Most Houstonians don’t realize that the city is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to enforce private deed restrictions for communities across the city. In the past three years alone, Houston spent over $950,000 on city attorneys’ payroll strictly allocated to deed restrictions.
Houston is an outlier among Texas’ large cities because though deed restrictions don’t apply to the whole city, the whole city is expected to pay for their enforcement. The legislature provided the ability for the city to enforce deed restrictions on behalf of complainants to “promote health, safety, morals, and the general welfare of the City.
In Texas, this form of enforcement is really particular to the City of Houston. Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, and San Antonio, to name a few, all explicitly say that deed restriction enforcement falls entirely within the hands of individual homeowners or homeowners’ associations to be handled through the court system.
Deed restrictions, or restrictive covenants, are a common way to impose land-use restrictions. They can govern what property owners can do on their land, what can be built and how, and how the land can be used. Houston enforces restrictions regulating everything from what activities happen on one’s land, setback lines, home and yard maintenance, and commercial activity on private property.
Many argue that through these restrictions they are able to protect the neighborhood’s aesthetic and character and, thus, property values. But there is little evidence to support that claim and regardless, it shouldn’t fall on taxpayers across the city to protect the property values of individual communities by cracking down on what private property owners do.
To report a deed restriction violation, all a complainant has to do is call the taxpayer-funded hotline and file their complaint. There is no fee and the city takes over the investigation and litigation. Other than possibly being called as a witness, there is no further participation required from the complainant.
Just last year, the city reviewed 1,026 deed restriction matters, sent 75 warning letters, closed 761 cases without litigation, and filed six lawsuits. The cost to taxpayers was about $285,000.
Out of the 761 closed cases, there were many with little to no evidence, no confirmed violation, a lack of authority by the department, or there simply wasn’t a deed restriction in place.
Regardless of how frivolous these complaints were, taxpayers paid for them. The city pursues violations at no cost to the complainant so there is nothing to deter complaints from disgruntled neighbors who just want to call the city on their neighbor.
In other cities, the cost to investigate and litigate deed restriction complaints is paid for by the HOA or an individual complainant; including court costs. But, when a complainant lacks a financial stake, doesn’t have to partake in the suit, and can simply call a hotline and make a complaint, of course there will be more than a few unjust complaints. Even out of the actual violations found, none of them were particularly egregious.
For example, one defendant had to pay a $500 civil penalty and nearly $900 in attorney’s fees and court costs for keeping a white box truck on her property. Another had to pay over $600 because she had too many garage sales in a calendar year, and someone else had to pay $1,000 for keeping their landscaping equipment on their property.
Keep in mind, deed restriction violations are not against state or local law. If that were the case, the city would be expected to enforce them at the taxpayers’ expense. But the city is enforcing private contracts entered into by homeowners.
The question isn’t whether these defendants are violating their deed restrictions or if those restrictions are excessive and unnecessary; the question is why should taxpayers across the city pay for enforcement of mostly mundane, legal activities done on private property? Why should someone in Clear Lake pay for the investigation and litigation of someone in River Oaks who had one too many political signs in their yard?
The legislature gave Houston the power to enforce deed restrictions because of the city’s lack of zoning, and they should take it away. Naysayers will claim that it’s the legislature infringing on the “rights” of cities, but when the city is using taxpayer resources to enforce private covenants, it’s the property owners who need to be protected.