Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Sorry to lead with the corny, overused NASA Apollo 13 reference, but everytime a national media outlet does a story on the City of Houston (or the energy industry, or Houston sports teams, or hurricances, or Whitney Houston), it seems de rigeur to paraphrase the "Houston/problem" line.
South Texas College of Law, where I teach, is located in downtown Houston, Texas. I'm not from Texas originally, but they tell me that's OK as long as I got down here "as quick as I could." (Plus Lyle Lovett says Texas wants you anyway.) I practiced law in Houston before leaving to take a VAP job, and I was very pleased to come back here to join the faculty at STCL. I like Houston-- it's America's fourth-largest city (look out, Chicago!), has great cultural amenities and a decent cost of living, and some believe it is an emerging global city due to its international presence and its important role in the world economy.
What Houston doesn't have, as many of you probably know, is zoning. Most property and land use casebooks and treatises mention that Houston is the nation's only major city without zoning. Houston has over 2 million people (4 million metro), yet it is one of only a tiny handful of cities over 100,000 without a zoning code (Pasadena, TX--a Houston suburb--may the the only other one). A lot of lawyers, planners, architects, and others remember that Houston is the only unzoned major city. The image that this fact leaves with people is that Houston is a development-friendly free-for-all, a sort of land-use Wild West.
I get my chops busted regularly by other property and land use profs when they find out that I actually teach land use law in Houston ("why bother? hahahaha!").
But is this image true? Is Houston really the quintessential unregulated land use city, in accordance with its reputation? Is it truly unregulated, or does it just lack a certain kind of zoning? Do private land use agreements take the place of public laws? And even if it is true that Houston is less regulated, is this a good thing, a bad thing, or something entirely unique? What effect does the land use regime have on development and on property values?
These are some of the questions I will be pursing on this blog and in my scholarly research. I consider Houston to be a great laboratory for examining assumptions and ideas about land use regulation. So I think that it's actually one of the best places to study land use!
- Matt Festa