Mayor Bowser thinks giving homeless people places to live throughout DC would be preferable to warehousing them in an abandoned insane asylum. Others think not.
Selecting a location for public housing is the NIMBY problem par excellence. Support for housing these families is almost universal in DC, but no one wants a shelter to pop up next door.
The textbook solution for selecting sites is to develop a fair rule ahead of time (e.g. one shelter in each ward in the most cost effective location, etc.) and to compensate those who are hurt by creation of locally unwanted land uses (LULUs).
Neighbors Opposing the Distribution of Shelters (NODS), a completely real coalition of Upper Northwest landowners facing the prospect of nearby poor people, has concluded in a public letter, “the only workable situation to solve the homeless problems [sic] is to give them homes.” Although this sounds like an endorsement of the currently-existing plan to build temporary housing for homeless families, the author is attempting to express disapproval. The author’s preferred alternative policy option is not clear, but it likely involves doing something else, to be defined later and preferably further away, lest the landowners suffer “negative impact on home values.”
Skeptical writers have accused these Concerned Neighbors® of arguing in bad faith, but it may be best to take them at their word. Maybe people wealthy enough to spend more than a million dollars on real estate really do have more to lose from the location of public housing than poorer residents in other parts of DC do. “Across the street from a homeless shelter” isn’t exactly a selling point, after all.
Upper Northwest has long been considered a refuge from more urban DC problems, thanks in no small part to the zoning and development regulations that keep building and development at bay and, of course, average rents far out of reach for undesirable people.
NIMBYs living in the no-man’s land between Sidwell Friends and the National Cathedral have reached the apotheosis of opposition to development: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. Not only are homeless shelters reviled, but luxury apartment buildings, renovations to aging supermarkets, and any other nearby development is usually opposed in these quarters as a threat to “property values.”
But in these BANANA quarters, little consideration is given to the primary killer of urban land values: the amount of development legally allowed on that land by zoning and other land-use regulations. That is, NIMBYism may keep average rents high, but it can do the exact opposite for land values.
Instead of building homeless shelters, Mayor Bowser should offer the Concerned Neighbors® a compromise: keep the homeless shelters in poor neighborhoods, but upzone the entirety of Wards 3 and 4 to C-5, the densest mixed development zoning district allowed under DC law.
A handful of shelters really isn’t going to do much to end the region-wide housing crisis, but greatly upzoning several square miles of real estate–already equipped with an underground rail network–will do quite a bit. It will also greatly increase land values in these wards, even as average rents fall.
Upzoning Wards 3 and 4 would be great for the city, but it would have the side effect of essentially dismantling some socially-exclusive neighborhoods as landowners sell out to developers, one by one, and detached houses give way to more affordable apartment buildings.
But that can’t be worse than having to interact with homeless families.