Comment of the Day: How We’re Building the Heights

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW WE’RE BUILDING THE HEIGHTS “. . . I’ve been in the Heights for 17 years and I can count the ‘stucco mcmansions’ on one hand. 90% of new construction in the Heights is 3,000 to 4,000 sq. ft and at least gives a nod to some turn of the century style. A 4,000 sq.ft house is ALWAYS 2 stories and would . . . have an average footprint of about 2,400 sq.ft including porches. With a 500 sq. ft. garage that is a total of 3,000 sq.ft of coverage on a 6,600 sq. ft. lot, which, according to my calculations, is 45% of the lot. Where do I get my numbers? I’ve built about 50 of them and designed close to 200. All of my houses sell at the top of the market so I know EXACTLY what my competetors are building. The days of dividing a lot and building multiple units is over, at least for now. Prevailing Lot size and Building Line rules cover about 60% of the Heights and the market just doesn’t want them, so nobody is even thinking of doing it. The exception on 15th and Rutland has been in the planning since 2003 and is going to fail badly. . . .” [SCD, commenting on The Houston Historic District Repeal Scramble Begins]

42 Comment

  • Right on the money.

    The growth in the Heights is in the $600 to $800K range and in excess of 3000 ft2. This is the phenomena that supports $75K of the valuation ‘premium’ for the average 6600 ft2 lot in the Heights.

    Annise Parker has (unwisely) decided to take this on as an issue.

    If the historic ordinance is not repealed,many owners in the Heights (myself included) will be stuck living in their cramped, outdated bungalows that cannot be economically updated or improved. Implied lot values will crash as liquidity dries up. Not a pleasant picture. And remember folks — appreciation on your primary residence is a tax free capital gain.

    I do feel sorry for the neighbors that were impacted by the 15th and Rutland project. An eyesore and a mistake. Hopefully it will fail as suggested (bad karma).

  • 1. Actually they just completed units 3 and 4 on the 500 block of Cortlandt.
    2. By your numbers, at least 40% of the Heights is free to be town-homed.
    3. Familiar with the word simulacra? Many oppose it.
    4. And despite your contentions about lot coverage,(you left out sidewalks, patios and swimming pools) it is rare that a mature tree is left standing.

  • Overall, this analysis is off the mark.

    Mike and SCD, are you basing your conclusions on hard numbers or from subjective observations from doing work in the area?

    I’ve downloaded from MLS ALL single family new construction sales (44 total) in the “Houston Heights” subdivision over the past 12 months and made a quick histogram in excel showing the frequency of sales for each range of lot sizes. Overwhelmingly, the lot size category that dominates is the 3500 sqft range at 15 sales. The next closest is 3000 sqft per lot at 6 sales. There were only 9 sales larger than 6000 sqft per lot.

    Granted, I am only using public data from MLS. And so custom homes built specifically for the owner will not show up here. If the new construction you are talking about falls under this category, than you may have a point for this subset of new construction, but it is still wrong to assume that all sales have dropped off for homes on lots less than, say 6000 sqft.

    I also looked at bldg sqft and the most popular size is around 2800 sqft at 9 sold. From my data, all new construction in the heights from 3,000 to 4,000 sqft is only 41%, not 90%.

    So, there you go. Some free research. Feel free to look it up youself.

  • JL — Well played, madame or sir!!!

  • A search of ‘Houston Heights’ in MLS does not correspond with the boundaries of the proposed Historic Districts so I suggest you try and verify your facts. Particularly for the ‘West’ district.

    Key takeaways

    The majority of properties in the proposed Historic Districts are covered by deed restrictions.

    Rational neighbors would prefer two tastefully done ‘Victorians’ that occupy a non deed restricted 6600 ft 2 lot (3300 ft each) over a run down, termite infested rental bungalow.

    Using a historic designation to throttle ALL development is like using a .308 Winchester to kill a mouse. It can be done but its rather a blunt instrument for the task at hand.

  • Mike – I think you are way off base. First of all, there are not many run-down rent houses anymore. That was true in the 80’s and early 90’s, but hasn’t really been the case for many years. So the choice isn’t between a run down rent house and two faux victorians – it is between two faux victorians and a single larger faux victorian on a 50 ft wide lot.

  • VicMansion or run-down termite infected rental bungalow? Which will I choose? Which will I choose? Oh yeah, none of the above. I’ll take my lovingly restored 1924 bungalow, which sits in its original footprint, thank you very much.

  • Mies – Not that many run down rent houses? Have you driven around lately. We still have a lot of work to do in this area. I think we need to bulldoze them all….

  • It has never been an issue of whether the new construction was an out of place stucco v. sort of in place faux Victorian. The comment sets up a straw man argument. The issue is getting rid of historic bungalows in favor of giant faux victorians, which sets into motion block busting. I live in a historic 1920 bungalow. I live next to a rental and a termite infested house (both bungalows) that may not be salvageable. Without the historic preservation ordinance, I could end up living between two giant faux victorians. This would mean that the tens of thousands I have spent to restore and maintain my historic bungalow would go down the drain because no one would want to live in a little house that is surrounded by two giants.

  • Matt – There is no comparison between the Heights of 2010 and the Heights of 1990. If you don’t like diversity, there are plenty of other places to live. And for the record, I agree with Mel about the merits of keeping and restoring bungalows, as long as owners are not unnecessarily constrained in their right to expand and renovate their homes. That said, it is a fact that some old bungalows are too far gone – and if they are replaced, it should be with a single new house rather than dividing up the lot.

  • Mies,
    I just don’t understand why we as a community cannot agree to work together towards preservation, and reach a concensus as to permissible renovations and additions. Some of our neighbors have (without the benefit of an ordinance) done amazing things with their houses, through remodeling and/or additions. Some of our neighbors, because there is no protection in place, have not.

  • The consensus is the challenge though. Let’s first of all agree that not all of the bungalows are salvageable and a good number had already been previously replaced with commercial properties or in my case a trailer park. Therefore some new construction will always be necessary.

    After that who is to be allowed to be the arbiter of what is and isn’t acceptable? Some of us would prefer that architecturally interesting modern architecture be intermingled with the old, some would argue that any new construction should recreate the original style of the neighborhood.

    Beyond that who is allowed to be the arbiter of what size home is allowed. Some would argue that the fabric of the nighborhood can only be maintained by restricting people pretty closely to the footprint of the original structures, some would argue that in order to maintain the diversity of the nighborhood you have to allow a variety of home sizes.

    If there is to be an arbiter of these things it should be one that can properly consider these concerns rather than just arrive with a preconveived vision in mind.

  • Yale St. – People generally have no problem living between the big homes. The big expensive homes stabilize the property values and increase the character and uniqueness of your small home. What you should be worried about is the knock downs you live between. With the new ordinances these lots are more likely to remain junk and in turn negate your investment in your property. The big home will actually increase you property value as the supply of the small bungalows decreases – your per sqft $ goes up. I also own a bungalow – one that probably should have been mowed down… But I instead am doing a nice single story addition in an effort to keep the small modest charm of the home intact. With that said there are several homes on the street that I hope are razed and big ole McMansions built. I want the comfort of knowing that someone that invested 800k on a house is not going to walk away and let it become rental unit with 15 families…..The attraction to the Heights is the character of the homes not the year they were built….. There is nothing historically significant about these homes.

    Mies – What does diversity have to do with this?

  • Matt:

    You have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. First, equating the character of a 1920s bungalow with a 2009 faux victorian is just unbelievable. Second, once your house is surrounded by faux vics, your property value is reduced to lot value because no one in their right mind would want to live between two walls. If a faux vic went up on one side of my house, I would have to cut down an old oak tree whose canopy spans over the neighboring and rip out my veggie garden, as I would no longer have any sunlight. Also, the economics of property values only go so far. When the market is hot, builders will outbid people trying to buy bungalows because they can spend 300k for the house, knock it down and sell a 3500 sq ft faux Vic for 800k to a mil and still have a big profit, even with the high land cost. And that is why we need historic ordinances. It is the best chance to keep the bungalow housing stock in tact and to keep the faux vics from busting blocks.

  • Should it matter that many of the faux-victorians are just plain fugly, overscaled, in garish colors, and with acontextual and ahistoric detailing? (Since when did the Heights have anything to do with New Orleans’ French Quarter, which is where many of these designs are lifted from? And why do so many of them have to look like turn of the century brothels?)

    The bungalow is a neighborhood-scale house. You can build nice new bungalows that are 2500 sf, more than enough for a modern family, without hacking down trees and so on.

    Ultimately, I suppose I don’t care about preserving Houston’s historic fabric, because there’s so little of it left to preserve. It seems like a desperate and futile attempt. But the townhomes built in the Heights are (as someone above said) block-busters: ridiculously overscaled and acontextual. Which is offensive.

  • Tell you what, you folks can have the little houses up on 28th, build big houses and provide a nice wind-break and sound barrier for the northern area of the Heights. Leave the rest alone and we’ll get them fixed up eventually as we can do one every couple of years.

    One problem not mentioned about being squeezed or nestled (depending on your point-of-view) between huge houses is the lack of sun. There goes your gardening opportunity and even your grass. Drainage problems increase, too. Look for front yard gardens. Up with chard and tomatoes and pole beans!

  • Yep, Yale St jumped in with the veggie garden problem while I was composing. Yes, to compost, no to slabs of cement.

  • Yale St & Matt,

    I have been looking (casually) on HAR for a house, and am constantly frustrated by finding cute little houses in my price range but which I drive by and discover they’re surrounded by giant bigfoot monstrosities on all sides. No way would I, or probably most other people, buy a house which has (or has the potential to have) giant bigfoot neighbors looming over you. You would have no sunlight, or privacy, in your backyard. I have a 100 lb German Shepherd so a reasonably sized and reasonably private yard is very important to me.

  • Yale St. – You make my point. The 300k you get for you ‘lot’ is more than you house/lot combo would ever be worth if the big houses were not driving up prices…. If you have a properly restored house – no one is going to tear it down. A lot of what is considered ‘loving restored’ is really just some HD cabinets and a coat of paint. These are the real atrocities and will only lead to the re-slum-ification of the area.

  • JRo – $350k will get you a nice home in the area. 250K will get you a nice home that will need some work. If you are looking lower that that – then yes you are going to find tear downs in between big homes that are selling for lot value for that area….

  • Matt – Actually, I have seen properly restored homes get torn down for the sin of being small. I have a friend whose granite counter topped kitchen of less than 5 year got bulldozed.It happens all the time.
    And to surmise that all new construction is superior is just silly. I have walked through many of them and watched them built. The moldings are often plastic, the chimineys leak and in less than 2 years there is a crew hauling rotten wood to the curb, doing some sorts of repairs. And becasue Texas law is written to protect builders the homeowners are stuck. Bigger and newer does not equal better. (There is well-built new construction in the Heights, but rarely on spec, which is the vast majority.)

  • Obsolete is obsolete. Out with the old. In with the new. That’s the Houston way. Forget living in the past. I want progress. I want Houston’s core to continue to grow and thrive. Bring in the bulldozers.

    What if West U was still filled with crappy little termite infested cracker boxes? Would Houston be a better place? I say No. Progress is good.

    Rich people want to live in big houses. If Houston refuses to accommodate them, the suburbs will gladly accept them. Let’s send the rich packing. Then we’ll let the high paying jobs and commercial development follow them outside the city limits. Houston will rot from the inside out.

  • Its funny to see the McMansion owners wheeling their garbage cans down the shoddy alleys, around the corner and up the street to the front of their houses because they don’t have a side yard to get their garbage cans through. They’re not going to develop the alleys and neither will the City. Our alleys will remain historical! Let’s get the alleys historical designation signs! However, the City will red tag a garbage can placed at the end of an alley about 5 minutes after its parked there.

  • Don’t you people have some Walmart that’s not in your neighborhood to bitch about?

    For the record, I completly agree withe assertion that $800K houses bring property values down, and that run down rentals bring property values up. I mean, duh!!!!!!!!!!!

  • RE Garbage cans-I’ve seen garbage cans on porches and in front of large expensive houses due to the lack of enough space between the house and the fence. Not to mention parking in the front yards: if hand-laid brick is supposed to make that attractive, it’s lost on me. Might as well be a pick-up on the grass.

  • Darby Mom,

    Why don’t you go buy a puppy. Maybe that will bring some happiness into your life. Wait…you’re a cat person aren’t you???

  • Soooo… The rich people are angry becasue they want the folks who revitalized the Heights and made it a desirable neighborhood to leave now.
    But it was following people with $ that made WalMart move here, but that makes them mad, too.
    As Marvin Zindler never said – It’s hell to be rich!

  • I thought Wal-Mart was for the poor folk?

  • JRo – there are still some streets in Oak Forest with stretches of beautiful small homes that have been well-kept. Section 1, especially Wakefield & Cheshire west of Ella, is being overrun by Mel Reyna monstrosities – pick up a co-worker around there on occasion and it looks like the subdivision name should be changed to Stucco Canyon, but other blocks haven’t been hit. Many lots are in the 7500-8000 sq. ft. range, so plenty of room for a German shepherd!

  • I can’t for the life of me understand why people on this Board are so intent on using derogatory terms to describe one another’s houses. “faux-victorians are just plain fugly, overscaled, in garish colors, and with acontextual and ahistoric detailing” and “giant bigfoot monstrosities.” My house (I am assuming a McMansion by this boards standards – around 4k sq. feet – not a McMansion in other parts of the US I might add, but moot) is a bright color and yes, I am able to bring my garbage can to the front through my side yard. My neighbors get plenty of sunlight and have beautiful gardens, as do I. Why is this neighborhood so intent on pigeon holing one another? Just to prove a point? In the end, we all live, work, and play together! We should really be trying to send out a better message.

  • Hi Hellsing

    Yep, I live in Oak Forest now, and am lucky to have one of the larger lots (10K). Oak Forest is a great neighborhood, especially for folks with big dogs. I’m trying to get closer to the med center, though. The commute is awful, at least 45 mins in the morning and often 1 hr in the evenings.

  • SFP:

    If you would take a moment to get outside of the realtorworld and step into reality, you would find that the world isn’t as simple as you think it is. If you had a choice between buying a bungalow that is sandwiched between two giant faux victorians and buying a bungalow that is next to a rental and a almost tear down in a protected district, which would you want? The house that is forever stuck in the valley of the faux victorians or the house that will always be next to houses that are the appropriate height, size and architecture? Also, eventually the bungalows in the unprotected areas will all meet their fate and be replaced by new construction. Then, the protected areas will really stand out and become more valuable and desired. So, there is more in this world than “big house make property value go up, small house make property value go down.”

  • Actually the new ordinance specifically states that no particular architectural style is required for replacement structures so you have no guarantee whatsoever that new structures would be “appropriate”.

    I would argue that the value of the restored bungalows has already topped out, barring inflation, given the new ordinance. As has already been pointed out, a big chunk of property value in the Heights is driven by land value at the moment which in turn is driven by redevelopment value. Take that away and there will be a lower maximum limit to the value of the property.

    Also, can we stop using the implied derogatory word “faux”. If the structures adjoining your home are beyond saving and have to be replaced you are stating that you prefer they be replaced with faux 20’s bungalows. Those homes will be no more faux and no less faux than the faux Victorians you despise. Faux is faux.

  • WalMart is not for poor folks. For the last 15 years or so it has been for suburban folks and now, urban folks with some cash. Map the Houston area locations – that will tell the tale.

  • Yale St.:

    If you read elsewhere on this board, you’ll find out that SFP doesn’t care about your concerns about “neighborhood” and “cohesion” and all that. He’s too busy as a contractor making a ton of money tearing down bungalows in the Heights and putting up big block-buster boxes with Victorian ornament on the front (“a modest 4000 sf each”!!)

    Ultimately, most developers don’t care about the long term prospects for the places where they build. They’re capitalists–what they care about is money in their pocket. I know there are exceptions to this, but I suspect SFP isn’t one of them.

    Hey, that’s fine though. We’ll just have to live with the fact that the last chance for Houston to preserve some of its meager history is slipping through our fingers, because developers are getting their way.

  • No idea why those Hacienda Palm Beach looking houses popped up in the Heights..they just look plain bizarre. We have had little info about the proposals, instead the neightbors are having freak outs about a Walmart next to a gravel yard that is no where near us

  • Yale St. – You make my point. The 300k you get for you ‘lot’ is more than you house/lot combo would ever be worth if the big houses were not driving up prices….
    Great for people that want to sell their house. But some want to *live* in the house they own. Not sell it.

  • to Mike who said “And remember folks — appreciation on your primary residence is a tax free capital gain.”

    If you think appreciation on your home is tax free, you are seriously deluding yourself. Not only are you paying property taxes, you are paying on an unrealized gain. There is no guarantee that you’ll get in a few years what you are being taxed on now and it has nothing to do with your ability to pay. That pushes some long term residents out of their inner loop homes since they can no longer afford the taxes. And who is waiting to buy those distress sales? Developers that don’t care if their project is an “eyesore and a mistake.”

  • I rent out 1 bungalow sandwiched between 1 contemporary + 1 McMansion. Irks to have neighbors peek into the backyard but otherwise agree they stabilize/enhance my property’s value. Other home I am renovating while living in. I had specifically chosen both neighborhoods because there was no home owner’s association. If someone wants to slap a historical label onto houses, take a drive through Grant Park and Inman Park in Atlanta. Inman is successful in that residents preserved however most of them were extremely wealthy and eccentric enough that they got it into their blood. Grant Park is still an unfinished story. However, Atlanta as a whole rotted from within, the tax & population growth was everywhere where the hysterical historical pundits couldn’t reach them and there was nothing the city could do about it. Inman Park, Grant Park, Virginia Highlands, etc. couldn’t pull the weight.

    Of course, we don’t read or care what happens beyond our state, county, or city borders, do we? Let Atlanta burn, it could never happen here.

  • Am I the only one confused as to why a 100 lb German Sheperd requires such privacy? What are you doing to that poor dog in your back yard?

  • I just left the Heights last month. On the street where I lived for 5 years, 2 of those divide-and-cover projects were built in the last 6 months, and 2 more were about to begin (already for sale). So no, that era is not “over.”

    Also, at least two more divide-and-cover projects were built on my block during the time I lived on said street (and 4 more within the adjacent blocks.) They “gave a nod” to pseudo-Victorian style and as a result, were very very ugly and stood out like sore thumbs.

    4000 SF is not “modest” and the era of multiple houses crammed onto one lot has not ended. A drive around the Heights will make that clear.