Comment of the Day: Saving Houston for the Next Generation of Newcomers

COMMENT OF THE DAY: SAVING HOUSTON FOR THE NEXT GENERATION OF NEWCOMERS “i’d just point out that Houston is a large and growing city. although the inner-loop is changing, so are all the other hoods within 20 miles of here. nobody says you have to live in the same ‘hood all your life and i’d even go so far as to say that to expect to live in the same neighborhood indefinitely without seeing major changes is just selfishness. i’ll gladly pick up and move once the montrose has finally been redeveloped for the $150K+ income bracket only. i think it kills diversity and character of the area, but i’m glad it’s growing and more people are able to live near work and greater amenities while providing a larger tax base to make this city better for all the areas . . . i think my fellow citizens deserve that at least. if it changes it changes, but there’s no shortage of places to move to. as long as it’s making the city better. move to a poor neighborhood if you don’t want to see any changes, there’s plenty around. and that’s the danger of giving neighborhoods rights over [what] can be developed. by nature they will only have their desires in mind, not that of the millions of others that could benefit from growth and new developments.” [joel, commenting on Comment of the Day: Who Cares What the Neighbors Think?]

32 Comment

  • It’s a foregone conclusion that Houston will be developed. After all, this is a growing city, and I doubt anyone would prefer to live in a shrinking city like Detroit. The real question is: HOW will Houston be developed?
    Lots of people in the development community want to relive the 1970s and early 1980s – when if you could fund it, you could build it, and nobody would complain – no matter what ‘it’ was.
    If this is you, my advice is to invent a time machine. Average folks today are much more sensitive to the urban environment. They might not always be able to explain it, and they may not know how to get there, but they know a good urban environment when they see it. It behooves those of us in the building community to acknowledge it, and work with the neighborhoods and communities around our projects – for the better of everyone: newcomers and old timers.

  • It seems to me that some of the biggest complainers about change are the newest residents to a neighborhood. I only lived in the Heights for 8 years, but I sure didn’t mind expressing my opinion (and still don’t). I wonder what folks who were living there back when it was a forgotten ghetto think about it now? I bet a lot of them are pretty happy about how it’s changed, except possibly the increase in rents/tax appraisals.

  • I might want to live in 5th Ward one day. Not yet but someday.

  • Horse hockey. In the case of Walmart in the Heights, people actually wanted to see more done with the site rather than a couple of acres of parking and 252k sq ft supercenter. People wanted to see a mixed use development with more housing, office and retail space that would generate more tax revenue and raise the property values of the redeveloping West End neighborhood. People inside the loop want to see change. That is why we pay such a premium to live inside the loop. It is because it is going to get better. We want to see good change that creates a livable neighborhood for everyone. Not change that is the highest return, lowest risk project that a developer can do.

  • @ old school
    I think we’re a city at the mercy of the suburbs. As long as places like Kingwood & Clear lake (who vote) are part of the city, we’re stuck with the status quo.
    This is true for transportation, development, etc.
    It gets even worse when you look at the Houston REGION. Then unincorporated Harris county gets a greater say in how the region is shaped than their actual population (bc that is who votes is greater #’s). This dooms us to have ineffectual mass transit in the city, regional funds that build more roads, urban sprawl incentives for developers, etc

  • So, for all the “input” (whining, protesting, getting pissy) the Walmart was still built, the Ashby is still going up, the numerous generic apartment complexes are still going up… why should developers start caring now? nothing changed.

  • Commonsense – developers should start caring because by working with neighbors, they can avoid costly delays on permitting and other roadblocks.
    I’s worth noting that the situation in other cities, where there’s zoning, is not so different. It used to be different, back when building “as of right” was in force. If a project met zoning requirements, it was built, if it did not meet the requirements it was not built. But that’s history. Nowadays everything in a zoned city is flexible. If the zoning says no factories, but the developer really wants to build a factory on the site, he applies for a variance and from there it’s just like it would be here in Houston. If the zoning says low income housing is OK, neighbors still have ways to derail the approval; again, then you’re in the same situation you would be here in Houston.

  • Until citizens unite and stop allowing developers to run the city–we are stuck with such atrocities as the Walmart and high rises in inappropriate places. I doubt anyone is against change, but there is “willy-nilly whatever a developer can build” change and there is planned thoughtful change. Unfortunately, most Houstonians still thinks it’s the wild west and the city will suffer the consequences. Dallas has zoning and I don’t see that they are suffering from being underdeveloped.

  • It’s a shame that these developers destroy the very things that made these neighborhoods unique and desirable in the first place. Yes, we are happy the Heights is no longer a ghetto most famous for a serial killer, but to tear down the cute cool Bungalows to build pre fab townhouse is hideous. There has to be a happy medium, just ask San Antonio.

  • It is nice to read the Walmart haters attempt to spin it as some altruistic desire to see Houston become a dense urban city. Read the initial complaints. These are the same people who fought to keep the Heights from evolving. So, they moved from no density to all about the density?

    As old school put it, horse hockey.

    Back to the topic. Joel is spot on. These people are selfish, and more than a little narcissistic.

  • It seems that most of the objections to development are purely subjective assessments about personal taste – “townhouses in a bungalow neighborhood are offensive to me”, “a one story strip center fronted by surface parking sucks, I want something that generates higher property value” etc. So should the City actually restrict someone’s use of property they own so you can avoid being offended?

    Furthermore the idea that citizens should have a say in municipal approval of a developer’s plans even if they are following existing codes is rubbish and a recipe for disaster. The rules should be the rules – if an applicant meets them, they go ahead. No arbitrariness or discretion unless they’re asking for a variance or special treatment (like an economic development deal that isn’t governed by an adopted policy). In the case of Walmart, the citizenry and public officials had a right to inject discretion into the decision about whether to approve the economic development agreement. But not whether Walmart should have been allowed to build there at all.

  • @ZAW, as it stands now, it’s still easier and cheaper to ignore them and consider the opposition as simple cost of doing business. Even with all the delays and legal fees, the Best Use doctrine still makes financial sense. And if the opposition is cutting too much into profit that it’s worth listening to them… well then your project was not profitable in the first place and wasn’t worth doing anyway.

  • But planner, average citizens DO have a say in municipal approval of projects, albeit an indirect one. In cities with zoning, plans are approved by a planning and zoning commission. Those commissioners are appointed by elected officials, who in turn are voted into office by average citizens.
    Here in Houston, it’s basically the same idea. Everything goes through our permitting office, which is run by people who are appointed by elected officials who are voted into office by average citizens.
    If a project is controversial enough, elected officials will take note and they will use their power to enact the will of citizens. They’re scared of losing the next election, and understandably so. Look what happened to former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski after he gave in to HUD for low income housing on the Island.

  • “So should the City actually restrict someone’s use of property they own so you can avoid being offended?”

    They – or rather, we, since we are the city – should restrict it if it affects our property values. And building a tower that overshadows our house, or a house next door with zero setback, does most certainly affect our property values.

    Enough of people whining that those of us who want development restrictions are being “selfish.” How is trying to make a profit on development any less selfish than trying to protect one’s property value?

  • That’s what zoning is for! so you don’t have a 40 story building next to a bungalow across from a tatto shop. A neighborhood has the right to be angry at someone ruining the essence of what makes the area desirable in the first place. In the case of the Heights it’s the bungalows and neighborhood’s feel of the cozy little homes or Southhampton with the stately old mansions on generous lots surrounded by beautiful trees giving it a feel of Lake Forest or Uptown New Orleans. Who moves to the Heights to be next to a 4 story contemporary townhome with no trees or Southhampton to be next to a 22 story high rise

  • >>build pre fab townhouse…

    A true pre-fab townhouse might be kind of cool.

  • I happen to think that property values will be unaffected in any empirically discernable way by the Ashby highrise. In fact, I think that it’ll improve the aesthetic quality of the neighborhood once completed.

    I see no legal or, more broadly speaking, philosophical basis for interfering with the developers as they seek to enhance the tax base and create more housing units such that more people can enjoy a wonderful neighborhood that is only going to get better.

    Furthermore, given that my tastes are impeccable, I think that the law should reflect that and perhaps does reflect that regardless of how the law is actually written or practiced. Anybody who might oppose my aesthetic preferences is wrong. Simply wrong. Therefore they should not oppose me. Also, I decree a right of primo nocturn. All must submit because it is my aesthetic preference. Bwahahahahaha!

  • It seems that the anti-development people want all newly sold property owned by the neighbors.

    If you don’t own it, you don’t get to decide what happens there.

    And what do you think it would do to your property values if nobody could be confident they could build what they wanted on land they bought, because some neighbor might object to stucco? Ludicrous.

  • Back to QotD: I believe the city does have a wish to make Montrose a $150k/year minimum type of place. They do everything in their power to run all the ‘ugly’ apartments out of business to be replaced with Shiny And New. Most older apt buildings are being upgraded on their own due to market demands but I’ve met SEVERAL older owners that just can’t afford to keep up with all the city regulations, certifications, registrations, red tags, habitability & occupancy rules, etc.
    To be fair, these aggressive city actions are often help us by providing properties from older owners simply give up (they don’t have the resources). However we can’t buy them all so they often get bought up, smashed, and newer townhomes built in their place. As someone that lives in Montrose, I like having these older and affordable places to live. It makes the whole area more vibrant.
    So you demo a older garden style apt where 8-12 people used to rent at $600/month and put up a few $500k townhomes. Or you red tag it and require work that causes the rent to be $900/month.
    That happens ALL OVER montrose. We have some fourplexes that we’ve totally redone (new paint, roof, windows, landscaping, interior upgrades, added central air, etc) yet we get red tagged for administrative reasons all the time. Hell, one of the nicer fourplexes just got hit with $11,000 in fines (I’m not kidding). This isn’t a run down building with an out of state owner. It’s a pretty nice older building that we’ve put a lot of love into. What would an older owner w/o the resources do, faced with that fine? Fix it? Or off load the property to a developer to knock down?
    Obviously due to the governments monopoly on force, we’ll bow down and comply with whatever they want us to do. Then, sadly, renters will get a notice of rent increase at the end of their lease (“well then they’ll just go somewhere else!” Where? To the fourplex down the street that just had the same thing? Or the fourplex across the street that.. oh wait, it got knocked down…)
    And we wonder where all the affordable property in Montrose is going… The prius patrol sees to it that the properties go away, one red tag at a time.

  • #11: “The rules should be the rules – if an applicant meets them, then go ahead. No arbitrariness or discretion unless they’re asking for a variance or special treatment…”
    That’s Austin: government by variance.
    A canny developer, with the aid of City Hall consultants who are by now as well known to central Austin as the mayor, or more so, announces that he is seeking a variance to build a space elevator on the site of a popular music venue. Outcry follows. He has left plenty of room to scale back his plans to a 10-story building, throws in a public amenity, and gets to build a close approximation of what he really wanted to.
    Was it as easy as it would be in Houston? No, of course not, but as y’all are always saying, “he knew what he was getting into when he bought in the neighborhood.”
    I don’t know whether Houston is maturing to the point where residents’ desire to live with a certain amount of predictability outweighs ease and predictability for the development community, and Houston’s no-zoning “brand.” But I imagine Mike’s view will become more widely-shared. ZAW is right: livability issues are all the rage. It’s sort of the next logical thing for people who have everything. You don’t need to worry about “saving” Houston, whatever that means. Houston will continue to sprawl, and sprawl is driven by population growth, which is driven by immigrants; and they are unlikely to abandon Houston. Whatever its virtues, “smart growth” BS has no impact on that.

  • @Cody, with all due respect to your business model and your passion for affordable housing (you’re my favorite slumlord), this is how one cleans up a neighborhood, price out the undesireables through market forces, taxes, or costly regulations.

    I also would like to add that if you start asking input from the neighborhood on your project, there will always be someone that does not approve of something… one side will like this, the other one will want that, and so on, never ending. Why even bother asking anyone if you know you will never have full approval and someone will complain anyway.

  • Cody – you raise an excellent point. Older apartment complexes in Montrose are at risk of being torn down for new development. And the new apartments are often at a much higher price than the ones they replace. It’s not just in Montrose – other parts of Houston are affected, too (the Washington Avenue Corridor for example). In fact, it’s happening all over the US. Most of New York City is being affected.
    In my opinion, the best way to address it would be to go straight to the top in Federal and State housing law. Let owners of older buildings in gentrifying areas get Low Income Housing Tax credits if they set a certain number of renovated units, to rent at the same rate as they did pre-renovation; and if they provide some way of moving some of the old tenants back in. It seems like it would work to help preserve existing affordable housing stock and thereby diversity, while also helping repair troubled complexes. And I’m not sure there’s really any other way to do it.

  • “And we wonder where all the affordable property in Montrose is going… The prius patrol sees to it that the properties go away, one red tag at a time.”

    If it’s the same lovely “special treat” running around back in 2008 I’m surprised anything is still standing although be assured she “drives by” some properties. Friends of friends at City Hall as they say…

  • Unless there’s a surprise Supreme Court decision — and it would be a surprise — the LIHTC program will never be administered in Texas in a manner that is consistent with the spirit of the federal law that created it. You should just go ahead and give up on that, at least in neighborhoods like Montrose or Southampton.

  • Zaw: I’m glad you agree, but you seem to suggest we add more government when that’s the current problem. You can’t (and really shouldn’t) setup policies that ENCOURAGE keeping these places around anymore than you should have policies that ENCOURAGE these places to go away.
    The default should be freedom. However, right now we have policies that are actively working to get rid of our affordable housing in Montrose (and other places as you point out). They’re just disguised as “registration” and “certification” to make sure places are “safe”. That whole process should be scrapped. If someone has a run down property people will either 1) not live in it, or 2) decide to live in it because the rent is conducive to the building quality. A “smart” property owner might decide to upgrade the place to raise up the rents, where as another owner may want to keep his place basic and get lower rents. Renters will decide where they want to go.
    It’s not the governments right to force someone to pay more rent because they don’t feel something is at a given level. I’ve said it here before: Almost every building we’ve upgraded and raised the rent on gave us new tenants simply because the previous tenants couldn’t afford it. So who really benefited by our upgrades? Most of our upgrades were done by us outside of government interference (we don’t need to be told to fix things that are obviously not right about the property, our renters, banks, insurance company, etc. do a good job at that) but there have been plenty of times where we’ve done things per city demand that have raised rents and driven current tenants out. I’m sure they’re really stoked that our hand rails in Montrose are now 36″ high vs. 32″ while they now are living in 5th ward rather than the neighborhood they loved and were priced out of.
    I’m not suggesting we scrap all building codes or not have minimum standards, but what is going on right now is straight up ridiculous (and criminal IMO). Inspectors have 100% authority to go into your fenced/gated property and tell anyone to do whatever they want and you better do it “or else”. They’ve become revenue tools for the city and a defacto way of getting rid of properties they want gone. I could give 1000 examples of abuse of their power. But bottom line our company can afford to comply and jump through the hoops (though we’ve had to hire a few people that do nothing but deal with the city – so here comes more rent increases). Meanwhile, the small independent owners that just have a small 4 plex, or an 8 unit with that ‘for rent’ sign that you could always get a $600 1bd are TOAST. They get red tagged to death and give up.
    And yes, I am a total idiot for typing this stuff on a public forum. I’m sure that is part of the reason almost every property of mine has Prius patrol circling around daily.

  • @conmonsense–is an 80 year old grandmother on fixed income an undesirable–is a gay art student–what exactly is your definition of an undesirable–you sound like a Nazi writing the final solution–I hope one day you get old and get priced out of your home you’ve loved and raised your family in, then maybe you’ll think before making such an obtuse statement

  • The CoH has been putting the squeeze on our old landlord just as Cody describes.

    One day about a year and a half ago I had a half dozen of those Prius ass-clowns in my side of our little duplex finding all kind of faults with the 1928 model brick abode. I was told space heaters which have worked great for the last 15 years are now illegal…

    When they started looking in my kitchen cabinets and snooping in closets I told them to get the F out and don’t come back unless they had a warrant!

  • @26 Shannon, for once I agree with you. But, commonsense knows ‘something’ about absolutely everything that goes on in Houston.

    He/she probably lives in the ‘burbs.

  • Shannon loves the word “obtuse”. She uses it in most of her comments. Reminds me of the Shawshank Redemption scene.

  • So, for those who say that citizens should be allowed to ban development that they fear will affect their property value (I assume in the downward direction), then suburban single family dwellers should be able to ban any new apartments within the same school zone. The basis would be the exact same reason you are espousing here.

    Houston’s system (in theory at least) does not allow much discretion at all by plan reviewers who are hired by the Mayor who is an elected official. Either a development meets the rules or it doesn’t. If citizens don’t like the rules, they should lobby to change them, not the way the reviewers enforce them.

    And finally, your property value is not determined just by the potential buyer who wants an intact bungalow neighborhood. If a buyer is willing to pay more to turn your bungalow into six townhomes, then they are setting the value. I doubt the presence of townhomes on the next lot over diminishes your lot’s value for them.

  • I’m more interested in hearing from Cody what caused his property to get red tages worth $11,000 ?

    And I have to think he was laughing to himself when he wrote “A “smart” property owner might decide to upgrade the place to raise up the rents, where as another owner may want to keep his place basic and get lower rents.” Really, a landlord who wants to keep his place basic so he can continue to charge lower rents ? Where is this Utopia to which you speak ? I’m guessing that’s not the business model he’s following…

  • C.L.: Feel free to contact me directly outside of the site and I’m happy to go into detail as to my fine. But the short story is if the city tells me I have registration or other paperwork hoops to jump through on an otherwise fine property, and I have another place that requires REAL work to be made safe, I’m going to put the city task on the back burner and spend my time and $ where it’ll do the most good. The city doesn’t like that. They want you to do what they say when they say it.
    And yes, many older owners keep their buildings very ‘basic’ and rents low. I know this as I’ve bought them. We bought a place last year where all rents were $500. The units looked like they hadn’t been touched in 10 years. So while you or I wouldn’t likely want to live in those units, the tenants were happy to live there and pay $500/month for a sweet location.
    The owner didn’t have the desire, time, skill, or cash to plop $5k into each unit in order to get $200/month extra. To me, $5k in a unit to get $200/month is a good ROI (~50%) but some owners would rather just leave it be, keep the rents low, and keep long term tenants who don’t mind the place. It’s not my business model but I find it fairly common among people that have owned places forever and have developed long term tenants.
    Anyway, we bought it, fixed the units up, raised the rents. Only 2 tenants out of 10 stayed. Do you think the other 8 found another ‘no frills’ place for $500? Not likely. They’re all going away.
    What caused this owner to finally sell? Red tags. So those tenants who were paying $500 are now living out of the area as a direct result of city rules trying to ‘protect’ them. This is hurting affordable housing more than developers (who need sellers to be able to build just as I need sellers to rehab).
    But hell, it’s good for me as I have a nice new place. Just sucks for the people that used to live there.