chicago or Los Angeles, Houston is much like a younger, wayward brother or sister that wants to do their own thing for a while, go "find themselves", spin their wheels for a while, and shouts and yells when anyone challenges them, only years later coming to realize the benefit of wisdom and gracefully aging. We need more people within the city's main activity centers and within the Interstate 610 Loop. Without more people living within the city, mass transit may never be a viable option. Houston is young, and it needs to learn some lessons from its older, more seasoned comparison cities.

Back to the original top of discussion; townhouses. There are many new townhouses being planned and built in Houston each week, such as this proposed project in Houston's Timbergrove neighborhood. Lots are being split into two and three parcels where a single home once stood, in order to accommodate a growing population. Not all homes should be torn down to create townhouses, but there are many instances where this approach makes sense, especially within neighborhoods close to Downtown Houston, and where housing stock is reaching the end of its useful life.

A quick query of Houston's single-family residential properties that could be considered townhouses (I considered lots less than approximately 3,200 square feet), produces a total of about 40,560 townhouses. The number is probably a bit more, considering recently built homes, as well as those that fall just outside of the 3,200 square foot threshold. As a whole, townhouses make up a very small percentage of the land use within Houston, compared to other cities like Chicago. Concentrations of townhouses are located on the east and west extremes of Midtown, Montrose, near I-10 and the Washington Avenue corridor, and in the Timbergrove and Shady Acres neighborhoods.

Lots less than 3,200 square feet in Houston

(Update June 19, 2014):  The relationship between gentrification and race is a banner that continues to be flown high. Some claim that "Urbanists want to gouge tenured African-American residents in order to secure cheaper access to the city", specifically in Houston's Third Ward. However, this claim may be more exaggerated with some more discovery. It's easy to read an NPR story from 2009 and cry foul of development in Houston and other cities. But Houston's platting activity and lot size data may show otherwise, at least in terms of race and geography. Economics and geography is something else to be considered. In Houston, it's not simply racially concentrated neighborhoods that are seeing increased housing development.

Platting activity is one indicator of the lots that are being subdivided to create townhouse developments. In most of inner-loop Houston, it is typical for 5,000 square foot lots to be subdivided into three townhouses. Development seems to be even more robust in Houston's other neighborhoods, like the Heights, Montrose, Midtown and Museum Park.

Greater Third Ward - lots under 3,200 square feet

Montrose / Midtown - lots under 3,200 square feet

Washington Avenue Corridor - lots under 3,200 square feet

When looking at platting and lot size data, most platting activity is taking place in the Midtown, Museum Park, Shady Acres, Montrose and along western Washington Avenue, most of which are not dense African American neighborhoods when compared to Houston's primarily African American Greater Third Ward neighborhood. Third Ward does not seem to have the same amount of development when compared to others. The same holds true for Houston's Fifth Ward.

Houstonians have tools to protect against the unwanted dense townhouse development, however, with a lack of comprehensive zoning, it is a democratic process that is initiated by residents. And, residents take advantage of it. Minimum lot size protections are currently being sought in many parts of the city, and most recently in Houston's Near Northside community. Whether this protection is warranted in a particular area is a debate for another time, but residents have the tools to protect their neighborhoods, and like the Lindale Park neighborhood, some are serious about preserving their neighborhood's character. I had the pleasure of assisting the residents of Lindale Park with their applications.

Platting activity in Greater Third Ward since January 2013
Platting activity in Greater Fifth Ward since January 2013
The loom of the townhouse hangs high over many Houstonians, but that may be unwarranted. As Houston continues to mature, let us hope that developers continue to make a better townhouse product, and that our city will continue to invest in its infrastructure. But let's not be selfish in our ability to live in this great city. Townhouses are economically viable for a greater number of people, and by their characteristics, allow a great number of people to live closer to the center of the city.

This discussion will continue for some time, between government, the city's developers, and citizens. When I hear this discussion at the YMCA after a workout, I suppose this solidifies that townhouses really are the talk of the town here in Houston.