Tag Archives: dc

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.

Demand can’t explain why D.C. is so expensive

The Urban Institute released a great study about how the District has changed over the last thirteen years. It has a lot of information in convenient graphs that summarize difficult-to-understand Census data, and its publication has spurred lots of commentary from the D.C. land-use commentariat.

Emily Badger focused on the quick growth of expensive apartments since 2005. Aaron Wiener noted that, contrary to the dominant narrative, inexpensive family-friendly rental units have not disappeared. Rather, cheap one bedroom and studio apartments have largely disappeared. Lark Turner explained that Millennials played a large role in the District’s demographic shift and subsequent housing changes.

All three authors are correct, but they’re mostly focusing on demand-side explanations for why DC is so much more expensive than it was 13 years ago.

It’s easy to see why some neighborhoods were much cheaper in 2002: a lot of today’s hip neighborhoods weren’t great places to live back then. Places like Columbia Heights, U Street, and NE were filled with disamenties that made rent cheap. For example, before Target and the other DCUSA tenants came to Columbia Heights, 14th and Irving looked like this:

ht New Columbia Heights

Replacing vacant lots and debris with stores, restaurants, and other things people like should lead to higher rents.

With the elimination of disamenities and the addition of amenities comes increased demand in the form of new residents. More people bidding on the same number of units pushes prices higher. Then, so it seems, rich people move into poor people’s homes and we have the city we currently live in. Right? Not exactly.

These changes are easy to spot, and account for some of the price changes. But demand only accounts for half the story, and it doesn’t explain how our current situation could be different. Under a more relaxed regulatory regime we might not have experienced the same spike in rental prices, home values, and  displacement the District has undergone during the last fifteen years.

As Matt Yglesias wrote in response to the study, the supply of rental units hasn’t expanded very much because it’s often illegal to increase density where it is demanded most. This factor–legal restraints on building more places for people to live–is primarily to blame for D.C’s sky-high rents and real estate prices.

Even in neighborhoods with skyrocketing demand and new projects, our local regulations often make it illegal to respond by maximizing the number of units that can fit on a given plot of land. As I wrote earlier this year,

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… After a decade of construction (mostly renovation), new residents, and change, the total population only increased by 1,087 people.

According to the Urban Institute study, we’ve added 33,918 expensive rental units since 2005 while the total number units of rental housing only increased by 12,500. During the same time period our population increased by more than 50,000 people.

When land becomes expensive, developers usually respond by building apartments instead of single family homes. This, of course, makes them more money, but it also makes housing more affordable than it otherwise would be. It also prevents your cheap basement unit from being converted into a wealthy person’s wine cellar.

Major cities in general have seen a surge in demand over the last few years as more people want to live in urban areas, but the price response in the District is uncommon. Not only have local housing prices spiked more than most other cities, we’ve even outpaced the NIMBY Mecca–San Francisco.



There’s not much for policymakers to do about a surge in demand aside from making D.C. a worse place to live, but there’s plenty of room to improve on the supply side. For starters, the District Council could limit NIMBYs’ ability to block projects, eliminate parking minimums, and loosen zoning restrictions that limit population density.

Otherwise, expect more of the same.