Tag Archive for: Planning Commission

Would Livable Places Initiative Really Make Housing More Affordable?

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:

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. 
Housing variations encouraged by Livable Places increase housing density and impervious cover.

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…

How much of those savings will buyers receive and how much will developers pocket? 

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. 

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.

Aerial Photo taken in 2022 north of Houston’s downtown.

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…

Saving trees in one watershed won’t reduce flooding in another.

We need to practice conservation and preservation everywhere – to the extent possible – especially where people are flooding – in Houston.


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.

For a high resolution PDF, click here. Source: Harris County Flood Control District.

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.

Houston Planning Commission’s “Livable Places” Initiative Could Increase Flooding

Second in a series on the Houston Planning Commission’s Livable Places Initiative

“Livable Places” is a new initiative by the City of Houston Planning Commission designed to increase housing affordability and equity while increasing the walkability of neighborhoods.

To achieve these goals, the Commission is recommending new rules that govern development, platting and parking. They would also result in greater housing density especially in inner city neighborhoods. However, they affect the entire city.

Moreover, greater density usually comes at the expense of more impervious cover, which contributes to flooding. Despite several attempts to minimize the growth of impervious cover, the Planning Commission has not studied what the aggregate impact could be.

City Council will consider approval of the recommendations on Wednesday, 6/21/23. This 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.

Proposed Changes

Specifically, ordinance changes to Chapters 42 and 26 of the City Code would allow:

  • Second Dwelling Unit: Lets this housing type be larger with parking based on the unit size. Think of apartments over garages or small backyard homes. Only available where deed restrictions do not prohibit their construction. 
  • Multi-Unit Residential: Brings back this affordable housing type which is small scale 3–8-unit apartments with a height restriction to fit better within neighborhoods.
  • Courtyard Style Development: Promotes this housing type where lots are located around a common courtyard, and do not require street frontage. The proposal includes green space requirement per lot, parking could be separate from the units and height restriction so that homes are at neighborhood scale.
  • Narrow Lot Development: Incentivizes this housing type where lots take rear access or shared access to reduce the number of times pedestrians come in potential conflict with automobiles. In addition, these regulations help the redevelopment be more walkable by reducing the driveway widths and preventing vehicles from hanging into the sidewalk.
  • Market Based Parking: For all the four residential development types mentioned above, the proposal is to allow market-based parking in proximity where other transportation options exist and make housing affordable. This means the City will not have a minimum parking requirement, and the property owner can provide parking based on market needs.

Impervious-Cover Impact Unknown

The recommended changes encourage greater density by allowing subdivision of lots. That generally means more rooftops and concrete per acre. Rooftops and concrete are called impervious cover because they do not let stormwater soak into the ground.

Here are the proposed changes to ordinances. They mention impervious cover only once – in the context of courtyard development. And that mention says, courtyards “may be a mix of impervious or pervious material…” They specify no percentages.

Neither do they mention pier-and-beam foundations that could elevate new buildings above flood risk without reducing floodplain storage. Any reduction in the volume of floodplain storage could affect the flood risk of existing homes.

Several department spokespeople pointed out, however, that any development would have a 65% cap on impervious cover. Above that, developers would have to build stormwater detention basins. But the wording of that requirement is reportedly being reconsidered at this time by the Public Works Department.

The Planning Commission did not conduct a comprehensive engineering study to estimate any increase or decrease in impervious cover associated with the recommended changes. That raises the question: 

Will impervious cover increase, decrease or stay the same? 

The City knows how much impervious cover we have now because the City charges us a Drainage Fee for it. And even though the City cannot predict which types of housing developers will want to build and in what quantities, it could easily calculate the increase or decrease for representative scenarios and make guesstimates.

But we may not know a definitive answer for decades until the impact of these recommendations become visible on the ground or during the next large flood.

Fortunately, the Planning Commission has recommended several changes that may help offset increases in density. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Elimination of some mandatory parking requirements in neighborhoods where car ownership is low and access to public transportation is high. 
  • Making greater use of alleys to preserve green space in public right of way at the front of lots.
  • Allowing shared driveways that are narrower than two individual driveways.

Density, Impervious Cover and Drainage Fees

Back in 2010, the City taught us that impervious cover was bad. The City even created a fee to discourage it called the Drainage Fee. Since then, the City has collected 3.2 cents per square foot of impervious surface from each home and business owner with curb and gutter drainage in the City. Those with street ditches pay a slightly lower rate. The total collected to date is reportedly approaching $1.3 billion

Aerial Photo taken in 2022 north of Houston’s downtown.

The proposed changes could make neighborhoods like the one above even denser and tax the capacity of storm sewers/roadside ditches even more. Many of the ditches are already blocked and in serious need of restoration.

street flooding
Adding more homes per acre in areas with drainage that’s already poor could increase flood risk for existing residents.

More Resources

To learn more about the Planning Commission’s Livable Places initiative and what the Commission believes to be the benefits, visit these resources.

Livable Places Housing Recommendations FAQ 6-16-2023
Proposed Draft Ordinances (C42 and C26)
Planning Commission changes as part of the action.
Proposed Market-Based Parking map for Housing Recommendations
Summary of Amendments Flyer in English or Spanish *Updated
Streetscape exhibit for small lots *Updated
Letters received about Housing Amendments *Updated
Comments matrix.

Livable Places does have the potential to provide some benefits to some market segments. So to make sure we get this right, I encourage comment from members of the planning commission, local governments, affected citizens, and flood experts. To submit a guest editorial, reach out to me through the Contact page of this website.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 6/16/2023

2117 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.

Easy Way to Track New Developments Near You

If you live in the City of Houston or within its extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), the City provides an easy way for you to track the progress of new developments near you.

Step One: Go To the Plat-Tracker Map

The City provides an interactive map based on geographic information system (GIS) technology. In your browser, go to a website called Houston Plat Tracker Plats. GIS maps translate database information into a familiar map format.

Houston Plat Tracker Map as of 3/17/2021. Look at the size of those two proposed subdivisions northeast of Lake Houston!
  1. After navigating to the site, scroll and zoom to your area of interest.
  2. Select a base map to suit your taste. Choose from satellite views, street maps, topographic maps and more. Do this by clicking on the four squares in the upper left hand corner.
  3. Turn on the layers that interest you. Choose from City Limits, Council Districts, Management Districts, TIRZs (tax increment reinvestment zones), ETJ, historical districts, and more. Do this by clicking on the layers icon next to the base map icon.
  4. With the tools in the upper right corner, you can draw on the map, measure distance and direction, print, bookmark and share.
  5. By now, the map should be populated with a mass of color-coded outlines.
  6. Click on any colored area to find background information about it, such as the developer and the application number. At the bottom of the informational pop-up box, there’s an interactive link to the City’s Planning Department website where you can learn more about the project.

Step Two: Look Up More on the City Planning Department Website

The City Planning Department website offers much more information about projects that may concern you, especially if they are coming up for a vote in the Planning Commission. Here you’ll find interactive and PDF spreadsheets that list which projects will be considered in the next meeting of the Planning Commission. The site also lists the:

  • Subdivision plat name
  • Application Number
  • When the developer submitted files
  • Subdivision Plat type
  • Whether a variance request exists
  • The location of the issue on the agenda
  • County, City, Council District, Precinct
  • Key Map code
  • Census Tract
  • Zip Code
  • School District
  • Address of the development.
  • TIRZ, Management District, Historic Districts if applicable
  • Super Neighborhood Council
  • Park Sector
  • Proposed Land Use
  • Property Size
  • Number of Lots
  • Appraisal District ID
  • Developer
  • Applicant Company
  • Applicant’s Name
  • Applicants Phone
  • Subdivision Plat with flood zones, if any, superimposed

The Houston Plat Tracker Plats website contains future and past agendas, the planning commission calendar, and development regulations. It also contains a design manual and a host of other tools in case you feel something is amiss.

Finally, it lets you set up an account so you can get notifications of what future meetings will consider.

Possible Step 3

If you find something disturbing, sign up to express your concerns at the Planning Commission, or call your city council person’s office.

You can also request copies of the drainage analysis and construction plans at a certain point in the project.

Informed citizens keep everyone conscientious. No one cares about your home like you! So keep your eyes open for new projects in your neighborhood or upstream.

To learn more about 15 other GIS maps that the City makes available online, visit this start page. You can find fascinating information about land use, demographics, flood hazards and more. Good luck.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/17/2021

1296 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Developer Seeks City Approval to Expand Commons of Lake Houston into Floodplain – Without Detention Ponds

Clarification: General plans, as described below, are primarily about street layouts. However, many people have been trying to raise awareness at the Planning Commission that street patterns are affected to a significant degree by the volume and and layout of drainage and detention features. And, of course with Atlas 14 that is more true than ever. Danny Signorelli, CEO of the Signorelli Companies, took issue with this post. I offered him an opportunity to print a rebuttal verbatim. He refused the offer.

Signorelli Companies have filed a general plan with City of Houston Planning Commission for a new development on the San Jacinto East Fork. It’s called “Crossing at the Commons of Lake Houston.”

Second Time Around for Developer

According to residents in other parts of the Commons, Signorelli tried to develop this property before and reportedly wanted to add 4-6 feet of fill to the floodplain. It’s not yet clear what they have in mind for this iteration of the project. However, comparing the general plan to FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer shows that parts of the development are still in the flood plain. (See below.)

No Detention Ponds Shown on Plans

The general plan filed with the planning commission also shows that the developer shows no plans for detention ponds on the property. A best practice to reduce flooding is to “retain your rain.”

General plan filed with the City of Houston Planning Commission shows no detention ponds. For a large, high res PDF, click here.


Here are satellite and close-up views of where the new subdivision would be relative to the the surrounding area and existing parts of the development.

Crossing At the Commons of Lake Houston is in the Huffman area opposite Lake Houston Park and East End Park on the west side of the East Fork.
Crossing at the Commons of Lake Houston relative to existing streets in the Commons. From General Plan inset.

Floodplain Issues

Parts of the proposed development will be in the floodplain. And those floodplains will soon expand to include even more homes. See the two dotted lines below.

Close up of PDF above shows how 100-year floodplain (dotted line on left) and 500-year (dotted line on right) would impact proposed homesites. Note the drainage easement in the lower left.
FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer shows parts of the proposed new 75.3-acre subdivision would be in the 100- and 500-year floodplain.

Ironically, just last night, the City of Houston and its partners (Harris County Flood Control, Montgomery County and the SJRA) presented a draft of the findings of the San Jacinto River Master Drainage Plan. In it, they recommended avoiding flood plain development to keep people out of harm’s way. See slide below from their presentation.

Slide from San Jacinto River Master Drainage Plan Draft Report shows how adding fill to flood plains can affect other homes in area.

The presenter also discussed how the floodplains were expanding due to revisions of flood maps based on new hydraulic and hydrologic modeling not yet been shared with FEMA.

The 100-year flood plain in many areas will like expand well into the 500. And the 500-year flood plain will likely expand into areas previously not shown in ANY floodplain.

San Jacinto River Master Drainage Plan Draft Report 8/13/2020

Thus, the number of homes affected by floods could greatly expand beyond the number shown above.

Drainage in Commons Already a Problem

Plans also show that homes will be built very close to a drainage easement. Yet existing ditches in the Commons are eroding badly due to lack of maintenance. Below is a picture of one taken in January last year. Residents say the trees are still there and the erosion became much worse during floods in May and Imelda.

Commons drainage ditch photographed last year.

Less Than One Fourth of Property Now Under Consideration

The tract is 332 acres, but only 75.3 is proposed for development at this time.  It is entirely located within the incorporated limits of the City of Houston. The entire tract is adjacent to COH flooding easements for Lake Houston. 

How to Voice Concerns, If You Have Them

Here’s how you can voice concerns, if you have them. The City Planning Commission will hold virtual meetings until further notice. So it’s very easy to make public comments. You can sign up to speak by going to the Planning Commission Home Page.

The next Planning Commission meeting is Thursday, August 20, 2020. If you’d like to speak, you must sign up at least 24 hours before the meeting.

Use the online speaker form at https://www.tfaforms.com/4816241 or submit comments on an item via email to speakercomments.pc@houstontx.gov.

Speakers have only TWO MINUTES. Key points to consider:

  • Floodplain will officially be expanding soon.
  • Some of these homes are already in it.
  • Many more soon will be.
  • That could require fill.
  • And fill will make flooding worse for other homes near the river on both sides.
  • No detention ponds or drainage plans are shown.
  • The Planning Commission should consider these things.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/14/2020

1081 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.

Planning Commission Concerns About Romerica Land Seem More Procedural than Flood-Related

Last week, the Houston Planning Commission deferred approval of the General Plan for Romerica’s Orchard Seeded Ranches in Kingwood. A City of Houston Planning and Development Department document obtained this afternoon suggests that concerns about the West Fork development may have been more procedural than flood-related.

Much of Romerica’s land lies between the Barrington in foreground and San Jacinto River in background. All 283 homes in Barrington flooded during Harvey.

Of the ten concerns listed in a letter to the permit applicant, only one had to do with flooding. And that came from Harris County Flood Control, not the City. Nine other concerns had to do with street spacing and layouts or labelling.

Half of Land in Floodway

Half of Orchard Seeded Ranches is in the floodway (below red line) of the San Jacinto West Fork.
Half of Orchard Seeded Ranches is in the floodway (below red line) of the San Jacinto West Fork. That line will shift north on new flood maps.

Half of the land lies in the floodway of the West Fork. The other half lies in the hundred-year floodplain. The development would be built on the same property that Romerica tried to get approved last year. The company wanted to build a series of high rises and 5,000 condominiums. That proposal drew a record 770 letters of protest to the Army Corps. Despite all that…

The Planning Commission document indicates that the City Engineer had no comments on the proposal.

Last week it appeared that the balance of power might be shifting at City Hall from developers to flood-weary residents. This week, it appears the other way around.

Only Harris County Flood Control Raises Serious Objections

Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) recommended deferral of any approvals until the master drainage plan for the development is reviewed. HCFCD also said, “This area has historically been prone to flooding with numerous home buyouts immediately to the west. The Flood Control District, City of Houston, Montgomery County, and San Jacinto River Authority are working on a planning study to reduce flood risk in this area.”

Those partners should complete the San Jacinto Regional Watershed Master Drainage Plan final report by September this year.

Part of that plan will include new flood surveys. They will likely show the floodway expanding to take in an even greater percentage of Romerica’s property.

Gear Up for Another Lengthy Fight

It should not take the developer much time to address City’s concerns. It’s unclear at this time whether the City will heed the HCFCD’s concerns.

As a result, this controversy could wind up back in the hands of the Army Corps and/or the US Fish and Wildlife Service again. Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote an uncharacteristically frank recommendation to the Corps, urging the Corps to deny Romerica’s permit. Their reasoning had to do with the value of wetlands on the property and the presence of American Bald Eagles, a protected species.

Bald eagle photographed adjacent to Romerica property in February, 2020.

In the meantime, the developer may realize that it still faces an uphill struggle even with City approval. Perhaps they will come to their senses and sell this land to a group or groups that wish to preserve it as green space for flood control and recreation.

Light pole near River Bend in North Shore as Harvey receded. Note the "wet marks" several feet up on pole. Photo by Jim Balcom.
Light pole by westernmost Romerica property as Harvey receded. Photo by Jim Balcom.

As if to underscore the value of that proposition, the Bayou City Initiative today announced a virtual meeting to discuss the difficulty of mass evacuations and sheltering during the hurricane season as the COVID crisis continues. Remember that most of this land was under 20+ feet of water during Harvey.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/5/2020

980 Days since Hurricane Harvey