Apr 12, 2023 - News

Houston's busking rules on the chopping block

Illustration of a pattern of gavels.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Houston is close to repealing an ordinance prohibiting tip-generating sidewalk performances throughout the city.

Catch up quick: Anthony Barilla, an accordionist with a band called Houston's A.S.S. and occasional busker, sued the city in 2020, arguing that the 1968 ordinance violated his First Amendment rights.

  • In December, a federal judge agreed and deemed the ordinance unconstitutional.

Driving the news: Instead of appealing that decision, City Council today will consider repealing ordinances that prohibit sidewalk performances outside the downtown Theater District and require a $50 permit to perform on the sidewalks in the district.

  • If the ordinances are repealed, buskers could perform anywhere in the city without having to obtain a permit.

What they're saying: "I felt like it was a bad law that was equating musicians with troublemakers," Barilla told Axios. "I felt that there are plenty of laws on the books that prohibit being a nuisance, and we didn't need to single out buskers, who often are not a nuisance and are in fact a nice thing that people enjoy."

Reality check: The ordinances haven't kept performers off Houston's sidewalks. Just look outside Minute Maid Park at the end of an Astros game, or near Discovery Green, and you'll find a plethora of performers.

Yes, but: The city's legal department says Houston Public Works, which issues permits for performances, has on average received one permit application per year since the ordinance was adopted in the 1960s.

  • The city has issued only two citations for illegal busking since 2009.

The intrigue: Other ordinances could be enforced if busking becomes a problem, according to an email sent to council members from city attorney Arturo Michel that Axios obtained.

  • Those include ordinances regulating noise levels and banning people from blocking sidewalks.
  • "To salvage the busking ordinance would require documentation of a problem," Michel wrote. "Should busking become a problem and other ordinances are insufficient to address, then the [city] can revisit adopting a new ordinance where the problem and solution are documented."

The bottom line: The ordinance is essentially moot after the judge's ruling — meaning there's little reason to keep it on the books.


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