Photo: Wikipedia.

Without citywide zoning, Houston communities must know their way around available land-use tools to shape their fates.

In 2013, five community members, with the assistance of a former priest from Denver Harbor’s Resurrection Catholic Church, organized to use a newly amended city-wide land-use tool in order to protect their community from gentrification. The group, led by Rene Porras, a Vietnam War veteran and owner of Porras Bakery, Carolyn Lopez, a retired government employee, her mother, Dorothy, and Theresa Padilla, who has a local skate park named after her and her husband, Joe, have since protected over 1,000 homes from new development. They have accomplished this feat despite the obstacles they, like other low-income communities, have faced when using the same sorts of tools that reinforced segregation. 

While Houston does not have city-wide zoning, on April 24, 2013, City Council adopted new amendments to the city's development code, known as Chapter 42. The amendments allowed for increased residential density outside the 610 Loop, meant to spur development and boost affordability, but also lowered the barriers for communities looking to restrict lot subdivisions and impose minimum lot sizes. Then Mayor Annise Parker said the changes helped a growing city by creating a "more flexible development tool."

For the residents of Denver Harbor, a largely Hispanic and Latino community some 7 miles east of downtown with a median household income of $27,000, Chapter 42 actually provides the best possible tool to preserve their community. The 77003 zip code, which includes the historic Second Ward, a community known for its Hispanic cultural and political grassroots and which shares a border with Denver Harbor, was recently listed as the second most gentrified zip code in the United States. For members of Denver Harbor, the gentrified designation is not shocking. Instead, it serves as a reminder of what’s at stake. 

Securing a Chapter 42 designation can take anywhere between 9 to 12 months. In March 2018, the group from Denver Harbor decided to start working on their seventh plot of land, which they chose based on the proximity to the church. The process started with the group trying to convince 10 percent of the property owners in the designated area to sign a petition to initiate the process with the City. The City won’t count renter’s signatures toward the 10 percent, according to Porras. This particular plot of land had a large volume of single family-owned homes adjacent to other properties. That’s often the case in Denver Harbor. On any given street, there are typically several properties owned by grandparents, children, grandchildren, cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles that live next to one another, and whose roots in the area go as far back as World War I. Within a matter of days, Lopez submitted the petitions with the required signatures to the city’s planning department, which oversees the entire process.

Later that month, the group received a letter from the planning department: the 10 percent threshold had been met and the next step, a town hall meeting, was a go. At that meeting, which the community group was expected to organize, they would inform residents of their property rights under a Chapter 42 status. This meant paying for notifications and street signs to be spread the word. This step can create barrier for most communities, especially those with low economic resources. Two low-income neighborhoods, one in Kashmere Gardens and another in Spring Branch, for example, began the process back in 2014, but didn't get the necessary 55 percent approval. Lopez said the signs could cost up to $80 each at a professional printer because the signs must meet certain requirements. The group from Denver Harbor found a less expensive option by buying materials for signs in bulk and making the signs themselves with four other community members pitching in, including Sally Alvarez. Her lot was recently approved for Chapter 42 protection and she and her husband Michael assist the group because they feel it helps preserve the community and makes sure that their children and grandchildren can continue to live in the area. 

Next, Porras and I later placed the signs throughout several designated areas within the community. Again there are rules governing where these signs go. They must be posted 10 days prior to the scheduled town hall meeting. A minimum of six signs are had to be placed within certain intersections that the planning department deemed opportunity areas. Porras recalled that, in the past, someone had actually taken down all the signs and left them in front of his bakery, presumably in disapproval. He suspected it was a developer but isn’t sure. Still, he thinks that the community approves of his efforts, so he keeps applying for protections. 

The April 11 town hall drew approximately 30 residents to the Denver Harbor Resurrection Catholic Church gymnasium. In past meetings, Lopez said, the planning department hadn’t always provided Spanish translation but this time, thanks to pressure from the community group, they run through a PowerPoint presentation about the community’s next steps in both English and Spanish. Residents learned that the protection covers the community for 40 years. While that timeframe is far from a permanent fix, Chapter 42 can be part of a broader strategy among stakeholders to address long-term issues.

Ten days after the town hall, residents started receiving the ballots in the mail. They could vote yes/si in favor of Chapter 42 status, or no, against. While many were in favor of the Chapter 42 designation, the language on the ballots was confusing, especially for a population whose primary language is Spanish. Many of the residents turned to Porras and Lopez for clarification on the voting process. “This is a difficult step since most of the homeowners understand the importance of protecting their land, but the voting ballot creates an additional layer of uncertainly among homeowners, especially those who do not speak English,” said Lopez.

Since the city does not provide envelopes or stamps for this process, Lopez often personally delivers the completed ballots to the planning department within the 30-day window the community has to return them. The group must secure 55 percent of the vote in favor. Meanwhile, Porras canvassed the neighborhood, encouraging his neighbors to support the change and to answer questions. “How do I vote to protect my property, several residents asked him.  

By late May, the votes have been validated and sent to the planning commission. Even with a majority of votes, communities can still encounter problems here. The planning commission voted to deny a Chapter 42 application from Montrose’s Hyde Park, for example, even though 75 percent of votes from residents were in favor of utilizing Chapter 42. When the community group expressed their frustration at a public meeting in May, several council members questioned the process the commission used to reach its decisions and the inability for a community to appeal a denial. Instead, communities have to restart the process from the beginning. Since December 2016, the Hyde Park residents said, the commission had denied two applications. 

Things move more smoothly for Denver Harbor. The application exceeded all minimum requirements necessary to initiate and implement Chapter 42. The application was designated to protect 190 lots with 98 percent of them representing single-family units, according to public documents. Fifteen percent of homeowners supported the initiation of the application process and 59 percent voted in favor of utilizing Chapter 42 as a means to protect their land. No formal protest by local businesses and homeowners were filed. The planning commission voted unanimously to allow the application to proceed. Once the application is approved, the City of Houston Legal Department has 180 business days to craft the language of the ordinance and bring it before City Council for approval. Thus, months after beginning the process, the mayor and city council approve the minimum lot size in late October.  

While Chapter 42 offers residents the best possible alternative to implementing land use protection status within their communities, a designation does not necessarily equate to protection from developers. At a recent City Council meeting, a group of community leaders from Near Northside, a predominately Hispanic area currently experiencing gentrification, spoke against a local developer’s request for a variance on a lot that was granted Chapter 42 status. While the request was ultimately denied by the planning commission, the episode highlights the struggles that communities encounter during and after a Chapter 42 designation. The residents from Denver Harbor understand that achieving Chapter 42 status can be a long and excruciating process. Rene Porras, Carolyn Lopez, Dorothy and Theresa Padilla, are all retired from their respective fields. Now, their work is to ensure that future generations are able to remain in Denver Harbor by using the only tool they know best, Chapter 42.

Juan Antonio Sorto is a  is a doctoral candidate in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. He has written about Hurricane Harvey, Northeast Houston, community planning and his research.

This post has been updated to include the correct names for Rene Porras and Michael Alvarez.