August 30, 2007
Let it be up to the neighborhood

Let me register my disagreement with Tory Gattis over the question of closing the "condo loophole" for minimum lot size restrictions in neighborhoods that have them.

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 have three points to make here.

1. Why shouldn't a neighborhood that has done the arduous and time-consuming process of getting minimum lot size petitions filed not be able to fully enjoy the protections that they've signed up for? What exactly is the purpose of having this process if it can be so easily subverted by a developer?

2. The McMansions argument seems specious to me, given that the Planning Commission is also working on a height and width ordinance similar to the lot size and setback ordinance. That won't be effective everywhere, but I think it will mostly neutralize that threat.

3. Given how cumbersome the lot size petition process is, there's really only a small number of neighborhoods that will be affected by the closing of the condo loophole. I seriously doubt that will put much of a crimp in the condo developers' plans, as there will still be plenty of places to put them, most of which will be more appropriate for them anyway. Drive down Washington Avenue between Studemont and the Westcott traffic circle, for instance.

I don't have a problem with townhouse development. I agree, it's been a boon for the inner Loop overall. But it seems to me that we have these rules, which neighborhoods and many City Council members understood in good faith to mean one thing, only to be told another. The purpose of this proposed ordinance is to make the rules mean what people thought they said. I don't think there's anything particularly radical or harmful about that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 30, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

But it seems to me that we have these rules, which neighborhoods and many City Council members understood in good faith to mean one thing, only to be told another. The purpose of this proposed ordinance is to make the rules mean what people thought they said. I don't think there's anything particularly radical or harmful about that.

Ah, good.

So METRO really shouldn't go putting rail lines down streets that weren't on the 2003 referendum, since people had no reason to think they were voting for rail down Richmond? And certainly there's nothing radical or harmful in folks opposed to that route trying to hold METRO to the terms of the 2003 referendum!

Before you start sputtering -- yes yes, I know, that's "different." Of course, it mainly seems "different" because Charles Kuffner likes the idea of rail on Richmond (someone else's neighborhood) but doesn't like the threat of dense townhouse development in the Heights (his neighborhood). Fun! :)

Posted by: Kevin Whited on August 30, 2007 8:14 AM

Wow, less than an hour between publication and comment. I'm flattered you put such a priority on responding to what I say.

I agree, this is totally different. I'm glad we agree on something.

I must say, I find it interesting that in your self-appointed role as spokesperson for everyone who lives on or near Richmond, that you've never acknowledged the fact that every neighborhood association in the area has endorsed rail on Richmond. Of course, you yourself don't live in any of those neighborhoods, so perhaps this shouldn't surprise me. And your entire argument pretty much falls apart once you acknowledge the widespread support Richmond Rail has in these neighborhoods, so again, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on August 30, 2007 11:06 AM

A further response to Kevin Whited's odd analogy:

The intent of the 2003 vote was for Houston to have a well-functioning efficient light rail system up and running by 2012. Kevin and his allies are fighting against the general intent of the 2003 voters and advocating wasting taxpayer funds on the Culberson option.

(I live in Neartown and work on Richmond)

Posted by: Jay on August 30, 2007 12:26 PM

And here I am in Austin thinking that Houston was smart not to start with all these "save the suburban style single family home!" debates. For me, its simply an economic issue. The macro process of replacing a single family home with a duplex or a small group of condos helps keep housing prices down and promotes density (which light rail needs to be successful). Plus, more housing in the central city = less suburban sprawl, which has environmental benefits.

I realize that the neighborhood of bungalows may be more aesthetically pleasing than the condos/duplexes, but there are tradeoffs with every choice we make. I say let the city build the housing it needs.

Posted by: el_longhorn on August 31, 2007 10:00 AM

I'm not really after the condo loophole per se. I just want people to think through what they're giving up when the reject townhomes.

What I don't understand is why these ordinances are necessary vs. normal voluntary deed restrictions. My assumption is they're easier. Probably a simple 51% majority can impose the restriction, and I have a problem with that. I prefer higher hurdles if you're going to take away peoples' property rights.

Posted by: Tory on August 31, 2007 2:59 PM

I hope that Kevin and his ilk continue to push the argument that "the 2003 METRO ballot referendum prohibits rail on Richmond." It's such a weak and transparently stupid argument that it completely discredits their criticism. So please, Kevin, keep it up!

Posted by: Kenneth Fair on August 31, 2007 4:31 PM

I was a bit surprised at the numbers thrown around ($600K needed to make a profit..??).

I think the bottom line is developers don't see building anything that resembles the existing neighborhood to be profitable - a real shame. They would be much more welcome if they would give it a try...

Posted by: becky on September 1, 2007 10:08 AM

Actually, in the Heights specifically, I think they do try to architecturally/style-wise match the neighbhorhood. But to meet the demands of the market, the must either build larger - more sq.ft. - or tall, thin townhomes - to keep the price within range of most of the potential buyers. The market for expensive but tiny houses on large lots is an extremely thin one indeed.

Posted by: Tory on September 2, 2007 7:35 AM