Tag Archives: nimbyism

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.

NIMBYs concerned tame, corporate, family restaurant will disrupt busy commercial district’s main thoroughfare

“Older District residents feel ignored by businesses aimed at the young and the hip,” says the Washington Post. That’s the headline from an article that, oddly, revolves around a regulatory battle between senior citizens and the newest addition to Columbia Heights’ bustling 14th Street: TGI Fridays. The article claims that this is a struggle between older, long-time residents who just want to spend their golden years in peace, and the large cohort of elder-disrespecting, younger people who migrated to the District over the last decade.

I think it’s really an age-old story of changing neighborhoods, changing preferences, and standard NIMBYism.

Hip youngsters

The Post narrative is implausible because TGI Fridays may be the least hip restaurant that could possibly be added to Columbia Heights, a distinction made even easier because there’s already a Ruby Tuesday directly across the street. TGI Fridays is so unhip that food bloggers take ironic visits to the “casual dining restaurant and bar” just to make fun of their offerings, and its very existence is a running gag at the Onion

Were it it not located within the same building as the apartments housing the senior citizens who protest against it at ANC meetings, I suspect they would be looking forward to having shrimp poppers, pizza shooters, and extreme fajitas with their friends. It’s just the type of well-lit restaurant for a conversation if you find most of the neighborhood’s establishments to be “frustratingly dim and… deafeningly loud.”

The ground floor in building that will soon host TGI Fridays has been largely vacant for the past several years. That means seniors enjoyed all the benefits of living on the commercial district’s main thoroughfare without any of the trade-offs that usually come with a mixed-use building, so I can understand their perspective. But they should also understand that TGI Fridays is about as good of a tenant as they could have hoped for. The Post article indicates that the restaurant will install sound-proofing to limit effects on the seniors, rather than limiting where and when the restaurant can do business.

This seems like the most sensible outcome, but the sword cuts both ways.

TGI Fridays could also be bad news for the young people the Post is fretting about. It’s exactly the type of bland, suburban restaurant they moved to Columbia Heights to avoid. After a few waves of hip people move to an up-and-coming neighborhood, high-income professionals and families may follow. With the last wave of new residents also comes higher rent and uncool neighbors. Sometime soon, young people may be forced to entirely abandon the neighborhood for hipper pastures in Brookland, Bloomingdale, and H Street NE, only to start the process again.

The same economic forces and rules that give birth to neighborhoods popular with young people may ultimately cause their demise, at least for the hip crowd.

For the same reason we shouldn’t allow young people to ban families and chain restaurants to preserve their hip enclaves, we shouldn’t let senior citizens control regulatory matters because they don’t want their commercial building to be used as designed.