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Zoning issue splits Houston

By Daniel BenedictSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 29, 1983


In 1982, the home-building industry nationally had its worst year since 1946, yet Houston had its best one ever and led the nation in housing starts and sales for the ninth consecutive year.

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Much of the city's expansion, in the past decade at least, comes from being the nation's energy center and a focal point of migration to the Sunbelt. But many Houston residents also boast about the city not having something - zoning regulations.

Being the only one of the country's 25 largest standard metropolitan statistical areas without zoning has kept Houston's home-building industry robust and solidly in the black, and has made homeowners of people who might still be apartment dwellers if they lived somewhere else, concludes a study by Friendswood Development Company, the land-development subsidiary of Exxon.

Houston does have urban planning, however, say the zoning critics - planning done by an active real-estate industry meeting buyers' demands rather than the government's.

Zoning enthusiasts say the quality of life in Houston has declined as a result of the absence of zoning, which could have prevented many of the city's serious problems.

Opponents say growth problems such as traffic congestion and overloaded sewer systems are inevitable in a boom town whose population swelled from 938,000 in 1960 to 1.6 million in 1980.

The escalation of mortgage interest rates in the past few years has disqualified many potential home buyers. In Houston, however, developers reduced the size of the houses they built and the price fell with it.

The Friendswood study puts the median price of a new home here at $73,000 in the first half of 1982, compared with $85,000 in the Dallas area, where homes had to be 1,400 square feet on lots at least 60 feet wide.

Proponents of the no-zoning philosophy - including business leaders, public officials, and academicians - maintain that the absence of zoning has made possible a high-energy capitalism that would have been curbed by land-use regulation.

Zoning panels can often be political and run by people unqualified for the job. Corruption is an ever-present threat because big money is involved in land development. More than that, general rules sometimes don't suit the widely varied circumstances to which they're applied.

Virtually unrestricted apartment development has apparently made for lower rents in Houston. The lack of density restrictions also allows more people per square mile, cutting Houston's sprawl.

As for commercial intrusion into residential areas supposedly cutting property values, the opposite has happened with a vengeance in two old neighborhoods near downtown - and even more dramatically around Houston's second downtown, the skyscrapers of Greenway Plaza and the nearby Galleria shopping mall.

Houston honors the Texas tradition of laissez-faire on the premise that if bureaucrats controlled private enterprise, they might make it as financially successful as government is. But advocates of zoning argue that a bit more government is not necessarily big government and could be useful. Moreover, they say, Houston has a number of laws similar to zoning regulations that masquerade as city ordinances.

Lack of zoning has made possible more than Greenway Plaza and the revival of once-deteriorating neighborhoods, say zoning proponents. Condominium towers have sprung up in the back yards of single-family homes and clogged streets with traffic. A few self-proclaimed modeling studios and debatable night clubs grace neighborhoods with neon signs as well as patrons and their cars, which may wind up on residents' front lawns.