Empower local communities to plan for gentle density

This post on the valid petition tool and encouraging gentle density is the first part in an ongoing series laying out the various ways land use policies keep Texans from achieving home ownership.

In January 2023, Austin resident Bradley Hoskins brought a rezoning case in front of the Austin Planning Commission. He was requesting that his west Austin property be rezoned from a single family lot to a multi-family lot.

Hoskins was not intending to demolish the existing home — a duplex — nor was he planning to build a large apartment complex in the quiet residential neighborhood. He wanted to build a garage apartment so that a caregiver for his son, who lives with physical disabilities, could live on the property. The rezoning would allow Hoskins’ son Peter to live with some independence while ensuring that a 24-hour caregiver would be available to him.

Seeking a rezoning is expensive and onerous

The family hired a consultant to guide them through the process, but even with that help and the unanimous support from the planning commission, this zoning change request faced another, far more influential adversary in the form of a valid petition signed by their neighbors.

When owners of 20% of the surrounding property sign a petition protesting a zoning change, the local city council has to approve the zoning change with 75% of its members — a proportion greater than a super majority. At the time of the hearing, owners of nearly 40% of the land adjacent to the Hoskins family had filed to stop the zoning change and thus triggered the requirement that nine of Austin’s 11 city council members approve the request.

The city council eventually agreed to the request for the zoning change to accommodate the extra unit for Peter’s caregiver, but not before the Hoskins family incurred large costs — in money, time and frustration.

While an extreme example, the Hoskins family case illustrates how the “valid petition” tool has served to impede local communities’ efforts to build new housing stock for Texans.

A little bit of background

In the 1920’s, Secretary of Commerce (and future U.S. President) Herbert Hoover produced the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act (SZEA) with the hope that standardized goals would help municipalities “in the wise development of city and regional planning.”

The state of Texas adopted its own version of the SZEA, including the valid petition, in 1927 where it has remained for nearly 100 years.

Fast forward to today, and only 20 states still use the valid petition as a zoning tool, with several of the twenty relaxing the stringent requirements of the valid petition, as Texas proposes to do this legislative session.

Community members have opportunities beyond the valid petition to provide input on potential zoning changes. State law, for instance, stipulates a public hearing before a zoning regulation or boundary can go into effect.

Beyond the state-mandated requirements for public input, builders will often discuss their plans with neighbors in advance of filing any sort of building plan. In neighborhoods where the likelihood of a valid petition is high, builders may drop plans for building altogether.

If Texas is serious about building up housing stock and encouraging gentle density in its cities, it needs to raise the valid petition threshold from 20 percent to 50 percent. This modest reform will empower property owners and city councils to infuse their neighborhoods with additional housing — a critical step in solving the affordability crisis.