Houston is contemplating rule modifications to fill the “lacking middle” with new triplexes and fourplexes

Houston is considering changes to its planning rules that could encourage a wider variety of apartment types like triplex and fourplexes that developers and the city say could create more affordable options and help fill an unfulfilled niche in the local housing market between single-family homes and larger residential complexes or townhouses

The current rules discourage these “medium” types of development by not allowing more than two units on a single-family residential complex. The code enables a maisonette or a house and an “additional apartment” such as a house. B. a garage apartment.

If owners want to develop a project with more units, they must get a commercial multi-family award, which triggers higher funding costs and more regulations – like the number of parking spaces or the width of the driveway – that make the projects less feasible. The city hasn’t approved a single new permit for three-, four-, or five-unit buildings in 2019 or 2020, an indication that it can be prohibitive for developers to pursue.

“All of these requirements deter such developments,” said Suvidha Bandi, chief planner in the urban planning department.

The city released a poll asking the public about the rules and whether they should be changed. The survey has received around 500 responses to date, and the planning department recently extended its deadline to August 16. The possible changes are part of the “Places worth living in” initiative to make the city more pedestrian-friendly, more affordable and fairer.

Planning officials stress that changes are not imminent: all proposals would need to be drafted and approved by the Houston Planning Commission before reaching the city council for approval.

The city is also asking for feedback on reducing the number of parking spaces some of these developments will have to provide and easing size restrictions on free-standing units.

Any changes would not replace local crime restrictions that could limit such developments in certain neighborhoods, said planning director Margaret Wallace Brown.

If the city relaxes planning constraints, it could encourage development in what housing experts call the “missing center,” the lack of living space between single-family homes and larger complexes. Daniel Parolek, an urban planner who coined the term, has said that since the 1940s, these developments have usually been illegal or discouraged in many parts of the United States.

At this point, many of the existing triplexes and fourplexes in Houston were being built, according to city planning authorities. Since then, the rules of town planning have made construction more difficult.

Planners and property developers said the anticipated changes could make the city more affordable by creating more options for buyers. Such developments could also be better suited to the neighborhoods they are in, as opposed to terraced houses or complexes. It could particularly help with infill development within Loop 610, where around 12 percent of the lots are empty, according to planners.

“One of the barriers to affordable housing is the cost of land,” said Zoe Middleton, co-director of Southeast Texas for nonprofit housing association Texas Housers. “If you adjust the number of units on a particular lot, you can accommodate purchasing in more areas.”

Tyron McDaniel, a developer at Houston Vintage Homes, specializes in building maisonettes in emerging neighborhoods to help long-term residents stay in their communities. He said he would like to build three or four units of these houses, but city regulations prevent him from doing it at a price that would be affordable for his customers.

“If we could make triplexes, it would open the market to so many buyers who can’t buy in these areas because they’re too expensive,” said McDaniel. “We cannot build a product that is in line with the market because it costs us too much.”

Other builders can buy the land and build three townhouses on it, charging the highest possible amount for the neighborhood, he said.

Under the existing rules, putting three units in one building would classify a building as commercial real estate, McDaniel said. That means higher financing costs and additional requirements that would be passed on to the buyer, making it less affordable, he added.

McDaniel said he supports raising the unit cap for single-family homes and reducing parking requirements, both changes that are being considered in the city. Free-standing second homes currently require an additional parking space.

He remembered a project he’d recently designed in Midtown where a woman wanted to add a small apartment to her garage. She already had two parking spaces, although she rarely used a car, and the rules provided that she had to add a third for the new apartment.

“Those two things alone would change the rules of the game,” said McDaniel. “That would be very good for the city.”

dylan.mcguinness@chron.com

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