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Cityscape: Volume 25 Number 2 | Recent Reforms in Zoning | Here Come the Tall Skinny Houses: Assessing Single-Family to Townhouse Redevelopment in Houston, 2007–2020


Recent Reforms in Zoning

Volume 25 Number 2

Mark D. Shroder
Michelle P. Matuga

Here Come the Tall Skinny Houses: Assessing Single-Family to Townhouse Redevelopment in Houston, 2007–2020

Jake Wegmann
Aabiya Noman Baqai
Josh Conrad
University of Texas at Austin

Contemporary research has documented a recent and widespread boom in the construction of “townhouses,” or land-efficient single-family houses, both detached and attached, in Houston. Contrary to popular portrayals of Houston as a Wild West of unrestricted land use, a deliberate reform in 1998 that was subsequently extended in 2013, in fact, made this townhouse boom possible. It drastically reduced permissible minimum lot sizes citywide. This article builds on this emerging body of literature to specifically focus on cases in which formerly single-family parcels were subdivided into small lots for townhouse construction between 2007 and 2020. It argues that Houston’s phenomenon of single-familyto- townhouse (SF2TH) redevelopment offers a glimpse of what other U.S. cities might expect to occur were they to repeal large lot single-family zoning and other binding restrictions to allow for widespread construction of widely desired small-lot single-family housing products in formerly low-density neighborhoods. The findings suggest that SF2TH redevelopment accounts for less than one-fifth of overall townhouse development, that it tends to take place on larger lots in the urban core occupied by small, old houses, that it produces relatively reasonably priced houses, and that it predominantly takes place in neighborhoods with higher-than-average house values prior to the period analyzed. The latter result is inconsistent with a view of gentrification as a primary driver of SF2TH redevelopment. This article also examines the pattern of “block votes,” or the pattern of usage of a petition mechanism that allows homeowners to opt out of townhouse development on their own blocks, and finds that clusters of block votes generally adjoin clusters of SF2TH redevelopment but with relatively little overlap.

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