Photo by Thomas Le Ngo on Flickr.

Mere months after she stepped down as head of DC’s Office of Planning, Harriet Tregoning’s former agency came out with a proposal to limit the height and numbers of units that can go in many row houses. Tregoning has now sent a letter to the DC Zoning Commission opposing this plan.

She writes,

I am afraid conclusions about development pipeline outcomes and impacts on single family housing costs (and subsequent recommendations for down zoning and other zoning changes) are being drawn from too narrow and recent a time period. Yet the consequences of Zoning Commission action may affect the city for decades to come.

In other words, OP is hastily acting based on limited data, but could hamstring the city for a long time.

Tregoning headed OP from 2007 to 2014, when she left for a position in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. She wrote the letter entirely in her personal capacity as a resident of Columbia Heights, a neighborhood largely in the zoning category (R-4) that this proposal would affect.

The change came out of public concern about “pop-up” additions to row houses. OP suggests limiting the height in R-4 row house zones to 35 feet, which is still enough to build a third story. That means that it won’t stop all pop-ups.

As Tregoning points out, the real public hatred comes from ugly pop-ups (which people can still build under OP’s plan). She writes,

There have indeed been some awful additions built in R-4 and R-5 neighborhoods. However, I don’t believe that the builders of the additions aspire to horrify the neighbors and potentially devalue their own property; I think they are terribly uninformed about what makes for a compatible addition. … Much of the outcry about “pop-ups” has been over compatibility. However, many additions to rowhouses are so compatible that they are utterly unremarkable in terms of changes to the neighborhood.

Tregoning suggests “an advisory ANC panel of citizen architects or designers to advise builders” on how to make an addition attractive and compatible. It could start out voluntary but become less so if necessary.

Will more restrictions make housing more affordable for families?

The Office of Planning also wants to restrict row houses in these zones to two units. The staff say that this will keep prices down, because developers hoping to subdivide them can’t outbid families, and also ensure there is larger, family-sized housing. Tregoning argues this is false, or at least, unsupported by data at this time.

I am somewhat puzzled by the proposition that we can increase affordability by decreasing the supply of potential housing units …The compet1tion for [rowhouse] housing will be fierce, whether a buyer plans to live there herself, renovate the building as a single family unit for sale, or renovate it as two or more units for sale. Restricting the number of units just limits the housing supply in some of the most central and transit-and amenity-supplied neighborhoods of the city.

Tregoning notes that DC still has more single-family housing stock than families:

I am rather dismayed by the talk of family-sized housing needing to be in single-family dwellings. All over the world families live in what we call multi-family housing (an ironic term given the representation that these units must not be for families) — apartments and condominiums.

In DC we are enjoying a mini-baby boom, a product in part perhaps of the influx of young college graduates over the past 7 years and the incentive of free all-day daycare afforded by DC’s universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4- year olds. But that just means that the City projects that we will have 23% of households with school-aged children in 2030 or so, up from our current level of around 21%. In other words, more than three-quarters of DC households will NOT have school-aged children at home.

Yet roughly 1/3 of the housing supply is of the larger, often single fam1ly or semi-detached housing variety. We do have a mismatch — our current housing stock is sized too large for our households — that is why so much housing being built and anticipated in the development pipeline are for small units.

Let’s not overreact to that pipeline. Recall that we were a shrinking city until roughly 2007, and then we were in a recession. This flurry of building is an attempt to be responsive to demand for smaller units.

Today, almost 44% of all DC households are single-person households. As we attain a closer match between the household size and our building stock, I am confident we will see a broader range of unit sizes be produced.

We already devote more than 54% of the total res1dent1ally zoned land to low density smgle-family detached and semi-detached housing in the R-1 thru R-3 zones. As we see the inevitable generational turnover of that housing stock, more of 1t wlll be avallable for households that want larger housing, including households with children.

However, if we act to restnct housing in the R-4 now, do we really think we can easily reverse that decision once the mismatch of households and building stock has come closer to equilibrium?

Tregoning also says that downzoning all R-4 neighborhoods is unfair to homeowners who purchased their properties with the expectation that they could add on and/or rent out parts of the home in ways that would become illegal. And she says that even San Francisco, a city with a perhaps even more acute housing crunch and a reputation for opposition to new housing, isn’t contemplating downzoning residential land.

She argues, as I did, that this proposal should come amid a larger plan for meeting housing demand instead of as a standalone idea. Such a plan might suggest more restrictions on R-4 houses and more new housing in other land types, or a totally different approach.

At some point [the proposed] restrictions may even be appropriate but I do not believe we know that now. What we do know now is that the demand for housing is outpacing supply and that prices are rising such that affordability is threatened not just for moderate income households but for middle income ones as well.

OP needs to create a broader strategy around housing supply and demand so residents can wrestle with the large-scale tradeoffs. Until that can happen, this knee-jerk plan to downzone some row houses is unwise.

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.