Comment of the Day: Affordable Homes Need Smaller Lots

COMMENT OF THE DAY: AFFORDABLE HOMES NEED SMALLER LOTS “Large houses are not the cause of being priced out of the Heights, they’re the effect. With land values approaching $75/sf at the peak of the market, that’s almost half-a-million dollars for a full-sized lot. If you put a 2000-sq.-ft. house on that lot (at $150/sf construction cost), you’re looking at $800k. Or $400/sf. There’s a very thin market for that size house at that price point. There are tons of more affordable options in or near the Heights, but they aren’t going to come with 6000 sq. ft. of dirt. The secret to providing more affordable housing is to just build more housing. In the Heights, that’s generally come in the form of replacing one bungalow with two modest two-story houses. In Shady Acres, it’s usually replacing TWO bungalows with SIX townhouses. There are literally hundreds of reasonable-sized houses (2000-2500 s.f.) that have been created this way in the Free Heights over the last decade. Without them, a lot MORE people would have been priced out of the neighborhood.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: Aren’t these the Heights Design Guidelines We’ve Been Asking For?] Illustration: Lulu

28 Comment

  • Thank you! This is exactly what I’ve been telling people for the last several years.

  • So a house that doesn’t sit on ample land is cheaper than one that does? Interesting…

  • Excellent observation. So, why is the market for this situation thin? Is it because people in that price range really want giant lot-filling houses? Or is the house-centric metric of $/sqft biasing people more towards the house “value” than the total real estate proposition? Makes sense that people who would possibly go for the smaller house also may have a hard time overcoming the risk of “overpaying” based on the only normalized metric commonly used — $/sqft.

  • “Just increase density” is not a panacea. There are a LOT of side effects from that the must be considered. Still don’t disagree with the post, just saying there is a limit to how much it will help. At the end of the day Houston is a massive city with a bustling economy, there will be areas, like the Heights, that simply won’t be affordable to most people. But that’s ok, because there are plenty of other areas that will be affordable.

  • But that doesn’t mean that restricting the size of additions won’t help lower prices. People with big bags of money want big houses. If they can’t buy a big house in the Heights, they will go to another neighborhood. Just look at Norhill. It is the most restricted neighborhood in the Heights due to deed restrictions on top of the historic ordinance. Most everything in Norhill is about 1/2 to 2/3rds the cost of Heights proper or Woodland Heights. Sure, you could tear down every bungalow in the Heights, chop up every lot and see sq ft prices come down. But then the Heights would suck. Better option is to make the ordinance more restrictive, keep sq ft down and have a nice relatively affordable neighborhood that is not overrun by giant lot line fillers.

  • Thank you MrEction for saying it before I did. Density is not a panacea. And there are other areas that remain affordable.
    This leads to an urban dynamic. If people weren’t priced out of Montrose, would The Heights have turned? If people hadn’t been priced out of The Heights, would Eastwood have taken off? If people weren’t priced out of West U, would Bellaire have turned? If people hadn’t been priced out of Bellaire, would Oak Forest have turned?

  • I’m just glad we all FINALLY agree that these “historic preservation” restrictions have nothing to do with actually preserving history and everything to do with pre-existing homeowners wanting to restrict development at the expense of younger citizens wanting more near-town affordability.

  • I’m inclined to agree that housing in the urban part of Houston won’t become less available or affordable to the sort of people that can afford new townhomes in the Heights as a consequence of this policy. There are plenty of other neighborhoods where a wide variety of types of housing would be affordable to them, and anybody who’s butt-hurt about being relegated to life in the East End because they got priced out of the Heights can just go cry me a damn river. They’ll be just fine.
    But…when we’re talking about housing affordability in the context of a social problem, the folks we should be talking about are the ones that are living in neighborhoods that suggested as targets for gentrification. These people are already poor and most of them are renters. They have nothing to gain from this. When they are pushed into further-out neighborhoods, they lose proximity and access to transit options and social services. Their economic opportunities are diminished just that much more. Now maybe you don’t care about these people. Maybe if we push enough of them into the next municipality, into the next school district, or at least into a neighborhood untrodden by the hipster/intelligencia elite, in your mind at least, they become some kind of a null value in moral terms. They are out of sight and out of mind, at least until you need to level the foundation of your cute little bungalow on your rapidly appreciating plot of prime land, which has been protected in its form in order to serve and protect the interests of you, an enfranchised class of citizens, and to disenfranchise these serfs. Oh, but you’re good people. Never forget that. You vote for the “right” political party in good conscience and you donate money to charity and document it for tax purposes; you are engaged in local politics and you report all minor infractions in your neighborhood to law/code enforcement. *You* are an asset to *your* community.

  • But supposing that restricting home size might make homes a little less expensive (they will still be pricey in The Heights), why is that any more of a justification for enacting restrictions on someone else’s property rights, particularly if they didn’t support the historic district designation in the first place for their own property? And we can all agree that “enforcing architectural continuity and consistency”, “maintaining neighborhood character,” and “preventing ‘out of scale’ building” are simply not valid justifications for the use of public law regulations in a truly free America that respects such property rights, no matter whether courts have ruled otherwise in the past.

  • @Agostura as an aside, please let me know who’s building these Intown houses at $150/ft. I think you’re looking at closer to $250/ft in these areas. Asking for a friend.

  • just a bunch of control freak busybodies with too much free time.

  • @Txcon,
    I used $150 as the cost of building the structure if they already owned the lot. Add the land to that and, yes, you’re probably closer to $250/sf.

  • How about requiring yards with trees?? That is what the lot-filling houses really destroy….the green cover of a neighborhood. Or requiring builders to provide sufficient off-street parking. It seems like very few people with the garage in front houses actually park in the garage. Some streets can be hard to navigate because of all of the cars parked on the street. I’d rather live where I can have a yard, modest house (<2000 sq ft), reasonable commute, and no stairs to climb. Unfortunately, that is becoming rarer.

  • @qqq,
    I’m sure a lot of people have the same preferences. Unfortunately there are trade-offs between having a yard and having a modest commute. The more people have single story houses with generous yards, the fewer people will be able to live close enough to employment centers to have a reasonable commute.
    Fortunately we have a mechanism by which we can resolve these trade-offs: prices. Some people value space over commute and choose to live in the suburbs, while others make the opposite choice and live in denser neighborhoods closer-in. There are those fortunate enough not to have to make that choice, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

  • The market in the Heights is already set and it not likely to get more affordable. Even the subdivided lots in the Heights are typically used to build “luxury” townhouses that are not affordable to lower-middle class folks. Heights townhouse developers compensate for the high property cost and lack of yard space by maximizing square footage and adding luxury features, raising the sale price. This also eliminates much of the green space, tree canopy and bungalow character that in part drew people to the Heights in the first place. The best option for those who are priced out is to look at more affordable areas like the East End and Near Northside. The Heights is not the only game in town.

  • Two comments:
    For neighborhoods with HOAs/covenants that specify minimum lot sizes, there is very little incentive for existing residents to modify these residents to allow subdivision of lots. You (usually) end up with looming 3-4 story buildings that cast long shadows over neighboring backyards, more traffic/parking issues, a higher chance of flooding from less impervious cover, impacts to neighborhood aesthetics that are generally considered negative, potential for overcrowding of desirable schools, and downward pressure on home values (due to increased supply of housing stock). About all you gain is MAYBE enough density to support improved transit and more neighborhood shopping/restaurant options. Not really that great of a tradeoff for existing residents, when you stop and think about it.
    As others stated, a positive effect of people getting priced out of certain neighborhoods is that other neighborhoods gentrify and improve as a result. Why should everyone be cramming themselves into the same little enclaves, while the rest of the city is left to stagnate? Wouldn’t we be better off if residents are incentivized to improve and rebuild blighted neighborhoods?

  • Price per square foot is a SHIT metric when it comes to these conversations. Buyers and builders have an irrational fear of buying/building a $400/sf, 2500 sf house in the Heights. Do buyers really want to live in a house 2 x bigger than they need, with zero yard, just to get a ratio down because that’s what we all THINK the market wants?

  • Well said, Grant!
    The ONLY downside to gentrification is displacement. Poor homeowners are forced out by skyrocketing land valuations and taxes. Poor renters are pushed out as older, cheaper apartments are torn down and replaced with luxury midrises.
    A lot of people see this as a good reason to avoid gentrification altogether – by simply allowing neighborhoods to remain blighted. I don’t. I think we should have public policies and laws in place that help stop displacement. But we should encourage neighborhood revitalization and investment without being afraid that they will gentrify.

  • @Grant,
    I agree. MLS and other restrictions on density can be perfectly rational for existing property owners to pursue. But let’s not pretend that they’re about maintaining affordability.

  • the people who bought early in the heights area that have a low income are not poor,we shouldn’t feel sorry for those homeowners,they won the lottery and could use that equity to get a bigger place in the heights,buy in los angeles or confused what to do with all this equity since im able to buy a place in any neighborhood in america.

  • One of the reasons Norhill is cheaper than Woodland Heights and Heights proper is schools as much of Norhill is zoned to Browning vs. Harvard/Travis/Field.

  • That kind of increased density changes the neighborhood forever. Two or three residences on the same lot means far more strain on water/sewer service, takes away more grassy areas to absorb rainwater, increases traffic and street parking, forces the removal of mature trees, etc. It makes the neighborhood less desirable for people who actually care about where they live, versus people who just want to live closer to town and don’t care about doing anything within walking distance. I love watching these density-loving residents try to find a place to walk their dogs because their teeny back yards don’t have enough grass.

  • @ ZAW: Okay, so prevent aesthetically-valuable neighborhoods from densifying. With the supply constraint there, entitled land will rise in value, making it more expensive for rich people to live in attractive places (unless they already live there, in which case these entrenched interests win). We’ve also displaced some upper- and middle-class demand outward to less desirable neighborhoods, but imposed policies to limit the displacement of poor people already living there; this constrains housing supply in terms of used housing available to them, meaning that a greater proportion of this demand must go into more expensive new construction. This places more pressure on the land market, as well, driving housing costs even higher. Housing costs are higher for them, and they don’t even get to live in their top-choice neighborhood. It’d seem like the suburbs would look a lot more attractive in relative terms, and that means that some fraction of them are going to put their money, their property taxes, and their sales taxes outside of the reach of local jurisdictions. Is that what we want? How is that good policy?
    Meanwhile, a bureaucracy has been created to counteract the displacement of poor people from apartments. In your comment, you limited this to apartments, evidently ignoring how often single-family homes are rented out in such neighborhoods; am I to infer that poor renters in single-family houses should be disproportionately impacted? Are they less deserving of protection? Or have you simply forgotten about them? In any case, I don’t know what mechanisms you’re suggesting, but they’re going to cost somebody some money. It could be the landlords, but that doesn’t usually happen without some unintended consequences. It could be the general public. It’s really not clear, which means that you haven’t really proffered any sort of a helpful suggestion. I’m inclined to believe that you’re paying this matter lip service in bad faith.
    Now to be clear, I’m also not really suggesting that we should be *afraid* of displacing the poor by way of gentrification. That’s something that is inevitable over time as land and capital are rationed in the free market. However, we should not abrogate the free market in order to impose higher urban housing costs on every segment of society in a manner which transfers wealth from the poorest/youngest to the richest/oldest.

  • In Shady Acres the theme is out with the old shot gun shacks and in with the new “townhomes” (aka millennial shot gun shacks). Give those slap dap / pop up luxury townhouses a good 20-30 years and they will look like the shot gun shacks of today. Someone will buy them on the cheap and consolidate then into single family houses with yards. And so on….

    My big complaint is the CoH encourages the sub-divide and develop by calling these shacks single family housing because they have a three foot gap between buildings. I call “BS” on this. When two traditional house lots turn into 28 town homes, well what could go wrong? ( Except, sewage issues, flooding issues, lack of green space because the chopped down 50 year old Oaks trees…). So environmentally conscious….BS.

    Perhaps I am an old curmudgeon, but please go park your car somewhere else and not in the spaces I payed to create in front of my place by installing a culvert and bringing in fill for a gravel parking spaces on the street. The CoH did not create those parking spaces, I did, so stay off. You wanted affordable housing with no parking, now live with that decision and don’t you and your friends come freeloading off me.

    Keep the Shady in Shady Acres, y’all.

  • @in the doghouse,
    It’s your mistake for spending your own money to improve city property.
    Don’t be angry at your neighbors, or the city for using city property, be angry with yourself for improving it.
    I recommend turning your entire yard into parking, that way, you can argue that all the curb in front of your house is driveway, can’t legally block a driveway. When someone does, just call a tow truck.

  • That brings me to another gripe about carving up of single-family properties into multiple mini-lots…doing so usually results in properties with two-car driveways spanning nearly the entirety of the front of the lot. In addition to increasing demand for public parking, these properties reduce its supply! It’s almost impossible to park in one of these sliced-up neighborhoods without blocking someone’s driveway.
    Plus, you’re left with a streetscape that would generally be considered ugly. Wall-to-wall 3-4 story boxes, fronted by huge driveways, with no front yards or porches to speak of. As was said earlier – appealing to those who want to be a short drive from work, but who have little intention of actually walking around their neighborhood.

  • @TheNiche,
    Another way of thinking about it: policies put in place to avoid displacing CURRENT lower-income residents end up displacing FUTURE lower income residents by restricting supply and pushing up land values for new entrants.
    This was largely true in Montrose and Rice Military. However, most of the subdivided lots in the Heights use an alley to access the garage, and most townhouses in Shady Acres use a shared driveway, actually resulting in a net reduction in curb cuts. The townhouses at 18th and Ashland, for example, were a marked improvement on the streetscape in that area.

  • @Angosture I know it’s a minor point but if you’re building custome today you’re more likely to see $225 – $275/Sf exclusive of the lot price than anything under $200, and that’s before we decided to have a trade war with Canada.