A Tale Of Land Development In Two Texas Cities

Jan 9, 2020

From Texas Standard:

Texas cities often make it onto those "Best Places to Live" lists. But with that popularity comes population growth, and no two cities handle it the same way. That's especially true when it comes to Austin and Houston.

Mike Morris is a city hall reporter for the Houston Chronicle, and Audrey McGlinchy reports on city hall for KUT in Austin.

McGlinchy says Austin is redoing its land development code for the first time in more than 30 years. One goal is to make the code simpler.

"We kind of layered code on top of one another, and so when a builder or a landowner goes to make changes or build something new on the land, it becomes really complicated and really expensive," she says.

She says the more expensive it is to build, the higher rent and housing costs will be.

In Houston, Morris says there is no zoning or a traditional land development code.

"The city cannot restrict land for residential, commercial, industrial," he says.

Problems similar to those in Austin exist in Houston when it comes to complicated land development rules, but residents there, on the whole, have been less inclined to push for change. Morris says voters have rejected zoning propositions five times since World War II.

"People seem to have made their peace with our free-for-all," Morris says.

The lack of zoning has made it more feasible for developers to build affordable housing in Houston, but Morris says that's changing. He says the city will eventually have to step in as living in Houston gets more expensive.

In Austin, the city wants the new land development code to support the building of a wider variety of housing. Right now, single-family homes and large apartment buildings dominate the housing stock; there's less mid-sized housing like town homes. McGlinchy says the new code could help with that.

"There is some evidence that if we allow for more housing to be built ... that we could potentially lower, or at the very least stabilize prices here," she says.

Morris says in Houston, the lack of a land code is contributing to ongoing gentrification. Most recently, the Fourth Ward and historic Freedmen's Town have suffered.

"Those areas are essentially erased," Morris says.

Meanwhile, people keep moving to the Houston suburbs where housing is more affordable and developers continue to build. But he says some who live closer to the city are pushing for more affordable housing near downtown.

"Closer into the urban core, there are a lot of families, there are a lot of politicians, who are not satisfied with the status quo," Morris says.

Written by Caroline Covington.