July, 2020

Subdividing the Unzoned City

An Analysis of the Causes and Effects of Houston’s 1998 Subdivision Reform
  • Matthew (Nolan) Gray

    Affiliated Scholar
  • Adam Millsap

    Assistant Director, L. Charles Hilton Jr. Center for the Study of Economic Prosperity and Individual Opportunity, Florida State University
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Houston is known for its lack of Euclidean-style zoning, but the city still has various ordinances that control land use. In 1998, Houston reformed its subdivision rules to allow for parcels smaller than five thousand square feet citywide. In this paper, we discuss the unique land-use rules in place in Houston prior to reform and the circumstances that led to reform, including the “opt out” provisions, which mediated homeowner opposition to substantial increases in housing density. We then analyze the effects of reform. After relief from large lot requirements, post-reform development activity was heavily concentrated in middle-income, less dense, underbuilt neighborhoods.