With so many new one- and two-bedroom apartments under construction in DC, how can officials guarantee the city has enough housing for families that need bigger homes? One idea they’re considering would give developers permission to build more units in new buildings, as long as some of the added units contain at least three bedrooms each.

Image from the DC Zoning Map.

The Office of Planning submitted the draft amendment for the Southeast Federal Center Overlay Zone, which covers about two blocks west of the Navy Yard. The proposal would let developers make buildings taller and with a higher Floor Area Ratio (FAR) as long as that 8% of the “bonus” area were three-bedroom units.

Awarding bonus density can make a project more profitable because the developer gets more space to eventually lease or sell.

A provision specifying the number of bedrooms in each unit is unusual for zoning in DC. Zoning regulations typically limit the number of units on a site or the total floor area of housing, but not the size of individual units or the number of bedrooms in each unit.

Adding density means meeting community goals

The Office of Planning added this three-bedroom bonus at the urging of ANC 6D, which wanted to make it easier for families with children to stay in the neighborhood.

The best part of this proposal is that it encourages a variety of housing sizes while expanding the overall housing supply. That’s something that needs to happen in a city like Washington, where the demand for housing is so high.

More supply is good because when there’s a low supply of any product, the people making it will produce what’s most profitable before producing something that’s less profitable. In other words, developers want to construct more lucrative housing before constructing less lucrative housing.

In DC, there’s still more demand for smaller housing than there is supply. Until developers meet that demand, there’s not much reason for them to build large, three-bedroom apartments. The ongoing controversy over converting old, single-family row houses into two-unit buildings, as well as over building pop-ups, stems from the strong demand for smaller housing in the area.

Household composition and housing stock data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Graph by the author.

Further, there’s an imbalance between our current housing stock and the city’s demographics: Only 20% of DC households are families with related children, yet 60% of the housing stock has two or more bedrooms.

But that’s what’s happening city-wide. If we want individual neighborhoods to be diverse in family type, we need housing that is diverse in size.

In this particular zone, the Office of Planning’s proposal calls for 8% of the bonus density to go to three-bedroom housing. Could other density bonus ideas work for other neighborhoods in the city?

Here’s how density bonuses could work elsewhere in DC

Creating incentives for three-bedroom housing doesn’t need to be complicated. One method could be to award any developer bonus density as long as they use the added floor area for three-bedroom units.

A lot of the city’s zones limit building sizes by height and by FAR based on how they’re being used. A building that has both apartments and ground floor retail, for example, might be be allowed 3.0 FAR for the residential space and 1.0 FAR for the commercial. In such a scenario, the FAR in the biggest mixed-use building you could build would be limited to 4.0.

But the city could target zones that need housing diversity and add a bonus, like an additional 1.0 FAR devoted to apartments with three or more bedrooms. The building’s FAR would increase to 5.0, and developers would profit in building units for families.

If the choice is between slightly less profitable housing and no additional housing, the developer is probably going to choose to build the three-bedroom units.

Diagram by the author.

The ongoing zoning rewrite saga is enough to tell us that even the most modest of density increases can be controversial. Awarding bonus density is a good tool for encouraging the private sector to build housing that’s both profitable and welcoming to families of all sizes.

Tagged: dc, navy yard, zoning

Eric Fidler has lived in DC and suburban Maryland his entire life. He likes long walks along the Potomac and considers the L’Enfant Plan an elegant work of art. He also blogs at Left for LeDroit, LeDroit Park’s (only) blog of record.