Photo by sccart on Flickr.

As housing demand continues to outstrip supply, housing prices keep rising in neighborhoods where lower-income renters and seniors on fixed incomes can ill afford the extra cost. DC’s zoning update could help make a small dent in this problem, just as a single environmental protection can slightly blunt climate change. But that will only happen if the zoning update doesn’t get blocked or delayed.

At Monday’s zoning update hearing, Zoning Commission Vice-Chair Marcie Cohen, who spent much of her career on affordable housing and community development, asked whether those who outright oppose changes to DC’s zoning, without proposing alternative solutions to our problems, are akin to those denying global warming: problems are coming, and they’d ignore them rather than deal with them.

Cohen asked some of the witnesses,

I know you said that we should not rely on some of the policies that are in vogue today. However, I don’t believe that we also have the luxury of ignoring what’s happening. So there has to be a balance.

I’d like for you to at least describe to me some of the areas that you think we should be looking at, so that we do continue to have a city that is livable. If we don’t do some of the things that the zoning rewrite is doing, I think — maybe some other people may think — that we are becoming like the deniers of global warming.

Maybe global warming won’t happen if we wave around big clocks?

A group of people were outside the hearing protesting. They weren’t shouting about problems with the specific proposals, like letting people rent out their basements and garages, or allowing more corner stores, or letting property owners decide how much parking they need. Instead, they want to delay the zoning update beyond the 5-plus years it’s already taken.

Photo by the author.

This is misguided. In fact, it’s not even clear that the group, calling itself DC Zoning Changes Network, actually opposes the core ideas of the zoning update. On policy, they have little in common with the upper Northwest “change nothing” opposition we’ve generally heard. The group wants to lower the income threshold for affordable housing and create an extra review step for any big box stores.

The protestors are holding up clocks to argue that the process, which has been dragging on for 5 years, still hasn’t given community groups enough time to respond. They argue that because the DC Office of Planning (OP) submitted the latest version of the text on September 9, about 2 months ago, that’s too short a timeframe, and there needs to be another 6-month comment period.

But the date of the last version of the text means nothing. The fundamental changes behind the zoning update were the subject of public working group meetings in 2008 and 2009, Zoning Commission hearings in 2009 and 2010, and more public meetings in 2012, task force and community meetings in between. Those haven’t changed, except to get weaker over time as OP backed down on some ideas.

There are always people who haven’t been following any particular issue and weren’t aware of it, but it’s hard to credibly say that the OP hasn’t given people a lot of chances to weigh in.

The latest draft is just a little different because OP made changes based on the community input. If there has to be a 180-day comment period on this version, then what? If OP makes no changes, then one could argue it hasn’t listened to anyone. If it makes some changes (and there are always small technical tweaks to make), then do we need another 180-day comment period because there’s a new version?

Whether you agree with the Zoning Changes Network group or not, their policy suggestions could be evaluated on their own merits. Those don’t have to be part of the zoning update right now, and shouldn’t, because they are totally brand-new ideas that weren’t part of this 5-year discussion. But the zoning update isn’t the last time we will change zoning. New ideas for zoning changes can become reality at any time through “text amendments.”

Even if everything in the zoning update goes forward, it will only make at best a small dent in this problem. The Office of Planning needs to soon turn its attention to doing more analysis and crafting more policy approaches to deal with skyrocketing housing costs. The sooner we get the zoning update over with, the sooner our planners can move on to the next, necessary steps.

If, instead, we wait, the water levels will keep rising.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.