Podcast: Land Use & Sprawl in Houston with William Fulton, Rice University

Posted on May 11, 2021

William Fulton - GovLove

William Fulton

William Fulton
Director, Kinder Institute for Urban Research
Rice University
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter

Building better cities. William Fulton, the Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, joined the podcast for a wide ranging conversation about development, planning, and land use in Houston, Texas. He talked about the market forces in an environment with low regulation and sprawl, plus how gentrification is occurring in Houston. He also discussed how the City is planning for resilience, what other cities can learn from Houston, and his new book about the Texas Triangle.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Nationally recognized urban planner William Fulton named director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research

Episode Transcription

Ben Kittelson  00:00

All right should be recording. Coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittleson, consultant at Raftelis and Gov love co host. We’ve got a great episode for you today we’re talking land use and development in Houston, Texas. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government and ELGL pop ups are coming. Pop ups are ELGL’s approach to regional conferencing, and they’re gonna be hosted virtually on May 21, 2021. So go get your ticket now. Visit ELGLPopUps.com to save your spot.

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Ben Kittelson  01:13

Now let me introduce today’s guest. William Fulton is the director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, a position he’s been in since 2014. He’s a former mayor of Ventura, California and Director of Planning and economic development for the city of San Diego. He’s also the author of now seven books, including the guide to California planning, the standard urban planning textbook in California, and the Reluctant Metropolis, the politics of urban growth in Los Angeles. He’s the co author of a new book called The Texas triangle, which is out today. And we’re going to make him tell us a little about that here in a second. So with that, Mr. Fulton, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to Gov Love!

William Fulton  01:50

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Ben Kittelson  01:52

Awesome. So we have a tradition on the podcast to start with a lightning round to help our listeners get to know our guests a little better. So my first question for you. What was the first album you bought?

William Fulton  02:02

I’m pretty sure that the first album I ever bought was Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, which of course, and the, and the theme of the song itself is actually most relevant to me in my world as an urban planner. It’s really about the cultural differences between urban and rural life, right? So that was a good start. 

Ben Kittelson  02:20

Yeah, very good start. Great album.

William Fulton  02:23

Yes. Still a great album. 50 years later, almost.

Ben Kittelson  02:27

My next question for you. Have you watched the show or movie recently that you’d recommend?

William Fulton  02:32

Yeah, my wife and I just finished watching all three seasons of Broad Church. That’s a British crime drama, right? And it’s set in a beach town in southern England, and just the landscapes and the townscapes in that, in that show are really, really beautiful. And as somebody who’s sort of feels strongly about place, I’m feel pretty con- I felt pretty, It can I felt connected to it. Like I wanted to go there. It’s a good show, too. And the performances, Scott Victoria Coleman, among others, the performances are really good. So that was our binge watching over the last couple of weekends. It’s not brand new. It’s came out a few years ago.

Ben Kittelson  03:13

Yeah, we’re in we’re in the market for another binge watch show. Because I feel like we’re, we’re out so that I have to add that to the list. And then is there a book that you give us a gift most often?

William Fulton  03:26

Well, I was thinking about that one. I used to give a book. I’ll give two answers. Okay, I used to give a book called California Land and Legacy, which was a book that I wrote the text for, which is about basically some spectacular California nature photography. But that book’s old now. So I don’t give that away. Now, to my professional friends, I tend to give away to show you how nerdy I am. I tend to give away the book that I think is probably the best book ever written about an American city and that is Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, which is about Chicago. I’ll give that away all day long to my, to my professional friends and my nerdy urban planning friends. 

Ben Kittelson  04:09

Awesome. Awesome. I haven’t heard of that. So I’ll have to add that

William Fulton  04:14

Bill Cronon and teaches history at University of Wisconsin and it’s all about Chicago in the 19th century, and basically about how Chicago was connected to the hinterland and how and so you know, you would go out to Nebraska and you can see wooden farmhouse, I think, where did the wind come from? The answer is the wood came from, you know, some forest in Wisconsin, and it was everything flowed through Chicago, but it is such a powerful, strong book, you talk to urban historians, and they’ll say they’ll talk about Bill Cronon like writers talk about Shakespeare. It’s like, Well, why should I bother even ever to write anything after reading that? 

Ben Kittelson  04:52

Awesome, awesome. All right, my last lightning round question for you. Where do you go for inspiration?

William Fulton  04:59

Where I’ll go for inspiration generally is to my family’s cottage in the Adirondacks. I grew up in upstate New York, and the family still owns our little cottage on a peaceful little lake up there. And I just go up there and sit and look at the lake. And it’s about as different from my life here in Houston as you can get.

Ben Kittelson  05:17

Awesome. Awesome. Alright, so before we kind of get into our, our interview today, you have a new book out, it’s actually out today, May 11th. So can, can you tell our listeners a little about the new book called The Texas Triangle.

William Fulton  05:32

Yeah, coincidentally, this book’s publication date is today. It’s called The Texas Triangle. It has three co authors, the most prominent improvement is Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and HUD Secretary, it’s published by Texas A&M Press. The book has kind of a an explanation of the demographic and economic power of the Texas triangle. That’s Houston, College Station, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio. And, and that is a region that now has 20 million people. And it’s growing really fast. And basically all of the population growth and all of the economic growth in Texas is occurring within that triangle. So it’s become one of the most powerful mega regions in the country. And our argument is that Texas, I’ve lived now in Texas for almost seven years, Texas has to acknowledge that it is an urban Metropolitan State, and it is host to one of the most powerful mega regional economies in the world. And and both in the in its economic policy, and it’s policy about people has to begin has to begin to accept that reality, rather than simply living on the legacy of ranches, and cattle drives, and Larry McMurtry and oil and gas fields, and so forth. So we’ll see what anybody thinks. But there’s no question in my mind having come here in 2014, that Texas is an extremely urban state.

Ben Kittelson  06:53

So what do you think that means? like, what does that mean, I guess on a policy front for for a state like Texas is that driving more growth, like cities and organizing kind of stuff around that, or is it stigma?

William Fulton  07:04

It’s acknowledging, it’s acknowledging that growth in cities and urban areas has a different set of necessities to it. So for, for example, Texas cities are rather limited in their ability to raise revenue in order to build new roads, and so forth, and particularly to build new mass transit. There there, the state is prohibited by the Constitution from using highway money to build transit, for example. In addition, probably the one that has the most, the idea that has the most bipartisan support is there just needs to be better public education. The one thing that we found, one of our co authors did an analysis comparing the Texas triangle to the other mega regions of the country, Southern California, Northeast Corridor, South Florida, sort of Chicago, Detroit, etc, and found that the only measurement that the Texas triangle comes out low on his educational attainment, that’s a huge problem that many of the people who live here do not become well educated. And therefore we have to import workers from other places. And that is a good thing in the sense that it increases population, a bad thing in the sense that it leaves a lot of people behind. And in a state that is extremely divided in partisan terms, this is one thing that everybody agrees on.  Interesting. Awesome. So our listeners, if any of that sounded like worth reading, you should go check out the book, which is out today. And you can order it. So I will be sure to put a link to the book as well and kind of the show notes for for today’s episode. Great. Thanks.

Ben Kittelson  08:41

So I also like to, I usually like to begin conversations with kind of how folks got to their role. So like, what’s been your career path? You’re now leading this, you know, Institute for urban research, but how did you end up here? What was kind of your career path to their current role?

William Fulton  08:54

It’s been a very circuitous career path. I started out as a journalist, as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York. And when I was young, I got thrown into covering suburban towns and what do you write about in suburban towns? Well, you write about subdivision approvals and sewer blinds and and you know, how many people are being added, how many kids are being added to the school district and the demographics that make up the school district. And so I got fascinated by the process of city building and suburb building as a journalist. Eventually, I moved to Southern California. I went to planning school at UCLA and for many years, I was primarily a writer about urban planning and cities and the environment. But over time, I gradually transitioned into actually doing it. Eventually, I became a partner in a planning consulting firm in California. I ran for office in the in Ventura, my adopted hometown, and I served as mayor there, and that was at a time in the early 2000s when growth was rampant, and we’re trying to figure out how the growth how the growth, you know, a place like Ventura can be quality growth and can be good, rather than just more sprawl and be bad. Eventually, I later I ran a, I ran policy for a nonprofit advocacy group called Smart Growth America. And then the mayor of San Diego asked me to be the planning director there. I did that for a while. And then I came here and all the while I’ve also taught, I’ve taught urban planning at the college and masters level. I’ve taught for 10 years adjunct, for example, at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles in their masters and planning program. Yeah, so it’s been a pretty, I haven’t really had one career, I’ve had like, five.

Ben Kittelson  10:38

Yeah. Well, yeah, it’s such like a diverse, like career background. Like, I’m curious how, I don’t know your time, as you know, playing director or your time as mayor, how do you think that informs maybe, you know, the work you did as a consultant, or the work you’re doing now, right? What I’m always curious about, like how that direct experience-

William Fulton  10:56

I was mostly a consultant, I was a consultant, because the mayor was a part time job, I didn’t consult and mayor at the same time, which was that was quite a balancing act. But I think you learn how to survive it very intensely in the public eye. That’s what local officials, whether elected or appointed, have to deal with. When I was in, so I would say in my whole career, the one thing theme that’s been true in my whole career is I always say I’ve been a municipal psychologist, and my job, my job is to help the cities and communities through the wrenching transition from being suburban to being more urban, right, because that has been happening all over the country, and especially in Southern California, where I did most of my work until I came to Houston and now in Houston. So there are obvious there’s obviously always a lot of resistance to that process. There are a lot of people who think that change is bad, and that things and any change is only going to make things worse, which is sometimes true and sometimes not true, right. So the thing you learn to do more than anything else, is to listen to people to try to understand them and try to get underneath their emotion or their anger to find out what’s really bothering them. And usually, it’s just that they’re afraid of change. And and they and they want to believe that in their little neighborhood, change can be, can you know, you can freeze dry the neighborhood and change can be completely resistant. It says very difficult process to work through them to discuss with them that a, that’s not possible and b, not it’s not always desirable, except for the next, especially for the next generation of people. You know, people, one of the things I would say is okay, you’re 60 years old, you’re going to retire soon, could the person who take your job buy your house? Right? And the answer particularly in Southern California is always No. Right? So that’s a real eye opener when people begin to put themselves in the shoes of the people coming coming after them.

Ben Kittelson  12:59

I love that, like urban psychologists, that the great like phrase, and like the I agree, especially places that are growing that like transition from you know, where sleepy Southern college town to a place that people want to live and expect urban amenities like that, that’s a, that’s that’s a shift. And it’s a hard one for folks that have been there a long time.

William Fulton  13:18

And I know we’re gonna get on and talk about Houston in a minute. But in Houston, Houston is almost like the anti, the opposite of Southern California where growth has always been welcomed. regulation has been light, and we’ll talk about that more I know. But as home prices go up, as people have more invested in their community and their neighborhood, they actually begin to adopt this this resistant attitude more. I see that in my own in my own neighborhood, which is mostly townhomes and low rise apartments. There’s a pretty tall apartment building going up about four blocks away from from my townhome and people are freaking out.

Ben Kittelson  13:56

Well, yeah, like you, like you mentioned where we’re going to talk a lot about Houston today. And full disclosure, I heard you give a presentation for the Lincoln institute a couple weeks ago. And there was a lot of, of what I heard that I think are good lessons for other cities, especially as I think larger cities in the south. I know, when I moved to Jacksonville, there was, the way land use works here and the way the city has developed, it was very new to me and it’s just seems so different compared to like other places I’ve lived. And I heard a lot of echoes of what I’ve seen here in Jacksonville, Florida with what you were talking about in Houston. And so I think there’s some some good lessons that I think our listeners can can learn from some of your work and kind of the things you’ve seen in Houston. So for for maybe folks that are less familiar with maybe your research and the city of Houston generally. Can you tell us about kind of, you know, why is it unique and what are some of the like kind of the land use trends going on in in Houston Harris County?

William Fulton  14:52

Well, first of all, Houston like Jacksonville is one of the geographically largest cities in the country. Right. I think that’s it actually is the geographically largest city in the country, 700 or 800 square miles, as I recall, right, and is huge and sprawling like crazy. Houston is about 600-650 square miles and has about 2.3 million people. Harris County, which is the host county for Houston has another, has double their population. So Harris County has almost 5 million people. And that’s more people than live in any single county in the country except for LA County, and Cook County, which is, which is Chicago. What makes Houston, there’s two things that make Houston unusual. One, inside the city limits, there is no zoning for use. I mean, there’s all kinds of other development regulations which we can go into. And there are workarounds. But there is not, the city does not zone properties for specific uses, you can basically use a piece of property for anything you want, as long as you meet other requirements, and that’s inside the city. Another aspect of unique, semi unique aspect is that half of the people in Harris County live outside of any city, not just outside of Houston, there were 33 smaller cities in Harris County, but half the people live outside of any city in the unincorporated area through a complicated process, the city of Houston generally has authority over approving the front end development in these areas outside the city. But but it used to be the city would then annex that property, but it doesn’t do that anymore. So counties have no ordinance making power in Texas. And so people, 2 million people live in unincorporated areas with no city government, no entity with ordinance making power. They’re governed primarily by special districts that provide water and sewer and sometimes parks and police protection. So it’s a very different environment than certainly I was familiar with living in Southern California for 30 years. And very different compared to most most places. It’s pretty, in other words, it’s pretty wide open.

Ben Kittelson  17:10

Well, one of the things that I didn’t realize that I found interesting from your presentation was that, although and I think most folks if they know anything about the city of Houston, like planning or land use, they know that there’s no zoning there. But there’s, there’s ways that folks have gotten around that in Houston. So yeah, what are some of those workarounds?

William Fulton  17:28

There’s basically three workarounds right. One is that particularly in affluent neighborhoods, there are very strong deed covenants, which restrict, which restrict use. And sometimes, strangely enough, those deed covenants are enforced by the city, even though their privacy covenants. So for example, one of the richest and most influential neighborhoods in the country is River Oaks. You may recall when the new york times during the last presidential campaign, wrote about how half of the presidential donations come from a some small number of neighborhoods in the country. And they actually on the front page, had an aerial photograph of River Oaks, and showed where all the rich people live and how much they’d given to different presidential campaigns. River Oaks has a deed covenants, which are strictly enforced. And so therefore, you’re never going to see an apartment building built in River Oaks. And that’s true of most affluent neighborhoods in Houston. The second thing that people have realized is that if they can get, any, any neighborhood can petition for this, if they can get, if they’re an older neighborhood, and they can get a historic neighborhood designation, sometimes they can slow down and block additional development. And lastly, there’s another neighborhood. There’s another neighborhood level petition which a neighborhood can initiate, which prohibits small lot zoning. So we’ll get into this later. But the typical pattern in Houston is to tear down a single family house house and replace it with somewhere between two and six townhomes. And interestingly enough, it’s the poor neighborhoods which have pursued this approach to try to block gentrification to try to retain original single family homes, some of which are not in very good shape, and block the construction of townhomes, which will go for several $100,000 and are generally not affordable to anybody who lives in the neighborhood at that time. So there’s three basic workarounds and and they are all used in different situations around the city. Now that doesn’t affect every parcel, right? There’s still plenty of places where you can do anything you want. And one of the games developers plays. Like they’ll go find the first parcel that has no deed covenant on it that’s closest to say River Oaks, right and then they’ll build a tall luxurious apartment building there. So that they try to play off of the work arounds and by finding properties close to it as they can. Now the other thing I would say is that anything you build is still subject to typical development standards. So even in an urban area you hit with, with a couple of exceptions, you still have to provide setbacks. And you still have to provide parking. Right? Which which, which, in an indirect way restricts what you can build. So it’s not like there’s no rules at all. Right? There’s just, there’s lots of rules. There’s just no, there’s just no zoning for use.

Ben Kittelson  20:34

Yeah. Interesting. So those kind of work arounds. What are, I guess what’s the kind of impact on maybe the overall like, development pattern or the city does that kind of drive certain kinds of uses in certain places? Or has it obviously isn’t as like organized as like, a whole zoning ordinance would be but.

William Fulton  20:53

Well, what’s interesting is that so in a kind of a typical way, many of the most affluent neighborhoods are pretty closed in, right? So the two, the three biggest job centers in Houston are downtown, the Texas Medical Center, and the Galleria area, which is sort of suburb, formerly suburban people at the Century City in LA kind of high rise, revolving around a shopping mall. In between those areas are mostly single family, with some exceptions, are mostly single family home neighborhoods protected by deed covenants. In fact, with particularly the Texas Medical Center and the Galleria area, which is sometimes called uptown, the immediately adjacent neighborhoods are extremely wealthy and protected by deed covenants. All the properties around rice, which is in the Med Center, are are like that. So so you see this weird, it’s not like they’re skyscrapers in the middle, and then it just gradually tapers off, right? Yeah, there’s, there’s skyscrapers in the middle, then there’s affluent people in single family homes, and there’s another bunch of skyscrapers. And then you’ll see a tall apartment building sort of randomly placed wherever a developer can get a hold of a piece of land and an attractive location, you know, you’ll be, he’ll be driving down the street, and you’ll see the Starbucks and the Kroger’s. And then and then all of a sudden you see a 30 story apartment building, and then you see a two story apartment building and a restaurant and a parking lot.

Ben Kittelson  22:23

Wow, interesting. So, like in a place like Houston, it’s growing. And obviously, the maybe preference is the wrong word. But the the the typical development pattern is sprawl. What are what is the place like Houston that doesn’t want to do a ton of like land regulation and can’t in a lot of places, like what are some of the policy options to kind of regulate or drive development in a way that maybe it’s more organized than what is currently being experienced?

William Fulton  22:51

Well, that’s a good question. And the answer is that there are very few, there’s basically no regulatory way to do it in Texas. In California, where I used to live, local governments would often you know, impose urban growth boundaries there, but I would say, you know, it’s about it’s really about land ownership and where you put the transportation corridor. So for example, there are a couple of conservancies that own 10s of 1000s of acres of land on the urban fringe, those are generally not going to get developed right. So land so land purchased by land conservation organizations, is a very important in in shaping urban development, more so here than in other places. And then the other big driver, as I say, is the transportation corridors. Both, both the Texas Department of Transportation techstop and our regional planning agency, the Houston Galveston Area Council are pretty aggressive in seeking to build new highways on the urban fringe. And that of course, pushes, that of course, poles particularly residential development, out to the fringe. Houston is just finishing for example, its third ring around the grand Parkway, which is about 30 miles from, it’s a ring road around the entire region. It’s about 30 miles out from from downtown, and the total circumference of that road is 200 miles like if you drive all the way around that road, it’s 200 miles. So now the powers that be have said there’s probably not going to be a fourth Ring Road. You know, my joke is that the fourth Ring Road in Houston is I-35 through Central Austin, but but but but nevertheless we are seeing another generation of suburban development 30 miles out almost all the way around. And then a little bit further right because of this road, and there are some other roads being proposed on the Metropolitan fringe in outlying counties, to try to bring development to those outlying counties, even as the job centers continue to remain pretty much in central Houston and close to it.

Ben Kittelson  25:05

So what’s the kind of push and pull between that, like you have these transportation corridors that are going further and further out that are, you know, pulling residential development out to them. But the job centers are still core and they’re in some neighborhoods, there’s loose enough regulation that maybe there can be some more dense housing built in might otherwise be like, what is you know, is that a fair statement that there’s some development being more dense there? I don’t know.

William Fulton  25:31

It’s an interesting question as to what it all adds up to. There is, there is a fair amount of development occurring in the core, it’s mostly townhome development, three story townhomes. As I said previously, on previously usually single family lots. Interestingly enough, the overall population of the core of Houston is not going up, because the people who move into the townhomes have smaller households than the people who are leaving in the, from the older houses, or those small apartment buildings. So that’s not really take that’s, that’s taking a lot of development, it’s not really taking a lot of population pressure. The big question is, will the job centers really move further out, particularly to the north and the West. And to some extent, they have. ExxonMobil consolidated most of it, which is not based, which is based in Dallas, but that has almost all of its US operations in Houston, recently built a campus in spring near the woodlands about 40 miles from downtown Houston. And that’s where they consolidated all of their Houston area workers. So that’s a big job center, and that’s attracting others. Some of the other energy, core energy companies have moved from downtown, out to the west. So they are within striking distance of some of this development. The question is how much of that continues? The central Job Centers, particularly those three I mentioned, are very strong, and, and continue to employ many hundreds of 1000s of people. the Texas Medical Center employs 100,000 people in 57 medical institutions in a one square mile area. And so and so the big question is, will those Job Centers hold or will those jobs disperse more to the north and the West? It is happening to some extent, but it’s probably not happening as fast as the residential dispersion is happening. And that, of course, then leads to not just more sprawl, but more commuting to the, you know, from north to south, and from west to east. 

Ben Kittelson  25:47

Interesting. Well, so and I know a lot of growing cities are dealing with with the problem of gentrification and kind of spikes in development in historically, you know, African American neighborhoods, you know, areas with lower incomes, that, and those, you know, the, the trend is or the story is that those folks are then pushed out further, further away from from the city and away from services and resources. What, what does that look like in Harris County and Houston? Like, does that same kind of pressure, is that same kind of pressure happening? Is it, is it look the same as it does in other cities? Or, because there are obviously areas that probably absorb a lot more development and not.

William Fulton  28:17

Yeah, it is happening, it looks a little bit different, it might not look that different from other southern cities, it looks quite a bit different from say, the Northeast in California in the following way, you go to LA or you go to the Bay Area, or you go to New York, and you will see gentrification in, in close in neighborhoods where there’s a historic stock of buildings that are turning over and becoming more expensive, right? And, and, and, and new residents are moving in and those new residents are generally more affluent, whiter, right? That’s classic gentrification. Now in even in close in neighborhoods in Houston that are traditionally African American, number one, they are much of the historic building stock has been torn down. And number two, much of that historic building stock wasn’t very durable in the first place. And And number three, the historic densities, even in even in the African American neighborhoods close to downtown, they’ve been quite low. So what you see those neighborhoods doing is they’re absorbing a lot of this townhome development that I was describing. three, three story, three bedroom, 2300 square feet for somewhere between 350 and $500,000. And particularly in the Third Ward in Houston, which is a historically African American neighborhood, that’s immediately, that’s right along the freeway and it’s immediate and right along the rail line and it’s immediately in between downtown and the Texas Medical Center, the two biggest job centers in the region. So that so you see land prices going up. You see there has been a lot of demolition. You see, you see a lot of townhomes being built, apartment buildings less often, you saw a lot use, we’ve seen a lot of apartment buildings in one of the original African American neighborhoods, which is adjacent to where I live now. But you don’t see this wholesale like Brooklyn, right, moving into, you know, all the brownstones turning over and gentrifying, what you see is actual actual demolition and construction and demolition and construction. So it’s a little bit different. And it’s different, because the nature of the housing stock is different. And because the historic densities of the of the neighborhoods are different. Now we don’t, we suspect, but we don’t really know for sure that there is significant displacement. You know, our general view is that there is significant displacement from the core to low amenity sort of 60s and 70s. suburbs, which of course, are not close to transit, which, generally speaking are not close to jobs, they’re further away. So that’s inconveniencing at the very least people who are being displaced. But we have not nailed down the exact nature of that displacement. We’re working on that at the Kinder Institute right now trying to figure that out.

Ben Kittelson  31:16

Yeah, and that that kind of pattern, I think fits with my, my experience in, you know, Jacksonville, and then moved here from the city of Durham, North Carolina, where gentrification, it seemed like, a lot more like what you’re describing where, you know, there’s development for sure, in places that have not has not seen it historically. But it’s, it’s less like these buildings are turning over, rather than there’s a new apartment building in a place that didn’t have one before. Maybe on abandoned lot B, you know, somewhere, maybe replacing an older apartment building. And it’s unclear folks are being pushed out because of that, or if it’s just the neighborhood is changing. And there’s kind of this, this experience of like, a different community than was there before, which is also a form of, you know, this gentrification.

William Fulton  31:59

Right, it’s a little hard to tell. The, probably the most dramatic gentrification that occurred in Houston is in the fourth word, immediately to the west of downtown, adjacent to where I live now, which was traditionally known as Freedmen’s town, Houston was a destination for free Blacks after the Civil War. And, and Freedmen’s town was a historic African American neighborhood, a lot of shotgun houses, you know, small houses, and mostly African American neighborhood, and a lot of that stuff has been torn down and replaced by three, four or five story apartment buildings catering to younger folks, mostly white who work downtown only, you know, a short distance away. And, and that that’s caused a lot of strife and a lot of thinking, right? Because in a world where there is very little land use regulation, what do you do, right? Is there a way to protect that? If so, how? And so there’s been a lot of hand wringing about that. And so now, a lot of that concern has moved over to the third word, which I mentioned before, which contains much of the many of the traditional cultural and economic institutions of African American Houston. So, for example, the, a major park called Emancipation Park, which is where the Juneteenth celebration occurs every year and has occurred every year since, like 1872, was just renovated $40 million public and private money, which is great in a historically African American neighborhood. However, it is now attracting pretty high end development across the street. And so is that going to gentrify the neighborhood in a way that that people won’t recognize? These are pretty, pretty significant concerns. And so we see this weird pattern of there’s a lot of demolition in these neighborhoods. And there’s a lot of construction. The demolition is all over the neighborhood, the construction tends to occur just earlier the freeways.

Ben Kittelson  34:12

Interesting. Well, and the Kinder Institute released a report last month about kind of this topic called Retaking Stock, which we can link to in the show notes for this as well. Are there any findings from that that like, them haven’t already kind of touched on that the folks kind of might find interesting or should be aware of?

William Fulton  34:31

Well, we, I mentioned that one pattern of in the historically African American neighborhood seeing seeing a demolition throughout the neighborhood and construction only on the edges along the freeways, which is, which is significantly change, altering the character. But the other thing that we really found is that in the close in neighborhoods is Houston is becoming a city of townhomes, both attached townhomes and then What we call detached townhomes. They’re technically single family homes, but they’re, you know, one foot apart from one another, right? So we call those detached townhomes. And the big change in the urban fabric in Houston in the last 20 years has been in the close in neighborhoods, and even in some of the some of the farther up neighborhoods, the predominance of this building type. So use, you know, we see in which is, which many people view is a good thing, right, because it’s, it’s a it’s a middle, technically middle income housing type. Now, you’ve still got your single family homes, which are either millions of dollars or far away, right. And you’ve still got your apartment buildings of all kinds. But But as I say, you can buy in central Houston, a townhome for $300,000, which you can’t do in most large American cities. And that is partly the result of the regulatory, relatively unregulated market. And and we see, so we see and many longtime residents, particularly these African American neighborhoods don’t like the arrival of these townhomes. But at the same time, they appear to be providing ownership opportunities for a level of income that you don’t typically see in the middle of a big American city. 

Ben Kittelson  36:31

Yeah, yeah. It’s that that missing middle that planners talk about-

William Fulton  36:35

There is there is some missing middle, yes. Yes, there is some missing middle dealt with here with the townhomes. So there’s a pro and a con to it, right?

Ben Kittelson  36:47

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s kind of separate from the gentrification, but almost the counterfactual to you know, places that are, that are arguing for loosening regulations to allow for that missing middle like will people buy it and do it and seems like that that is a an option for folks in Houston in there. It’s, the markets meeting that demand in Houston at least.

William Fulton  37:06

Yeah, and I, a lot of people now are talking about loosening up regulation, we see many cities that are abolishing, a few cities anyway, abolishing single family zoning or trying to right? And it seems to me like Houston is an interesting case study of what happens when when you have less regulation. And so what happens is, developers are very focused on the short term market, right? Oh, what can I, what can I put up today that will maximize my my profit today? That’s always been the case in Houston. And so, you know, to the, so there’s pros and cons to this. Let’s say you want to try to reserve property at the light rail stations for high density residential, which would make sense, right? And that’s what most zoning does in most cities. Well, you can’t do that in Houston. There are some light rail lines are getting very dense development. Some are not some are getting townhomes right adjacent to the, to the stations, which you know, in planning terms doesn’t make any sense. So and the other thing I would say is that the one thing when you eliminate zoning all to, use zoning all together that what happens is that all land uses are in competition with each other for every piece of life, right? So. So affordable housing developers will complain that they have a tough time buying land that they can afford to build affordable housing on because they’re in competition, not just with a single market rate residential developer, they’re in competition with somebody wants to build a shopping center, or somebody wants to build offices or want somebody wants to build a warehouse, right? And so so you get that something you see almost nowhere else, which is this, this competition among different real estate sectors for the same piece of land. And that is a, that’s a, that’s a pro and a con, right? Those are some of the things that those are some of the things that you don’t think about when you think about loosening land use regulations in other states.

Ben Kittelson  39:15

That’s fascinating.

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Ben Kittelson  40:00

So I did want to kind of make sure to talk about kind of the resilience piece and kind of the the responding to natural disasters piece of all this, like Houston, like many other, especially large Southern southern cities has to deal with, you know, natural disasters, hurricanes, flooding. And you know, I think you shared in a presentation or maybe a post on your website that, the Houston area has seen like some huge storms just in like the last few years like some, and I think it was like, the year maybe you moved there, there was like a bunch in one year. But so what does that look like in Houston? How do you when you can’t control land use, there’s the Sprawl, so you’re losing some of the maybe natural defense mechanisms that in their area might have, how do you start to deal with kind of extreme weather and resilience and in a place like that?

William Fulton  40:47

Yeah, that’s a good question. And in fact, it’s true. I moved here in 2014. And sometimes it seems like there’s been nothing but natural disasters ever since I arrived. Most recently, our winter freeze, which got a lot, you know, which, as you know, in Texas, in particular, in Houston, a lot of the almost all of the electricity and most of the water got knocked out for the better part of a week. Well, we don’t have land use regulation, but we do have a flood control district that will use eminent domain when it has to right so. So the the flood control district actually is, where, does often take property to use for detention basins and so forth. The big, the big change we’ve seen, particularly since Hurricane Harvey, which was our 50 inch rainstorm in 2017, is prior to that time, we always tried to engineer our way out of our out of our flooding problems, right? Try to create an engineering solution so that it never floods anywhere. And I think I want to make one point that I haven’t made, which is that Houston is a very engineering oriented city, there are more engineers in Houston than any other city in the world, right? And they there are, there are obviously a lot of oil, petroleum and chemical engineers, right? For the for the oil and gas and petrochemical industry. There are lots and lots of NASA engineers. And there are lots of civil engineers. And so it’s whereas another city might have an architecture or design culture, Houston has an engineering culture and you know, we have a can do attitude, like, okay, we can make any problem go away with engineering. And hurricane Harvey taught us that that’s not possible. And so one of the things that we have begun to do since Hurricane Harvey is figure out, okay, how do you live with the water? How do you make sure that you’re not that your goal is to not prevent flooding from occurring, but to protect people in their property in the process, right. And actually, one good example that predates Harvey that Houston has done is to make many many of the major streets are deliberately designed to flood in a storm. And many people get annoyed by that because they’re trying to drive around. But in fact, that’s intended to protect your property. So so that so that a public right of way becomes a place where where floodwater accumulates rather than flooding your house, right? So that’s an example, a good example that’s been in place in Houston for a long time of living with water rather than trying to fight against it. And and you continue to see the greening of our bayous, we have a system of bayous and in Houston, which provides the the footprint of our natural landscape. And those are greening more and more so that they can absorb more floodwater. So the biggest change is how do you live with water rather than engineer your way out of it completely? How do you acknowledge, goes back to what I said about the Texas triangle where we’re acknowledging Texas is an urban sate. What, what I’ve seen since I moved to Houston in 2014, is a new willingness to acknowledge that Houston floods and that that’s just the way it is. And that the solution is not to stop it from flooding. The solution is to figure out how to live with flooding. The interestingly enough, there’s a strong relationship between Houston and the Netherlands, and particularly between Houston and Rotterdam, because there is so much for us to learn from the Dutch, the Dutch, the Dutch have a strong presence in Houston. And they have helped us a great deal with this very question since Hurricane Harvey. After Harvey hit the you know, there’s a Dutch consulate here and we knew who they were but after Hurricane Harvey all of a sudden the Dutch kind of showed up and said, Okay, how can we help? Which is apparently what they do when it floods somewhere.

Ben Kittelson  44:51

That’s fascinating. What are, are  there any like lessons that they’ve shared or that they’re, that the city is trying to adopt from from what’s going on around them?

William Fulton  45:00

Well, I think there are, I mean, the one thing I would say is that obviously there are engineering solutions are an important part of us. And so one of the biggest environmental and economic dangers in Houston is if a hurricane were to hit the Houston Ship Channel, the Houston Ship Channel is where about a third of our oil and gas industry. And, and a lot of our petrochemical industry in the country sits and if a hurricane hit it at the wrong angle, it would obviously be an environmental disaster, but it also knock out a good portion of our, of our of our of our energy production in and distribution in the United States, it would be kind of like that colonial pipeline problem that we’ve seen in the last few days on steroids. So one of the and that the closest we ever got to a direct hit was in 2008, with Hurricane Ike. So there was a proposal to build basically a storm surge protection and a Seagate out in the out in out in the Gulf of Mexico, which is commonly and locally known as the Ike Dike to help prevent that. And and that’s very similar to, there’s been discussion about whether that’s going to be in the infrastructure plan and so forth. And that’s very similar to some of the solutions, they have in Rotterdam.

Ben Kittelson  46:21

Interesting. That’s fascinating. And then I think you might have touched on this a little bit, but there’s like a, as I read that the city has a bayous plan for kind of preserving and building up some of the those, you know, those bayous around Houston to kind of-

William Fulton  46:37

Yes, that, the bayous, there’s a there’s a that’s primarily up a linear parks plan. We have several bayous, as I say they mostly flow from west to east toward the Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. They have been to a varying degrees channelized over the last 100 years, right to prevent flooding. And in some cases, that has just moved the flooding from one place to another, right? But so there is a multi 100 million dollar effort to green those bayous as much as possible, improve access to them, and improve the linear trails, hike and bike trails, along the bayous and that the implementation of that is almost done actually, it’s one of the major parks projects in the United States in the last several decades where Now unlike 20 years ago, we have 120 miles of linear Park along with the bayous. So it’s so it’s it’s partly flooded and the parks people and the flood control people are trying to work it out. So they so that there’s what they call co benefits, right? That is partly to help protect the value and partly to improve improve access to the bayous. You know, Houston has been paved over so much. And so rapidly, that it’s easy to forget about the natural environment that sat here originally. And so now there’s an attempt to make sure that everybody has access to one of these linear parks along one of these bayous. A bayous is a slow moving river like very, very sluggish River. And Houston was founded along buffalo Bayou at the intersection actually of two bayous, buffalo bayous and white oak bayous in what is now downtown, Downtown Houston. And the Ship Channel, which is a key to our economic success was originally part of Buffalo bayous. So the bayous are an important part of the Houston story. And they they were kind of ignored during the, what you might call the freeway era, right? The freeway building and now they have become extremely important both culturally and and practically to the people of Houston.

Ben Kittelson  49:05

Yeah, yeah, I think that’s one thing I noticed moving to Jacksonville it sounds like it might be a little similar to Houston that like there was a lot of would you call it channelizing these these streams and rivers and bayous and, which might prevent flooding in the directly adjacent properties but only leads to it somewhere else, right, like somewhere else where the water can flow.

William Fulton  49:25

Right and what and of course what happened in during Hurricane Harvey where we had 50 inches of rain in a matter of about four days was you couldn’t move the water fast enough, right? And that’s when it backed, and that’s when it backed up and flooded and so, so that’s what made people realize, oh, moving the water may not be the only solution that we need to seek. Right? I mean, there may have to be, we may have to figure out how to how to live with flooding in a way that doesn’t harm our our property and doesn’t hurt people or their property.

Ben Kittelson  50:02

So as we kind of wrap up what, what are, as you kind of think about what you’ve studied in Houston and maybe compared to like other places in the country that you’ve been and worked with, what what are maybe some lessons that other cities can learn from Houston and kind of the development and growth and the planning that goes on there?

William Fulton  50:20

Well, I think several things are important to bear in mind. The first one is, regulation probably does not need to be as tight as it is, in most places, there’s beginning to be a recognition that tight regulation is harming housing production, housing, harming housing affordability. And I think Houston is a, Houston is a good lesson and understanding Yes, there needs to be some regulation. It’s not a matter of really tight regulation, or none. But you can have a somewhat lighter touch and still have good results. I think that’s number one. I think and I think the second thing is that that goes along with that is to some extent, you have to trust the market, right? cities are built primarily by private real estate developers, always have been always will be. Housing is built primarily by private real estate developers always have been and probably always will be. So you got to understand, you got to understand developers and how they are approaching the market and what market opportunities they see. And help them maximize construction to meet as many different price points as possible. I think one of the things that’s happened is that in other markets is that as land supplies become constrained, as as regulation has become extreme, developers as and as it has become difficult to get entitlements, developers have focused on the very high end of the market, right? And that’s part of the reason why why housing is so expensive in New York, or DC or California. In Houston, and Texas, if you if, if if you seek to maximize housing production, then developers are more likely to more likely willing to if they can build a lot of houses, more likely to be willing to go deeper down in the in the marketplace, right? This is definitely true on the suburban fringe. But it’s also true in the urban or in the in the urban core where like I said, you can still buy a pretty sizable townhome for three or $400,000, which you can’t do, certainly in most other large cities.

Ben Kittelson  52:33

Awesome, interesting. So what’s next? We talked about your new book, and then a couple of reports that the Kinder Institute released recently, but what what are you kind of working on now? What should our listeners keep our eye out for?

William Fulton  52:45

We continue to do a lot of work on housing. We have an annual State of housing report here in Houston, the second annual report is going to come out next month in June. Housing, housing has emerged as a major issue. Not because housing is expensive, but because the gap between incomes and house price is growing. So that’s going to continue to be a major issue, resilience, the resilience of the city is going to continue to be a major issue. And and also the diversification of the city’s economy away from just oil. And I mean, if you were to define to describe Houston’s economy, you’d say oil and gas, medical and NASA, right and and there’s a major effort to diversify the economy. So that it incorporates, for example, tech innovation, tech startups and so forth, and so in an equitable way, so that everybody in Houston benefits. And I think that’s the other thing that we will be focusing on over the next couple of years is is the is equitable opportunity in Houston. Because even though Houston is relatively inexpensive, and even though Houston is growing fast, and even though Houston is prosperous, and by any measure, we are one of the most inequitable cities in the country. And so extending all that opportunity to everybody in town is getting to be a bigger issue when everyone’s signing on to and one that we intend to devote a lot of time to over the next over the next two, few years.

Ben Kittelson  54:24

Very cool. Awesome. Well, we’ll be sure to link to the the Kinder Institute and our listeners should stay tuned for more from y’all. And then, the hardest question of the interview. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick is our exit music for today’s episode?

William Fulton  54:40

It would be Nightlife they Willie Nelson because he wrote that song when he drove through Houston, between Pasadena where he lived, and the roadside bar where he sung every night. Back in the late 50s, early 60s, so many people in Houston who are familiar with Willie will tell you they cannot drive through town at night without humming that tune themselves. So that is that is, interestingly enough, maybe the quintessential Houston song.

Ben Kittelson  55:11

That’s that’s a perfect pick, well done! Awesome. Well that ends our episode for today. Mr. Fulton, thank you so much for coming on and talking with me. I really appreciate you taking the time and sharing your expertise.

William Fulton  55:21

Thanks for having me.

Ben Kittelson  55:23

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