Don’t preserve neighborhood character, or, Why pop-ups are great

The debate surrounding “pop-ups” is back, thanks to a new proposal to downzone parts of the District. Pop-ups are single-family rowhouses that are remodeled to increase floor space and, usually, converted into multi-unit structures that can house a much larger number of people. Pop-up housing in Lanier Heights--located directly to the north of rowdy Adams Morgan–is “changing the look and character of the neighborhood, reducing homes for families, invading privacy, and crowding neighboring yards and houses.” Prompted largely by a small group of residents, the Office of Planning is considering downzoning the neighborhood and banning people from turning townhouses into multi-unit structures.

Avert your eyes!

Preserving a neighborhood’s “character” in D.C. comes at a very high cost. Allowing more people to live in a single building creates more opportunities for families to find housing. Preserving neighborhood character really means preserving views for those rich enough to own expensive houses at the expense of affordable housing, diversity, and the poor.

In Lanier Heights, buying a typical rowhouse requires a million or so dollars. The pop-ups there aren’t particularly affordable, but buying a unit in one cost about half as much as buying a rowhouse on the same block, and allowing their construction means three to four times the amount of people can live in the same plot of land.

What the NIMBYs who want to downzone the neighborhood don’t mention is that these denser developments are critical to creating affordable housing in the District. Rather than eroding family housing, the pop-ups create more opportunities for families to live here. 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. This is one reason so many young people live together in single family homes, even though many would prefer to live in their own apartment if it were an affordable option. When individuals or couples move into pop-up unit, they’re freeing up their former place of residence for someone else.

This process, where people with higher incomes move into newer housing, and someone with slightly lower income moves into their old digs, is called filtering. A single unit of new housing can cause a long chain of several moves, where people with lower and lower incomes move into units formerly occupied by someone with more income. Filtering, and the older buildings people move into, is the way that most affordable housing is created.

This process is good for homeowners and renters alike. Converting a rowhouse into a taller condo building can more than double the value of the real estate, while lowering per unit housing prices. For example, a developer can purchase a rowhouse for $1 million, add two stories, increase the value to $2.5 million, and sell four condo units for an average of $625,000 each.

As Malpezzi and Green put it in their 1996 paper,  “A necessary condition for filtering to work is that new units, which are mostly at or near the top of the quality level of the stock, do not simply displace low-quality units, at the same price per unit of housing services.” The lesson for D.C. is that it isn’t enough to maintain our current housing stock. If we allow greater density through processes like pop-ups and new apartment buildings we can create affordable housing when those with higher incomes move into new, dense units, freeing up their old homes for others to rent or purchase. The alternative is to ban new development and have the rich to move into neighborhoods like Lanier Heights and turn run-of-the-mill rowhouses into million-dollar residences.

How can some people in Lanier Heights oppose pop-ups when they are  so good for the District? Why not just convert their own houses to pop-ups and take the $1 million in profit?

Some neighbors are happy with their neighborhood the way it is, and would rather just sit on the equity. But they also don’t want to look at pop-ups or deal with the new neighbors they bring. They also complain that taller buildings provide shade for their yards, and that the wrong types of people will move in.

Because of the way Lanier Heights is zoned, property owners have always had the legal right to expand their homes, build taller additions, and convert them to multi-unit structures. Without any right to veto construction, Lanier Heights NIMBYs would have to negotiate with their neighbors to prevent construction and likely have to pay each person wanting to build a pop-up handsomely.

But a much cheaper option is to lobby the Office of Planning to revoke their neighbors’ development rights at the expense of everyone else.

Downzoning Lanier Heights because rich residents don’t want new neighbors is a bad policy. It breaks the chain of filtering that provides for affordable housing in the future, it makes it harder for people to live in popular neighborhoods, but it is also deeply unfair. It preserves neighborhood character to meet the preferences of the relatively wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

To create affordable housing, the Office of Planning shouldn’t downzone Lanier Heights or any other part of the District.

If you agree, you should consider attending ANC 1c’s Planning, Zoning, and Transportation Committee meeting tomorrow, Wednesday, September 17, at 7:00 PM to voice your opposition to the Lanier Heights downzoning, and your support for dense development.

One thought on “Don’t preserve neighborhood character, or, Why pop-ups are great”

  1. I would argue with your characterization that the down zoning is supported by a “small group” of residents. There are far more residents who support this than the previously attempted Historic District proposal. Also, Lanier Heights, just like Reed-Cooke and Kalorama are part of the greater “rowdy” Adams Morgan.

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