Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

If a property owner wants to divide a row house into multiple units, the neighbors agree, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission does not object, should they be able to?

The Office of Planning (OP)‘s recent “anti-pop-up” zoning proposal would halt this practice, in an effort to keep row houses as one- or two-family homes and reduce the financial incentive to add on top and in back. But at two members of DC’s Zoning Commission were not at all pleased with this proposal.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that the Board of Zoning Adjustment has been granting many variances recently to allow these multi-family conversions, but only when — and because — the neighbors and ANC endorse the idea. In fact, he said, the BZA has been sometimes having to bend over backward to get such a request to meet the strict variance criteria. But, at least in his thinking, if this is something neighbors support, why shouldn’t it be allowed?



OP’s Jennifer Steingasser acknowledged that in the recent BZA cases, there has indeed been neighborhood support. Often that’s because a property is vacant and crumbling, and neighbors are eager to see someone invest the considerable capital that might be necessary to overhaul it. Small developers have said that the economics only work out to do such substantial work if they can create more units.

Federal representative Michael Turnbull, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, doesn’t believe that. He said, “I’m not really convinced by these marketing studies. For every marketing study that says one thing, you can get another marketing study that says, well no. ... So it’s a little bit self-serving. I always look askance at these things.”

But Miller does not agree. He said,

I think this proposal significantly constrains the ability of our existing housing stock ... and the existing zoning code to accommodate a growing population, including a growing proportion of smaller household sizes. We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change and growth in our city. Cities are dynamic and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn’t change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.


In response to much of the pushback OP has already received on its draft, Steingasser has developed some alternative approaches. One, which garnered some praise from the commission, would still allow converting row houses into apartments, but require that units beyond the first and second be below market rate units under DC’s inclusionary zoning law.

This would permit more housing, but set some aside for people with lower incomes, perhaps ensuring that these neighborhoods remain mixed-income as they grow more dense. It would be helpful to know more about the economics of these conversions to ensure that property owners would still be able to afford them; otherwise, it’s just a ban in another guise.

Miller also asked OP to add another option that would make multifamily conversions a “special exception” instead of a variance. In a special exception, impact on the neighborhood is the main test, rather than uniqueness financial need.

Where’s the big picture?

Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that OP should be making any proposal as part of a larger housing strategy instead of as a one-off reaction to public pressure. “I just don’t think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I’m worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal]. I personally prefer the alternatives that you have [proposed]. I do believe we must have opportunities that are supported by an ANC and supported by a neighborhood to move ahead with higher density in an R-4 district.”

In response to questions about the impact on housing supply, Steingasser repeatedly said that the rules didn’t originate out of an analysis about housing; rather, they were an effort to respond to public outcry about pop-ups (including a sudden election-year interest in the issue from councilmember Jim Graham, who later lost his primary).

But this is exactly the problem. OP has now in several cases proposed new limits on zoning which, officials readily acknowledge, arose entirely in response to some requests by some neighbors. OP should certainly listen to neighbor concerns, but needs to also think about the big picture. Miller pointed out that they got feedback on many different issues, like fixing Inclusionary Zoning, and asked, why has OP reacted so quickly to this particular one right now?

Every change, especially one that affects the overall housing supply, has an impact beyond just the immediate neighbors and the people who have specifically met with Steingasser or testified at a hearing. The Office of Planning needs to have a broader idea of how much housing of different types DC has and how much it needs.

A policy that pushes more row houses to be family-sized housing and discourages small apartments in row houses could be a reasonable one, so long as DC also has a bigger plan for how to provide the smaller sized housing that other people want. As UrbanTurf recently discussed, many families would prefer a row house (we certainly did).

Maybe a comprehensive housing supply strategy will conclude that fewer row houses should turn into apartments while more apartments should go on other spots. But at the moment, there are no concrete numbers about the demand and likely supply. There are just handwaving statements about how more units will appear at places like McMillan (maybe not enough, and even fewer if opponents get their way) or that we need more family housing.

The Office of Planning is going to be doing more quantitative housing analysis as it prepares to revise the DC Comprehensive Plan. Steingasser also told the Zoning Commission that OP has more data on row houses and family-sized housing. While this proposal might be a piece of a puzzle, it would make far more sense to propose it as part of a fuller plan to ensure DC has the amount and sizes of housing it needs.

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.