A last-minute compromise with developers that caught some neighborhood groups off guard eased the way for City Council on Wednesday to approve changes to Houston’s development ordinance aimed at boosting affordable housing stock.
The changes, which were years in the making, will allow developers to build more garage apartments, courtyard-style houses and small multi-family buildings, potentially unlocking a range of new options in the market’s “missing middle” between single-family houses and giant apartment complexes.
More controversially, the changes also will allow developers to continue building houses on narrow lots with short driveways that can leave sidewalks blocked by homeowners’ parked vehicles.
City officials worked out a last-minute compromise with developers that places new limits on when and how those “frontloader” houses can be built, however, including an outright ban in 10 neighborhoods.
In sharp contrast to the months of contentious debate that preceded the vote, the overall package passed with near-unanimous support. Only Councilmember Michael Kubosh voted no.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was pleased with the result of a months-long back-and-forth with developers.
“I think it will make a transformational difference in the city of Houston, but it was difficult to get to this point,” Turner said.
Officials gave few public signals that a compromise was in the works last week, when Planning and Development Director Margaret Wallace Brown said there had been no significant changes to the code update since an earlier round of debate in June.
Behind the scenes, however, Turner’s administration was working “feverishly” with builders to come to agreement on a seemingly arcane issue that threatened to blow up the entire package, one developer said Tuesday.
In many of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods, developers have taken to dividing 50-foot-wide lots in two and running short driveways from the garage to the street. Some blocks are dotted with driveway after driveway, leaving little room for on-street parking or green space.
Cars parked on such driveways often block sidewalks in neighborhoods that have seen an explosion of growth in recent years, such as Third Ward and Rice Military.
Earlier this year, the city sought to ban frontloader driveways altogether on lots that are less than 33 feet wide. The compromise did away with an outright ban to instead place limits on where and how developers can build frontloaders, which they say are highly prized by prospective homeowners.
Some neighborhood leaders said Wednesday that they had been given few or no details about the compromise.
George Frey, president of the Lazybrook/Timbergrove super neighborhood, said he long has felt like the development code overhaul lacked input from residents. Frey said the last-minute driveway amendment was “just the nail in the coffin.”
“I don’t even know what was passed,” he said. “I haven’t had the chance to look.”
Another critic was Tomaro Bell, the president of MacGregor’s super neighborhood. She said she fears the new housing styles will fuel gentrification.
“The only voice they wanted to hear from was the developers,” she said.
Keith Downey, the super neighborhood president for Kashmere Gardens, said he believes the initiative is overall a “good thing.”
Still, he said he hopes developers will not use it as a “one-size-fits-all” template for neighborhood developments.
“It cannot be cookie cutter,” said Downey, who also serves as vice president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance. “Yes, we have to plan for future generations, but we also have to take care of the ones that are alive today.”
Downey’s neighborhood is one of 10 where the frontloader driveways will be banned outright under the compromise reached this week. The others are Acres Home, Alief-Westwood, Fort Bend Houston, Gulfton, Magnolia Park-Manchester, Near Northside, Second Ward, Sunnyside and Third Ward, all of which are part of Turner’s Complete Communities program.
Those driveways also will be banned within 1,400 feet of the front entrance of primary and secondary schools, a provision aimed at making it easier for children to walk to school.
Developers may only build the frontloader driveways on lots that do not have alternative points of access from the rear, side or alleyway.
On narrow lots where they do build driveways accessing the street, developers also must set garages 20 feet back from the street. That provision is designed to ensure that trucks, SUVs and other large vehicles parked on the driveways do not block sidewalks.
Other than the driveway issue, the residential development code changes drew little debate at council this week. District C Council member Abbie Kamin on Wednesday praised the changes intended to allow more “missing middle” housing like accessory dwelling units, which are also known as garage apartments or “granny flats.”
Kamin said she had spoken to a divorcee in Montrose who worried she would not be able to keep living in her longtime house without the extra income from a second unit.
“This, as a package, is going to overwhelmingly help residents like that that are in need,” Kamin said.