Last May, I moved from Houston to Austin for work. I lived in Houston’s Heights neighborhood, one that shares a lot of similarities with many of the neighborhoods in central Austin under intense discussion with the land development code rewrite. The Heights, as it’s called, is located close to downtown, has longstanding housing stock dating to the earliest part of the 20th century, and has enviable walkability, restaurant scene, and culture.
I paid $1250 a month and lived in a duplex a block away from White Oak Boulevard, a street brimming with bakeries and restaurants. A couple of blocks in the other direction lies the Woodland Heights Historic District – a pocket of protected homes. Houston’s approach – the occasional historic district to preserve neighborhoods with rich histories and charm, set amidst streets that allow a diverse mix of housing options, enriches the city for everyone, providing a full range of choices.
Houston’s zoning allows missing-middle housing to fit the lot – garage apartments discreetly tucked behind historic houses, freestanding 3-story units sharing a central driveway on deep lots, shoulder-to-shoulder townhomes on wide but shallow lots. I was quite surprised when arriving in Austin that these housing types weren’t around – you would think that, given the high land costs, they’d be a logical way to meet housing demand. In Houston, they’ve proven quite popular amongst young families who want affordable two- or three-bedroom homes without having to move to the suburbs.
The missing-middle housing enriches the neighborhood – with more neighbors strolling the streets, more support for local businesses, thriving neighborhood associations, parks with children playing in them, and rich local traditions like White Linen Night or Lights in the Heights.
It’s hard not to tie Houston’s liberal zoning laws to its enviable affordability. Despite being the fourth-largest city in America with a booming economy and a growing population, Houston has a lower share of minority renters moderately or severely burdened by rent than Austin. Though Houston certainly has issues with gentrification, the ability to subtly densify central neighborhoods has limited its velocity—middle-class or higher-income residents can find an option that meets their needs without having to push into low-income neighborhoods (look no further than east Austin’s $700k tear-downs).
Austin has so much going for it – a thriving economy, a beautiful setting, a bright culture. Houston’s lesson is that legalizing more housing can be better for everyone – for historic neighborhoods with character, for new arrivals, and for longtime residents holding out hope for affordability.