Houston's Anarchic Zoning Laws are an Affront to Sim City

They just build whatever they want, wherever they want, like a bunch of savages.


Recently Almighty God smote the city of Houston as punishment for its pathetic lack of zoning laws. I am an expert in zoning laws, having spent roughly 4,000 hours playing Sim City in high school instead of losing my virginity.

Going forward, Houston can either embrace zoning and place itself in the steady hands of technocrats who designate where bodegas, trailer parks and whatnot go, or it can stick with the present organic model, letting a bunch of mouth-breathing humans organize the city from the bottom up.

I know what Sim City would do.

In Sim City, as you will recall, you arrange your city with zones: industrial, commercial, residential, and (as of Sim City 4), agricultural. Zones helpfully organize the activity of their denizens until eventually you get bored and level the whole city by summoning a rampaging robot spider. Remember?

In the case of Houston, the city was not attacked by rampaging Kaiju, but rather by a hurricane. It also has the most lax zoning laws of any major city in America. Coincidence?

One school of thought proposes that raging torrents don't really care whether or not your buildings have been zoned for stripmalls or duplexes. Our Nick Gillespie seems to think the federal government's plan to encourage development in flood zones by offering cheap flood insurance somehow contributed to people living in flood zones.

Some folks are saying a lack of dedicated wetlands lead to overflow, which sounds plausible, although my colleague Christian Britschgi disputes it. I don't know a lot about wetland permeability—wetlands did not factor into Sim City 2000.

What I do know is that Houston's anarchic zoning laws are an affront to the universe.

Some of the images of Houston's zoning abdication I'm about to show are graphic–particularly if you have a degree in Urban Planning. They represent the maniacal chaos Middle American wiles can unleash if not properly restrained by technocrats. You might want to grab a drink first.


That's right—a house next to a roller coaster! Why not just mix toothpaste and orange juice together in a big jug, Houston?* You sicken me.

Or this:

Now that is just insane. A skyscraper next to a one-story house?! I have never seen a more flagrant disregard for shadow regulations. Without technocrats this is what you get: a bunch of shadows choking your daisies. Also worth pointing out here that the Tower of Babel was a zoning violation. Think about it.

Brace yourself for this next one:

A strip club* next to a Dillard's?! The whole point of Dillard's is to act as a consumer trap from which captive husbands cannot escape. When properly zoned, Dillard's is a place where dads patiently wander around holding their wives' purses. In the city of Houston & Gomorrah, men get loose with those purses and spend their wives' money on questionable lunch buffets and lap dances with Brandi.

A lack of rigorous zoning inevitably leads to new businesses popping up all over the place like spores. In a tightly-regulated city, you need to purchase property to start a coffee shop. Absent commercial zoning, you could sling coffee right out of your garage. In fact all sorts of people would concoct side hustles out of their homes if they could. You could conceivably buy cupcakes, fresh vegetables, coffee, or even foot massages without leaving the giant shadow encompassing your block.

Need I even bring up factories? Here you are in this nice suburban home, and all of a sudden a giant smokestack sprouts like a mushroom next door to you where your neighbor, Chuck, used to live before he ran off with Brandi. Factories, of course, don't want to live way out on cheap land near industrial parks and highways, they want to live next door to you. You need zoning to protect you.

Let's touch on some counter arguments the nutjobs are going to lob at me. Yes, occasionally zoning gets away from overeager technocrats and becomes an ominous tool to isolate minorities. Cities in California used to aggressively regulate the location of laundromats, because most laundromats were owned by Chinese people. During the White Flight of the '60s, cities used zoning to intentionally drive up land prices to keep black people out of particular neighborhoods.

I can assure you that today we don't use zoning to jerk around races. We use it to jerk around poor people. Many cities use minimum lot sizes to keep unwanted riff-raff out of rich neighborhoods. By requiring lots to be twice as big as you can afford, bureaucrats relegate the poor to their pre-planned, multi-dwelling, slummy part of town.

Again, not racist, merely classist.

In summation, if you loose the bonds of zoning, the result is pandemonium, disorganized coffee distribution, roller coasters, hurricanes, and shadows. It's jumbled enough to scare off a rampaging spider robot.

*CORRECTION: The featured roller coaster next to a house is technically in Seabrook, Texas, a suburb of Houston.

*CORRECTION: Zone D'Erotica is a sex shop and not a strip club. The author thanks the surprising number of readers who knew the difference and pointed it out.

NEXT: Disjointed Coughs Out Some Tired Dope Humor

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  1. That building in the background seems to be okay with the strip club.

  2. Zone D’Erotica is a sex shop not a strip club. At least, I think so. The one in Tucson is just a sex shop.

    1. You’re right, it’s just a sex shop where you can’t actually buy sex like you can in the parking lot of strip club.

  3. Damn, now i really want to play SimCity.

    1. Maxis re-released SimCity 4 for modern OS’s because their new SimCity was such a turd.

      1. Honestly, Maxis is Maxis in name only now. They’re all different people for awhile now.

      2. I ain’t want to buy a game i already bought in 2003 just because Windows’ CD-ROM security shit the bed with the lights on in 2008! That is asinine!

      3. SimCity 3000 was still the best SimCity. [authoritative scowl]

        1. My favorite is still the SNES version of 1 for some reason. I just find it so calming.

        2. Bro did you even try SC4? Agricultural zoning was enough to make it the best, but there was also a robust modding community.

          1. Yeah, i was about to say, some of the SimCity 4 mods can turn your highway system into something goddamn beautiful.

            1. And I forgot about economically interdependent regions!

        3. I still miss the arcologies from SimCity 2000.

      4. Some Euro-geeks did a pretty good job capturing the intent of SimCity and updating so that it actually does all the things SimCity pretended to do. I’ve burned a shameful number of hours on this one (because the new SimCity is a turd).

        1. I’ll vouch for Cities:Skylines – it’s the Sim CIty 5 we deserved. The modding community for that game is just as good as the one which popped up for SC4.

    2. Factorio is the new Libertarian Sim City.

      1. I may have to check that out. Is it Steam only?

        1. I don’t know. It’s an indie game where you build an industrial empire though. You can eventually basically make a full planet of pure industrialization. This is the libertarian dream as I am told by many.

          It is actually good though.

        2. Just looked it up and it’s not Steam only. You can buy from the website.

          1. I’ll check it out when I get home. Thanks!

          2. $20 for an early development game that looks like it was made for a gen 2 iPhone?!?! No thanks!

      2. Wouldn’t Libertarian SimCity just be watching as a self-directed economy grows?

  4. OT – The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is.

    “How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?

    “They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would ? in today’s lingo ? trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.

    “Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.”

    1. Well, good think libertarians aren’t in favor of centralized government planned trickle-down. In a free market it’s about decentralized organic trickle-up.

      1. Organic Trickle-Up was my nickname in college.

    2. It’s working too. Every southerner I know is a mindless devotee to the Cato institute. You can’t get them to stop reading their white papers.

      1. You know who else had white papers?

        1. Cheech and Chong?

    3. Though, every time I read slurs against the Koch brothers now I just think of this one article where people were shocked to find that the Koch’s were pro-immigration and drug legalization.

      1. Don’t fight stereotypes. How else are we going to classify everyone with a single word that then defines the narrative?

        By the way, what is the cutoff for 1%ers? Is it based on net worth or, annual income?

        I think I might be one. And, that would be important for me to know. 🙁

    4. So it’s official: wanting smaller government and lower taxes is pro-slavery.

  5. “Peanuts and Gum! Together at last!

  6. Wait, a strip club with a penis-shaped building photogenically placed in the background? You can’t tell me that wasn’t planned.

    1. Really it only reinforces the argument. Zoning D laws are out of control.

    2. OK, I can see it now… The skyscraper is the raging rod…

      And the Zone D’Erotica and the Dillard’s are the two giant gonads!

      WHERE is the PUSSY?!!? This whole thing is unbalanced and sexist!!!!

      1. The hole dug for the foundation is the pussy, and the rest of it is all a strap on. Mother Nature is a bad bitch here, fucking Father Sky’s increasingly raw asshole.

  7. Speaking of regulations, here’s the next one flouncing down the pike:

    Seattle is set to enact a ban on plastic straws and utensils.

    All businesses that sell food or drinks must offer compostable or recyclable options ? or ask patrons to forgo the tools altogether ? come next July as part of a citywide ordinance to curb plastic waste across the city.

    The ban aside, about 200 retailers have agreed to make the switch this month as part of an industry-led campaign, dubbed “Strawless in Seattle,” to prevent the plastic from polluting ocean waters and threatening marine life. It is among similar efforts by advocacy groups in cities spanning the country, from San Diego to Miami.

    The ‘ban aside’. Lol.

    1. or ask patrons to forgo the tools altogether

      For whatever reason, I imagine this will be a popular option. We shall see though.

      1. Popular among cultural appropriating racist, wrapping meatballs & spaghetti in tortillas and chopsticking away at their taco salads.

        1. Chopsticks are tools!

  8. So Houston is where I need to go to finally open my drive through liquor-sex-gun shop? Just pull into a stall and order a drink, lap dance and 9mm. One of the roller-skating servers will be with you soon.

  9. The roller coaster is not in the City of Houston. Notice the house is on stilts. You don’t see that in Houston. The location is the City of Seabrook. This is one of the most disingenuous parts of the press coverage about zoning. Much of the development occurs outside of Houston in areas where the city’s power is limited by the state’s grant of extraterritorial jurisdiction to large cities.

    While I can’t be sure about those individual houses. Many homes in the area around those high rise apartments have been redeveloped and are newer than the building. Indisputably, many homes have been bought and sold several times. So someone has volunteered to live there.

    1. Unfortunately, “someone has volunteered to live there” is not an effective argument. People will just say people are too stupid to know better, which is why you need zoning in the first place.

    2. Not to nitpick, but the roller coaster is in Kemah, not Seabrook.

  10. Very funny commentary and somewhat true. Still I favor zoning.. actually consistent use… as a preferred development pattern. Private deed restrictions is the best way to keep consistent use since it is expressed a property right. Unfortunately zoning got here first and most of us have to live under its limitations.

    Without zoning, you can see some mighty strange development patterns which can be exciting and nauseating depending on your point of view. The good thing about zoning is that it protects “the commons” or as economists say “externalities” from exploitation.

    The quiet enjoyment of a residential neighborhood could be destroyed by a single, inconsistent use like a industrial plant. The taxes of an entire neighborhood could go through the roof if new schools and sewers are needed because of a housing development.

    Libertarians understand personal liberty but they get very confused with “community values” that benefit everyone.

    1. No one is confused, except maybe you. As long as your “community values” aren’t enforced by a priori threats or violence, libertarianism is cool with it.

      1. I think zoning anarchy hurts everyone since there are some things like air pollution, toxic waste, noise, etc that degrades everyone’s existence except the discharger who is saddling the cost upon the community as a whole.

        1. Why do you believe that someone would want to build a factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood?

          And when you speak of “preferred development patterns,” by whom are they preferred, what is your source of knowledge of these preferences, and why are these particular people’s preferences to be preferred?

          1. Because we have them here! All over the place. I have a tortilla factory about 6 blocks from my house that is surrounded by high end homes. There is a brewery about 4 blocks from my house also surrounded by high end town homes. It’s not unusual at all here.

        2. Yes because of course you would buy expensive suburban real estate to build your factory upon instead of cheap agricultural land.

          1. A Captain Planet villain would.

  11. a house next to a roller coaster!

    So no one would think twice about screams periodically coming from the general vicinity of your house? Asking for a friend…

    1. Not in Houston. We’re all like whatever.

  12. Highly-regulated NYC has all sorts of situations that are impossible in SimCity, like apartments above shops. The zoning is complicated as hell but it largely reflects the conditions that were already in place 100 years ago before zoning even existed.

  13. I had no idea Woody Allen was from Houston.

  14. I was hot to move to Houston before reading this whiney rant. Now I’m absolutely excited, what with so many fixer-uppers on the market! Nobody mentions there are something like four reactors just south of town, pouring out electricity like there’s no tomorrow–and no hurricanes. A libertarian city council to rein in the bayou-drowners would make this a paradise.

  15. You kind of neglected to mention that Houston also has very high property taxes (and it relies on those for most of its city revenue). And its a very simplified system with afaik only one relatively minor exemption, few variances, and not much other nonsense (like untaxed land, etc). Its not a land tax – but it kind of works that way. And with a high tax rate, there ain’t gonna be as much pure speculation.

    In that sort of system, zoning is kind of pointless. The owner either pays the prop tax bill or they lose the land and the city sells it to someone who will pay the taxes – most likely by developing the land however they best think will do that. You don’t need any more niggling nannying rules than that.

    Of course, since libertarians now don’t get how land is different from capital, I can see why Reason would neglect to mention that land taxes also work differently than taxes on capital/labor. Doesn’t fit the narrative.

  16. Again, not racist, merely classist.

  17. What determines your class in this country though? Obviously its your race.


  19. The strip club (and a damn fine one) is on the other side of Transco Tower (or whatever it’s called these days).

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