Vincent Orange wants to have DC build 1,000 “tiny houses” for low-income and young residents of DC, spread around the city. His bill is kind of “gimmicky” and has some problems, but underneath, there are some good ideas as well.
Orange’s bill calls for the DC government to build the 1,000 houses, spread equally across the city’s eight wards. Each would be 600 square feet, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, electricity, plumbing, and heating. He’d limit the construction cost to $50,000.
The Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity (currently, Courtney Snowden) would set up a process to pick locations, offer these homes to residents, especially first-time homebuyers, and keep the price under $50,000.
Is this a good idea?
Like many Orange bills, this reads a bit more like an idea someone might throw out on a listserv or blog than legislation. Orange has a habit of thinking of something, then writing a bill which describes his idea in incredible specificity. Such a bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but generates some headlines.
Also like many Orange bills, this one includes some illegal provisions. In this case, by calling for housing specifically for millennials, it likely violates federal fair housing rules forbidding discrimination against older people.
But if we just pretend he wrote a blog post somewhere about this idea instead of a bill, is it a good idea? If we peel away a few of the conflicting details, there are some good ideas at the core.
- Orange is acknowledging that we need to build more housing in DC. Lower-income residents and young people who can’t afford expensive homes are indeed two of the groups most in need of housing. Many of the millennials, in particular, are willing to live in smaller spaces to be in areas with good walkability and transportation. That also applies to some lower-income residents, but many have families and a tiny house might not offer enough space.
- Orange wants to spread the housing out across the city. This is the right policy. Every neighborhood should be a part of the solution and none should get a veto over accommodating more residents. Helping low-income kids grow up in wealthier areas also gives them a better chance to succeed long-term, though again, that benefit would only come if families moved into what are pretty small spaces.
This isn’t the best use of all land, but is a good use of some
On much of the city’s land, tiny houses aren’t a great idea. If you’re going to put a small dwelling unit there, it’s even better to put a small apartment building with four, eight, twelve, or more units. The building could have outdoor space that people share; there are a lot of great buildings like this all around DC.
There is one place where this is a great idea: Alleys. All around DC there are small garages, sheds, or historic carriage houses along alleys. Some people have large backyards and don’t need all of that space. There are also some alley lots, lots that border an alley but no main road, such as in blocks where the alleys make a loop.
Property owners could build tiny houses here or convert existing garages to tiny houses. This would be a perfect way to give existing owners some income and create new housing in the kinds of spaces Orange is talking about.
The DC Office of Planning was trying to legalize these units, called accessory apartments. The long-running DC zoning update, now eight years in the works, included provisions to allow them. But, facing outcry from some residents of upper Northwest neighborhoods, they pulled back on the rule on accessory apartments in separate buildings.
Approve accessory apartments now!
If the zoning update ever gets approved (the DC Zoning Commission was going to discuss it on October 22 but delayed until November 16), property owners could build an accessory apartment in an existing or new garage, but would have to still go through a time-consuming zoning hearing first.
These would be perfect spots for Orange’s 1,000 tiny houses. He could help encourage this to happen by asking the Zoning Commission to move forward with the accessory apartment rules. He might also consider asking the government to set up a program that could help interested homeowners create these accessory apartments on their lots and navigate the zoning approval process to get them done.
Many other cities have these, called “laneway housing” or some such. It’s not crazy at all to try to create 1,000 tiny houses — as accessory apartments. Great idea, Councilmember Orange!