Third in a Series on the City of Houston Planning Commission’s Livable Places Initiative
In the first two posts in this series, I discussed how the Houston Planning Commission’s Livable Places Initiative had the potential to:
- Put more people in areas already prone to flooding
- Increase the depth of flooding in those areas by increasing the percentage of impervious cover.
Despite well intentioned efforts to help limit the growth of impervious cover, the Commission has not conducted a flood study showing the cumulative impact of its recommendations.
Nor does it have any concrete recommendations guaranteed to make housing more affordable – its primary goal.
Effects on Affordability Uncertain
Most of the ordinance changes would let people build more housing in any given area. Changes would allow:
- More compact development and small-scale, multi-unit housing
- On less land
- With fewer parking spots
- And with narrower driveways.
Those recommendations have the potential to reduce redevelopment costs and therefore exert downward pressure on housing prices. Land represents a significant percentage of those housing prices. Also, it takes less labor and fewer materials to build a 1,000 square-foot home than it does a 2,000 square-foot home. But…
Higher density also lets more people share the cost of infrastructure, such as streets and storm sewers. That theoretically exerts downward pressure on prices, too.
But higher runoff associated with more impervious cover could exceed the capacity of those storm drains and ditches. And that could lead to increases in drainage fees.
During the public comment period after the last Planning Commission meeting, one individual referenced outrageous prices for densely packed, small homes in the Heights (see below). He made the point that nothing in the regulations guarantees more affordable housing.
Many of the targeted inner-city neighborhoods already complain about flooding and blame it on historical discrimination. Any increase in impervious cover could make such neighborhoods less livable, not more.
Neither do new regulations do anything to discourage people from subdividing flood-prone lots near channels or streams. That could make future buyouts even more expensive. We’ve already spent billions of dollars mitigating flooding in these areas.
Houston Already Has More Affordable Homes and People Still Move Out
The Planning Commission is filled with bright, intelligent, hard-working people. But they have limited tools at their disposal. While they may be able to make housing more affordable, they have no tools to fight crime, flooding, or failing schools.
Houston already has some of the most affordable housing in the region. Yet people still move out of the City to buy higher priced homes.
While population in the region is increasing, population in the City of Houston has decreased since the 2020 census.
- Census estimates show the City’s population went down by 0.1% during that period.
- During that same period, Montgomery County grew by 9.4% and Fort Bend County by 8.1%.
- Conroe in Montgomery County ranked as the #11 fastest growing city in the U.S. last year.
Inverted Housing Prices, Demand
Usually, higher prices limit demand and lower prices increase it. But that isn’t happening in the Houston region.
According to the Census Bureau, the average house price in:
- Houston = $200,000
- Conroe = $223,300
- Katy = $290,200
- Sugar Land = $334,000.
Houston already has the lowest housing prices!
If people were looking purely for more affordable housing, you would expect Houston’s population to increase, not decrease.
But what do the high-growth areas have in common? They tend to be suburban with single-family homes that offer yards; a safe environment to raise kids; good schools; easy access to shopping and ample parking.
Perhaps the Planning Department needs to take a broader look at what attracts people and build that into its Livable Places Initiative.
In the picture above, note how some blocks have more green space than rooftops, others are entirely covered by rooftops.
Redevelopment under the new rules will bring more of the latter, not the former.
Saving the Green
Denser housing also means fewer trees. According to the EPA, “Trees are increasingly recognized for their importance in managing runoff.”
- Leaf canopies help reduce erosion caused by falling rain.
- Rain water can land and evaporate from more surface area.
- Roots take up water and help create conditions in the soil that promote infiltration.
- Trees stabilize soil and help regulate streamflow by reducing the velocity of water entering streams.
Yes, trees play a vital role in reducing flooding.
Planning Department staff are fond of saying that higher density housing in Houston will help prevent the clearcutting of forests in outlying areas and, thus, reduce flooding. “Build more homes where the infrastructure already exists,” they argue.
There is, no doubt, some truth to that – especially on a macro level. Conservation and preservation make valuable flood-fighting tools. But…
We need to practice conservation and preservation everywhere – to the extent possible – especially where people are flooding – in Houston.
YIMBY vs. NIMBY
Still, people need homes. And the cost of housing has clearly priced some people out of the housing market. According to the Census Bureau, a generational divide underlies the pricing divide. The housing shortage is dire in many metropolitan areas.
Older baby-boomers may abhor the type of development seen above. They’re literally saying NIMBY (Not in My Backyard!) to garage apartments, infill development and other types of housing encouraged by Livable Places.
But a younger group of millennials who find themselves priced out of the housing market are saying YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard).
Across the nation, renters, are especially cost burdened. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), says anyone who spends more than 30 percent of their income on housing is cost-burdened. Nationally, an estimated 40 percent of rental households and 21.3 percent of households with a mortgage met this threshold in 2018 – when Houston was revising building codes to help prevent another Hurricane-Harvey-type scourge.
One Crisis Vs. Another Crisis
Houston has averaged 3-5 flooding crises, on average, every decade for more than a hundred years. We saw eight in the last decade alone.
Now we seem to be solving a housing crisis with little regard for the predictable flooding crises we know will strike us. How soon we forget!
City Council Will Vote on Wednesday
City Council will vote on the “Livable Places” recommendations on Wednesday, 6/21/23. The Planning Commission website explains how you can sign up to speak.
ReduceFlooding.com recommends that City Council does NOT approve “Livable Places” recommendations until any potential impact on flooding is known and residents can decide whether the potential increased risk is worth any benefits developers may gain.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/18/23
2119 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.