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.


  1. We live in Montrose and what seems a nano second, the look of the neighborhood as well as the culture and demographics has changed in a way that is a turn-off to me. Worse, these townhomes that are spoken of in this article arent a Chicago or NY brownstone, that are build to last. Rather, I am seeing fly-by-night garbage with brick and stone or stucco in front and junk hardiplank on the sides and back. cheap materials in back of home. I would NEVER invest in this crap yet they sell like crazy due to market. Is no one talking about this? I am grossly let down. 10 years from now when market is a different one and you are trying to sell your not unique, cheaply constructed townhome when there are 200,000 just like yours, good luck. Bye bye Montrose. Sad. Am I off here? Id like to hear other opinions. Im an investor and builder so maybe my opinions are different - anyone out there like me? -Chad

    1. Chad, I totally agree about quality. I have been here for about a year and a half, and have noticed the apparent lack of quality of most townhouses. I am from Michigan and always thought that the majority of homes were built from brick. I also always had the idea that townhouses were a bit more durable, after my experiences in places like Michigan, Chicago, Boston and Virginia. It seems to be the opposite in Texas, and I am sure that climate is a big reason that there is a difference in materials. I would not choose to buy a townhouse with only hardiboard and stucco, as you can see that the heat and humidity take a toll on the materials within a few years. It doesn't seem to be a good investment at all.

      I think that one thing that lacks in Houston in this day and age is a mindset of stewardship and thinking about the usefulness and longevity of buildings, especially homes, for future generations. This is evidenced through the construction process and land use. It would be amazing to see the quality of housing if developers were to ever adopt a mindset of just a little bit lower of a profit margin to make up for the exterior quality of homes.

      In short, Chad you are not off-base at all. I alluded to this idea in the last paragraph, but probably could draw a bit more attention to the consideration of construction.

    2. I would disagree about the quality of construction issue. As a building envelope, hardi-plank is on a par with brick and superior to stucco in this climate. Hardi-plank is better than brick when you consider potential failure modes, the cost of repairs, and lifetime flexibility with color and texture. Also, townhouses that are properly constructed with engineered wood and strapped and clipped per the latest windstorm code will be much more resistant to windstorm damage than your typical brick veneer home built twenty years ago. So yes, you can argue about aesthetics and appearance of hardiplank townhomes but, in fact, they are better built to last than the structures you would prefer to see. I am not a builder or developer, but an insurance agent who has dealt with claims from three major storms and I have seen which structures have the least damage.

  2. My observation is that developers do little actual developing in the sense they build in neighborhoods that are already desirable while doing very little to expand the desirable zones. Vast areas of houston, including inside the loop (think third ward) have had little activity despite choice location (close to medical center, downtown).

  3. I agree that the concept of more townhomes in Houston makes a lot of sense. It's a way to densify incrementally that's more palatable to many people than the idea of high-rise condos, which also have their place. However, I get Chad's point, too. It seems as though many of these townhomes going up are low-quality construction. Here's where I think the disconnect is. I think a large portion of buyers don't understand the difference in quality. New is new, right? (shudder) I think another portion don't care. I've talked to several Houstonians who bought a home with the idea that they can move in 15-20 years without much trouble. They don't believe they'll stay longer. Why? Because Houston is such a changing landscape, you can't count on a neighborhood being safe for longer than that, they say. And finally, I'm willing to bet many developers (not all, of course) are trying to put up as many homes as they can while the market is hot, and fast doesn't always equate to quality. Let's face it—Houston has seen booms and busts. Hard to blame someone for trying to capitalize on market opportunity, but it's also hard to put up quality homes in a rush, or at least that's what I'm lead to believe.

    1. Densify,

      Those are excellent points. Houston is experiencing growth unlike years past, and people are happy to own any plot of land close to all the action, and don't think much about quality of construction.

      The thoughts about a more transient workforce are also valuable. If people have the financial mobility to change cities within a few years, they simply pass on the maintenance costs and challenges associated with homes to the next owner (if they can find someone to buy a shoddy-looking townhouse!) I think the nature of petroleum-based employment forces people to be mobile, so they are not looking to create a dwelling for the rest of their lives, just a particular era of their lives. Very interesting points you make.

  4. I would argue that the Ashby lawsuit establishes a precedent of developing raw land, i.e. encouraging sprawl, rather than deal with NIMBYs who think they, by virtue of being there 'first,' have a 'senior claim' to the area.

  5. I have an issue with townhomes in areas with poor infrastructure, such as narrow streets, or open drainage ditches.

    They will build 8 or 9 units with 3 bedrooms and only a two car garage. There are no parking spaces for guests or a third driver/roommate. The streets are narrow, so only one car can pass.

    Now with the large recycling bins, there is no place to store them, except outside the garage (looks like crap) and on garbage day the on street parking really hampers pickup with the automated trucks.

  6. the average single-family home price has increased from a year ago; the median home price made history; and foreclosure sales are down. tracy suttles