Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
The post-Harvey city needs to get denser and more urban.
According to Texas officials, Hurricane Harvey destroyed an estimated 800 homes in Houston alone and severely damaged another 119,000. However you cut it, the city will change over the coming years: If you’re a Bayou City urbanist, the wave of rebuilding could be good news, as the city’s new housing could encourage more dense building patterns and stoke greater interest in car-lite living.
As I have previously written, the city’s lack of zoning and pro-YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) development culture should be a huge asset in this rebuilding process: Unlike in many coastal cities, it’s relatively easy to add more housing to existing urban neighborhoods in Houston. This could help keep the city affordable in the aftermath of Harvey without encouraging further development in flooding-prone and environmentally sensitive wetlands. But if planners and policymakers aren’t careful, a host of current policies might force this new development to fall back into Houston’s old, sprawling ways. Here are three policies city officials could adopt to cultivate a gradual embrace of urbanism post-Harvey.
Eliminate parking requirements
Houston’s parking requirements are actively working against its densification. Currently, every apartment in the city must have at least 1.333 off-street parking spaces, and every single-family bedroom must have two spaces. In practice, this means that every apartment building has to come with a parking garage or surface lot and every house or townhouse has to sit on top of a two-car garage. Not only does this leave the streets lined with garage doors and parking ramp entrances, it requires the construction and maintenance of impervious surfaces that make the city more vulnerable to future flooding. The cost of this mandated parking is passed along to the consumer in the form of higher housing prices.
Beyond residential developments, Houston’s parking requirements can get downright strange. For every 1,000 gross square feet of office space, you need 2.5 spots, or 405 square feet of parking. For bowling alleys, you need five spaces per lane. Bars need a mind-boggling 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet (or 1,620 total square feet) of parking. (As the folks at the Houston Chronicle’s “Looped In” podcast have pointed out, what are we doing making it easier for people to drive to a bar?)
More cities, from Buffalo to Seattle, have gradually scaled back their minimum parking requirements. The city council could eliminate these tomorrow. When it comes to enhancing Houston’s urban renaissance, this is the ultimate low-hanging fruit.
Scale back minimum lot sizes
Before 1999, basically all of the City of Houston had a minimum lot size of 5,000 square feet. This meant that if a developer divided up land for single-family houses or townhouses, she couldn’t break them up any smaller than your typical suburban plat. But in 1999, the city dropped this minimum lot size down to 1,400 square feet and scrapped certain setbacks within the Interstate 610 loop that bounds the urban area of Houston. This allowed urban neighborhoods to behave like urban neighborhoods, spurring the construction of denser housing. Why not expand the 1999 reforms out to the whole city?
If subdivision regulations aren’t changed soon, Houston’s infamous sprawl might get worse instead of better. Houstonians, unlike their excitable coastal NIMBY counterparts, have mostly taken the city’s recent building boom in stride. But the city now allows for neighborhoods to petition for minimum lot sizes and building lines (i.e. front setbacks) above and beyond the already-high required minimums.
This is bad for a few reasons. First, it could create a chaotic patchwork of regulation, which is already enough of an issue with all the private covenants floating around. Second, it’s basically an invitation for Houston neighborhoods to engage in exclusionary zoning, or use land-use regulation designed to keep out low-income and minority residents. By forcing housing to consume more land, the main effect of minimum lot sizes is to price low-income residents out of the market. Killing this process before too many neighborhoods are bit by the NIMBY bug seems like a no-brainer.
Get street design right
Houston gets a lot of grief for its abundance of highways. They crisscross the city, breaking up many neighborhoods. (Many ground-level ones also function as collectors for stormwater runoff.) How can Houston balance its transportation needs with the value of reintegrating cut off neighborhoods?
Where they can’t be removed altogether, transportation planners should find ways to mitigate the ill effects of Houston’s most disruptive high-speed thoroughfares. Bringing down the elevated highways—whether that means burying them, replacing them with boulevards, or eliminating them altogether—can be a major driver of urban redevelopment, as cases from San Francisco to New Haven illustrate. Early plans to replace sections of I-45 with an urban greenway indicate that policymakers are already aware of the possibilities.
Beyond the highways, urban street design in Houston leaves a lot to be desired. Take Midtown, for example: The neighborhood is gridded by a street network of wide one-way roads. According to one study, this is essentially a recipe for both traffic collisions and blight. Researchers found that, after conversion from one-way to two-way, roads experienced up to a 60 percent drop in traffic collisions, a drop in crime, and a rise in property values. As city planner Jeff Speck pointed out here on CityLab, dropping lane widths from 12 feet to 10 could have similar effects. In many of Houston’s suburban neighborhoods, 65-foot-wide roads are the norm. But not all: In Rice-Military, a thriving multi-modal neighborhood, road widths regularly fall below 25 feet.
But, for now, Houston is doing all right
In the aftermath of Harvey, city and regional policymakers have tightened building codes and imposed more strict restrictions on development in floodplains. These regulations are smart and necessary, but they shouldn’t also encourage Houston to put its new housing out on the periphery. Without a building boom of apartments and townhomes in the city’s existing urban neighborhoods, the rent hikes that the region is seeing now could become the norm. Three simple policy fixes—which are really more like minor tweaks of the city’s typical hands-off approach—could keep Houston’s recovery on track.