Monday, August 27, 2007

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.

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At 8:42 AM, August 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn't this only pertain to streets whose residents have petitioned to set a minimum lot size restriction? If so, then does that really cut seriously the supply of available land for townhomes, or jeopardize the ability of middle class folks to live inside the loop? Shouldn't the people who live on a given street be able to prevent condo complexes from springing up amongst them, looming over their houses?

At 9:17 AM, August 28, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You don't think the McMansion that will go up instead won't loom over their house?

At 10:07 AM, August 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sometimes looks absurd in West University to see a 1-story ranch house with two three story McMansion flanking it. The ranch house wouldn't be any worse off if the two McMansions were condos/townhomes.

The neighborhood of Cottage Grove (TC Jester and I-10) is a non-deed restricted and no minimal lot size community. One of the complaints some resident of the old cottage or making is that the new townhomes are forcing their properties to be worth enough so they have to start paying property taxes (many of the cottage are completely exempt). I posed the situation to the civic club that if they restrict the townhome development, they will end up encouraging the McMansion development which would cause their property values to go even higher.

At 10:20 AM, August 28, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

West University also now has restrictions on the square footage of a house, based on the lot size. So, some of the McMansions you are referring to were built before these restrictions were in place.

I believe a community should be able to preserve its character and "look and feel" in this way.

The nicest communities in Houston are West U, Bellaire, Meyerland, Piney Point, Bunker Hill, and all of the master-planned communities in the suburbs. All of these communities have some of these restrictions - if there are problems, I would argue that the answer is more restrictions, not less. If you want to take a look at what happens when you have less restrictions, you can drive around pretty much anywhere else in Houston.

I certainly wouldn't want to buy a home on a residential street just to see some townhomes start going up around me. Or a gaudy McMansion. And if there are legal tools at our neighborhoods disposal, I would want to use them to restrict this sort of development. Zoning is ok by me too. That seems to be a dirty word in Houston, but it works fine for nearly every other major city in the country, if not the world.

At 3:23 PM, August 28, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think it will be a very sad day if Houston chooses the bland conformity of West U, Bellaire, or the Villages, vs. the wonderful diversity and vibrancy in housing it has today.

At 4:29 PM, August 28, 2007, Blogger John said...

This is urbanism 101. A diverse mix of housing types makes a neighborhood vibrant, because they make it possible for a divrese mix of people to live there.

Here in the Heights, the bungalows are wonderful, but if you had no townhouses, a whole economic segment would be cut out of the area because of rising prices. And there are people who simply won't live in townhouses because they want single family home - so without restrictions, goodbye to them.

It's not unreasonable to set different guidelines for different neighborhoods and different parts of neighborhoods. That was you can preserve historic structures, ensure that new building doesn't degrade what's there (isn't this a property rights issue? does a neighbor have a right to reduce the quality of my home by building a looming McMansion next door?), and set aside sensible places for higher density.

Going back to the Heights, I'd love to see townhouses and apartments and condos along Yale Street, for example. It's a smart place to put density. The neighborhoods next to it, on the other hand, are a different story.

On the other hand, doing that along Heights Boulevard or on the side streets would pretty much wreck the neighborhood and turn it into Rice Military; if you want that, go live there.

If Houston wasn't allergic to sensible planning, this would be pretty straightforward (though contentious, as such things always are).

At 9:03 PM, August 28, 2007, Blogger Charles Kuffner said...

Tory, I note you didn't answer Mike's question. Why shouldn't a neighborhood that went through the long and arduous process to get lot size restrictions have that fully honored? What's the point otherwise?

It seems to me that this is going to affect a fairly small number of neighborhoods, since it takes a lot of organization to get those petitions done. I seriously doubt this will affect condo/townhouse development very much.

At 10:55 PM, August 28, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm glad the petitions do take effort. But at the workshop, they mentioned efforts to make the petitions easier, and to allow entire subdivisions to opt in rather than just block faces.

But I was also aiming this post at not just the city, but the neighborhoods too. I think some should give more thought to the type of character they're trying to preserve: the amount of land per house, or the actual people?

At 1:32 AM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've looked at the McMansion ordinance in Austin. Poperty values shot up in central Austin. The developers'first instinct would natrally be to build condos/townhomes to meet demamd, but most of the residential land is reserved for single lot homes.

The best next use is go upscale, which has good profit margins. Developers began scraping structures worth $80k off lots worth $350k. No one who wants to make any money will build a ranch on a $350K lot. You get homes built for people who don't mind spending $350K for just the lot. You get big homs.

That what's been happening in Austin. Large homes have been popping up in these neighborhoods; it stirs some pretty strong emotions. There are a lot of complaints about lost sunlight, backyard gardens, views, but in my judgment they are rooted in class insecurity. You settle into a neighborhood of modest bungalows wih a bunch of homeowners with similar incomes and tastes. Market conditions change, suddenly your neighborhood is a hot one. Some bungalows disappaear and are replaced by large, ostetatious structures. They out class the current residents, who know they're not going to be able to compete. So that creates a lot of tension.

Austin adopted a McMansion ordinance in response. It's a very bad idead, in my opion. Anyway, my posts on the Austin McMansion ordinance is

At 8:46 AM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You don't think the McMansion that will go up instead won't loom over their house?"

I'd rather have a larger house next to me than four condos going up to the curb with the inevitable iron fence, everything paved over, and cars going in and out all day.

"I think it will be a very sad day if Houston chooses the bland conformity of West U, Bellaire, or the Villages, vs. the wonderful diversity and vibrancy in housing it has today."

It's not a choice the whole city will make, but the people on individual blocks. I say we let them have that choice.

At 10:43 AM, August 29, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Re: Mike

"...but the people on individual blocks. I say we let them have that choice."

The problem isn't that they want a choice for themselves, it's that they want to enforce their choice on the property owners around them who don't necessarily want the same thing.

At 2:25 PM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Don't you think you're exaggerating a bit with "cars going in and out all day"?

The four condos/townhomes will have residents that will have schedules not much different than the residents living at every other house down the street.

If you have issues with the impervious cover of the site of the condo/townhome development, take that up with the city council members, planning commission, and city engineering. They are responsible for allowing the density to build without mitigating the impacts.

At 5:10 PM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


These are people who share blocks. What one person does on that block affects the other people. If you have a street lined with 1920's cottages and suddenly one of those cottages are replaced by four condos going up to the curb, it affects everybody else. It hurts their property value, not to mention their quality of life. Hence they have a right to see that this does not happen. One person should not be able to cash in at everyone else's loss.


I have issues with the whole thing, and right now they are being taken up with City Council.

At 8:50 PM, August 29, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


"These are people who share blocks."

Who doesn't share blocks? Where do you draw the line between a "community" and simply contiguous properties? Defining a community gets fuzzy real fast and legal decisions would be made simply on preference and not on precise definitions.

"It hurts their property value.."

Not saying you're wrong, but do you have data for this?

"...not to mention their quality of life."

I have talked with some condo owners who had a nice view of a neigborhood and sometimes downtown when they bought their condo. A few years down the road, however, new condos were built along their sightlines and greatly diminished the view. Should they have the ability to quell new development? Didn't they lose some "quality of life?"

How do you determine which people get to enforce their preferences on others and which people do not? Should those with deep pockets or excess free time be able to have sway over others?

I'll cheer on any neighborhood who can muster volunteers to institute deed restrictions on themselves, but I just can't go along with anyone who thinks that the best way to preserve their value is to take away freedom from someone else.

At 9:18 PM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is halarious that Tory bashes the bland conformity of West U and bellaire when he lives in Myerland. how do you spell hipocracy?

At 9:36 PM, August 29, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't know, how do you spell "hipocracy"? ;-)

Actually, the McMansions are starting to overflow from Bellaire into my neighborhood, pumping up our home values in very nice ways. I'd be perfectly happy with townhomes too, but our *voluntary* deed restrictions don't allow it (neat how that works - no need for city interference). We picked this house to get the kids into Bellaire high school. I'd love to live in one of the inner loop townhomes, but my wife will never allow it. She's into plants and gardening big time, and already complains about us "not having enough dirt."

At 11:24 PM, August 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I didn't use the word "community." It should be pretty obvious that drastic changes in the built environment on a residential block are going to affect the other residents. Hence the city's thoughtful decision to give other residents some control.

Do I really need to prove that it affects property values? If you wanted to live in a nice bungalow, would you want it to be next to looming condos or other bungalows?

What do deep pockets have to do with this? We're talking about decisions that need the approval of the majority of residents.

The arguments about taking away freedom are a bit maudlin and tiresome. There's really nothing drastic or unusual about this, and it isn't too much to ask that status quo be preserved.

At 4:14 AM, August 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hypocrisy. glad you picked up on the double meaning.

At 7:28 AM, August 30, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The value argument can go both ways. Some people may not find the cottage as attractive a place to live for their aesthetic tastes, but the actual land value includes the option value to a developer of tearing it down and building townhomes. Take that option away, and the value falls. Take away the option to build a McMansion, and the value falls even more. Which is why these need to be voluntary deed restrictions, so people choose to give up that value, rather than have it taken away from them by the neighborhood busybodies and the city.

At 9:10 AM, August 30, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Maudlin? I always hate when I have to look up a word that someone uses in an argument against me. I hurts my ego :)

“There's really nothing drastic or unusual about this”

The specific situation you are mentioning in not a big deal, but the “slippery slope” becomes an issue because it is difficult to rationally separate what is “reasonable” and what isn’t. How do we separate your situation from others.

My duly noted exhortation of freedom may be a bit maudlin, but without this underlying principle, viewing these issues in a vacuum of preferences leaves us in a community run by those who shout the loudest and spend the most money.

We had a similar situation before with the historical preservation and were able to come up with some ideas to cap the slippery slope of creating an urban museum. What do you purpose to limit this concept from being taken too far?

At 12:00 PM, August 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The arguments that the political process favors those who "shout the loudest and spend the most money" are really arguments that could be made against any democracy. As far as the slippery slope goes, I say take it one issue at a time. Don't overturn a very reasonable law because you feel you can foresee a very unreasonable law at some dim point down the road.


I'd rather protect the interests of those who have bought property in the neighborhood based on what it is and has always been (i.e. a collection of bungalows) rather than land speculators who buy lots so they can flip them to condo developers. If you don't find cottages attractive, don't buy a house in a neighborhood of cottages!

At 12:20 PM, August 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'd rather protect the interests of those who have bought property in the neighborhood based on what it is and has always been (i.e. a collection of bungalows) rather than land speculators who buy lots so they can flip them to condo developers. If you don't find cottages attractive, don't buy a house in a neighborhood of cottages!"

That concept would mean any form of development could never happen. Before your bungalows were built, wasn't the land mostly farm and/or grazing land?

The cottages weren't always there. Before, wasn't it an area of large farms or grazing land for cattle. A developer speculated, bought the land, and put up the bungalows because the demand was there. I'm sure some of the farmers didn't like the neighboring farm being bought for the future bungalow neighborhood.

Now the neighborhood of bungalows is in the situation of farm land is being altered. Maybe you just can't handle change? If you never wanted your neighborhood to change, maybe you should have moved to an economically stagnant city where change is not likely to happen.

At 2:41 PM, August 30, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

1) That option value is already built in to the price of the cottage, so people are looking at a hit to their net worth if the restrictions come into force, even if they're perfectly happy living in a cottage.

2) If a group of cottage owners want to keep their neighborhood cottages, couldn't they just get together and agree to deed restrictions?

And great points, kjb.

At 11:15 AM, August 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Increasing neighborhood density with townhomes provides new residents with a small footprint while affording them with the benefits of the city life.

There was a recent exhibition at the Tate Museum detailing how the mega-cities around the world are facing these density issues. Houston has a lot of room to grow out still so we wont face it as much now...

Some interesting stats from this exhibit:
-In 2007, for the first time in history, one out of every two people in the world will be living in a city
-One of of three city dwellers (almost one billion) currently live in slums
-Cities produce 75 percent of the world's carbon emissions
-London is the world's 360th fastest growing city, adding only 2.3 residents an hour
-Shanghai is the 8th fastest growing city in the world, adding 29.4 new residents each hour
-66 percent of the population of Sao Paolo is under 20 years old
-Cairo's residential density is 36,500/km2, nine times more than London's
-Tokyo is the largest urban region in the world with 34 millions people, 80% of which use public transportation daily (comparing with 10% of LA residents)

At 11:10 PM, September 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, so much craziness I don't even know where to start. I guess with this:

"If you never wanted your neighborhood to change, maybe you should have moved to an economically stagnant city where change is not likely to happen."

Hmmm, I guess every other city in America must be economically stagnant, since every other city in America actually offers its residents a democratic means of protecting their neighborhood.

Other points:

Pasture land being turned into neighborhoods is not analogous to incongruous development ruining the streetscape for everyone else who lives on a block.

As for option value, I guess it depends whether the residents want to sell and get out or want to stay and benefit from the lower property taxes. I say we leave the matter up to them. This issue is being decided on a block-by-block basis through majority vote.

You may have a point in that 51% is too small a majority to override the other 49%.

At 6:23 PM, October 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't part of the problem that no one's property value is sustained by a system that doesn't allow group determination of an area's character? My bungalow is hurt by incompatible development next door & mixed use w/ condos is hurt by not having some guarantee of compatible development coming in as well. We need a range of single family and multi-family in the city, but it doesn't work for anyone to have them all mixed together. Doesn't form-based regulation (overruled by super majority consensus for individual neighborhoods perhaps) make sense for everyone?

At 7:11 PM, October 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If that's the case, then it shouldn't be any problem getting deed restrictions adopted in a neighborhood. If people feel their property values are higher having more development flexibility and fewer restrictions, then there will be resistance to deed restrictions.

At 11:51 AM, October 04, 2007, Blogger M1EK said...

"but it doesn't work for anyone to have them all mixed together"

Actually, the nicest neighborhoods in the world's best cities were built by exactly this kind of piecemeal "incompatible" development. It's arguably NOT mixing together uses which has not "worked".

At 12:08 PM, May 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is disturbing news. Since I own a property which is fit only for demolition, and want to demolish it and build townhomes - I will live in one. What I do with my land is my business, and Houston town Council can go fuq itself. The situation is that my family have lived there for over 50 years, and yet we could not afford to buy one of the homes down the street from us. That's what is really happening, they are moving out the native Houstonians and filling the lots with the very rich. This must be opposed at all costs.

At 12:16 PM, May 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the truth is that the newly arrived rich, want the rest of us to get lost. It doesn't matter if we've lived there forever, and where part of that community. To them we are not fit to live in their neighborhoods, which is ironic, since they were out neighborhoods before they arrived. I find the implications of this to be sinister.

At 12:19 PM, May 11, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What really annoys me most are the people who have built their homes in our street and formed an HOA. Now having family who have lived there since 1946, why should we listen to this lot of anally retentive jerks who want to make up new rules up, and charge us for the privilege, and most importantly why should the rest of us be subject to their whims. I didn't 'vote' them to any political office.


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