Matt Festa has posted an interesting, short article, Land Use in the Unzoned City, to SSRN. He writes,
The popular conception that Houston is unzoned because it is some sort of ultra-Texan free-market landscape is not accurate. Houston’s land use is in fact highly regulated. While no Houston ordinance explicitly uses the “z-word,” and its rules for the most part don’t prescribe limitations on use, there are numerous land use regulations that, in any other city, would be part of the zoning code. Houston defines certain areas as “urban” versus “suburban,” with different regulations.There are laws prescribing minimum lot sizes, which in turn restrict density. There are setbacks from the street, buffer zones for development, and regulated street widths. There are other laws that affect land use, such as the new historical preservation ordinance, which allows citizens to petition the council for designation as a historic area, which comes with additional restrictions. These are all government measures that, in my opinion, operate as “de facto zoning”— they prescribe different land use rules based partly on geographic location. And even these rules pale in comparison to the extensive regime of private covenants and deed restrictions that govern a majority of the property in Houston. (17)
Festa explains that this lack of zoning may have some partial explanations that have to do with the culture of the city. But he finds a more compelling explanation in the ban on zoning contained in the Houston City Charter. This ban, which can only be overturned by referendum, has been challenged three times but zoning supporters have come up a bit short each time.
Festa is certainly correct that land use scholars (Edward Glaeser, for instance) use Houston as a foil to communities that heavily limit new construction with restrictive zoning provisions. So Festa’s thesis is an important one that I hope he develops in a longer article. Until we determine how much less restrictive Houston’s land use regime is than other American cities’ formal zoning ordinances, we can’t fully understand the interaction between restrictive land use policies and the housing crisis affecting cities across the country.