The myth of “no zoning” in Houston

I found this Michael Lewyn paper very interesting.  Here is his bottom line:

In fact, Houston regulates land use almost as intricately as cities with zoning by mandating suburban-style low densities, ordering businesses to hide their stores behind an asphalt ocean of parking, encouraging segregation of land uses, and forcing pedestrians to cross wide streets and to trudge through long, intersection-free blocks to go from one place to another. These policies have helped to make Houston as sprawling and automobile-dependent as other American cities (if not more so). By reversing such policies, Houston and other municipalities with similar policies can create an America that is both more deregulated and less sprawling.

It's a good paper.


in Houston, we are pro gasoline use, for obvious reasons. that is not going to change.

I suspect everyone is talking past one another on this topic. As Bryan Caplan pointed out in a different context, people have widely different preferences. This is true even for people who live in the same neighborhood, not to mention all the people who "might want to live in the neighborhood someday". It is difficult to determine whether any particular policy or set of policies is welfare enhancing.

Also the explicit purpose of any land use regulation is usually much narrower than "encouraging sprawl" or "discouraging sprawl". Add this to the fact that many such regulations are fraught with unintended consequences and it becomes even more difficult to say how much the regulations help or hurt a community.

I was not able to access the paper, but I seriously doubt that there is
a general answer to the question of whether or not a truly free market
city in terms of land use would be more or less sprawling. Indeed, it
gets hard to even say what that would be. So, most of the discussion
is about zoning or direct rules about property use as Houston has some
of. But it does not address policies about infrastructure, including
the central one in the discussion about auto dependence, how much money
does government (at all levels) put into highways (and where they go)
versus mass transit (and its forms and where it goes).

The main form of zoning that encourages sprawl is minimum lot size
zoning, but one usually sees this only in exurban areas, not in central
cities themselves. Often the motive for that is to keep poor people
(hint, especially including poor minorities) out of the neighborhoods,
and sometimes shows up in other infrastructure fights, such as extending
sewer interceptors into the countryside to areas where minimum lot size
zoning is enforced because of septic tank regulations. Sewer interceptors
are ultimately more important than any other piece of infrastructure.

Oh, and newer areas of Houston are more subject to these more public
regulations. The older, more inner parts are all tangled up with their
Coasian private deed restrictions that can be stricter than public
zoning, just as one finds in gated communities.

Awesome. I the original research and analysis for a discussion on a listserv that Lewyn and I were on many years ago about Houston and its many sprawl-driving regulations. Glad to see the subject get more attention.

Enough with the sprawling, Yglesias gets it!

barkley rosser: "Often the motive for that is to keep poor people (hint, especially including poor minorities) out of the neighborhoods"

Barkley, how do you know the motives of those who favor minimum lot sizes? Why do you believe it has anything to do with ethnic or racial considerations?

My experiences with planning and zoning commisioners in suburban towns - one of whom was my employer for 6 years - leads me to believe that those who pass minimum lot size regulations:

- wish to reduce traffic congestion in their town;
- wish to maintain the pastoral setting afforded by estate size lots;
- wish to maintain the value of their own property;
- wish to retain a higher property tax per homeowner ratio;
- wish to keep poor people out of their community, regardless of ethnic or racial considerations.

What evidence do you have, Barkley, that planning and zoning zoning commissions in the 21st century are motivated by aversion to minorities?


Parking minimums, by driving up the costs of everything done, built, or sold in a city, raise the prices paid by driver and nondrivers. Cities with an abundance of parking usually have free parking evverywhere because the price is driven down by oversupply. Thus, nondrivers have to pay for the luxuries of drivers.

The size of the ubiquitous mandatory parking subsidy make it the single biggest industrial subsidy or transfer payment system in the USA. Nationally it exceeds farm subsidies, oil field tax breaks, Medicare, free K-12 education, and Social Security. Each motor vehicle in a suburban or urban part of the nation receives an average effective parking subsidy around US$10,000 per year (really US$5000 to US$50,000 depending on area, with San Francisco possibly highest).

Where are you getting those numbers from, Brian? Ditto for your claim that "cities with an abundance of parking usually have free parking evverywhere." How many cities fall into that category?

As for your claim about subsidies of drivers by non-drivers, see my previous post.

This paper is ridiculous. Houston is as close to an unregulated free market in land use you are going to find in the real world. Name me one city with fewer land use regulations or fees?

There is a big distinction between zoning rules and deed restrictions. Deed restrictions are a private market response to the absence of government land use regulations. The fact that these deed restrictions can be more limiting that some forms of zoning is irrelevant. The point is that private individuals agreed collectively without the intervention of a government entity that it was in their interest to limit their land use. These deed restrictions allow for more flexible land use since they can vary from one area to the next, can be tailored to specific areas, and can be changed over time.

As for parking regulations, of course Houston is going to have more stringent parking regulations given their lack of public transport. Cities can take two models; lots of public transport with little required parking, or little public transport but strict public parking requirements. Parking ends up being a public resouce much like public transport. The latter system depends on the private market to finance and decide where to invest in this public resouce (parking). The public transport model relies on a central government authority to finance and plan the investment.

The downside of the Houston model is the lack of large public goods like public parks or trunk lines for public transport. (The classic underprovision of public goods by the private market.) It should be no mystery that Houston has some strict land use rules despite not having zoning. But it should also be clear that the mechanisms that Houston has developed to deal with the lack of zoning has led to more flexible land use, more efficient provision of public resouces, and greater reliance on the private sector for the provision of public goods.

Just wanted to congratulate all the commenters on the various Suburban , Sprawl , Density etc posts for the high quality of the comments. Of course , that may not not saying much , since invariably the comments on this blog are usually of the highest quality.

I've lived in places where the developers of homes and business locations were not required to provide parking. And while the resulting difficulties in parking tend to discourage car ownership and use, the cost of the parking that exists is borne by the public at large -- both in the externalities of the traffic congestion caused by drivers cruising until a space opens, and because the parking that is used is a portion of the roadway built and maintained by the public purse.

I'm sure it's a good paper but at first glance it stinks of "No True Scotsman". Of course the ideal of no government regulation of land use is not satisfied in Houston or anywhere. But doesn't Houston represent at least a marginal improvement toward that goal? Shouldn't we then expect some share of the superior outcomes predicted for a "no zoning" situation?

Learning about this paper (since I was previously unaware that Houston lacked zoning laws, and Houston is possibly the ultimate crappy city) has made me less likely to believe that zoning laws lead to crappy cities.

The real significance of Houston is not that the city has no land-use regulation, but that the counties truly have no regulatory powers over the land outside the city limits. This means developers can do whatever they want -- and they want to build to the market. In order to compete, the city has to be relatively regulation-free as well.

This is true throughout Texas; even though cities like Dallas and San Antonio have zoning, they do not overly regulate development. By comparison, cities in places like California know that developers cannot build on land outside the city, so they feel free to heavily regulate development in the cities, thus driving up the costs of housing and business.

As just one example, one study found that the cost of getting a permit to build in Dallas was $10,000; to get the same permit in San Jose, taking into account the long permitting time and the risk that a permit would never be granted, was $100,000. The difference is a deadweight loss to society; no one benefits.

@Jason Kerwin
"An actual helicopter training center? That's hilarious, it's like something out of a zoning advocate's strawman argument."

Dude, Houston is seriously a parody of itself, its awesome. Its beyond crazy.

This however leads to some really great things, one of which is that pretty much anything you need is going to be pretty close to where you need it. And thus the Houstonian joke that no matter where you are going, it takes 20 minutes to get there.

Barkey Rosser said earlier that one could probably not answer generally whether truly free market cities encourage or discourage sprawl.

But is that so hard to answer? Couldn't some smart urban planner with access to the appropriate data plot (falling) urban densities and the number of public regulation of urban development through time? My theory is at least that one would see a huge decline in urban densities with the introduction of public regulation (especially parking regulation).

It's an interesting fact that the biggest urban densities anywhere came about in a virtually regulation free process, such as the urban cores of Barcelona, Venice, Prague etc. Even relatively young cities like Manchester UK came about through a virtually regulation free process, with planning ordinances first established a few hundred years after it started to grow And it is interesting to see how vigorously people made sure that no parcel of land were underutilized during that era, be it buildings, streets (a negotiated public space) or "parking". And do you think people were able to leave their carriages anywhere they could without paying for it? Hardly.

(I recommend you read the chapter about Manchester in "Emergence, the Connected Life of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software by Steven Johnson. Its highly interesting).

But doesn't Houston represent at least a marginal improvement toward that goal?

No. See my comment above. While Houston may outright lack some zoning tools (namely, I believe, the segregation of residential/commercial/industrial properties), its anti-sprawl regulations are worse than a lot of other cities (namely, in terms of [dis]allowing attached townhouses, mandating larger streets, mandating that private developers build more parking on their properties than they otherwise would, etc.).

Two years ago I purchased an old decaying house in a gentrifying near downtown neighborhood, and had a new house build on the property (where I now live).
The whole process took 6 months. Building the house 4. This is very nice 3000 sq foot house on a 5000 sq foot lot. My friends in the Northeast spend YEARS trying to build a house.

The truth "on the ground" is that Houston, overall, has much lower regulation than other areas. Anyone who disagrees with that hasn't really comparison shopped.

This paper has been floating around for a while, but both misrepresents the situation and is out-of-date. What other city allows the mass transformation of suburban-style homes in the city core to high-density townhomes? (now being extended well beyond the core) Houston's core is densifying extremely rapidly as demand warrants, with a mix of towers, multi-story apartment complexes, and townhomes - plus mixed-use projects - none of which have to go through very many hurdles at all to get built (basic 'checklist' permits - no zoning board, community, or political approvals).

Minimum setbacks are a normal regulation across cities, have since been eliminated in large zones near rail stops, and the planning commission has waived them for every development that has requested it (an accelerating trend in recent years - but the majority of businesses still prefer front-side parking). There is no segregation of land uses other than nuisance laws (odors, noise, etc.). Street grid design has nothing to do with zoning or regulation, and is a function of city government public works (which responded to demand for better traffic flow). Minimum parking requirements have been debated, but it has been found that the vast majority of developers build more than the minimum, so they really aren't really much of an issue.

To imply that Houston would have been built around density and transit instead of sprawl but for these basic regulations is a fantasy of wishful thinking. The market wanted cars, if only for the portable air conditioning during five months a year of tropical heat, humidity, and thunderstorms - a truly pedestrian-hostile environment.

Is Houston a perfect representation of the free market? No, but it's a lot closer to the ideal than any other major city in America. And it's paid off with the lowest cost of living and housing of any major U.S. city, the highest standard of living for the median income, and minimal impact from the collapse of the housing bubble.

John: "What is hard to understand is why New urbanists believe they can change the preferences of the overwhelming majority of American households."

Agreed. I don't fault New Urbanists for their design approach or desire to create such neighborhoods for the people who want them. And I sympathize with their desire for relaxed regulations to make what they want to build easier. But they cross the line when it becomes a 'good vs. evil' religion that they proselytize and try to force on others.

I've lived in Dallas for about two years now. I hate the sprawl with a passion. I miss being able to walk to the places I want to go. I miss biking to work (and my waistline shows that). I miss living someplace that wasn't overrun with drunk drivers that take over every weekend (and apparently forget what a "one way" street is). I miss living in a city that provided something more to look at than highways, parking lots, and strip malls.

sorry, added in a line in the last comment:

****Of course the ideal of no government regulation of land use is not satisfied in Houston or anywhere. But doesn't Houston represent at least a marginal improvement toward that goal?*****

If that is your goal, perhaps.

Houston has land use regulations than other cities, but Houston has _more_land_use_regulations_which_forbid_walkable_neighborhoods_ than do most cities. So, yes, you can more or less do what you want, so long as you don't dare create a neighborhood where people might want to walk!

"the market (in Houston) wanted, and wants, air-conditioned, private transport between A and B. Houston has optimized around this principle, while brilliantly minimizing all the idiotic political, time, and money costs of the land use systems of other cities."

Look, diversity is the spice of life. This article does not tell Houston not to be Houston. It only points out that Houston is highly regulated (much more than SF or NYC in many ways, although not in others). This does not mean it is good or bad. It just means it is not the free market. It is the free market in conjunction with the government, just like every other land use scheme.

That is the point. Not that you should or shouldn't walk in Houston. I'm sorry to be rude, but I don't understand why you missed the point of the article!

"Many Americans obsessed with blowing 10x the cost on the same number of people-trips (on public rail) might study why exactly China is copying our freeway system".

Well, China is doing both. China has the largest high-speed rail system in the world:

1,240 miles of lines topping out at 220 miles an hour. But that's nothing. They plan to have a whopping 8,100 miles by 2012 (!) and 9,900 miles by 2020.

Now I'm not saying we should do something because China does it. Far from it. But the US has been on top of every transportation technology for a long, long time. And this time, we're not. If HSR is more sustainable than you assume it is, then we're missing the boat.

BTW, it appears that the total cost of adding capacity via HSR is less than that of adding it via highway or airplane. If that's true, the investment makes sense to me. For city-to-city visits, I'd sure rather take a 200 mile-an-hour train than an airplane (at least for anything under, say, 1000 miles). Competition with cars probably depends on your final destination and need for a car when you get there, but 200 MPH with no traffic sounds pretty good to me.

A car is a great servant but a poor master, in my view. But that's just me.

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