Tag 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.

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.