What to know about zoning in a city with no zoning laws


While it is true that Houston, Texas is the only major city in the United States without formal zoning laws, there is still regulation of the land through a complex system of codes. Knowing how the City of Houston is regulated will help you plan your next build.


Why is zoning important? Zoning regulates use of land and establishes standards for construction, for a certain area. This includes building setbacks, lot coverage, building height, and much more.


The difference between Houston and many other cities is Houston’s regulations do not have any say on land use. While most cities have restrictions for particular use for an area of land, including building density or height restrictions, Houston does not.


In reality, Houston is a big mixture of ordinances, policies, tactics by neighborhoods, and independent efforts by nonprofits, all of which play a role in determining how land is used.[1]


Land developers looking to make changes to zones, for example, residential to commercial property or industrial to recreational property, do not have it as easy as it may seem. Under the city’s building codes and regulations, the following deed restrictions and area use restrictions situations may be applicable:

  • Deed Restrictions: Most affluent neighborhoods in Houston have very strict, private deed restrictions that enforce construction guidelines in the neighborhoods. For example, River Oaks does not have apartment buildings or office buildings in the middle of the neighborhood. Deed restrictions are only enforced by complaints and depend on the resident’s vigilance.
  • Area Use Restrictions (Historic Districts): Declares an area “historic” and requires that the scale and character of the neighborhood remain the same. For example, the Heights adopted this during the beginning of gentrification in the area and the attraction of apartment developers to keep the area true to its bungalow nature.


If you’re a land developer looking to challenge a zone regulation, here are some of your options. Please note that procedures vary from municipality to municipality, but may include:

  • Meetings with Planning Commission Officers – You can ask the local zoning board for permission to rezone the property
  • Variance Application – You can obtain a permit that grants use of land in a manner that is an exception to existing zoning restrictions. Click here for variance forms and application requirements for City of Houston
  • Conditional Use Permits – You can obtain a permit that gives the zoning authority discretion to allow uses otherwise prohibited in the specific district for the benefit of the neighborhood. For more on Conditional Use Permits, check out our blog post.



Endnotes & Additional Resources:  
[1] https://kinder.rice.edu/urbanedge/2020/01/09/no-zoning-in-Houston-there-are-workarounds 

How Zoning Works In the City of Houston