Does Chapter 42 Build us up or Tear us Down?

April 17, 2013

As you may have heard, the City of Houston is looking to revise Chapter 42 to extend the “urban” area from the 610 loop to Beltway 8.  Currently the city defines “urban” as the area inside the 610 loop and “suburban” as outside the 610 loop.  This change would allow developers within Beltway 8 (used to be Loop 610) to subdivide lots to build smaller homes. Developers have been able to do this inside Loop 610 since 1999.  Here is a summary of the proposed changes from Houston’s website.

As I have said before, I would only favor this kind of change as long as existing neighborhoods can be exempt (unless they don’t want to be) and as long as new development is done responsibly – only when the existing roads and drainage systems can support the new developments (or if the developer is willing to put in additional funds to make the existing infrastructure able to support the development).

Houston needs to bring in new development often to increase our tax base.  To be clear, I did NOT say that we need to increase our taxes.  We need to increase our tax base (i.e. more people paying in to the system) with more homes and businesses.  As we have seen recently with cities like Detroit, Pittsburg, and Cleveland, when you increase services without increase your tax base, you go bankrupt (very simply put, of course).

There are many blighted apartment complexes and buildings in Houston.  Developers don’t often want to incur the costs to tear down the existing building because it’s not worth their time and money if they can only replace it with X number of houses.  If they are now able to build more houses per lot, we might see more developers willing to take on projects like these.  As long as the infrastructure can support this, I think a lot of people would prefer to look out their window to see many townhomes rather than a building that was falling down, collecting rodents, debris, and crime.

One of the aspects of this proposal that makes me so mad is the city’s response to the Super Neighborhood Alliance’s comments.  In case you aren’t familiar, a super neighborhood is a “geographically designated area where residents, civic organizations, institutions and businesses work together to identify, plan, and set priorities to address the needs and concerns of their community.”  They are the eyes and ears of the community and are a valuable resource for council members.  The Super Neighborhood Alliance is the group that combines all super neighborhoods.

The Alliance submitted comments to Mayor Parker about the proposed changes.  You can read them here.  They have really great points that should be considered; however, the cavalier response by the city makes it seem like they are not even taking their comments into account.  The answer to many of the questions is that Chapter 42 doesn’t address your concerns because it falls “outside the scope of Chapter 42.”  For example, the Alliance wanted to make sure that as these changes were taking place that the city adopts “modern urban street standards, or ‘complete streets,’ designed for all users.”  The answer by the city was that, while “the Administration agrees with the concept of a more walkable street, Chapter 42 is not the correct vehicle.”

Yes, they are correct that this would need to be addressed in a different chapter in the Code of Ordinances, but why can’t they work on everything at once?  Must they really deal with only one chapter at a time?  This is one of the many reasons why there is such a huge disconnect on the city level.  They don’t often see the bigger picture when reviewing a new ordinance.  Years later, they will review this and realize that they should have implemented certain aspects all at once, but it will be too late by then, and they will be forced to grandfather in streets that didn’t comply.

If the proposed changes to Chapter 42 are passed, it will mean big modifications in the city.  Until they can look at the bigger picture and work on all aspects at once, there will always be a disconnect rather than a smooth transition process every time overarching changes like these are passed.

Update:
I just want to clear up any confusion there might be about my stance on Chapter 42.  I only support the change in very unique circumstances where the current infrastructure can support increasing the density (or if a developer is willing to pay to get the infrastructure to where it can support the density).  This probably wouldn’t apply to much of District A at all.  I could see this applying in unique circumstances where there is a large building that needs to be torn down.  If the developer tears it down and builds townhomes that ultimately don’t add a larger concrete footprint than the existing structure, then it becomes a positive for the area.  I support responsible growth in Houston, and we need to make sure that infrastructure can support any new structure, whether it is in 610 or outside of it.  This includes making sure that an additional building doesn’t disperse water to another area because of its footprint.

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Redefining Urban and Suburban: Proposed Chapter 42 Changes

December 8, 2011

Many people know that Houston has no formal zoning, but the misconception many have is that Houston is completely unregulated and unplanned.  This is not the case.  Houston’s Chapter 42 Ordinance defines “urban” as the area inside the 610 loop and “suburban” as outside the 610 loop (see more info about this here).  Two years ago, the City of Houston began to look into changing this ordinance and move the urban area out to Beltway 8.

This change would allow developers within Beltway 8 (used to be Loop 610) to subdivide lots to build smaller homes.  Developers have been able to do this inside Loop 610 since 1999.  This ordinance will be a big change.  To see a good summary of all the proposed changes, see Houston’s Planning and Development Website.

This is a very heated topic and rightfully so.  It will have a huge impact on current and future homeowners and Houstonians.  Interesting, 53.7% of Houstonians favor zoning, according to the Houston Area Study.  Also, 79.9% favor redeveloping older areas rather than continue building new suburbs.  Then why do so many people oppose this proposed ordinance?  As it turns out, when asked where you prefer to live, 56.8% would choose to live in a single-family home with a big yard rather than a smaller, urban home.  So people like the sound of zoning and building smaller homes, but they don’t want to live there.  It becomes a Not in My Backyard problem. 

I think this change could be a valuable addition to Houston, but there are some stipulations to this.  First, any existing neighborhood should be given the choice on whether or not they want to make this change.  If the neighborhood likes being a suburban area, they are homeowners and have the right to keep their area the way they want.  If they want to be a mixed-use area and build townhomes and smaller units within their neighborhood, they should have the right to do that as well. 

Another caveat I have to this ordinance is that Houston must be responsible to its citizens.  I don’t favor complete zoning (this plot of land must be used for a house; this one must be a commercial development).  People are more willing to invest in a market where there are no restrictions; however, investors also need predictability.  Developers and homeowners need the predictability of knowing that they can use the roads to get to their homes and that if they need the police or firefighters, those departments will have access to their homes as well.  Placing a new townhome community in an area where the roads, sewers, infrastructure, police, fire, etc. cannot sustain it is not responsible.  Irresponsibility now means financial disaster later when the city’s infrastructure cannot support the decisions made (kind of like what is happening now).

The city should be the responsible and neutral party to give permits to buildings if they are able to be sustained by the area.  Now before anyone yells at me and says that this is not being very republican because this allows the city to pick winners and losers, let me say that this is not the case!  Rather, the city should say yes EVERY time the independent study shows the building can be placed there and no EVERY time it cannot.  This cannot be based on who the developer is and how much money they gave to the mayor or a council member.  This must be independent, responsible, and predictable. 

The proposed changes to Chapter 42 have a few items that need to be fixed, but ultimately I think it could be beneficial in the long run.