Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

In neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, people have been converting row houses to 3- and 4-unit condo buildings. Should zoning stop this practice? It would under a new proposal from the DC Office of Planning, but not all of DC’s zoning commissioners were enthusiastic about the idea.

This proposal would apply to the zones now designated R-4, including neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Trinidad, Bloomingdale, Logan Circle, Columbia Heights, and Park View. Today, it’s legal to have two separate units in one of these row houses, but not more unless the lot is particularly large.

OP’s proposal would take away the ability to have more than 2 units at all. It would also limit houses to 35 feet instead of 40 (though owners could go to 40 with a zoning hearing) and end the current policy allowing small “mezzanines” to not count as floors.

The Comprehensive Plan defines the R-4 zone as primarily single-family row houses (perhaps with basement apartments), not as apartment buildings. But in booming neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, OP planners say, developers have outbid individual families for houses with the expectation that they could get BZA exceptions to make the building into a multi-unit condo and add on to the top and back.

Color-coded map of residential zones (as of 2008). R-4 zones are in purple.

Zoning commissioners worry this may reduce housing

OP Associate Director Jennifer Steingasser presented this plan to the Zoning Commission, DC’s part-federal, part-local board which has the final say on zoning, on June 9. Commissioner Marcie Cohen asked whether this change would reduce the amount of new housing that can get built in the city. She said,

A major concern that I have is the need for housing, and that’s usually the need that’s brought before us in the BZA cases. It’s adding housing. And no one seems to appreciate density, yet we have the infrastructure in certain neighborhoods for density and I guess I’m in favor of taking advantage to provide the needed housing that we have in the city. How do we balance that?

Steingasser laid out the arguments, and said,

It’s just a balance. We’re trying to encourage housing, by all means, but we would rather it not be in the single family and at the expense of the historic row houses, that it be geared more towards these larger lots or into these higher-density, multifamily, commercial mixed-use areas.

Something of a debate ensued.

Chairman Anthony Hood: I’m glad to hear you say that, Ms. Steingasser ... While I understand the need, there are a lot of folks in this city who bought in their areas for a reason. ... Do we just throw everybody on top of them or do we kind of balance that out? ... While there is a need for housing, we have to be delicate with that because in this city who’s been there a long time, they spent a lot of money in purchasing their homes which is their biggest investment, and they didn’t buy into that.

Comissioner Rob Miller: That’s why there are five members on this commission, because it is a changing city, it is a growing city, and where you tip the balance — does two to three [units in a building] really change the character of a neighborhood? I don’t think so. But maybe others do.

Steingasser: This is coupled with the new RF zones that we’re proposing that do allow for more than 2 units. And where those get mapped will accommodate that. So it’s not ensuring an amberification of all R-4, but allowing some areas to have more and some to have less.

However, Steingasser just walked back a very important proposal in the zoning update where homeowners in the R-4 zone, who can already have two units in their building, could put one of them in a carriage house without a zoning special exception. This will reduce the amount of housing that gets added in R-4 zones inside existing buildings.

At the moment, not clear if the neighborhoods that will take advantage of the new 3-unit and 4-unit zones will be R-4 (2-unit) zones, adding more potential housing, or R-5 (unlimited unit) zones, which would decrease potential housing.

In a blog post, unnamed OP planners added,

So, in a time when the demand for housing is great in DC, why would OP propose this? In addition to being inconsistent with the intent of the R-4 zone and sometimes the character of the neighborhood, this is having an impact on the diversity and the relative affordability of our family housing stock. ...

Buildings with one and two dwelling units represent approximately 38 percent of the District’s housing stock, but only about 4 percent of the units in the housing pipeline over the next 15 years. Conversely, the District has a large supply of multi-family or mixed use zoned land and developments in the housing pipeline for multi-family housing that is appropriate to meet the demand of smaller households.

Few new multifamily buildings are being delivered with three or more bedrooms, unless they are part of housing planned to replace similarly-sized public housing units. Over the past three years, three-bedroom units have risen in price almost three times as fast as one-bedroom units — a reflection of the limited supply, subsequent demand pressure, and rapidly escalating prices.

Families seeking to purchase relatively affordable homes are competing with developers who can pay more for a larger house than a family because they can profit by splitting up the building and selling smaller units. Ensuring that the R-4 zone remains a single-family rowhouse or flat zone can begin to address this pressure.

Despite appearances, this doesn’t deal with pop-ups very well

OP is right that DC does need some family housing. It also needs single and couple housing. Encouraging family housing is a good idea, but like many zoning proposals from OP recently including the past few years of zoning update tweaks (and like DC’s parking policy in recent years), it seems to be just layering customized rule on top of customized rule without a broader strategy.

This specific proposal doesn’t even address many of the complaints people have. This is mainly being billed in the press as a move to stop pop-ups. The lower height will deter some of the worst pop-ups, but it isn’t going to stop people from adding a third story onto a 2-story row house in a place like Trinidad and the biggest objection is usually that the pop-ups are cheaply made and ugly. A design review process may be better than a zoning limit. Nor will this do anything about many of the more infamous pop-ups, like the one on V Street, which is in an ARTS/C-2-B zone.

How about some actual planning?

Rather than slap on a patchwork of new rules that react to each neighborhood request, why can’t the Office of Planning actually plan? Work with residents to figure out where the housing DC needs can go, and what’s the best place for different size housing. Figure out where and what kind of family housing there could be, and then write rules to encourage that.

There’s a good chance that existing row houses are a more ideal place for family-sized housing. A limit might make sense if, at the same time, the city has a strategy for adding the housing it needs in other ways. It doesn’t have one now. There was also massive opposition to allow even targeted exceptions to the federal height limit. People are fighting development at McMillan, at Takoma, at the Big K site in Anacostia, and on my block, all saying that whatever is proposed is too big for whatever area it’s in. There was a lot of opposition to allowing accessory apartments in single-family zones, even though that wouldn’t change any buildings. And so forth.

Since the first zoning update proposals in 2008, Steingasser’s division of OP has been largely reactive, responding to complaints and tweaking the zoning (just about always to make it more restrictive). The agency needs to start being proactive and engaging residents in a discussion about the best way to add the housing DC needs. It’s got to be somewhere, and really a lot of somewheres.

Soon, DC will revisit its Comprehensive Plan, which is a good opportunity for this conversation. But it will only happen if OP actually plans for growth which DC’s sustainability plan already calls for.

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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.