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Houston Land-Use Proposal May Have Major Impact With Little Input

By Urban Reform Staff | Mar 19, 2019


Zoning and planning discussions often cite Houston as an example of a city without limits. While it is correct that the city doesn’t have a citywide zoning plan, it is not entirely without zoning. Ordinances found within the city code regulate development in Houston, and a proposed code change, set to be voted on later this week, has the ability to devastate a number of areas still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

Even with a comparatively lax land-use regulatory climate, ordinances such as minimum parking requirements for development, deed restrictions, density rules, and lot size requirements act as zoning-by-another-name.

Houstonians have had the opportunity to vote on formal zoning, and it failed three times. So, now, sandwiched between the worst natural disaster the city has seen and a municipal election in the not-so-distant future, city leaders are looking for a major, tangible response to show the public that something is being done to change course.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposal would set the minimum height for home construction to two-feet above the 500-year floodplain rather than the current standard, one foot above the 100-year floodplain. Though its primary objective is elevating new home construction, homeowners rebuilding or redeveloping post-Harvey will feel the change too.

If approved, about 35,000 acres, or 85,000 parcels, would involuntarily be brought under the expanded regulations.

An average Houston house, between 1,500 and 1,800 square feet, would see roughly $10,000 tacked on to the cost of development from these changes. Bigger homes, around 4,000 square feet, could see costs increase by $25,000-30,000.

In one council district that had about 10% of Harvey-damaged properties receive a “substantial damage” letter, homeowners would either need to elevate or tear down their property.

In this district, 46 percent of households have a median household income of $25,000 or less.

When Hurricane Harvey hit, it was reported that 85 percent of Houstonians didn’t have flood insurance. As of August 2016, only 15 percent of Harris County’s 1.6 million homes had flood insurance and only 28 percent of homes in “high-risk” flooding areas were covered. This is in a city that has seen unprecedented floods in the last three calendar years. Property owners aren’t unaware of the risk, they simply can’t afford the insurance and likely wouldn’t be able to afford the increased development costs.

Aside from the cost component, other concerns remain.

The city’s administration has yet to provide justification for the choice of two feet above the floodplain rather than one, three, or any other arbitrary number. There are also concerns that deed restrictions in some areas which would prohibit homes from being elevated to the required height, causing decreased property values and the possible red-tagging (indicating severely damaged or not livable) of neighborhoods.

Houston’s proposed rules are more restrictive than that of Harris County, which means there exists a very real possibility that people would choose to move and rebuild in the unincorporated part of the county rather than the city and slowly erode the tax base.

Similar policy initiatives have followed major flood events elsewhere across the country.

In response to Hurricane Sandy, New York City, which saw $19 billion in damages, changed building regulations while FEMA made the first attempt to redraw the city’s flood maps. However, the would-be economic impact of the NYC proposal forced the city to forego redrawing its floodplains. Studies showed that extending floodplain maps would have caused property values to drop, increased loan defaults, caused an affordability crisis for residents, and, most importantly to government’s bottom line, reduced property tax revenue.

To be sure, there needs to be a reassessment of a property’s potential for flooding. A study done by CoreLogic found that 52 percent of properties in Houston that are in moderate and high-risk flood areas are not designated flood zones. However, the economic impact of such a massive undertaking by the city of Houston should be heavily considered.

Initially, Turner’s administration gave one-week public notice before expecting council to approve the ordinance. After some pushback, they delayed it until the end of March.

There’s a good chance the mayor is steamrolling this proposal through because Houston is now entering the time of year when major flood events are more likely to occur, as seen with the Tax and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016.

Flooding in Houston will continue, and it’s hard to imagine that each time the city will further regulate the elevation of construction. At some point one has to wonder if they plan to continue this trajectory until only high-rises or unrealistically-elevated homes are what’s left in some parts of town.

The mayor’s push seems to be a premature, knee-jerk response that shifts the burden to property owners and could have long-term ramifications. The city should consider a long-term effort to best use the patchwork of bayous across the city to move water away from development and toward the Gulf of Mexico as fast as possible.

Band-Aid policy reforms may appease constituents in the short-term, but will have long-term effects and may prove to be unsuccessful when the next big flood hits.

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