Category Archives: land use

LULUs turn local NIMBYs to BANANAs

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.

Muh property
Photo taken from @hgil’s Twitter feed

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.

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.