In December of 2014, my partner and I (and our large cat) were huddled around a space heater in our tiny mother-in-law suite apartment behind a 1940s Montrose bungalow. It was then that we realized suffering through the winter with no wall insulation and old, single-pane windows was our fate in the ever-increasing Montrose rental market. The options were minimal: inhabit a small “luxury” one bedroom for an average price of $1,500 per month, suffer a deteriorating apartment, or move outside of the Inner Loop. We grew weary of living in a space designed without function in mind and, frankly, of a shower lined in Pepto pink tiles and the size of a coffin. So when my partner’s brother and sister-in-law (and their own large cat) approached us about living together it felt like a saving grace.
They were living in Clear Lake, enjoying the nature but cursing the congestion. They longed for museums and restaurants that stayed open past 9 pm, but they faced a similar budget constraint. As two separate couples, each with decidedly middle-income jobs in the nonprofit sector and the arts, we could not respectively afford to live in our desired neighborhoods comfortably. But together, we could rent a home with the amenities we desired and the close-in location. When they approached us about combining financial forces, the dreams of upgraded appliances and walkable nightlife felt real.
The House Hunt
We began looking at ranch homes south of Braeswood Bayou with midcentury style and large yards. It quickly became obvious that the plans, with common rooms on one side and bedrooms on the other, would not give us any privacy. We gravitated to townhouses. The three floors provided automatic separation, nestling the common level with its kitchen, living room, and half bath between the two private floors of bedrooms. Montrose was still out of budget even with our pooled funds, but the homes in the Heights and East Side showed promise.
We began by touring some of the metal-skinned townhouses by Larry Davis, the architect-developer behind Urban Lofts, near the Riverside neighborhood. The modern feel, both inside and out, attracted us. Sharp lines and cool-toned paint fit our aesthetics, but the homes overwhelmingly favored single-family inhabitants. The large garages turned the first-floor bedrooms into throwaway spaces. Often small and with a home office feel, their only selling point was easy access to the backyard. The third floor master suites were disproportionately indulgent. Such spaces prompted discussion of a six-month switch so that each couple could enjoy the master suite. Our excitement about the design of these living spaces clouded our ability to consider what such a switch would actually entail.
A Unique Home
After viewing several townhouses with an unsuitable first floor, I found a promising option. The townhouse in question was part of a development by K Hovnanian Homes, which started building in the suburbs of Houston in 1998 under the name Parkside Homes. K Hovnanian launched multiple Inner Loop sites in 2005 and partnered with Urban Living to attract young couples and empty nesters. Our promising house was part of a group built between 2006 and 2008 in the Park-at-Prince development, where most homes averaged about 2,100 square feet. Older homes and a smattering of commercial spaces surround the development on the outskirts of the Timbergrove neighborhood.
The interior relied heavily on a suburban feel, from the fixtures to the paint colors. The builders had, essentially, translated the suburban home vertically. But this space was right. By shrinking the garage to a tight two-car space and leaving an economical backyard, the first floor was spacious. The bedroom connected to a small living space through low built-in bookshelves and had its own private entrance to the backyard and from the garage. The kitchen, laundry, and living room constituted the second floor and opened to a third-floor loft. The master suite was more compact, owing to the loft, and the spare walk-in closet upstairs meant ample storage for everyone. All parties were on board almost immediately, as it meant financial flexibility and copious space.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
We were all serial apartment dwellers embarking on our first house journey, so some bumps were expected. To our surprise, we had to deal with avoidant neighbors and poor construction instead of roommate conflicts. The Park-at-Prince development uses a private drive lane with no sidewalks that, as we found out later, acts as an ad hoc retention pond. Our two-car garage necessitated that I park on the street, so this meant walking through calf-deep water to get home after any heavy rain. The adjacent city street rarely floods, but the townhouse lane gathers water so quickly it was a common sight to see it lap at garage doors.
The downsized garages meant that many homeowners had room for only one car next to stored belongings. All parking overflow went to the street, a partial block with minimal space often encumbered by vehicles from the nearby used car lot. Some of our neighbors opted to block emergency exits and garage entrances for makeshift parking. Much to my surprise, I learned one resident parked illegally because his truck was too long for his garage. There was no consideration to downsize his vehicle; instead, he lamented that the townhouses were “old” and built before such large vehicles existed. His unabashedly inaccurate lament illustrates a recurrent problem with townhouse “six-pack” developments: they attract buyers who want to marry the larger suburban home ideal with the access that living in an urban center provides. But as other large city dwellers know, urban living comes with concessions — often of the compact (car) variety.
As with other townhouse communities, the design of our development encouraged garage-to-house entries and discouraged community. This was most felt when, hilariously, a neighbor gripped her baby tighter and glared as I walked past carrying groceries home while sounding a cheerful hello. Was it my tattoos? Perhaps there was something intimidating about the peonies on my arm? Or maybe it was a function of my neighbor not knowing who I was despite my having lived there for a year?
She and I had not yet met at the only point of neighborly contact — the mailboxes — due to a dearth of outdoor common space. And as renters we were not privy to HOA meetings. The result was catching neighbor sightings as though they were our own local Bigfoots, often when meeting with a realtor or directing the ubiquitous moving trucks. Where does the fault lie for the lack of connection? The developer sacrificing common space for more units and profits? The buyers for investing in such designs? The city for permitting such places? Perhaps all of the above are at fault, but one thing is clear from our experience: Scrapping green and communal spaces for a few extra marketable square feet has real, long-term consequences.
Rethinking Common Use
The four of us were non-traditional renters occupying a space designed and intended for single families. Although we no longer all live together, it was a successful experiment in that it helped us financially and allowed us (and our friends) to rethink how to live in this city. Townhouses, as we found out, are designed for sharing, folding in privacy with ease through vertical separation. Such privacy can benefit single families and roommates. By building developments that incorporate some communal space and generalized parking, and retrofitting existing developments, the houses could provide a more economical option to luxury apartments. With a growing number of people aspiring for urban life, townhouses along transit routes could decrease the garage size further in favor of more living or commercial space. Townhouses aren’t going away, but it’s not too late to rethink their role as community-rich developments.
My partner and I now live in a classic Montrose fourplex that is lovingly tended to by its owner. And though we love our place, nearly every morning I awake to the sounds of construction on the townhouses two lots over.
by Christine Cox
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