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Texas Lawmakers Look to Take Zoning Changes Out of Dallas’ Hands

Dallas is taking resident input on its ForwardDallas land use plan, and a vocal group is leading the opposition. But new talk among conservative Texas policy makers indicates the decision might not be in the city's hands for long.
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Sean McCabe

Dallas’ update to its land use plan, which includes reexamining the city’s predominantly single-family zoning, has been met with significant pushback among vocal residents. But if some conservative state policymakers have their way, the debate could become moot. Lt. Dan Patrick has indicated a desire to at least discuss zoning as it relates to housing affordability in the next legislative session. Some conservative groups have also indicated their support for this legislation.

ForwardDallas, the city’s not-yet-adopted plan, would only inform the city’s land use and zoning in the future. A great deal of concern around single-family neighborhoods centers on where and how to allow for more density—specifically middle or “gentle” density like triplexes, duplexes, and the like. In our April issue, Matt Goodman wrote about how Dallas needs density to survive, and about just how nasty the fight over density has become. 

At a public information session at Samuell Grand Recreation Center recently, a mostly hostile audience took turns at the microphone, reiterating their distaste for the idea of eliminating what they felt protected “the character” of their neighborhoods: single-family zoning. 

There are very real questions about how and where to introduce middle density. But state Rep. John Bryant, D-Dallas, issued a warning before the discussion began: the harsh reality is that Dallas might not have the final say in its zoning updates. Bryant warned that there is an effort to change zoning “at the state level,” too. He couched this as another way Austin would wrest local control from cities and counties.

“The Legislature passed over the vigorous opposition of myself and others in this last session a bill that began the process of limiting the ability of cities to deal with a large number of matters that relate to us as local citizens,” he said. Bryant was referring to House Bill 2127, the so-called “Death Star” bill that limits city’s abilities to create ordinances that are more strict than state law.

While urbanists and historians have long pointed to the racist history of exclusionary zoning, removing lot size minimums has long been considered somewhat of a “liberal” idea. In fact, four years ago conservative policy analyst Stanley Kurtz warned in the National Review that then Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden planned to “abolish the suburbs” by eliminating single family zoning.

“It will mean the end of local control, the end of a style of living that many people prefer to the city, and therefore the end of meaningful choice in how Americans can live,” he warned.

Three years ago, as California Gov. Gavin Newsome made moves to remove single family zoning in his state, a thread on Reddit explored much the same theme.

“Single family housing exists for people who are willing to pay a premium to live away from densely populated metropolitan areas where there’s more crime,” said one commenter on the subreddit Ask a Conservative. “This also gives them more control over their local school district since it’s funded through their property taxes. Allowing hordes of poor people who can’t afford a down payment or qualify for a mortgage will diminish the quality of both their neighborhoods and schools.”

But times have apparently changed, at least for some Republicans in Texas. Last week, Patrick laid out his agenda for the state senate in the 2025 session, which includes making “recommendations to reduce regulatory barriers and strengthen property rights.”

That may not seem concerning on the surface, but conservative groups that often have Patrick’s ear have begun to push for preempting zoning ordinances and other potential legislation around city land use planning and housing affordability. 

Last month, Texas Young Republicans Federation chairman Derrick Wilson tagged several conservatives in a tweet suggesting a summit about affordable housing.

“Homeownership is a huge part of the American Dream, but young adults feel it’s getting out of reach,” he wrote. “So let’s talk housing. @YoungYRs can host a summit, we’ll invite young adults to talk about their experiences and we can discuss market realities and policy positions.”

When a commenter insisted the market controls home prices, he clarified his stance further.

In March, John Bonura, a policy analyst with the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, suggested in a report that in addition to property taxes, zoning ordinances were also to blame for rising housing costs.

“Regulations that dictate anything from the number and type of housing units allowed on a property, to the lot size itself, removing such burdensome restrictions can demonstrably lower the cost of housing,” he writes. He points to Houston’s “no use” zoning, which would eliminate specific single-family plots and allow triplexes and townhomes to be built next to single family homes.

Bonura suggested that ordinances establishing minimum lot sizes should be abolished. “The size of the lot should be decided by the developer and the purchaser,” he said. “Policies that enact in smaller lots have led to an increased housing supply resulting in an elevated degree of resilience to rising housing prices.” 

In the same report, TPPF provides model legislation that would prohibit cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that establish a minimum size for residential lots “or the number of dwelling units that may be constructed on residential lots.” 

It also forbids certain restrictions on smaller residential lots that are 4,000 square feet or less.

Bryant told those gathered at Samuell Grand that he and other Democrats were able to beat back some of last session’s legislation that attempted to reshape zoning, especially when it came to allowing accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, by right in any neighborhood. (Currently, a neighborhood in Dallas must agree to allow them.) The ADU bill was defeated by a mere two votes.

But the last session also brought the passage of several bills that impact local control, including the so-called Death Star bill, which seeks to preempt city ordinances and policies that are more exacting than state law. Several cities have sued, and a judge ruled it unconstitutional, but state law allows it to continue as it makes its way through the appellate courts.

All of this means that Bryant and others will have to fight once again for local control, and in a legislature that will likely be even more conservative than before. Thoughtful, honest discussions about middle density and how to appropriately implement it will need to progress—without hyperbole—if Dallas wants the opportunity to shape its future before the state intervenes.

The City Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on ForwardDallas Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m. Residents will be have the opportunity to provide feedback, and hear more about the city’s land use and needs.

Author

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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