Feb 9, 2022

Case Studies on Smart Zoning Reforms, Part One: Houston, Texas

Houston is an instructive example of how smart reform to land-use regulations can increase housing availability and accommodate regional population and economic growth.
Emily Hamilton Senior Research Fellow , Sloane Argyle Staff Writer

This article is part of a series of case studies of positive local housing policy reforms in the United States. Each looks at a reform or set of reforms implemented at the municipal level. We have only included reforms that appear to have successfully improved housing affordability, to serve as examples for policymakers looking to do the same in their jurisdictions.

Part one: Houston, Texas

Part two: Portland, Oregon

Part three: Tysons Corner, Virginia

Part four: Buffalo, New York

The story: Prior to liberalizing its zoning laws, a minimum-lot-size requirement of 5,000 square feet limited housing development in this city of over 2 million inhabitants, driving up home prices by requiring each house to sit on a large piece of land. A 1998 subdivision reform reduced this lot-size requirement to as little as 1,400 square feet, allowing developers to meet a large and growing demand among Houstonians for smaller lots closer to major job centers.

Why it matters: Local zoning rules impose huge costs on Americans by making homes in many areas needlessly expensive, resulting in burdensome mortgage and rent payments and preventing people from living in the regions where their best opportunities are located. Obstacles to housing development are often primarily political, as existing residents are resistant to changes to their communities or to the inconveniences that come with new housing construction. Houston’s land-use reforms stand out as a successful example of how policymakers can make new construction in existing residential areas feasible.

Proponents employed a unique and pioneering strategy to avoid a common political challenge to land use reform. As planners and policymakers across the country wrestle with the complicated politics of land-use liberalization, Houston’s experience can serve as a roadmap.

Details:

  • In 1998, Houston policymakers passed a reform ordinance reducing the minimum-required lot size for a house within the city’s I-610 Loop from 5,000 square feet down to 1,400 square feet. It was expanded to cover the entire city in 2013. These reforms allowed single-family homes to be replaced with up to three homes.
  • Despite decades of job and population growth, Houston’s median home price is below the national median, with a typical house costing less than $250,000.
  • Houston’s small lot-size requirements allow developers to build new units that are both desirable to homebuyers and economize on land costs.
  • Post-reform subdivision has been concentrated in middle-income neighborhoods rather than in traditionally marginalized communities.
  • Houston permits homeowners to seek a special minimum lot size that’s larger than the city-wide minimum if enough residents support the change. This may have helped make the reform politically feasible.

The big picture: Houston, known for a pro-growth mindset, offers a useful alternative to policies found across the United States, particularly in other large cities. Minimum-lot-size requirements and other regulations do not have to prevent enough new housing from being built, and they do not have to drastically increase the cost of housing.

To learn how to improve housing affordability in your area, check out our Guide for Local Policymakers.

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