Last year, the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Houston City Council offered me what I soon came to consider a "Mission Impossible" assignment. They asked me to lead a team of volunteer housing experts from across the country who would go to Houston to learn about the city and then recommend policies to deal with future housing needs.
Remember that laissez-faire, private-enterprise Houston is where the energy and real estate industries, not public-sector intervention or advice from outsiders, set the agenda.
The effort, titled "Housing Strategies for Houston: Expanding Opportunities," was motivated by unprecedented challenges facing America's fourth-largest city between now and 2025, by which time Houston's population is expected to double, from 2 million to 4 million.
Social scientists and demographers further predict that most of the growth will consist of low- and moderate-income Hispanic households.
The predicted population increase amounts to a whopping 100,000 people annually. Will these people, part of Houston's indispensable workforce, be able to find decent, affordable housing with access to transit, as well as other public facilities and services? Or will they be forced to buy or rent housing ever farther out in rural counties surrounding the already-sprawling core?
Land and housing are still relatively cheap in the flat coastal prairie abutting Houston's boundaries. Yet Houston's homeownership rate is below the national average, despite suburban home prices lower than in most regions. Not surprisingly, accelerating growth in Houston's hinterlands promises to further exacerbate problems of sprawl and traffic congestion, fiscal imbalance, inadequately funded schools, air pollution, flooding and environmental degradation.
Moreover, as in other American cities, exurban sprawl deprives the city of Houston of tax revenue that flows instead to outlying counties. Sprawl also forces families with modest incomes to own and drive multiple, gas-guzzling vehicles and make long, slow commutes.
Inside Houston's city limits are older, historic neighborhoods plagued by failing infrastructure and abandoned, deteriorating, tax-delinquent properties. Large sections of central Houston, some near the new Metro trolley line, have hundreds of obsolete structures and parking lots in need of redevelopment.
Despite these problems, "can-do," free-market Houston is proud that intrusive government programs and regulation are kept to a minimum. Houston remains the only American city without zoning. Its urban planning initiatives often falter because they cannot be enforced, instead depending on the optional agreement of property owners and developers.
With two-year election cycles, six-year term limits and uncoordinated city agencies, Houston's government has been more reactive than proactive. Its structure hampers administrative continuity, dampens political creativity and weakens leadership and loyalty within bureaucracies.
Although Houston is coping with many of the same issues as other large American cities, it is still in a league by itself. It's that uniqueness that gave my team's assignment its "Mission Impossible" sense.
Undaunted, the team visited twice. I presented a summary of the team's recommendations last week to the Neighborhoods, Housing and Redevelopment Committee of the Houston City Council. Our report (online at www.HousingHouston.org) envisions a major role for government, rigorous and enforceable urban planning, more regulation and increased public funding.
In many cities or counties, a lot of the recommendations would be considered routine. However, they are radical for Houston and undoubtedly will stir controversy.
The least controversial recommendation, and probably the first to be acted upon, is to appoint a cabinet-level housing "chief" to shape housing policies and coordinate functions of city agencies.
Other recommendations likely to gain support: rebuild infrastructure in inner-city neighborhoods where affordable housing development at higher densities is feasible and desirable, and provide funds and training for targeted Community Development Corporations -- Houston already has more that 100 CDCs -- potentially capable of developing housing in the neediest neighborhoods.
Recommendations likely to meet tough resistance: adopt enforceable, comprehensive, inclusive housing plans linked to enforceable, comprehensive land-use and transportation plans; and produce more affordable housing by adopting policies that motivate and, when appropriate, require mixed-income developments.
Home builders won't like our suggestion that Houston consider adopting an adequate public facilities ordinance, which allows new development and higher densities only where existing or planned infrastructure has sufficient capacity.
Houstonians likely also will balk at the price tag for these proposals, which call for an increase in locally generated funds for affordable housing. Money would come from municipal bonds; general and dedicated tax revenue; state and federal grants; and investment from Houston-based businesses and institutions committed to ensuring adequate housing for their employees.
The team also recommends that the city collaborate with private-sector and CDC partners to develop well-designed model projects in key locations tied to transit and infrastructure, schools and other community resources. The goal would be to demonstrate the viability, affordability and profitability of alternative land-use patterns, new types of architecture, mixed uses, higher densities and demographic diversity.
City Council members on the housing committee strongly support the report, as does the city's mayor -- so far.
But the report's last paragraph, "Next Steps," reminds Houstonians that much more work is needed to flesh out the details and implement the recommendations, which in effect propose an attitude transplant for the city.
Thus, in reality, this first step can do little more than launch public discussion. Sustaining that discussion, and then following up on it, ultimately depends on the quality and persistence of Houston's political leadership. If that leadership fades, our report, like so many others, will end up gathering dust.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.