Ryan Holeywell | May 13, 2016 Houston's lack of zoning creates a two-tiered system for land-use, critics argue.

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | May 13, 2016

Aerial_View,_Houston,_Texas_1951

Nationwide, Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It's simultaneously the reason why some critics rank it among the most poorly designed cities and why some advocates say the area has historically enjoyed a strong economy.

Of course, those who follow land use issues in the Bayou City know the situation is a bit more nuanced. Houston doesn't have zoning, but its patchwork of land use regulations, taken as a whole, comes closer to resembling zoning than may people realize. Essentially, Houston does have some zoning -- but only sort of.

The problem with "sort of" having zoning is that in practice, it means Houston sometimes has quasi-zoning in wealthier areas, while the laissez faire approach persists in poorer areas, says Assata Richards, who works with Project Row Houses and serves as director of the Sankofa Research Institute in Houston's Third Ward. She spoke at a panel at the Next City 2016 Vanguard conference held in Houston and co-hosted by the Kinder Institute.

Because the rules aren't always so cut-and-dry when it comes to planning in Houston, it's created an opportunity for the well-to-do to have vastly more influence over their communities than those who are struggling, Richards explained at a panel in Houston Thursday.

"The ruling class can pay the extra money," Richards said at the 2016 Vanguard Conference, co-hosted by Next City and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. "We have practices and guidelines and policies based on a dominant group’s preferences and resources. We should always talk about that."

Case in point: the Ashby High-Rise.

The 21-story residential tower was planned for an upscale neighborhood near Rice University. Residents opposed it and hired lawyers to fight the project in court.

Nearly two years ago, the court ruled that the project could go forward -- this is Houston, after all, and the project wasn't violating any regulations -- but the process has dragged out for so long that it's now unclear whether the project will ever be built.

The residents may have lost in court, but effectively, they've won: there's no high-rise in their neighborhood, and its prospects are uncertain.

Could residents of the Third Ward mount a similar challenge to stop a similar project in their community? Probably not, Richards argues.

The problem with a lack of zoning is that it gives communities with money, time and political connections the opportunity to slow projects they find objectionable, Richards said. Poorer communities are left in the lurch, since they don't have the resources to fight projects, and they don't have city laws or codes to protect them either.

"We don't have the resources to retain an attorney and slow the process," she said. "This is where policy should come in. The local government should set up policies that give us the opportunity to have equity."

The problem is pretty straightforward, says Houston developer Monte Large, who has focused on adaptive reuse and preservation projects: Houston has carrots for developers but no sticks.

"There's no law, at least yet, that says 'you can't build that,'" he said at the panel. "If you want to build the same high-rise in the Third Ward, you can go for it, unless the community can build enough grassroots support to stop it."

Other instances show just how hard it is for disadvantaged communities to stand up to protects they oppose.

City rules restrict lot sizes, for example, but neighborhoods can petition for even tighter restrictions if they get enough signatures and votes. Some neighborhoods use that technique as a way of stopping the spread of luxury townhouses that may be built on smaller lots.

But in poorer communities, residents often lack the resources to mount such a campaign, and they often can't participate anyway, since many of them are renters.

"Until we challenge the value system of the people in this discipline," Richards said of urban policymakers and planners, "we’ll reproduce social inequality."