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Texas GOP, Dems agree on housing crisis. Are they wrong about the solution?

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Cities should loosen zoning without targeting single- family neighborhoods as the problem.

When lawmakers return to Austin early next year, housing affordability — most notably reducing property tax burdens — will be a top priority. Gov. Greg Abbott also has signaled that he wants to do something about the impact of institutional investors buying up residential properties for rental on the supply and cost of single-family homes across the state.

There is also growing pressure to reform land use policies. A growing chorus of real estate experts, urban planners, cities and elected officials now say Texas also should adopt more flexible land use and zoning policies to ease housing availability and affordability crunches. A popular policy prescription involves reducing minimum lot sizes to permit multiplexes and townhomes to be built next to single-family dwellings, which advocates say would expand housing supply and stabilize housing prices.

We have a housing supply problem, so it’s no surprise that Texans on the right and the left have taken up the issue as a policy priority. If zoning is so onerous that homebuilders don’t have flexibility, Texas won’t be able to solve that supply problem. But state and local governments must take a more nuanced view of zoning than what leading partisan voices are offering.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, recommends that lawmakers abolish minimum lot sizes and adopt “no use” zoning to allow a lot to be used for just about any purpose that doesn’t run afoul of nuisance regulations. Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party’s platform calls for “ending racially motivated exclusionary forms of zoning,” with some people in the party arguing that single- family zoning is discriminatory.

When political polar opposites recognize the same problem, it’s worth working hard to find bipartisan consensus. We are concerned that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan are expected to push for statewide zoning reform to curtail local zoning powers of cities. This is likely to pit the big blue cities in the state against the conservative Legislature in yet another battle of state rules vs. local autonomy.

Cities have to be more flexible in their land use policies, but ham-fisted efforts from state lawmakers to limit zoning and other local government powers risk unintended consequences that we worry won’t allow cities to make adjustments unique to their markets.

The solution, in our view, is not to get rid of minimum lot sizes or to curtail single-family zoning. Cities must respect existing neighborhoods and the investments that residents made based on rules that existed at the time they bought their homes. But officials must loosen zoning rules in other areas of their cities to incentivize home construction on undeveloped land and in commercial districts, where land can be tapped for more density.

The exodus of people and industries from highcost states like New York, California and Illinois to Texas is in part due to Texas’ longstanding competitive advantage as a more affordable place to live. The state’s largest metropolitan areas have become more expensive, narrowing the historical advantages that Texas has had over rival states and cities. This is especially true in the “Texas Triangle” of highgrowth counties surrounding Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

The Texas A&M University Texas Real Estate Research Center has estimated that between 2020 and 2023, the annual median price for a house in Texas rose from $259,990 to $335,100, a 28.9% increase. And that’s before property taxes, which are among the highest in the nation, and skyrocketing insurance premiums from violent weather costs and other factors that drive up the costs of homeownership.

This is an opportunity for neighborhoods, state and city governments to be collaborative partners. There are ways to protect existing neighborhoods and also provide housing options for other Texans. Our state is not going to stop growing, but it must be affordable and livable.

San Marcos Record

(512) 392-2458
P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666