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How will Chapter 42 affect housing in Houston?

Yes, we’re still talking about Chapter 42, the local development and density code. One of the goals of revamping Chapter 42 is to make it easier and more attractive to build mid-range housing in the city limits. How do we hope that will work?

“We have housing for the working poor, we have a lot of high-end housing, and we’re rapidly redeveloping the inner core of the city of Houston for high-end, high-density housing. But the kind of house that I grew up in, the kind of house that many of the working men and women in this city want to own close to their jobs, is disappearing,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “If we can create more density, there is more opportunity for people to have the opportunity to buy a home – maybe a patio home, maybe a townhome, maybe a single-family home on a small tract – and live closer to their jobs.”

While the Houston region is booming, little of that growth is inside the city limits, a trend builders blame on their inability to build reasonably priced housing in the “doughnut” between Loop 610 and the unincorporated suburbs. The last rewrite of the ordinance in 1999 designated the Inner Loop “urban,” with 27 housing units allowed per acre, and areas outside “suburban,” with up to 16 units allowed. The proposed changes to the development code, known as Chapter 42, would extend the Inner Loop’s density citywide.

[...]

To produce workforce housing, land generally must cost between $5 and $10 per square foot, according to calculations provided by builders. Most areas outside Loop 610 but inside city limits have median land prices of less than $5 per square foot, according to Harris County Appraisal District data. But Jim Gaines of the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M questioned whether there is a market for housing in such areas. Land prices in many desirable neighborhoods outside the Loop exceed $20 or even $30 per square foot.

“You almost have to be surgical about it,” said David Hale, vice president of David Weekley Homes. “If it’s workforce housing, they can’t afford necessarily a $300,000 house, but with increased density can I get them in a $200,000 house?”

Hale has given a presentation to neighborhood groups about the proposal, using seven developments as examples. In all but one case, the average home price dropped from $400,000-plus under existing rules to $300,000 or more with greater density.

Other builders said greater density would produce townhomes in the $250,000 range.

Such prices may be out of reach for the “workforce,” however, which city housing department guidelines define as those earning 80 to 110 percent of the area median income.

Given that buyers with good credit can afford a home 3.3 to 3.5 times their annual income, Gaines said, workforce housing in Houston would be about $140,000 to $204,000 for a two- person household and about $157,400 to $229,500 for a three-person household.

“A little wishful thinking there, but maybe there are providers that know how to do that better than us,” said Will Holder of Trendmaker Homes, a high-end suburban builder.

[...]

Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance is doubtful. Builders will use the new rules to redevelop older homes on the edges of desirable areas, she said, just as they did inside the Loop after the 1999 revisions.

“If you look at the empirical evidence from what has happened in the Inner Loop over the last 14 years of this type of development, this development displaced workforce housing,” West said. “It did not produce workforce housing.”

See here and here for recent updates. I definitely agree with the goal here, but Jane West makes a strong point about recent history. Maybe it will be different this time, but I’d like some better reassurance than that. And I will say again, there is cheap real estate in Houston, including some parts of town not at all far from downtown. I’ve talked about the Fifth Ward plenty, as noted there are some promising things happening there, but it’s not the only place with abundant empty spaces. The other day I got to visit Sugar Hill Studios, and let me tell you, once you get east of 288 on Old Spanish Trail, there’s a lot of vacant lots. Now, much of this would be commercial space if it were developed, and there’s a lot that needs to happen in areas like this to make it enticing to developers and potential residents, but it’s there, it’s a short hop to downtown via 288 or I-45, and I daresay it would meet that $5 to $10 per square foot requirement. What are we doing to make full and better use of the space we already have? That’s the question I keep coming back to, and it’s one we’re going to have to tackle sooner or later. Texas Leftist has more on Chapter 42.

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4 Comments

  1. joshua bullard says:

    This is the problem with jane cahill west,shes from a two mile stretch of washington ave-not the thousands of miles that make up houston,she wants the mayor and council to focus on “the big bad builder”what she doesnt want you to focus on is whom the builders represent,they represent familys that want to live with us in houston,that deserve to experience the houston opportuninty just like any one else,if peoples will is to live with 8 units or 100 units in a tight locked area of town-THATS THERE FREE WILL -weve got thousands of miles of land that the people can buy a home and raise a family if they desire,if you look at jane west alterior motive it is simply to lock these familys out by setting the bar sooooo high as to prevent the building community from providing the demand for affordable housing-what west is really after is keeping her house and forcing people in houston to retain green space instead of allowing the pursuit of happiness from free willed people-council and the Mayor should vote in favor of the familys that wish to relocate here by making it as easy as possible for the houston building community.

    i am telling you fact
    joshua ben bullard

  2. [...] That’s the plan, anyway. How well it will work, I have no idea. The theory is simple enough – when you’ve got a lot of demand for something, you should try to increase the supply of that something – it’s the ancillary effects that are the big unknowns. Check back in ten years and we’ll see where we are. [...]

  3. Ed Browne says:

    I think that I can speak for the SNA when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways. Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years. They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them. SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues. Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

    We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre. Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes. They are neighborhoods like yours.

    Under street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded? But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important. Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners? With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park? In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets. Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story buildings need a place for the support pads so they don’t topple over. These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

    Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size. Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny. Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another. Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .

    Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car, but multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood would be messy and would remove the trees and shade that redefine its character. That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to the people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family.

    From the drainage aspect, neighborhoods in my area have been dealing with redevelopment of commercial tracts that have not adhered to City ordinances or were granted unwarranted variances. We approached CC well before these properties were completed seeking help, but found none. Two weeks ago CM Costello told us we were victims of a lack of enforcement. Had it been one instance, I would agree, but it was worse that – it was multiple occurrences of systematically ignoring ordinances that continues even now. So we know that before Chapter 42 is passed we need oversight committees set up, clearly written enforcement criteria, and personnel dedicated to enforcement. Keep in mind, though, that the area to service increases by 8.4 times that inside the Loop, so this is not a small requirement. All the present politicians will be gone when this experiment is in full swing, so all the uncodified promises are meaningless.

    One of my concerns if that the Mayor is doing this primarily to generate funds, but it may be false economy. Presently, growth is primarily in the ETJ around new activity centers of The Woodlands, Sugarland, Katy, the Energy Corridor, etc., so I expect that much of the new development will continue to be near these centers. Chapter 42 affects the ETJ as well. The further away infrastructure is, the more it costs. Our water comes from Lake Houston. Pumping that water across the entire City while maintaining flow and pressure is expensive. And if a development explosion occurs in a previously undeveloped area, providing the infrastructure may consume most or more than the increased revenues generated.

    The City has said that the ETJ isn’t affected, yet the new Section 42-182 clearly shows that minimum lot sizes in the ETJ can also be reduced to 1400 square feet, although each lot of that size must have 720 square feet of compensating green space versus the 600 square feet required in the urban zone. Normal lot size in the urban area without requiring green space is 3500 square feet in the urban area and 5000 square feet in the ETJ. Plats in the urban area can be less than 1400 square feet as long as the average is 1400. Under no circumstance can ETJ plats be below 1400 square feet. The upshot of this is that if the City’s reason for doing Chapter 42 is to increase density inside the City limits, then why are they increasing density outside the City to almost the same levels? It makes no sense.

    All this may not stem the migration to the suburbs either. That’s being driven by jobs (Exxon, Noble Drilling, etc) moving to the ETJ and the construction of the Grand Parkway and its induced development. Better schools, more property at a lower cost, newer construction, lower taxes, lower insurance, less traffic, etc., also affect the transition, not to mention that the size of the ETJ is more than double the existing City limits. Why is it a surprise that there’s explosive growth?

    High density developments in Jane’s area started as high-end properties drawing empty nesters looking to simplify their lives. The aforementioned issues became apparent – parking, noise, traffic, etc.- so they soon became rental properties and the values began to slide. It should not come as a surprise that many are inhabited by multiple singles splitting the rent, nor should it surprise that Jane’s neighborhood is the test bed for new parking ordinances, noise ordinances and who knows what’s next.

    Common sense says that this should not be sprung on all 4 million people at once with most not understanding what it’s all about. Common sense says implement the changes inside Loop 610 immediately, test the results, then plan a staged roll-out into areas that have been identified as being served by adequate infrastructure or where infrastructure has newly been added in anticipation of densification. Stage it with expansion of mass transit and commercial revitalization, improved drainage and detention. But common sense does not seem to hold sway.

  4. Ron Hale says:

    Look 42 is a developers dream law to allow them to build how they want. Which every builder should be allowed to as long as they are in code. The problem is 42 does not do anything about the old infrastructure and that’s what a lot of people want up dated. People do not want their neighbors selling to a builder and a builder putting up high rise lofts blocking their great sky views from their yards. Look is all about choice but this thing was not authored correctly from the start. Change takes a little help from everyone to find the right way. If I am a builder I am for it but if I am a resident outside of 610 I am against it because it is the burbs. Houston is facing one of the biggest citizen booms of the last 75 years. More and more business are moving to Houston and the best way to deal with the new influx of residents is high rise apartments or lofts. My personal opinion is the city should have do more with the civic clubs and researchers to write this new chapter the right way and not benefit one side more than the other.

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