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In the past several months, the density of urban areas has been demonized by more than a few because of the COVID-19 crisis. While understandable, it’s not completely accurate when it comes to the current pandemic, which has ravaged New York but hasn’t affected other very dense cities like Hong Kong and Singapore in the same way. In Houston, the city’s light touch when it comes to land-use regulations and its relative affordability are leading to greater density. That trend is likely to continue when the pandemic ends.  

Anyone who advocates for “Market Urbanism” — aka free-market city policy — must grapple with a common response: “But then we’ll get a bunch of Houstons.” The implication is that Houston is a sprawling mess of traffic, pollution and bad architecture, and has become this way due to no regulation. The city doesn’t have zoning, after all, and skeptics warn that replicating it will lead to the same urban form elsewhere.

But Houston’s narrative should be more complicated. If I were to summarize Houston, I’d say the aspects of it that thrive are due to it having a functioning market; while the aspects of it that urbanists hate are the outcome of its centrally planned paradigm. Let’s unpack both.

Houston’s sprawl is encouraged

The first thing to understand about Houston land use is that it’s not really a free market. While it doesn’t technically have zoning, it has other regulations that replace it and would be common in other municipal zoning codes.

It’s a subject that has been mined on this blog more than a few times. As Ryan Holeywell noted, the city does have deed restrictions in some neighborhoods that are sanctioned by residents or developers and protected by the city. It has lot-size minimums of 5,000 square feet for single-family homes. The minimum required setback is 25 feet on some properties and there are minimum parking requirements throughout much of the city.

Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton wrote about Houston’s famous lack of the Z-word for the American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine a few months ago. Houston doesn’t have zoning, but there are workarounds.

This all has the effect of discouraging infill housing.

Houston has, at the same time, subsidies that encourage sprawl; there is a network of local, state, and federal roads that have been built throughout the metro, at a greater capacity than is found elsewhere in the U.S.

Houston’s density isn’t regulated

But Houston still has fewer-than-normal regulations against density. The lack of zoning is key here: unlike other major U.S. cities, which have broad swaths on their zoning maps to separate residential, commercial and industrial structures, those uses can be built together in Houston.

This has not created some anarchy of incompatible uses, since market forces still mostly separate them. But it does cause housing to get squeezed into tighter and more unorthodox spaces — as this Houston Chronicle photo essay shows.

While lot-size minimums, setbacks and parking requirements do exist, they vary or are not enforced at all, depending on the neighborhood. Developers sometimes can lobby for waivers anyway. Unlike other cities, Houston allows accessory dwelling units and micro-units, making tiny living possible. Houston does not regulate for density in many areas — which is almost unheard of in urban America.

All this means there are fewer barriers to construction — and lots of construction happens in the core of the city. In a recent Curbed piece, Patrick Sisson wrote about how much denser and more urban the city is becoming.

“Houston is projected to add roughly 16,000 units this year alone, according to a report from commercial real estate firm JLL, with another 23,000 in the pipeline,” Sisson wrote. “For the first time this year, according to the long-running Kinder Houston Area Survey administered by Rice University, a majority or near majority of local respondents wanted to live in denser, mixed-use neighborhoods.”

This is backed by the city’s real estate trends.

Houston is routinely at or near the top of the list for most annual housing permits issued, and this includes for multi-family housing. It has America’s 4th-most skyscrapers, which are mostly spread across three separate business districts but can pop up anywhere (again, no zoning). Much of the additional multi-family housing goes across the city, from trendy neighborhoods like Montrose and Midtown to outlying immigrant ones.

While writing a 2017 analysis for Forbes, I found that Houston is denser than similar Sunbelt cities. And the Kinder Institute notes that in some neighborhoods, density matches levels found in East Coast cities. Sisson points out that this likely will increase as concerns about flooding and traffic push consumers to seek higher-elevated, centrally located areas.

Houston’s affordability advantage

There’s a quality about Houston, though, that transcends its built pattern: Affordability.

For decades, Houston has been the nation’s leading example of an “opportunity city.” It has, like coastal cities, high demand — aka fast-growing job opportunities and population growth. But unlike those metros, it builds lots of housing, thus stabilizing prices. The median home price is $190,000, which is just 4/5ths the national average, according to Zillow. Midtown’s median home price is $309,000, extremely low for a centrally located urban neighborhood. This affordability has made Houston a refuge for ex-pats from expensive states and for immigrants — it is now the nation’s most diverse city.

The affordability can be tied to both Houston’s density and sprawl. Rather than one being good and the other bad, both forms of growth have helped stabilize prices. But the multi-family infill housing is the most organic outcome to be found in the Houston model. If America had a more market-oriented urban approach, those aspects of Houston —density and affordability — would be the ones most likely to be replicated.

For this reason, “getting a bunch of Houstons” should be an urbanist goal.

Scott Beyer is an urban affairs journalist who owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. This story originally was published by the Independent Institute.