What really preserves a neighborhood's character?I went to a workshop tonight put on by the City of Houston Planning Department on tools to protect neighborhoods, with a focus on deed restrictions. There was a lot of good material, but the most interesting to me was an impromptu debate that occurred during Q&A with Marlene Gafrick, the Planning Dept Director.
Over the next couple of weeks, city council will consider closing the "condo loophole" on the minimum lot size restrictions - where developers avoid minimum lot size restrictions by essentially building a mini condo complex on the land instead of townhomes owning micro-lots. The new ordinance will only allow a single-family home on the lot (which sounds dangerously close to zoning to me). In general, the city seems intent on reigning in the amazing townhome development happening inside the loop. But one man pointed out that townhomes make housing more affordable, which received a negative reaction from the crowd.
People seem to believe it will preserve the character of their neighborhood to require only one single-family home on a minimal size lot. But does it really? These restrictions already apply in West U and Bellaire. The result? Waves of gigantic McMansions. I think they're perfectly nice, but they certainly don't match the character of the older single-story ranch houses in these cities.
But it's not just the physical character that changes. If a developer can't build three $200K+ townhomes on a lot, he'll be forced by economics to build a single $600K+ McMansion. The demographic that can afford that house are in a completely different income bracket from those who can afford the townhomes. Does that really preserve the neighborhood's true character better than the townhomes? A middle class neighborhood ends up rapidly gentrifying, when townhomes could have let it stay middle class.
Right now Houston is attracting a wonderful demographic mix - racially, economically, and age wise - to the townhomes inside the loop. That's part of why the inner loop feels so vibrant today. Do we really want to replace that with only wealthy older couples and families? That's what's happened in Bellaire with the single-family housing restrictions, and that seems to be the direction Houston's headed.
I'm not saying there aren't improvements that could made to protect our neighborhoods and improve deed restrictions, but I'd like to see more debate and awareness of the potential downsides of starting a war against townhomes.
Update: same problem in Austin.