Politics: The Dead Zone

Houston residents take a stand by refusing to draw lines.


Until one month before last November's election, things looked rock-solid for backers of a proposed zoning ordinance in Houston. The bill—which, if passed, would have been the first law of its kind in the city's history—was supported by the current mayor, his predecessor, every member of the City Council, 160 homeowner organizations, and the Houston Post.

Although zoning measures had been turned down handily in 1948 and 1962, this time around promised to be different. Zoning proponents had become increasingly vocal and persuasive since the city's boom years in the late 1970s and early '80s. In the wake of the '80s oil bust, the arguments trounced in 1962 found a new constituency ready to believe zoning would control growth and offer protection from "undesirable" development. Supporters of zoning promised it would protect property values and reverse the exodus to bedroom communities outside the city. By 1990, one poll showed that 67 percent of Houston residents supported zoning. Everything was in place for the triumphant passage of zoning legislation.

Everything, it turned out, except the necessary votes. In a city-wide referendum, Houston residents once again rejected zoning, by a 53-to-47 percent margin. "Houston remains a model for city leaders around the country who wish to learn how cities can be better off without zoning," says Barry Klein, a public-policy consultant who co-founded the Houston Property Rights Association, the grassroots anti-zoning organization spearheading the opposition to zoning (where I serve as media director).

As interesting as the voters' rejection of zoning is where the decisive opposition came from: low-income residents. As tabulated by the Post, 72 percent of "low-income blacks" and 68 percent of "low-mid-income whites" voted against zoning, results echoed by "affluent" voters (56 percent against) and "predominantly Hispanic" voters (58 percent). Middle-income voters, fearful of multi-family dwellings and mixed land-use encroachment in residential neighborhoods, strongly favored zoning, with 63 percent of whites and 56 percent of blacks casting ballots in favor of the legislation.

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, with 1.6 million residents, has no zoning ordinance. All property owners must adhere to 18 land-use ordinances, largely dealing with issues of health and safety, and most homeowners are bound by additional private restrictions written into their deeds. Owners of private residences, for instance, might be obligated not to use their property for commercial purposes or multi-family dwellings; they might be forbidden to make exterior alterations such as the installation of satellite dishes. Deed restrictions are enforced by the city.

The recently defeated legislation was largely the work of City Councilman Jim Greenwood, a longtime zoning advocate. Greenwood has endorsed other land-use regulations, such as the eventual elimination of billboards and an ordinance requiring developers to plant trees and shrubs. In 1990 Greenwood formed a committee that created a simplified plan it dubbed "Houston-style" zoning. The committee called for the City Council to draft a comprehensive plan for the Houston area, and then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire, sensing a hot-button issue, formed her own land-use group, the Land Use Strategy Committee. The LUSC ultimately recommended beefing up the city's deed-restriction enforcement and creating "neighborhood protection teams" to help accomplish the policing. Zoning, Whitmire's committee concluded, was too difficult and costly and should be considered only as a last resort.

But the push for zoning continued. Zoning advocates were able to get the city and the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects to cosponsor a committee of land-use experts from around the country, the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team. R/UDAT included people that many thought likely to go along with zoning. The obvious exception was Bernard Siegan, author of the 1972 classic study Land Use Without Zoning. After public discussions, R/UDAT concluded in April 1990 that "comprehensive land-use planning" was "inappropriate given Houston's history and the difficulty and time required to implement a single comprehensive plan in a community of this scale and diversity."

Although zoning advocates were surprised by the committee's conclusions, they persisted. In January 1991, Whitmire, alongside Greenwood, endorsed zoning in a joint press conference. Eventually they won a unanimous vote from the City Council to have a zoning ordinance drafted. The council formed the Zoning Strategies Committee, which drafted a plan with limited-use classifications. The main difference between "Houston-style" planning and traditional zoning schemes was that the committee defined all large tracts as "open" rather than "agricultural." Greenwood argued that the "O-zone" would save landowners the frustration of seeking zoning changes for residential or commercial development.

Zoning garnered support from important players. Many homeowner associations signed on, as did several large developers. Reporters for Houston's two daily newspapers, the Post and the Chronicle used pro-zoning rhetoric in their coverage. On January 5, 1991, for example, a Chronicle reporter lamented the city's "helter-skelter growth" and praised efforts "to keep commercial and industrial eyesores out of residential neighborhoods." The Post followed suit the next day, noting that Whitmire's "announcement marks a major shift in city leaders' vision for the future development of Houston, a metropolis known for its sprawling growth made possible by a lack of zoning restrictions now found in every other major city in the country."

Early opposition to the zoning ordinance was organized largely by Klein and Meredith James, a veteran of the successful 1948 and 1962 anti-zoning campaigns. In early 1993, they founded the Houston Property Rights Association and began a petition drive to amend the city's charter to require a referendum on any proposed land-use ordinance and a six-month period of public review of any such ordinance. Because the charter doesn't require a public referendum to adopt a zoning plan, the City Council could have approved one at any time. But as the council prepared to do so, the HPRA had already collected thousands of signatures. Since most council members were sure the public favored zoning, they put the issue on the November 2, 1993, ballot and scheduled the referendum on the charter amendment for January 15, 1994.

For intellectual firepower, the HPRA drew on anti-zoning sources such as the Jack Kemp-era Housing and Urban Development study Not in My Back Yard, which linked land-use restrictions to higher housing costs, and Siegan's Land Use Without Zoning, which concluded that "zoning has been a failure and should be eliminated." Siegan, a professor at the University of San Diego Law School, argued that the patterns of land use in Chicago and Houston were similar, except that Chicago had graft and higher housing costs due to regulation.

The HPRA was joined in the summer by a second anti-zoning organization, Citizens for a Better Houston, founded by City Planning Commissioner Julio Laguarta. Laguarta was one of the people responsible for drafting the zoning ordinance, so his renunciation of the plan carried particular weight. Upset that the "final ordinance" was "pounded out" in a series of unannounced private meetings between civic leaders and pro-zoning developers, Laguarta said there "huge errors" and "hundreds of problems" with the document. Laguarta's group, representing the wealthier "River Oaks" crowd, was less against zoning in principle and more against the way in which the plan under consideration had been developed.

Despite philosophical differences, the HPRA and CBH coordinated outreach efforts. CBH spent close to $500,000 to fight the plan and concentrated its resources on TV ads, including one criticizing the City Council for trying to adopt zoning without a comprehensive plan for infrastructure development in the greater Houston area. The HPRA, which raised $190,000, maintained a team of debaters who made over 100 appearances, distributed thousands of brochures and newsletters, aired radio ads stressing zoning inspectors' powers to enter and inspect homes and businesses, and broadened the anti-zoning coalition by reaching out to minority organizations.

The most important minority organization was the Baptist Ministers' Association, a 100-year-old group of black religious leaders. In September 1991, it announced its opposition to the ordinance, largely due to fears of zoning-based restrictions on church activities. "Zoning controls when and where churches may build or expand on their own property," the group said at a press conference. "We know that certain kinds of church activities can be prohibited under zoning such as 'accessory uses' which, in zoned cities, are not protected by the first amendment but are protected in unzoned Houston by property rights." (See "Quiet Crusade," December 1987.)

The ministers also stressed issues of economic empowerment, noting that, historically, zoning has been "used against minorities and the poor" and has hurt the growth of multi-ethnic businesses. The commercial daytime activity created by mixed land use, argued the ministers, deters crime and helps to build community by maximizing jobs, goods, and services in a given neighborhood. This real-world understanding of land-use planning, coupled with the suspicion that they would be left out of ongoing zoning decisions, explains the overwhelming anti-zoning vote by low-income residents.

The ministers' official position statement, which the HPRA's Klein had a hand in drafting, dramatized the case against zoning: "Zoning will restrict churches and kill jobs in the black community; zoning will segregate minorities; zoning will raise rents and taxes; zoning will kill redevelopment and zoning will breed slums. We do not want Houston to become another Dallas, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Chicago or St. Louis. These are all zoned cities. They all have areas of poverty and slums much worse than Houston." Attempts by supporters of zoning to link the association's stance to a $6,000 payment made by the HPRA to defray campaign costs backfired, galvanizing black voters against the proposed legislation.

Houston's defeat of zoning was achieved by assembling an unusual coalition of liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, and Hispanics. It proved that voters are suspicious of huge new bureaucracies, especially when they understand the impact on their property and livelihoods. While other cities seem reconciled to zoning and centralized land-use controls, Houston continues to buck the trend. Says Klein: "We have preserved the soul of Houston, which shall remain a beacon of freedom to citizens in other large cities."

Kevin M. Southwick, editor of the Houston Agenda, is the media director for the Houston Property Rights Association. He served as research and media director for former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Houston.