I recently had the pleasure of visiting the great American city of Houston, Texas. I was only there for two days, and so only saw a tiny fraction of what there was to see. But I was able to spot some evidence and hear some firsthand accounts of one of the city’s important peculiarities: its lack of zoning laws. With a population of 2.1 million (6 million in the metro area), Houston is the largest city in America without zoning laws—and it gets along just fine without them, thank you very much.
In the Zone
If there’s one thing that seems certain in this world besides death and taxes, it’s that cities have zoning laws. These laws determine what kinds and sizes of homes and commercial buildings can be built where, the densities of neighbourhoods, the outward appearances of structures, and so on. But as much as we have come to take these minute regulations of city life for granted, it wasn’t always so. According to Samuel R. Staley, who teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics at Florida State University in Tallahassee, “Before the twentieth century land-use and housing disputes were largely dealt with through courts using the common-law principle of nuisance.” If a smelly pig farm set up shop in a residential area, for instance, residents could go to court and either be compensated for the harm caused by the noxious fumes or get the pig farmer to cease operations or move elsewhere.
As Staley explains, that all changed with the ascendancy of the Progressive movement in the early years of the last century. Progressives argued that the common-law approach to nuisance was too expensive, time-consuming, and complicated, making it a difficult avenue for the less fortunate members of society to use. Zoning would be more efficient and fair, they claimed. Yet whatever the good intentions behind it, its effect, writes Staley, “was to fully politicize land-use decisions,” often in favour of the politically powerful.
Houstonians, unique among the residents of large American cities, rejected zoning in popular referendums on three separate occasions: in 1948, in 1962, and again in 1993. Despite pleas before the 1993 vote from the Houston Homeowner’s Association about the need “to stop the cancerous erosion of the quality of life in many of our neighborhoods,” the city’s registered voters did not seem overly concerned about their quality of life, as few of them even bothered to come out for the vote.
How Can People Live This Way?
So, does chaos reign in The Big Heart (a nickname earned when Houstonians pitched in to help many tens of thousands of refugees from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina)? Hardly. There were no slaughterhouses or pulp and paper mills in the residential neighbourhood I was staying in. There was a charming Mexican restaurant, though, with parking for maybe twenty vehicles, a small bridge crossing a little creek, and an expansive patio bordered by tall shade trees.
CB Richard Ellis, a big property company, explains how the city manages to avoid “a disjointed landscape where oil derricks sit next to mansions and auto salvage yards abut churches” without recourse to zoning laws: “What is unique about Houston is that the separation of land uses is impelled by economic forces rather than mandatory zoning. While it is theoretically possible for a petrochemical refinery to locate next to a housing development, it is unlikely that profit-maximizing real-estate developers will allow this to happen.” The spontaneous order of the market encourages charming restaurants in among private homes, but discourages incompatible uses. As author James D. Saltzman has written, “heavy industry voluntarily locates on large tracts near rail lines or highways; apartments and stores seek thoroughfares; gas stations vie for busy intersections.”
It is not the case, however, that Houston is completely bereft of regulation. Developers commonly employ private covenants and deed restrictions to limit the uses of land in a given development. These can keep businesses or apartments out of the neighborhood, or even stipulate lawn care and acceptable house paint colours. But importantly, as Saltzman points out, “However detailed, deed restrictions contain rules voluntarily accepted by home buyers, unlike the edicts issued to property owners by a zoning commission.”
In addition to these voluntary restrictions, though, there are also some land-use ordinances regulating things like trailer parks, rendering plants, and commercial landscaping. And in fact, these city regulations have not all had positive effects, either. Michael Lewyn, associate professor at the Touro Law Center, points out that rules regarding minimum lot sizes for single-family homes, minimum street widths, and mandatory parking space requirements for both residential and commercial buildings have made Houston less dense than it would have been if its development had been left entirely to market forces. This means the sprawling city is more dependent on cars and less pedestrian friendly than it could be.
Reaping the Benefits
Despite such laws, however, Houston still regulates land use to a significantly lesser degree than other cities. The payoff, in addition to a welcome, convenient, eclectic mix of uses, is more affordable housing. As prices were soaring across the country in the inflation-fueled housing bubble a few years back, they remained relatively stable in Houston. And not having soared, they did not plummet when that bubble inevitably burst. According to Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas senior economist Bill Gilmer, lack of zoning deserves a lot of the credit.
As Jane Jacobs wrote about in her classic 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, city planners often behave as if the rest of us who live in a city had no plans of our own. In Houston, more than in most cities, people can pursue their own plans. Rather than leading to chaos, this leads to a more spontaneous, more organic kind of order. If residents of other cities could move away from imposed, top-down order, we too could be freer to pursue more of our own plans without the hassle and added cost of zoning laws.