When discussion of Houston is brought up urbanists will say that while Houston lacks a formal zoning code, that its land use regulations are “zoning by another name”. But I believe this analysis is simplistic. This equates all land use regulation with zoning and it misunderstands what zoning in fact is. Cities have always regulated land use to some extent, even before we had zoning.
New York City adopted citywide zoning around 1916
But it had laws to regulate tenements before adopting a citywide zoning code
Zoning isn’t simply the mere regulation of land use, zoning divides sections of cities into zones and decides what type of buildings can be put there or what kinds of activities can take place. It will only allow certain kinds of buildings, say apartments of single family homes in one kind of zone or it only allows commercial, residential, industrial or mixed use in other kinds of zones. Because Houston doesn’t have zoning, you can put high rise apartment buildings or townhomes in areas that have single family homes. Zoning is exists precisely to prevent the kind of development that takes place in Houston. If Houston actually had zoning, developers wouldn’t be able to buy single family homes, bulldoze them and replace them with high rises and townhomes, and yet this happens all the time in Houston. In a city with Zoning like Austin, redevelopment of single family neighborhoods rarely if ever happens, or at the very least is much harder. High rise apartment buildings are created all over Houston and not just in certain areas zoned for that purpose. Houston’s lack of zoning is why you can take industrial property, clean it up and reuse it for residential uses, because the lack of zoning means that the property can be used for something else.
Tory Gattis, who is biased towards Houston, points out the major difference between Houston’s land use regulation and other cities.
Houston’s lack of zoning is also helping to grow mixed use development
Houston’s other regulations such as setbacks, parking minimums, and lot size aren’t really zoning, these are design requirements. Nothing about these regulations determines how you could use land, only what features a building must include. The merits or usefulness of these rules is another discussion altogether, but it’s wrong to equate them with zoning. These rules are more akin to building codes or form based codes rather than zoning.
Parking minimums, for example, doesn’t stop mixed use development from happening or apartments from being built in a single family neighborhood, it only requires that the mixed use development or apartments have a certain amount of parking. I am in favor of removing parking minimums, I have my doubts that they produce much more parking than what builders would include on their own. I also have doubts that parking minimums reduce residential densities that much or at all, since many dense cities either have parking minimums or had them until recently. Though I am willing to be proven wrong on both points.
Interestingly Houston has removed parking minimums from sections of the city.
Houston’s climate action plan means that parking minimums will abolished altogether by 2030, though before 2030 transit oriented developments will have reduced or eliminated parking requirements.
Houston’s lot size requirements are quite permissive, allowing lots as small as 1,400 square feet. I would prefer lot size requirements to be only applied to neighborhoods with septic tanks, say half an acre for places with wells and septic tanks but none for regular developments, but Houston’s requirements are very permissive compared to other cities. Most cities have lot size requirements ranging from 5000 – 10000 square feet and some even large such as multiple acre lot size requirements, these requirements I believe present a real hinderance to affordability. I believe these smaller lots will help preserve affordability in Houston.
Houston setback requirements are kind of weird, but some sources put them at 3 – 5 feet where as others put them at 15 – 25 feet. These regulations seem to be not consistently applied and often the city will permit development with very small or no setback at all. While they are part of the city’s development code, they seem to function in practice as a suggestion.
With regards to deed restrictions, these are not at all equivalent to zoning. In fact equivocating deed restrictions with zoning is often used an argument for zoning. The argument is essentially that people would create deed restrictions anyways, so government should create zoning, but Houston demonstrates that not everyone wants a deed restrictions and zoning takes away this flexibility. Deed restrictions are enforced by the city of Houston, and perhaps they shouldn’t be, but they are not created by the city of Houston contrary to popular belief. Deed restrictions are created either by neighborhoods or by private developers who want to appeal to market segments that desire the deed restrictions. Deed restrictions predate zoning by decades. Deed restrictions only cover 25% of Houston’s land area. Deed restrictions are also more flexible than zoning; they can be removed with enough percent of votes. If a deed restriction requires say 51% of votes to be removed, a developer can simply buy 51% of properties subject to the deed restriction, remove the restriction and redevelop the neighborhood. Getting zoning changed can often be much harder than removing Houston’s deed restrictions.
Is Houston completely unregulated? No, not at all. However Houston’s regulations aren’t equivalent to zoning and many of those regulations are on their way out or are very modest. Nor are Houston’s deed restrictions a form of zoning, but such restrictions offer more choice and flexibility than zoning does. Houston isn’t completely free or unregulated, but it is substantially freer than most American cities and substantially less regulated than most cities and over time it will become even freer than it is today. Houston is unique and it shouldn’t simply be dismissed as having zoning by another name or being no different than a city that actually does have zoning. I would love to see other cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Austin, Miami, Seattle or New York City abolish their zoning codes.