Short description of the problem: Zoning
Country of origin: United States of America
Type of municipality: City
Municipality name: Houston, Texas
Implementation year: ever before (Houston was founded on August 30, 1836)

Detailed description of the problem

From philosophical point of view, zoning is discriminatory, unfair to some property owners, who can not treat with their properties according their preferences and land use restrictions are also unfair because they benefits or grants some privileges to some property owners at the expense of others.

Practical and at first glance, consequences of zoning which are not seen:
Research has shown that it is also decreasing traffic congestion and travel-to-work times, increasing housing costs, what has negative influence especially on lower-income families.

These problems are a consequence of designating large areas for high-density residential development without knowing where, how much and whether there is sufficient demand for that housing choice or how those existing neighborhoods would feel about the new density and traffic. It means that zoning produces inefficient land use allocation decisions because it forces landowners to make land use allocation decisions other than those they would make in a free market.

Other negative consequence of zoning is increasing of costs:
Zoning adds unnecessary transaction costs, which could be higher, than contribution of zoning.

The higher costs are shifted to developers, especially when the development requires approval for a variance, special use permit, amendment, or planned unit development or particular kinds of facilities must be included with certain kinds of uses. Other costs are adding by the process of creation and implementation of zoning ordinances.

Zoning advocates suggest that zoning is necessary to protect or enhance property values or to protect property owners from the negative externalities of new developments.  But there is a question: Are these strict restrictions only one possible choice?

Aren´t there any better market solutions, which would be more effective and “owners friendly”?

Detailed strategy of solving problem

For example, Houston, the largest city in the state of Texas and has the fourth-largest population among cities in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the Houston population over 2 million in an area covering more than 1,600 km².

Despite of this monumental data, Houston is city without zoning ordinances, which has never had one.

Lack of zoning requirements doesn´t mean, however, that there are no development regulations. They are on local, state and also federal level.

Negative externalities problem
Apparently unsolvable problem has got absolutely simple solution. In Houston and other cities that lack zoning, developers and property owners have enhanced home values by establishing protective covenants and creating homeowners associations to enforce and change the covenants in response to changing tastes and demand.

Protective covenants are very different and each association is creating and providing their own.

Zoning ordinances will typically limit the number of stories and total height of a building, changing purpose of use of existing properties, residence to face a street, minimum street frontage, others requirements.

Main advantage offered by associations before municipalities (zoning ordinances) is in flexibility in changing restrictions, covenants according new or unexpected needs.

Association activities are financing by required or free members fees, with possibility to decree application purpose. Associations connect their members in solving community problems, like teaching residents how to protect themselves and their property from criminal activity, coordinating graffiti prevention. They also organize varied contests and other activities.

All this common activities set strong fellow feeling and sense of responsibility for community life. Associations, in competition process by way of volunteer may supply municipality functions like: flowers, trees and park maintenance, libraries financing, creating children´s playground, historic building preservation and many others.

Why are they doing this? They want to gain a competition advantage over other associations what can lead to rising up their property values. Other positive effect of this competition is permanently increasing quality of services and housing.

It is absolutely clear, and research results has shown that higher prices are paid for homes in neighborhoods with either type of land-use control than for comparable houses in neighborhoods without these controls, it´s because property owners living in neighborhoods without these controls couldn´t guarantee that “property in their neighborhood won´t be used or maintained as a dumping ground for rubbish or trash”.

Associations and restrictive covenants serves principally to protect property owners from the negative externalities of new developments, and these covenants are more effective and flexible like zoning ordinances.

Results description

It is very difficult to find town center, because of lack of zoning ordinances. Something like town center doesn´t exist in Houston.

The reasons for this disparity in cost-of-living should be readily apparent. Houston doesn´t have a single business district. Instead, it has several, and thus there exists a greater supply of real estate available (shopping centers, administrative buildings…) close to employment. This drives down prices.

Transportation effect
Greater supply of real estate and different functions preserving in more districts also reduces congestions and travel-to-work times.

According to the US Census, between the 1990 and 2000 travel-to-work times increased by 17.9% in Boston , but by only 10.4% in Houston . Moreover, Houston increased in population by approximately 8.7% during this period, while Boston grew by a mere 2.2%. Put these together, and it’s clear that Boston is experiencing far greater increases in commuting times despite anemic population growth.

Lower prices – more affordable housing
The absence of zoning meant that more land is available for more types of housing, lowering the price of housing in Houston relative to the price of housing in other cities.

Furthermore, competition process among associations leads to lowering the price of housing too.

For example, according to Coldwell Banker, a 2,200 square foot, four-bedroom home that costs $155,000 in the Houston area would cost $357,000 in Portland.

Not surprisingly, Houston ranks among the most affordable major metros in the country. That, in turn, enables the American Dream of home ownership for hundreds of thousands of middle- and working-class families.

According to another survey, the number one motive for migrating is “to go somewhere with a lower cost of living or taxes.”

Other benefits:
Lack of zoning ordinances is an important factor in improving of social and economic mobility, which is one of conditions improving quality of men´s life.

Lack of zoning ordinances has positive impact on zoning implementation cost, which tend to be no one and also positive effect on corruption in the process of creation and implementation.

The thought of life without zoning may seem like a return to the Dark Ages. Despite of this, Houstonians have wisely rejected zoning several times over the last century, according their expressed opinion, it must not be true.

And so since August 1836,when John Kirby Allen and Augustus Chapman Allen, two real estate entrepreneurs from New York City, has purchased 27 km² of land along Buffalo Bayou with the intent of founding a city, remains Houston the largest city in the United States without a formal zoning ordinance. In addition, according to widespread opinion, in large urban centers, zoning ordinances and planning can be a rational and justifiable public policy response to very real problems, Houstonians don´t think so.


University of Maryland professor Robert Nelson has proposed that cities with zoning should “privatize their neighborhoods” by allowing people to form their own neighborhood associations and take over zoning questions. Such neighborhoods could also protect open space and create neighborhood parks.

Associations in the City of Houston:
Articles and studies:
Official website of the City of Houston:


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