If you want to live in one of DC’s row house neighborhoods but don’t make a ton of money, a new bill by DC at-large councilmember Vincent Orange would slam the door in your face while it hastens gentrification and displacement of poor residents.

Photo by chefranden on Flickr.

In many parts of DC, property owners have added on top of their houses, creating what are called “pop-ups.” Some are very tasteful, while some are ugly. Sometimes these let a family grow while staying in its house, while sometimes it goes along with splitting the house into a few apartments.

Other times, someone makes apartments in a house without adding on top, but perhaps adding in back or not adding on at all. Even when a house doesn’t change externally, some neighbors don’t like having a larger number of new people come into the neighborhood, perhaps younger or less wealthy. Vincent Orange wants those folks to vote for his reelection next year.

Today, he circulated “emergency” legislation called the Prohibition on Single Family Dwelling Conversions Emergency Amendment Act, along with a resolution on the issue. The bill would forbid any building permit “to increase the height, or otherwise convert an existing one-unit or 2-unit house, including a row house, into a multi-unit dwelling [of 3 or more units].”

DC’s Office of Planning recently proposed, and the Zoning Commission approved, rules to limit height and numbers of units for the R-4, or moderate density row house, zones. Those rules aren’t nearly so restrictive as what Orange wants — they let people still build three units in a house and add on to houses up to 35 feet.

Those rules also don’t apply to the denser R-5 zones which have a mix of row houses and larger apartment buildings. Orange wants to forbid anyone from building onto their home in those areas as well.

This is exclusionary zoning

Orange’s bill would turn most row house areas into exclusionary bastions open only to people who can afford a whole row house. He’d redline many potential residents out of large parts of the city, even ones where multi-family buildings have always been legal.

In testimony on the recent R-4 rules, resident Meredith Moldenhauer wrote,

I grew up in the District and following law school, my husband and I wished to return to DC. When my husband was a Lt. JG in the US Navy and I was a graduating law school student, we were fortunate enough to purchase a basement 800 square foot unit in a renovated three-unit townhouse. Later we moved to a larger condominium in an 8-unit building and, finally, purchased our current home in Capitol Hill. ... In hindsight, we could not have afforded a larger unit had the building been [fewer than three units].”

In our current location, the character of the community is created by the mix of families, Hill staffers, young professionals, and retirees. We love where we live ... The natural mix of permitted housing types in the R-4 creates the environment that attracted my husband and me to our current home.

Orange’s bill doesn’t contemplate neighborhoods like Moldenhauer’s except the few that already exist. It would keep future people like her out of DC. By driving younger workers to live farther away it could even discourage new companies from starting in the District.

While Orange might be hoping to win some favor with residents concerned about gentrification in their neighborhoods, if he doesn’t drive jobs out of DC he might in fact speed it up. By limiting the amount of new housing that can be created in the already-expensive row house neighborhoods, he would force more people to buy a bigger row house in a cheaper area versus a smaller apartment in a pricier one.

The singles and young couples seeking smaller apartments would also outbid poorer residents in many changing areas if Orange succeeds in slashing the number of those smaller apartments the can be built.

It’s illegal

Of course, the bill probably won’t pass. Even if nine councilmembers believed this constituted an “emergency,” Orange’s bill very likely illegal. DC’s Home Rule Act creates a Zoning Commission with three representatives appointed by the mayor and two from the federal government. That body, it says, “shall exercise all the powers and perform all the duties with respect to zoning in the District as provided by law.” (§492(a)(1)(e))

That means that the DC Council can’t make zoning policy. And telling DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issues building permits, that it’s illegal to give a building permit for a project that’s legal under zoning but not under Orange Alternate Zoning would be overstepping the council’s authority.

DCRA spokesperson Matt Orlins

confirmed this

made a related point in a statement to the Washington Post, saying, “If a proposed project complies with the Zoning Regulations and Construction Codes, DCRA does not have discretion to disapprove it. The Zoning Regulations ... are written by the Zoning Commission, an independent body.” Clarification: Orlins was talking about DCRA’s ability to impose a moratorium on its own, not about council action, but it seems likely courts would not allow the council to take this action either.

But Orange got to make a statement. If you’re a young person who doesn’t own or can’t afford a whole rowhouse, Orange doesn’t want you. If you’re a poor resident, Orange doesn’t care about you. If you want your neighborhood to never change at all, Orange wants your vote, and he’ll propose illegal legislation that will harm the District to get it.

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.