Takoma NIMBYs go BANANAs

WMATA might finally be able to build something on its extremely valuable land surrounding the Takoma Metro Station after fourteen years of effort. Starting in 2000, it worked with developer EYA and proposed building approximately 90 townhouses, each with a two car garage.  The local residents objected to the proposal, and complained that the design had too many parking spaces, had too many streets, and eliminated too much green space.

Objections to the first EYA proposal

Objections to the first EYA proposal

WMATA ditched the plan after several years, and in 2013 began work on another EYA proposal for a new building that took neighborhood concerns into account: a 250 unit, mid-rise apartment building with a much smaller footprint, and fewer than half of the residential parking spaces. EYA’s new proposal would allow roughly the same amount of people to move into the desirable neighborhood, while preserving the green space and addressing the other concerns. Sounds like a win-win, right?

Not quite.

A group calling itself DC/MD Neighbors for Takoma Transit are concerned that the new proposal “is not compatible with the neighborhood in terms of  height, massing, setback, and design.” They’re also worried about “its potential impacts on traffic, parking and the surrounding infrastructure.”

DC/MDNFT wants the site to be transit oriented, but also wants to EYA to build 153 parking spots in addition to the 178 resident spots. They also want to make sure commuters cannot use any of the 153 parking spots. They’re also concerned that all the additional parking spots will increase traffic.

DC/MDNFT wants the building to make the neighborhood more walkable, but have large setbacks, be less than 50 feet tall, preserve greenspace, and fit in with the character and scale of nearby buildings (except for the 150 unit apartment building a block away, the 10-story building immediately behind that, the 4-story, 145-unit building on the other side of the tracks, and the 4-story townhouses next door,  all of which don’t count).

So far, EYA has lowered the number of units proposed and reduced the size of the building.

As David Alpert asked, “how many were opposing the plan because of its flaws, and how many out of resistance to building anything or adding new residents at all?”

We live in a world of trade-offs.  Building 153 non-resident, non-commuter parking spots at the station is going to increase traffic and the size of the building compared to what EYA would have otherwise built. Enormous setbacks mean a building has to be much higher to have the same number of units. Walkability goes down when buildings are set far away from each other or from the street. If groups like the DC/MD Neighbors for Takoma Transit want to positively influence the project, then they need to accept these tradeoffs and give up on the demands that conflict with their other priorities.

A process like the one above is at work every time a building is proposed. A system that allows neighbors to substantially alter a building just because they don’t like its design means that we will continue to have buildings that are too small to meet demand in the entire District, with a housing shortage to match. Trying to meet the demands of people who would prefer a surface parking lot to new neighbors is only going to increase the cost of homes. 

WMATA should insist that EYA builds all 250 units for the sake of affordability and to address the on-going housing shortage. The non-resident parking should either be open to commuters to promote transit, or should be eliminated from the project altogether. An apartment building built on public land at a Metro station is a prime opportunity to create a better, more affordable District. When the plan comes before the zoning commission, they should take these considerations into account, not the mutually-exclusive demands of the neighbors.

People who can’t afford cars don’t need their own parking spaces

Imagine a world in which every apartment is required by law to include accommodation for around-the-clock butler services. In this world, developers would have to add an additional 9×19 foot room to every single unit–at a cost between $40,000 and $50,000–even if the apartment is being built for working-class people who could never afford the butler to go with the room. To ward off a future shortage of butler housing, regulators also made it illegal to use the butler’s quarters for any other purpose, whether or not the tenants actually hired a live-in butler.

Most people would say a requirement for live-in butler quarters is obviously a bad idea, and that it would increase the cost of housing without providing any real benefit. It would waste precious space, and developers would have an incentive to only build high-end units to make up for the cost of building amenities that few people actually use.

Washington, D.C. has a policy similar to the fanciful rule above: parking minimums. Depending on where a project is located, and what the building will be used for, local regulations require developers to build a certain number of parking spots for every unit in a building. This is bad news for affordable housing advocates for several reasons.

The most obvious way it hurts renters is outlined above. That is, it forces developers to build units with an expensive amenity attached that potential customers might not need. As Donald Shoup and others have found, building an underground parking space costs between $40,000 and $50,000. Whether tenants use those parking spots or not, they’re going to have to pay for it in the form of rent.

Parking minimums also serve as de facto limit on density. Height Act aside, local zoning keeps buildings to a significantly lower height limit in large parts of the city. That means developers have to either set aside a large part of their lot for surface parking, or dig and build underground spots. These constraints often lead developers to build smaller projects than they otherwise would.

Minimums also change the incentives when developers are determining the price level and size of units they build. When every unit must come with an expensive amenity, developers can reduce the number of parking spaces they have to provide by building larger, more expensive, multi-room units. It also creates an incentive for developers to build luxury apartments or condos to recoup the cost of building spots.

One way to avoid these perverse incentives are to eliminate parking minimums for residential development. Since developers are primarily trying to maximize their profits, they have a strong incentive to provide the right amount of parking for their project. If they think future tenants are willing to pay for parking spaces, then they’ll build them. Then-Director of the  Office of Planning Harriet Tregoning proposed this exact reform for transit zones last year, but backed down in the face of vocal public opposition.

People who oppose lower parking minimums usually do not want to compete with additional drivers trying to store their cars on public streets. Assuming their objection is valid, it can be easily addressed: eliminate parking minimums for units designated for low-income residents who are less likely to own a car. The District government should reduce the number of parking spots required for any given real estate project in proportion to the number of “affordable units” the developer is required to build under current inclusionary zoning rules.

That is, if regulations require a developer to build 1 parking spot for every two units, the developer should be able to subtract one parking spot from the required parking minimum for every two affordable units in a proposed building. Such a rule would allow developers to forego a large capital expenditure that is unlikely to ever be used. After all, a person who can’t afford a card doesn’t need a parking spot, and an empty space in a parking garage doesn’t make it any easier to park on the street.

As of now, developers are sometimes able to receive a variance from current zoning rules if they take a loss on affordable units in exchange for greater allowed density. Reducing the number of parking spots developers are required to build in proportion to the number of affordable units in a building simultaneously increases the supply of housing, and helps to offset the problems created by parking minimums and inclusionary zoning itself.

Spike Lee, Brooklyn, and D.C.

Spike Lee doesn’t have many friendly words for  the hipsters who have flocked to Brooklyn over the last decade. The director spent much of his childhood in the borough, and it’s where his father still lives. Speaking at a recent event in New York, Lee said that long-term residents who rent, rather than own, are  being pushed out as prices increase.  He seemed to agree that many neighborhoods have gotten safer, schools have improved, and city services are now more reliable. But, he asks what good is local progress if you can’t afford to live there anymore?

Over at Time, John McWhorter says Lee missed the mark. McWhorter, who is also black, says all-black neighborhoods aren’t something that should be desired, but are rather a relic of state-led segregation. As legal and social barriers have come down, he says, black residents are taking advantage of their new options.

“[Lee is] yearning for the multi-class black communities that people of his generation regret the dissolutions of after the end of institutionalized segregation (when black people like my parents, for example, moved out to mixed or white neighborhoods).

“But let’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers

“When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, and mate. People grumbling on the sidelines about the losses and appropriations and whatnot that this involves are historical detritus.”

McWhorter is correct to write that neighborhoods, and the people who live in them, are going to look different as racial barriers fall. These changes will continue as our country’s barbaric history of segregation retreats further into the past. This is something worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean that Lee’s concerns shouldn’t be taken seriously, even by  those who don’t agree with his larger perspective.

In cities with restrictive land-use regulations and lengthy entitlement processes–like New York City and Washington, D.C.–economic development usually corresponds with increasing rents. This can lead to a situation that looks a lot like what Lee was describing.

When a neighborhood becomes significantly more popular, we should expect real estate developers and individuals to respond to increased demand by increasing the number of units available for sale and rent. In neighborhoods with detached homes, developers have an incentive to create townhouses. In areas where these already exist, developers might look to build mid-rise apartment buildings that allow for greater density. If a neighborhood already has mid-rise buildings and rents are high enough, developers start to build high-rises. This process of change keeps prices lower than they otherwise would have been in two ways.

First, it increases supply, which in turn lowers the equilibrium price for housing. Second, availability of new units means wealthier residents leave their old digs behind, freeing up more affordable housing for others. This process is important, because it means that houses get cheaper for middle-class renters even if developers are building more luxury units.

In contrast, when the stock of available housing is fixed because of local rules, rents skyrocket. Under this regime lots of people want to live in a neighborhood, but the available units each go to the highest bidder. This is bad news for people who don’t have a lot of money.

Columbia Heights is a case study of what happens to a newly-popular neighborhood under a restrictive land-use regime that doesn’t fully allow the processes described above. In 2000, there were 27,129 people living in the neighborhood,* including 11,092 black residents. After a decade of construction (mostly renovation), new residents, and change, the total population only increased by 1,087 people. By then, there were 3,107 fewer black residents. This sounds likes a lot like what Spike Lee was talking about, except that the dislocation might have been self-inflicted: it’s likely that developers would have greatly increased the number of housing units available in Columbia Heights if were legal to do so in a larger portion of the neighborhood.

While the story of dislocation is true for Columbia Heights as a whole, there is significant variation between the six Census tracts that make up the neighborhood. Tract 29–the area north of Park Street, south of Spring Street, between 14th Street and New Hampshire Avenue–had the highest percentage loss of its black population. Tract 37–north of Florida Avenue, south of Harvard Street, between 16th and 14th–had the lowest percentage loss of its black population.

  Tract 29 Tract 37 Columbia Heights
Housing Units +1.73% +23.80% +11.55%
Black Population -45.47% -10.99% -28.01%
Total Population -5.42% +15.49% +4.00%

The residential areas of Tract 29 are zoned R-4 for the most part, which allows buildings up to 40 feet tall, has minimum lot sizes, requires backyards, and requires 40% of any given lot to be vacant. This is an effective ban on new apartment buildings.

Most of Tract 37 is zoned R-5-B, which allows for apartments, has a higher height limit,  though it still requires 40% of a lot to be vacant.  North of Meridian Park, two blocks are zoned R-5-D, which allows for much taller apartment buildings.

By 2010 Tract 29 added a mere 28 units of housing, and ended up with 423 fewer residents. Tract 37 added 494 units of housing and an additional 773 people were able to move in.

There are a lot of other important factors to look at here, but in Columbia Heights we see that looser zoning regulations and a large increase in housing units corresponded to a significantly smaller exodus of black residents during a period of rapid economic development.

Race in this discussion is really a substitute for economic variables, and there isn’t a good reason to think that a similar process of outmigration didn’t take place for middle-class white and Latino residents who were priced out of the neighborhood.

But Spike Lee’s concerns are very real under the District’s current rules. Economic theory and our experience in D.C. suggest that restrictive land-use rules should be a major concern for those worried about displaced renters. As more people from around the world choose to make Washington their home, we’re faced with a clear choice. We can accommodate new residents by allowing for greater density through relaxed land-use rules, or we can expect more people to get priced out.

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*All data for this post are taken from the 2000 and 2010 Census reports. Columbia Heights is defined here as Census tracts 3, 28.01, 28.02, 29, 36, and 37. By this definition, Columbia Heights is located north of Florida Avenue, west of 16th Street, south of Spring Street, and east of 11th and New Hampshire (whichever is further east).