A group of neighbors in Lanier Heights are fighting to downzone their rowhouses, hoping to restrict the ability to convert them into denser, multi-resident units. Monday night they won, and they did it by out-organizing the opposition.

Lanier Heights. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Earlier in March over 50 residents packed the zoning board hearing room, holding orange “For R-4” signs quietly under their seats (under orders from zoning Commissioner Anthony Hood — “there will be no demonstrating in the hearing room”). For the next 3-plus hours, advocates from the neighborhood laid out the arguments to change their current zoning level from an R-5-B to an R-4, bringing tighter building constrictions to their blocks that would effectively bar the development of multi-unit buildings and pop-ups.

Proponents started organizing long ago

This March 21st meeting has been over four years in the making. A growing number of owners in the neighborhood have sold or converted their single family units into denser, multi-unit dwellings.

Some reacted strongly against this trend, and began to organize to stop it, seeing zoning as tool to halt the work. Denis Suski, a local resident, began to gather his neighbors together around these issues as early as 2012. The group knocked on doors, began to engage their ANC, and hosted numerous community meetings to educate and persuade others to join in the downzoning movement. They cited a number of arguments: parking problems, loss of the character of the neighborhood, cheap construction techniques, and removing family-sized units from a family neighborhood.

Lanier Heights Row houses next to a rehabbed “pop-up” on the left. Photo by Dan Malouff.

They encountered resistance, and that resistance started to organize as well. Opponents created an online group, Neighbors Against Downzoning (NADZ). They argued that Lanier Heights is already full of apartment buildings; that restricting further development in their neighborhood only was the very definition of NIMBYism; and that many of the stated concerns did not reflect the realities of the city, or even a majority of the affected neighbors.

Opponents also noted that this change would downzone everyone’s homes in the area, no matter how they felt or what changes the future would hold. The debate has gone on for years, and it all came down to this final hearing, late Monday night in March.

How it went down that night

Given the length of this fight, it’s not surprising that almost everyone in the room knew each other. Proponents and opposition shook hands, talked amongst themselves and spoke directly to each other in testimony. During the opening presentation, given by Mr. Suski, the crowd rumbled in approval and disapproval at appropriate moments, earning admonition from Commissioner Hood on a few occasions (“We don’t demonstrate in the chamber. Let’s keep it civil”). Suski opened with a long presentation that summarized all the downzoners’ concerns and arguments. Afterwards, the floor opened for testimony, the overwhelming majority of which was in favor of the zoning change.

Many rallied against the loss of “air and light” suffered because of these new 50 foot walls on their back door steps. Others spoke of the city’s need of a “diversity of housing” and to preserve the character and family culture of the rowhouse neighborhood. A few came out on the defense — “We are simply not a NIMBY neighborhood” — but rather insisted that this was about their rights as homeowners and neighbors.

A fraction of the attendees spoke out against the downzoning, saying that some of the home-types in this area no longer suit the needs of the city and should be split up into smaller units. What is more, they argued downzoning infringed on their rights as homeowners to be able to sell, profit and build on their own land.

This affects you, too

What was missing from the meeting was a larger discussion of how downzoning affects our city as whole. In a adding 1,000 new residents a month, more housing and more housing density is desperately needed. Proponents at the meetings set up this issue as a battle between personal homeowner rights and developers, but the larger issue of incoming residents needs to be part of the discussion.

As Ron Baker, an organizer with NADZ, said in an email, “[T]he downzoners are always complaining about “greedy developers” but this isn’t about the developers. There is a huge wave of young people moving to DC who need housing that fits their needs and budgets.”

This trend of increased restriction block by block is not new to DC, and hurts the city’s current residents and future ones. If small cohorts of neighbors across the city similarly fight to restrict more dense development, our problems will only get worse. Zoning commissioners and the Office of Planning know this, but when faced with the overwhelming show of downzoning support in the room, the officials seemed to lean towards the change.

NADZ Neighborhood sign. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Organizing counts

No matter which side readers come out on in this argument, we should take away one lesson: don’t ignore power of organization.

Both sides were organized; the downzoners were organized better.

As Billy Simpson, ANC 1C commissioner offered in support, “In my 3+ years of service, I have never seen a proposal as thoroughly community led and community vetted as this one.” Mr. Suski and his team had spent years handing out fliers, personally talking to each neighbor, hosting forums, and giving out surveys. They arrived that night with clear arguments and presentations, aligned talking points and a strong sense of team and community.

The opposition was organized as well; their website is informative and thorough, and they too have been active in canvassing and posting neighborhood signs. But on one night in March their organization did not translate into as many butts in the seats, strength in numbers and testimony.

On Monday night the Zoning Commission took a final vote was taken on the matter, and the downzoning proposal was approved 5-0. You can see just how effective the organizing was in the side-switching that occurred. The Office of Planning in March took a neutral stance and offered no recommendation. Now, it submitted documents in favor of the downzoning.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that while he is typically “skeptical of downzoning in this city where we have critical demand for housing, and over 1,000 residents arriving a month,” he was convinced by the show of support and argument presented in the March meeting. Marcie Cohen agreed, saying she “is concerned with downzoning” but was impressed by the “clarity and completeness” of this case.

National Park Service representative Peter May most directly attributed the downzoning win to the organizing work. He said the vote is “a testimony to the thoroughness of the work that was done before it was brought before us.”

The hard work of community organization won here, and stripped away potential units in a city suffocating for more housing. Are we, Greater Greater Washington, ready to organize for the city and issues we care about?

Adopt-A-Tag

Michael Rodriguez is this month’s sponsor for posts about Development. Learn more »

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy and organizing. He lives in Edgewood.