The Market for Sprawl: Houston's "Free Market" Sprawl Isn't

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 16, 2009

In the ongoing debate over sprawl development, its defenders routinely argue that developers build sprawl because that's what the market demands, and hey, who are we to argue with what people want?

When critics point out that municipal zoning regulations *mandate* sprawl and actually forbid other land use models, the apologists pull out Houston, Texas as their trump card. According to received wisdom, Houston has no zoning regulations and is one of the most sprawling cities in the world.

Obviously, therefore, the market really does demand sprawl and zoning rules are just a formality.

Michael Lewyn of the Florida Coastal School of Law demolishes this assertion in a 2005 paper for the Wayne Law Review (Vol. 50), in which he demonstrates that Houston, like other cities, effectively mandates sprawl through a variety of regulatory controls.

The city mandates large minimum lot sizes - 5,000 square feet anywhere in the city until 1998, and in suburban areas (75% of the city) after 1998. Combined with regulatory restrictions on non-detached homes, this regulation enforces low densities that preclude effective public transit or walkability, render neighbourhood businesses economically non-viable and push new development out to the edge of town.

Minimum mandatory parking requirements - 1.25 spaces per bachelor apartment, 1.33 spaces per 1 bedroom apartment, 2 spaces per single family dwelling, 2.5-2.75 spaces per 1,000 square feet of office area, 4-5 spaces per 1,000 square feet of commercial area, 10 spaces per 1,000 square feet of bar area, and 2.2 spaces per hospital bed - mean every property must make room for parking lots.

Combined with the mandatory minimum setbacks - structures must be 25 feet back from thoroughfares - this all but guarantees that all buildings will be set far back behind abundant surface parking, making them difficult, unpleasant and dangerous to reach by foot or bicycle.

The space devoted to surface parking further reduces land use density, reinforcing car-dependent patterns of transportation; and the abundant "free" parking is a further regulatory subsidy to drive.

Houston also mandates very wide streets - 100 feet right-of-way for thoroughfares, and 50-60 feet right-of-way for other streets - with only narrow 4 foot sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. This is far wider than the American average street width.

Not only do wide streets encourage driving and discourage walking, they also make land use densities still lower by pushing buildings even farther apart from each other.

In addition to wide streets, Houston mandates long blocks - 600 feet to a side - that deter walking by giving pedestrians fewer choices of route to a destination and fewer safe places to cross.

Houston does not have explicit single-use zoning, but it does allow and even encourage lot owners to sue each other for violations of land use covenants that preclude the use of residential lots for business or commercial uses. City lawyers can also sue under these rules.

Finally, even more than most cities, Houston has build an extensive highway system that opens suburban land for development and provides another incentive to drive everywhere.

Lewyn's essay puts to rest the notion that Houston's famously (or infamously) low densities are the result of free market forces. Rather, it's due to low-density, single-use zoning by another name.

(h/t to Marginal Revolution for the catch.)

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 13:31:58

As much as I agree with Lewyn's analysis, a part of me can't help but believe that these regulations really do cater to what a wide swath of the population wants.

I think it's pretty much undeniable that several generations of people grew up believing that the single family detached home was the paragon of middle class existence. Cities were - and still are - seen as dirty, congested, dangerous, and wholly unsuitable for the raising of children. It's a problem of ignorance and miseducation in my view. These people didn't know any other experience so they just perpetuated the status quo. They think they want - and convince themselves that they need - big homes and vast expanses of sod because they've had no exposure to other experiences.

Stringent regulation of future development so as to avoid perpetuating the mistakes of the past is necessary, but people are going to have to educated as to why that is so.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 14:00:34

I agree that the current legal framework does heavily subsidize sprawl, but this may be an effect of popular desires rather than a cause thereof.

I definitely wouldn't try to make the argument that there's a universal desire for sprawl. That manifestly just isn't the case. At the same time, I think it's equally obvious that there's a very large sector of society that has absolutely no interest in living in a more closely connected, sustainable environment.

It's not as though everyone deep down is just clamouring to live in condos and row houses but is prevented from doing so by misguided development regulation.

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By luke (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 14:08:37

New urbanist developments have a premium price over typical suburban sprawl. Why? Because it is in higher demand. Simple economics.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 14:24:43

Tammany - what Ryan is saying is that if folks paid the real cost of living in the burbs (all those roads and pipes and the associated environmental and societal costs) they might choose otherwise.

You can't use the argument 'this is what the people want' when their 'decision making' is framed by artificial costs and sprawl biased zoning regulations.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:08:46

I'm not trying to make that simple of an argument.

I'm saying that the current framework likely arose as a response to changing trends in residential development. Everyone knows that huge suburban developments, previously virtually unknown, starting going gangbusters in the middle of the 20th century. Since there was massive demand for these developments, developers lobbied government to change the laws to make it easier to build them. The framework we have now would be a result of this.

Yes, it does perpetuate an unsustainable model of development through artificial cost unloading, etc., but the framework didn't come out of thin air. People really did want to live in these sorts of developments, even before the subsidies were in place.

I'm not in any way trying to advocate for sprawl or for some people's right to live in any manner they please at the expense of people in other, more sustainable communities. I simply think that there was, and still is, a demand out there for the type of lifestyle that sprawl development makes possible, irrespective of any legal framework which makes such demand realizable.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:19:46

"New urbanist developments have a premium price over typical suburban sprawl. Why? Because it is in higher demand. Simple economics."

Actually, it could be argued that homes in such developments are a type of Veblen good.

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 17:17:22

Hmmmm ... depends on how you're defining "new urbanist development."

From what I understand, most new urbanist development is fundamentally no different than your average sprawl subdivision. It might have a smaller footprint, better street design, and superior architecture (maybe even a mix of low and medium density residential, and possibly some commercial thrown into the mix), but isn't it essentially still inefficient low density greenfield development?

Your average new home buyer probably doesn't give a damn about such niceties. The new urbanist product likely appeals to those who perceive some stigma attached to conventional sprawl development, or who see cache in association with "intelligent design." I would say such people are a niche market.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2009 at 09:14:42

what is the logic behind setback bylaws? I mean there must be some reasoning behind the idea? Just curious...

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By Nobody (anonymous) | Posted September 21, 2009 at 13:13:26

I don't mind markets making decisions so much as I mind administrative decisions that eliminate diversity and choice in the marketplace. "Nobody" wants to ride a bike to work. "Nobody" decent lives downtown. "Nobody" wants to go there, do this or attend that.

Call me "Nobody." I've an acquaintance (also a "Nobody" I suppose, given her home is in central Montreal) who's work in the convention industry takes her to several US city centres every year. Houston is among them, and her least favourite. At 5:00 p.m., she says, every expressway out of town is full. No nightlife in the town at all, or that she's been able to find despite several visits. Nothing to do but go back to the hotel, eat, watch the telly.

But the place does attract big conventions, with the hotels to accommodate them. However, not much in the way of downtown apartments and condos, apparently. Perception is everything, I guess. Another word for an overnight hotel guest might be "transient."

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