Make way for families. Image by Chad Sparkes licensed under Creative Commons.

There aren’t many places for rent in DC that are also suitable for families. But we won’t solve this problem by just building more apartment units with lots of bedrooms. We’ll do it by freeing up existing family-sized homes not being rented by families and by building handfuls of family-sized homes here and there across the District.

This idea comes from commenter Alex B., who spoke up on this post from David Whitehead about how DC doesn't have very many family units— places that have three or more bedrooms— for rent. Alex made two very good points: that a lot of people who don't need homes with three or more bedrooms live in them anyway because they're cheaper than places with fewer rooms, and that huge buildings with hundreds of units aren't the only way to provide more rental homes that work for families.

Here's what he had to say:

It's very hard to make larger units in big apartment buildings more financially feasible. But it's also important to recognize that the rental market is much broader than that — renting rowhouses will tend to offer greater access to family-sized units.

Likewise, there are plenty of people renting in group houses as individuals who would likely take a studio or a one-bedroom if it were more affordable. Providing more of those units can also help shift that part of the rental market into smaller units, opening up the whole-house rentals to families.

The bigger point is that while most of DC's growth is limited to large apartment buildings now, that can't continue to be the case. The existing residential neighborhoods must also allow room for growth and incremental development. Areas with single-family detached homes on relatively large lots would be perfect candidates for modest, incremental development of new townhouses or flats - a built form that is more conducive to larger units.

Alex touches on two important points that GGWash bloggers have covered before. First, there's the fact that high-rises have high material and labor costs that make them very expensive to build per square foot. That means single-bedroom units are going to provide the most return for developers, and in turn that large units aren't likely to make up a big chunk of what's going up in high rises.

Second, it's not like huge apartment buildings are the only thing DC needs to address its housing shortage. A much more realistic (and perhaps more palatable for some) option is building low-rises incrementally around the District. Last year, John Ricco took a look at how Houston is doing this (actually, he kept taking a look at it... every day… for almost six months!).

Alex's comments certainly resonate with me. I've rented a single room in single family houses across the region since I moved here because getting a place just for myself is too expensive, but if that weren't the case, I'd certainly consider going the solo route. And whenever I'm walking around, I see empty lots and vacant buildings that could easily become places for two or three families to live.

How do you think we can make room for families in our region?

Jonathan Neeley was Greater Greater Washington's staff editor from 2014-2017. He gets most everywhere by bike (or Metro when it's super nasty out), thinks the way planning decisions shape our lives is fascinating, and plays a whole lot of ultimate. He lives in Brookland.