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.