Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

The DC Office of Planning wants to further limit the height of houses in some row house neighborhoods and restrict the ability of property owners to split their houses into multiple units. The proposal, which first came out last June, will have a public hearing this Thursday night.

Planners say these proposals are responding to some neighborhoods’ alarm about “pop-ups” and will preserve family-sized units in row houses which developers have been converting to buildings with more and smaller units.

However, others worry that this is the latest in a recent string of zoning changes which would reduce DC’s ability to add housing in areas close to jobs and transit. The planning office of late seems to make policy proposals on a very ad hoc basis that react to a political issue, and we need a comprehensive look at the city’s housing need along with strategies to deal with it.

What’s in this proposal

This change would apply to the zones designated R-4. This covers Columbia Heights, Shaw, Capitol Hill, and other areas in purple on the below map:

Residential zones as of 2008. Image by David Alpert from DC Office of Zoning base map.

Today, a property owner in these zones can have up to two units in one house. For larger-than-usual lots, there can be three or four. And some property owners have asked DC’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) for a variance to convert normal-sized ones into four or more apartments.

The BZA has granted many of these requests, sometimes with the full support of immediate neighbors and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and sometimes in more controversial situations. OP’s proposal would tighten these rules to completely forbid this practice. Another alternative, which OP added in response to criticism of its initial proposal, would still allow the extra units but require any beyond two to be Inclusionary Zoning units available to people making 60% or less of the Area Median Income.

In addition, row houses in these zones could only rise to 35 feet as of right, with the ability to get a special exception to build to 40 feet. A small “mezzanine” floor would also count against the limit on the number of floors, which it doesn’t today.

Why planners say this is necessary

According to OP’s blog post and presentation, the change from 40 to 35 feet will still let homeowners add on to their houses, including adding a third story to a two-story building, but will limit some of the more incongruous additions and cut the economic motivation to add on as high as possible.

It’s worth noting that the infamous V Street pop-up isn’t even in an R-4 and this proposal wouldn’t affect it. But there have been projects adding on to a row house that tried to maximize the building envelope, both on top and in back, to put as many smaller units inside as could fit.

As for converting a house into more than two units, they essentially seem to feel that the BZA is granting these variances too readily. The R-4 zone’s stated purpose, according to the zoning regulations, is to be a place of only moderate density row houses with larger units; creating a lot of apartments isn’t really in keeping with that spirit.

They also argue that because of this ability to make a little apartment building out of a row house, developers can outbid individual families for the buildings, making it harder for families to afford places to live. New large apartment buildings in DC are generally made up of studios, one bedrooms, and two bedrooms, with relatively few three- and four-bedroom units, so, the proponents say, we should preserve some of the larger units that already exist.

Why critics say this is a bad idea

The original proposal came under some criticism from certain members of the Zoning Commission when OP planners presented it in July. Marcie Cohen, a housing affordability advocate, said, “The need that’s brought before us in the BZA cases [is] 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.”

Rob Miller also spoke about the city’s need to grow, while chairman Anthony Hood and Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull defended OP’s ideas. Peter May, the National Park Service representative, was not at that meeting and will likely represent the swing vote.

Blogger Payton Chung points out that the traditional family, married couples with children, make up less than 10% of DC households, while a third of the housing is family-sized. Plus, that minority of housing takes up most of DC’s land (because much of it is lower density). Therefore, he concludes, while DC still needs to have family-sized housing, what it really needs to add right now is smaller units.

While many families do want to live a short walk from restaurants, Chung also links to research showing that compared to other household types, this is less of a priority. And, he says, “most of North America’s great “Main Street” urban neighborhoods are made of 2-4 unit low-rises — a desirable, sustainable urban pattern that’s almost criminalized by this change.”

We need plans for new housing

This policy debate need not pit families against singles. We need enough housing for all types of households. But where?

OP’s own report on the height limit found that under current zoning and historic preservation laws, existing places to build new housing would max out in about 25 years, or sooner if DC experiences a high level of growth.

Graph from the DC Office of Planning.

Twenty-five years is not a lot of time to find opportunities for more housing. It has taken over seven years just to make a few minor tweaks in the zoning to add a small amount of new housing potential in existing carriage houses, and that came only amid enormous pushback. OP repeatedly scaled back these proposals along the way, to the point that the Zoning Commission actually told planners they had retreated too far.

These changes came in response to individual neighborhood complaints or requests. But these changes don’t just affect one neighborhood: they affect the whole.

It certainly could make sense for a neighborhood to collectively decide that one area is the best one for more housing while another is not, and agree to increase zoning in one area while decreasing it in another. DC could decide that the row houses are right to reserve for family-sized housing and add opportunities on other land in the neighborhoods for the one- and two-bedroom units we need. 

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, people try to push new growth entirely out their own areas, often successfully. And OP planners’ stated reasons for making a change, whether this one or its zoning update retreats, generally don’t speak to the citywide effect on housing supply at all.

We need housing forecasts

I hear some folks in the government disagree that prices are rising because of zoning limits on housing. In that case, let’s have a discussion about it.

OP should publish its own analyses, with more detail than what’s in the height report. This would be a great component for the forthcoming revision to the Comprehensive Plan, the overall planning document which is supposed to guide District policies and land use decisions.

Let’s really analyze what types of housing we need, in what sizes and areas, and how that compares to current supply. Then we can have a real conversation about different ways to meet the demand. We can’t get there through a neighborhood-by-neighborhood process tweaking one rule at a time. There has to be a larger strategy.

Maybe this particular proposal would be an element of that larger strategy. Maybe not. The Zoning Commission should delay any action on this specific set of changes until OP can put this proposal into a context of the city’s overall housing need.

Want to testify?

The hearing is Thursday, January 14 15, starting at 6:30 pm at One Judiciary Square. If you want to testify for or against the proposals, email Donna Hanousek, donna.hanousek@dc.gov, to sign up. You will be limited to three minutes of speaking time. If you want to submit a written letter, follow these instructions and send it to zcsubmissions@dc.gov.

Clarification: The original version of this post cited a statistic of 10% of housing being for couples with children. That statistic only counts married couples with children, not unmarried ones or other family types. The text has been updated.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.