A real zoning rewrite would be awful for NIMBYs

I usually associate NIMBYism with people like the woman behind the failed push to ban booze on U Street or the guy fighting to keep 7-Eleven off 14th Street NW. But fighting every individual bar, building, or business near you is a fool’s errand unless you’re in it for the schadenfreude.  That brand of piecemeal NIMBYism, while sometimes effective, is for amateurs. The pros use something much stronger: zoning.  The listserv warriors and ANC gadflies have to attend a nearly-endless string of meetings, hearings, and public comment sessions to keep development away. But once you get your neighborhood zoned for single-family homes on large lots, no one is allowed to build anything near anyone, and development only happens downtown or where poor people used to live.

The Zoning Commission has spent the last few years working through what it called the Zoning Regulations Review. It was originally billed as a “comprehensive overhaul” of the zoning code, but it really makes a few minor revisions around the edges. While the proposed changes are technically open to public comment, I suspect all the important decisions have already been made.  Regardless, here are a few changes I would make if I were the zoning czar:

1. Eliminate Residential House (R) Zones

There’s no need for single-family zoning in a major city like the District of Columbia. Rather than protecting incumbent homeowners from having to look at buildings they don’t like, zoning regulations should allow large lot suburbs to give way to denser development. While this would likely increase land values, it would also decrease per-unit housing costs. This of course doesn’t mean that single-family homes would be illegal. DC residents would simply be able to convert their detached, single-family homes into row-houses or small apartment buildings where it makes economic sense. Homeowners could cash out on their newly-valuable land and renters would have more options. Much of Ward 3, a paragon of exclusionary zoning, would be opened to development under this change.

2. Allow unlimited density, mixed-use development, and no parking minimums within a quarter mile of any Metro station entrance

Areas surrounding Metro stations are prime locations for building transit-oriented development with the least impact on parking availability and traffic. Too many Metro stations are surrounded by sleepy neighborhoods despite the multi-billion dollar public infrastructure located just steps away. Let’s make full use of the transit investments we have by allowing dense development nearby Metro stations. The federally-imposed Height Act will cap what can be built, so there isn’t much need to control development near the stations.

3. Automatic price-based upzoning

High per-unit prices well above construction cost can be an indicator that zoning is too strict, but it can take the zoning code decades to catch up to reality. One way to get around this is by allowing automatic upzoning when per-unit sale prices hit a certain price–say, $400 per square foot–in a neighborhood.

 

4. Cap the number of buildings protected under historical preservation laws

There are literally thousands of buildings in DC that can’t be torn down or greatly altered. Some are architectural or historical gems that will be cherished for generations. Others are run-of-the-mill rowhouses that really don’t merit permanent protection from development pressures. As more and more structures and neighborhoods are nominated for historic status, we should look back at what’s currently protected and consider what is really important.

DC planners to create more group houses for millennials

Eric Fidler has the scoop at Greater Greater Washington:

The Office of Planning submitted the draft amendment for the Southeast Federal Center Overlay Zone, which covers about two blocks west of the Navy Yard. The proposal would let developers make buildings taller and with a higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as long as that 8% of the “bonus” area were three-bedroom units.

The Office  of Planning hopes that they can add more housing for families by adding regulations that create incentives to build more large units than they otherwise would.

So much room for activities

OP will probably be successful in adding additional three-bedroom units to the market, but it’s unlikely that the new regulations will achieve their stated goal.

As I’ve noted before, approximately 57% of D.C. households consist of a solitary person occupying a unit or home. However, our current housing stock doesn’t reflect our demographics.

Lots of D.C.’s young people live in what were designed as single-family units in a shared setting with other adults. A three-bedroom is substantially cheaper than three one bedroom (or studio) apartments in almost every case, so they can save money by teaming up for a lease. Families will still have to compete with people looking to live with roommates when seeking housing, and that fact won’t change because OP wants it to.

If the Office of Planning wants to create more places for families to live, it should allow developers to build what makes sense for each project. This probably means building smaller units for the time being, but each new unit is one fewer person competing with families for existing larger units.

Was taxi deregulation a failure?

Catherine Rampell has a new opinion piece claiming that taxi deregulation is bad for consumers, doubling down on a previous piece in which she made the same claim. The lesson she draws from this is that Uber will eventually be bad for consumers as well.

Her first post was written in response to an IGM Chicago panel of more than 40 leading economists asked to respond to the following statement:

Letting car services such as Uber or Lyft compete with taxi firms on equal footing regarding genuine safety and insurance requirements, but without restrictions on prices or routes, raises consumer welfare.

The ideologically diverse panel unanimously agreed.

 Her first post didn’t include any sources that contradicted the panel, but her more recent one included links to three papers: one from a taxicab lobbyist group, one written by city planners for the Department of Transportation, and one by a McGill law professor. All three said taxi deregulation was bad for consumers.

 According to Rampell, allowing Uber and Lyft is really a repeat of earlier,  failed attempts to deregulate the taxi market, and, according to her three sources, we should expect the same, allegedly bad outcomes. She suggests cracking down on ridesharing services with taxi-style regulation.

 Using a paper from a lobbyist might suggest she’s scraping the bottom of the academic barrel, and raises a question: is Catherine Rampell accurately conveying the research on taxi deregulation?

 The short answer is no, at least if you’re interested in what economists say. According to a literature review conducted by Adrian Moore and Ted Balaker, the majority of economists working on this issue think taxi deregulation is a good idea, and has worked out well in practice.

taxidereg

In addition,  the primary problem she raises on her own is the exact one ridesharing applications address:

“…fares were relatively opaque and unpredictable; and consumers were reluctant to price-shop or interrogate drivers about their insurance and safety records. They just hopped into the first available cab.”

Uber and Lyft make money because they are able to easily pair drivers and customers, establish fair rates, facilitate payment, and ensure safety and insurance.

The conventional wisdom that taxi cartels decrease consumer welfare and competition makes things better seems to be right. It’s probably why so many people enjoy ridesharing services.

DC laws give NIMBYs a lot of power to say no to any new development. We give District residents a way to say yes.