QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

July 23, 2010 

Dear Heights neighbor, 

The City of Houston is in the process of changing the current historic ordinance which governs the historic district in which you currently live.  Many of your Heights neighbors have been asking questions and expressing concern about what this means to Heights residents.  Hopefully the following will answer some of these questions and concerns.

 

Q:  What are the proposed changes in the historic ordinance?

A:  The current ordinance provides for a 90 day educational period before demolitions and renovations, and another 90-day waiting period for new construction.  During this time, property owners and the City’s preservation commission work towards making projects more compatible with the historic neighborhood.  Under the new ordinance, homeowners whose plans are not approved will no longer be allowed to proceed after 90 days, as they can under the current ordinance.  This is dramatic change prevents homeowners from choosing what they will do after working with the commission and gives the city the ultimate decision to choose what you will be allowed to do with your property.  

 

Q:  I enjoy living in a historic district with its charm, character and ambience. I prefer saving homes in the Heights.  Wouldn’t these changes be a good thing for preserving these characteristics?

A:  Everyone we have heard from expresses how much they enjoy the feel and look of our community and we do as well.  We absolutely support the preservation of homes in the community.  Admittedly, the demolition of dilapidated homes has significantly improved the overall value and desirability of our neighborhood.  The addition of larger homes has also brought more families into the community, something which is required for all neighborhoods to remain vital.  However, regardless of anyone’s personal perspective on new construction and the saving of our lovely old homes, the new ordinance takes the choices about your property’s future away from you, the homeowner, and gives it to a non-elected city commission overseeing changes to your home. 

 

Q:  What exterior features is city going to regulate?

A:  The language of the proposed changes is vague.  Currently, it gives 100% control of the exterior of your home to the City of Houston.  Section 33-236(b): Prohibited activities; offense - COAs says "No person shall alter, rehabilitate, restore or construct any exterior feature of any building, structure or object within an historic district without a certificate of appropriateness."  As it stands right now, they will have the ability to decide to regulate any exterior feature in the future.  Most historic districts around the country do regulate all exterior features so based on the current language of the changes, we cannot be certain that our historic commission won’t come to that decision as well.  The planning director has publicly stated she wants to make the ordinance “incrementally more restrictive”, meaning they will continue to take away the choices you can make.  Based on her stated agenda, there is no reason to believe that the historic commission won’t decide to restrict everything down the road or that city council won't allow them to make any changes they propose in the future.  The ordinance has no defined plan to seek your approval for future changes and the City is not required to.

 

Q:  We have heard there are tax incentives for homeowners in historic districts.  How can we get a tax break since we live in an historic district?

A:  The current small tax break is only applicable if you do a renovation.  The tax break is based on the appraisal districts valuation of the dwelling.  You must spend 50%, or more of the taxable value, to be eligible for a 50% tax break on the city's portion of your taxes. The tax break is in effect for only 15 years and has various conditions to meet.  Typically the portion the City taxes only make up 25% your total property tax bill.  There are no further incentives proposed, so the added expense of owning an older home and conforming to the commission’s decisions will be solely on the back of the homeowner.  The city cites the reason for historic districts is to preserve the history and beauty of the city yet they don’t provide any substantive incentives to do so but instead increase the costs of owning an historic home by dictating materials and design used in a district.  The city also does not offer any incentives for making your home energy efficient or better able to withstand what can be somewhat harsh environmental conditions such as extreme heat and termites.  Our lack of modern construction materials and techniques means our homes are more susceptible to these harsh conditions and result in higher costs of ownership for historic homeowners.  There is no plan in place to assist you with these higher costs.  It is strictly up to you the homeowner to bear the cost and you will be faced with navigating the city bureaucracy if you do choose to make improvements.

Q.  I would like to add on and renovate my home.  I thought this was just about demolition and new construction.  Will these changes affect me too?

A.  This change this will affect anyone making any changes to the exterior of their home so it likely will affect you.  The historic commission has turned down many requests for renovations which would make our old homes more compatible with the lifestyle of today’s homeowner even though the proposed renovations were in character with the neighborhood and were very attractive and appropriate in their historic design and style.  You will not be able to add to the side of your home and only start your addition at the rear of your home, leaving you no yard.  Under the current 90 day restriction, you may proceed if you are unable to obtain a certificate from the city.  Under the changed ordinance, if they say no, you may not. 

 

Q.  We want to preserve our old homes but don’t like the idea of the city solely determining what we do.  Are there any other options to maintain our historic neighborhood?

A.  YES!  Every homeowner can landmark their property which will protect it now and in the future.  Also, on a block by block basis, neighbors can adopt deed restrictions.  This has been very successful in limiting the number of homes built on a lot so our neighborhood remains a single family neighborhood.  Our group can assist a homeowner or a block of homeowners with this process.  There are very sensible alternatives that homeowners can implement without abdicating their choices to the city.  The task of land marking a property or implementing block deed restrictions could be made very simple and accessible by the city as well. 

 

Q.  We signed up for a 90 day waiting period, not to have the city take away our ability to decide what happens to our property.  What can we do if we oppose these proposed changes?

A.  First, attend your neighborhood meeting being held by the city to express your opposition.  Second, send the members of city council an email or sign up to speak at a council meeting.  Also sign the petition on our website.

 

We think that our community’s best interests are served not by the city simply declaring historic districts “protected” as several city officials have said publicly that they have the ability to do, but by asking each district to re-petition to a change their status to a protected historic district.  If the residents of the Heights districts decide that they are in favor of the change and are comfortable with the city making the decision about what happens with their property, then at least it was fair and democratic.  As it stands now, you will get no say, no chance to petition and no vote.  Most homeowners we have spoken with say they feel like this has been a “bait and switch” and didn’t intend to nor imagine that they were giving up their homeowner’s rights to the city.  Unless we send the city a loud and clear message, this ordinance will take effect without a vote from us. 

If you are interested in this issue, we strongly encourage you to come to the community meetings, contact the city council members and sign the petition on our website. Let your opinion be heard.  The schedule for the meetings and the email addresses for city council can also be found on our website www.ResponsibleHistoricPreservation.org.  We all want to preserve our neighborhood.  We just want to do it responsibly and in a way that does not remove our ability to control what we do with our homes. 

Sincerely, 

Kathleen Powell, Mary Wassef, Bill Baldwin

Historic District Homeowners - Heights
Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston

 

 

 
Responsible Historic Preservation   |  
713.398.8113   |  info@responsiblehistoricpreservation.org