By Mike Morris
Article Courtesy of Houston Chronicle
New city rules appear to be generating development activity outside Loop 610, but Houston officials and civic clubs will be watching to see whether the coming projects meet leaders’ goals of spurring redevelopment and creating more middle-income housing.
The rule changes open areas outside Loop 610 to the townhome-style developments that have swept through so much of the urban core. As the first such projects trickle in to the city Planning Commission, development experts say it is too early to tell whether the new activity will meet the city’s goals or cluster in already thriving, high-priced areas outside the Loop, as often has occurred within it.
Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.
“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”
Outside the Loop
Behind Walsh’s goals is the uncomfortable truth that, while the Houston region is booming, little of that growth is inside the city limits.
Builders said they needed to be able to fit more homes on the same piece of land to ensure the price of each property would be affordable, with the aim of reversing stagnation in the “doughnut” between Loop 610 and the unincorporated suburbs.
In response, the rule changes opened areas outside Loop 610 to townhome-style development by increasing the housing density of 16 units per acre to 27 units per acre, the “urban” standard council set inside the Loop in 1999.
Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.
The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.
In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.
And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.
Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.
Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.
“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”
Jim Gaines, of the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, said it is likely the rule changes will produce development, but what type is far from clear, both to observers and to city officials hoping for particular outcomes.
“Is that development going to be of the type and of the structure and in the price ranges and so on that the planners want it to be? Just wanting it to be ain’t going to make it so,” he said. “Ensuring affordability is one of those political things that’s nice to say, but they don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not. We’ll just have to see how that works out.”
Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, a real estate professional who represents Spring Branch, has a vision to replace her west-side district’s derelict apartments with single-family, middle-class housing.
The development rule changes were passed in support of that approach, but Stardig said residents in District A worry new development could cause drainage problems and are wary of townhomes marching through established neighborhoods.
“They don’t want a three-story structure in the middle of their neighborhood. If it’s in an area that’s undeveloped or in exchange for an apartment community that’s one thing. But to come into the middle of 1950s, ranch-style homes and put a three-story up, that’s unsettling,” Stardig said, though she noted many of her district’s neighborhoods have deed restrictions. “I don’t want to deter good development, but at the same time, I told the developers I wanted to make sure we didn’t undo or hurt any of our established, older neighborhoods in the process of bringing new development. There’s an opportunity for a balance there.”
To address concerns about incompatible development, the rule changes include protections allowing neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.
The protection has existed since 2001, but only on a block-by-block basis. It can be used only in neighborhoods without deed restrictions or whose deed restrictions do not mention lot size and building lines.
Mostly, Walsh said, the new protections have been used by inner-loop residents, but some outside 610 also have applied. Roughly half of the pending applications under the program are for neighborhoods outside Loop 610.
“A year from now, these rules will become available for all properties in the city limits,” Walsh said. “That’s why we think it’s particularly important for neighborhoods to start to assess the degree to which these rules could impact their areas and, if they so desire, contact us to see if applying for some of these neighborhood protection tools is of benefit.”
Jane West, a Super Neighborhood Alliance leader who negotiated for the neighborhoods as the changes passed last year, said many members are pursuing the protections.
West said the rules will be welcome if they spur redevelopment of vacant apartments or commercial sites or produce housing affordable for the middle class; but she is skeptical those outcomes will occur.
“The way it was presented is, ‘Well, this is what we have to do to get our derelict apartment complexes redeveloped,'” West said. “But the townhouse developers admitted at council during these debates that they don’t have the wherewithal to acquire those large tracts of land.”