D.C. cabbies don’t have a great reputation when it comes friendliness, courteous driving, or car maintenance. Hailing a cab sometimes means riding in a beat-up, dirty car driven by a rude person on a circuitous, fare-maximizing route. Customers have taken notice, and have flocked to upstarts Uber and Lyft as soon as they were given a chance for exit.
The House of Representatives voted earlier this week to change the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, and it soon will be legal to build habitable spaces in buildings’ penthouses. Prior to the legislation, that space could only be occupied by machines—usually elevator and air conditioning units.
This change to our local rules is positive, though extremely minor. A handful of new buildings will likely have office, event or living space where they previously would not. But this tiny concession from our federal rulers is really a major loss, and a self-inflicted one at that.
When Rep. Darrel Issa, R-Calif., offered the D.C. government autonomy to decide how tall buildings can be, every District Council member, with the notable exception of Marion Barry, asked the federal government to deny District residents control over how tall our buildings can be.
Council Chair Phil Mendelson, Chair Pro Tempore Kenyan McDuffie and members David Catania, Vincent Orange, Jack Evans, Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Anita Bonds, David Grosso, Jim Graham, Mary Cheh and Yvette Alexander submitted a resolution to Issa stating that no “big city municipal government in this country has been able to resist the allure of easy real estate money,” an argument that the District of Columbia simply can’t be trusted to make the right decision.
Though they would have you believe otherwise, amending or repealing the Height Act wouldn’t make tall buildings legal. It would just give us the power to do so in the future. As I wrote last year:
[R]emoving the federally-imposed height limitation wouldn’t legalize tall buildings in the District. In addition to the federal rules, there are local rules about height that are difficult to get around without changing the zoning code. The PUD process allows small increases in height in exchange for offering community benefits, but those increases are very modest.
In addition, local parking minimums, floor area ratio maximums and setback requirements serve as strict de facto limits on height. The D.C. Code also gives neighbors many opportunities and venues in which they can halt a project or severely limit its scale.
The actual stakes of what is being proposed–tiny, incremental changes to the Height Acts–tend to get lost in exchanges like council hearings, but let’s make it clear here:
Entirely removing the federal height limits in the District, which is not even being proposed, would only be a first step in a long process to make tall buildings legal. Before anything gets built, the District government would have to remove height limits in the zoning code, amend or remove parking restrictions, more than double the maximum floor area ratio and lower setback requirements. The only immediate effect of a full repeal would be that the local government, not the feds, would choose how tall buildings can be within the District of Columbia.
That is, nearly every current council member would disenfranchise residents for the foreseeable future rather than give voters the opportunity to elect leaders who disagree in this policy area.
Pretty much every candidate for local office will support autonomy gimmicks they know have no chance of being implemented, but when offered the real thing for building heights, nearly all of them balked.
When Mendelson came forward with his anti-autonomy resolution, Marion Barry wrote that the “District is only 68 miles square, 10 of which are water. Therefore, in my view, we have to do all that we can to maximize height on the land that we have.” He’s right.
A more affordable District requires that we allow greater density where people want to live and work. That means downtown office buildings taller than currently allowed by federal law. In other parts of the city, it means building taller residential buildings to accommodate all the people who want to call D.C. home.
The status quo might allow for the “human scale” and “horizontality” that our council members value so much, but is that worth the cost of displacing working families and low-income residents? Unless views are more important than people, our council members have let us all down.
The next time a local politician claims to support District autonomy, don’t forget to laugh.
Over at Housing Complex, Aaron Wiener pokes fun at what he calls “Ubertarians.”
These are people who “support government regulation—except when it inconveniences them,” “love public transit, especially the not-so-public kind,” “hate meddlesome neighbors, but will eagerly meddle themselves when riled up,” “vote Democratic, but they kind of love Pat Mara,” and “hate the Height Act.”
I don’t closely follow electoral politics, so I won’t comment on the Pat Mara part aside from the obvious point that nearly everyone in D.C. votes Democratic.
Since Aaron asked readers to add traits to the Ubertarian archetype, here’s my list:
1. They can distinguish pecuniary externalities from real externalities.
A real externality is a cost that falls on a third party from a transaction, such as pollution from a factory or the effects of second-hand cigarette smoke. That is, the externality is real in the sense that it usually involves some kind of physical or non-price resource like air, pollutants, noise, light, or damage to property. When costs are borne by third parties–rather than those involved in the transaction itself–the economy as a whole is less efficient, and life is less fair. Standard economics teaches us that the government should intervene with a tax, fee, or other regulation to address the problem.
A pecuniary externality, on the other hand, operates through the price system and doesn’t cause a loss of efficiency. It also doesn’t result in an unfair situation. For example, if your neighbors discover that Vietnamese food is delicious and purchase it more often, the price of phở can increase. This increase in price converts consumer surplus to producer surplus. It could be argued that consumers are worse off after the change, but that loss is offset by a bonus to the producer, who receives a benefit for providing a product that consumers like. Most people would say this kind of externality is fair, and standard economics teaches us that the government shouldn’t intervene to correct it.
Another example of a pecuniary externality could be loss of income for taxi drivers caused by the market entrance of a new company that provides a better service and doesn’t do bad things like refuse to pick up black or disabled customers.
2. They can distinguish between consumer protection and rent-seeking.
Ubertarians probably appreciate that it’s illegal to drive passengers in an unsafe car, or hire someone who doesn’t know how to drive. But that’s already illegal because driving itself is a highly-regulated activity. Ubertarians realize that some regulations, like the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s attacks on UberX, are really about protecting cabbies from competition.
3. They probably aren’t libertarians.
Most District residents who like Uber, who opposed the silly proposed liquor license moratorium, and who want to abolish the height limit are progressives. But that doesn’t mean that they are gullible enough to think that every ban or regulation that comes through the pipe is a good idea. Nor should it.
In the end, Ubertarians might not actually exist. But, if anything, Aaron Wiener sounds a bit like an Ubertarian himself!