Update Sept. 5, 2:45 p.m.
Houston City Council voted to approve the special minimum lot size area application surrounding parts of Columbia Street, Sept. 4.
For decades, Houston Carpet was one of the few commercial buildings on its corner of the Heights. When the company relocated its operations outside of Loop 610, neighbors eyed the now-vacant property on Columbia Street wearily, longtime Heights resident Donna Bennett said.
Hoping to limit the property to single-family residential use, surrounding community members petitioned the city to designate a five-block radius of the carpet company’s lots as a special minimum lot size area. Gaining such designation allows residents to limit commercial and multifamily development in a neighborhood.
“We’re sandwiched between I-10, which is increasingly changing,” Bennett said. “There’s a hotel and those kinds of [commercial development] we have on White Oak [Drive] to the north, which is a busy, major cross street. We feel that it is important to protect ourselves against any further commercial encroachment into the neighborhood.”
The special minimum lot size application process has been available to residents since the early 2000s, and been amended several times by Houston City Council to broaden its capabilities.
Over 750 applications have been submitted since the process’s inception, over 200 of which were submitted in the Heights, according to Houston Planning and Development Department data. Longtime residents in the Heights see town homes, apartments and commercial developments as threatening to the character of historically single-family home neighborhoods, Bennett said.
As market forces continue to draw developers into the Inner Loop these applications become a point for discussions about how the city is changing and for whom.
‘Creep of commercial’
The special minimum lot size application, which can apply to an area or a single block, allows a group of residents to petition to change the required minimum size of a group of lots in a neighborhood typically to about 5,000 to 6,000 square feet. A successful application makes lots undesirable to town home developers who can no longer subdivide a single lot for multiple units, said Bill Baldwin, a Heights-area Realtor and member of the Houston Planning Commission.
The designation also requires residential lots remain residential while allowing commercial lots to remain commercial or switch to residential.
Applications in the Heights are typically submitted in anticipation of redevelopment, Bennett said, causing stumbling blocks for those trying to sell property. Michael Frank, owner of the lots on Columbia Street, said the lot size application unfairly targeted his land.
“All this property has been used for in the last 40 years is commercial, ” Frank told the planning commission during a hearing on the application June 11. The price dropped by $200,000 after the meeting, his real estate agent said.
“Commercial users knew the neighborhood would put up a fight regardless of which part the land was purchased and residential single family home builders knew were in a bind,” Ryan Neyland the site’s real estate agent said.
The planning commission approved the application in June, and it awaits City Council approval this fall. All residential lots surrounding the carpet company will remain residential and cannot be subdivided below 5,000 square feet for the next 40 years when the application is subject to renewal. While commercial development will not “creep” in to the neighborhood, the carpet company’s land and other lots previously used for commercial purposes will remain designated as commercial.
“When there’s [no commercial property] there [the application] is designed to keep you from tearing down a house to have the creep of commercial, but it’s not designed necessarily to totally restrict property,” Baldwin said. “This neighborhood is mad because that lot still can be commercial. ... The reality of it was, there hadn’t been a house there for 40 years.”
About 7 miles east of that lot on Columbia Street, Carolyn Lopez and Rene Porras gather at restaurant and bakery, Porras Prontito, in Denver Harbor. The group is responsible for several successful lot size applications in their neighborhood.
An entirely different set of circumstances influenced the group to get involved in lot-size application process. In Denver Harbor, where the median income is more than $70,000 lower than the median income in the Heights, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the proliferation of townhomes is a harbinger for gentrification as new construction is threatening to drive property values up.
“We were the first low-income area [to file applications] and for three years, [property appraisals] stayed stable,” Porras said. “And that’s a really big, big deal for us because we thought we were going to get clobbered by property taxes and actually it slowed them down.”
In the neighboring Fifth Ward neighborhood, where lot size applications have not been used as frequently, a recent study from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that median income adjusted for inflation increased by 2.8% in 2000-16, while median rent increased by 29% and the median home value increased by 69% in the same time period.
“This is our neighborhood. This is what we nurtured. This is what we’ve grown,” said Porras, who inherited the now 49-year-old bakery from his father. “We’ve lived here for generations now and all the sudden, people with money, just want to come in and move us out.”
Meanwhile, in the Heights, townhomes threaten to devalue a property if they disrupt what once was a cohesive neighborhood with sought-after single-family homes, Baldwin said.
“What you’re trying to protect is the investment in the single family homes as well,” Baldwin said. “There’s a diminished value in being next door to this many units, or at least that’s the perception.”
However, Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown-Montrose Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood’s current variety of housing makes it appealing to residents of many backgrounds. The association is currently advocating for a greater mix of housing to maintain its affordability for teachers, police officers and students, he said.
“We have a mixture of some nice single-family homes and other things all together, and a lot of that diversity makes Montrose, Montrose,” he said.
In the Heights, Bennett said the neighborhood’s character depends on its prevalence of single-family homes.
“People are friendly here, and you know the people that live across the street from you and the people that live next door to you,” Bennett said. “If you lived next door to a series of townhouses that has a center driveway where everybody went in through the middle and never came out the front, you wouldn’t ever know anybody that lived there.”
A 2017 Kinder Institute of Urban Research study on housing affordability found 30% of Harris County residents are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing.
Baldwin, who is also a founding member of the Your Houston PAC, which promotes more dense housing as a way to improve Houston’s affordability, said traditionally underserved areas need to welcome some amount of change to gain access to more resources, such as grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses. He said areas zoned for industrial use could absorb growth too.
“There’s plenty of these areas in the east and in Kashmere Gardens, in the north and in Independence Heights—tracts of land that are vacant—that you’re changing the use from commercial into more residential areas,” Baldwin said. “That’s where we would find [diverse housing stock], not in the middle of a residential neighborhood that already has a prevailing lot size.”
Relying on underserved areas to accommodate housing needs for a growing city while residents become susceptible to gentrification and longer, costlier commutes, will not help address Houston’s inequalities, said District H City Council Member Karla Cisneros, whose district includes parts of the Heights, Near Northside and Denver Harbor.
“It’s not me saying I want nobody to come in here. I’m saying let us maintain some language around here ... the festivals,the tamale festival, the church bizarre, all that stuff,” Porras said.
While the city may need to increase its housing stock, Cisneros said she celebrates the community organizing required for a lot-size application in any neighborhood.
“The truth is there’s not just one thing that we need,” Cisneros said. “We need a little bit of everything to serve all the people that live here. ... We have people that want the single-family home, and we have people that don’t want that.”