Galveston City Council members will face a hard decision later this month if, as expected, they consider banning new duplexes and multifamily homes in single-family residential zoned districts and historic districts such as the East End, Silk Stocking and Lost Bayou.
The provision is among several changes proposed in city land-use development regulations that council members ultimately will have to vote up or down.
We predict council members will feel acute pressure to approve this ordinance because the council has been criticized by a bloc arguing it has done too much for tourists and not enough for the neighborhoods. That argument has gotten some traction among voters, as was seen in the outcomes of recent city council races.
While approving this ordinance might be an expedient way to blunt some of that criticism, we urge the council to look deeply at, and weigh carefully, the objective pros and cons the issue presents.
There are some clear upsides of the proposed ordinance. The clearest and most objective is that the ban would help keep parking from becoming a bigger problem than it already is, which is pretty bad, especially in the historic districts. Among the less objective arguments is that the rule would help maintain the integrity of Galveston’s oldest homes and preserve the charm of the historic neighborhoods.
The historic districts already have rules protecting the exterior integrity of historic houses, and charm is in the eye of the beholder. Some people might justifiably find charm in a neighborhood including young people and young families who couldn’t afford to live there were it not for multi-family housing.
Which gets to the downsides, of which there are several.
The ban could create a serious disincentive for people who otherwise might be willing to buy and maintain a historic house. Doing that already comes with a whole lot of disincentive, which is why historical properties all over Galveston are slowly returning to ashes and dust.
The ban also runs counter to the practice of battling development sprawl by encouraging population density. Residents who oppose development often note there’s a small, finite amount of land on the island, which is true and raises questions about the proposed ban.
Council members should consider whether a vote for the ban is also a vote for more multi-family housing on the West End.
Opponents of the ban have argued it would worsen a shortage of affordable housing on the island. That argument strikes us as obviously valid and as the most compelling argument against the ban.
Although it has been demonized, affordable housing is not a bad thing. It’s an essential thing because that’s where live people who do the jobs necessary to make a city tick.
Galveston is a vibrant, living city, rather than a sterile facsimile of a city, because it has a diverse population in terms of race, age and income, among a lot of other characteristics.
We know from experience that many of the most energetic and interesting people in Galveston live now, or began their residency, in an East End duplex or fourplex.
Council members need to ask themselves what effect this ban would have on those essential aspects that make the city a city.
• Michael A. Smith