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Housing Policy in Zoning Free Houston, Texas

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 3, 2017

Juan Antonio Sorto, Doctoral Candidate
Urban Planning & Environmental Policy Department
Texas Southern University

Houston, Texas, which does not have city-wide zoning ordinance, prides itself in being one of the most diverse cities in the United States. It is a theme that even the current mayor, Sylvester Turner, enthusiastically acknowledged throughout the Super Bowl Festivities in February, which the city played host to. Yet, on January 11, 2017, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found the City of Houston’s selection process of affordable housing to be in noncompliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This led me to ask the following questions as it pertains to the City of Houston’s planning practices and the field of planning, what does this say about zoning, or the lack thereof, and the way affordable housing policies are implemented? What role does citizen participation play in determining these factors?

Zoning is often criticized for exacerbating land-use discrimination practice, but the City of Houston lacks the former, and yet they were found to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I believe that part of the issue within the City of Houston has to do with the way policies are formulated and implemented at City Hall, which follow a top-down approach. The mayor has sole discretion on deciding if, and when, he or she will bring a proposed policy before City Council for a vote of approval.

Furthermore, according to HUD, which based their results after the mayor in 2016 refused to bring an affordable housing project before city council for approval, the city lacks a clear policy and procedures on how the mayor and city officials should vote on a proposed affordable housing project. Once the mayor brings a proposed policy before city council for a vote of approval, most Council Members tend to vote along the lines of the elected official that was voted to represent a particular neighborhood where a project is being proposed. I believe that this shows that public participation by community stakeholders is specific issue driven and limited at City Hall, which leads to unintended discrimination practices. For example, Fountain View residences, where the affordable housing complex is being proposed, opposed the project based on school overcrowding, even though a similar project in 2015 was approved by the city a half a mile away from the current proposed site, both of which share the same school zone. Ultimately, the mayor decided not to bring the project before city council citing financial cost, even though the entire project was going to be federally funded.

While I do agree with the mayor that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, the concentration of most affordable housing complexes are located in predominately low-income minority communities. I believe that affordable housing and the way the City of Houston implements these policies represent many opportunities for Urban Planners. I believe that the very nature of not having a city-wide zoning ordinance creates an opportunity to encourage full public participation that will benefit community stakeholders in determining how to properly implement land-use models, which is the heart of affordable housing policies.

I end this blog with the following research questions, what role can the lack of a zoning ordinance play on the creation and implementation of affordable housing policies? What role does citizen participation play in determining these factors will not violate existing federal laws?

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