Image by Dan Reed licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s hard to build nearly anything other than a single-family house in DC’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighborhoods. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stated goal to build 36,000 units of new housing in DC by 2025 is likely to run up against the fact that neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, which are zoned nearly entirely for single-family homes, don’t allow duplexes, fourplexes, or other, denser types of homes by default.

The Advisory Services program at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research organization, is studying the barriers to building more housing in Rock Creek West, one of the city’s 10 area elements. The Office of Planning lumps together parts of the city into area elements for its purposes. Area elements aren’t aligned with ward boundaries and so, unlike wards, don’t change with redistricting. Rock Creek West is mostly comprised of Ward 3, but includes some bits of Ward 4 and Ward 2, too.

Map of Rock Creek West. Image by DC Office of Planning.

The full report will be out in September, but ULI shared some of its preliminary findings at a presentation on July 12. Philip Payne of Ginkgo Residential, a moderate-income apartment manager in Charlotte, North Carolina, chaired the ULI panel and interviewed a long list of local experts to craft some solutions—including me. We were asked to identify barriers to new housing production in Rock Creek West, what tools and policies we could use to address these barriers, and more.

When we talk about how white and affluent areas of the city have not added new homes, we’re mostly talking about neighborhoods in Rock Creek West like Chevy Chase DC, Tenleytown, and McLean Gardens. There aren’t many new homes built there, period, and there are especially few subsidized units. Other parts of the city, like the Wharf and NoMa, have seen cataclysmic changes, in part because development is pushed to them by the restrictiveness of neighborhoods where little is built at all.

Recent data from the Office of Planning shows that there are only 471 affordable housing units (which it defines as units restricted by income to lower-income households) in Rock Creek West. All other area elements have at least 2,000 affordable units. The area element with the greatest number of affordable units is Far Southeast/Southwest, which has 15,517.

Image by DC Office of Planning.

More cities and states around the country are beginning to grapple with the long legacy of de jure racial segregation. Wealthy, white neighborhoods can easily lock out people of color and lower-income people with the aid of zoning codes that say only single-family homes are legal to build. Some jurisdictions are passing policies to address this, like Oregon, which recently legalized fourplexes statewide. Heather Worthington, a member of this Advisory Services panel, is Minneapolis’ long-range planning director, where triplexes were legalized citywide last year.

ULI’s presentation notes that Ward 3 is 80% white, that the majority of its homes are owner-occupied, that housing values there are higher than anywhere else in the District, and that it’s overwhelmingly zoned for single-family homes. This means that you can’t build anything but a single-family home unless you request an exception.

If Bowser’s administration is going to make meaningful progress toward its goal, the city will have to build new housing in Rock Creek West. ULI’s laundry list of recommendations to make this easier to do includes reforming inclusionary zoning, upzoning areas near transit, and creating a by-right density bonus for affordable housing.

DC’s plans still prioritize wealthy white homeowners

It’s good that an outside actor like ULI is calling out the restrictiveness of Rock Creek West specifically. And it’s refreshing to see recommendations that stem from the incontrovertible truth that all parts of the city will have to accommodate more homes, rather than an entertainment of the false notion that parts of it can continue their exceptional practices of exclusivity

But innovation and policy-crafting are not the holdup to building more housing in wealthy neighborhoods near Rock Creek Park. That we don’t build much housing there, or much affordable housing, is and always has been a political choice. Our plans codify this. For example, the most damning effect of the current Comprehensive Plan’s Framework Element is how it describes the types of areas it divides the District into.

Here’s how neighborhood conservation areas are described:

Neighborhood Conservation areas have very little vacant or underutilized land. They are primarily residential in character. Maintenance of existing land uses and community character is anticipated over the next 20 years. Where change occurs, it will be modest in scale and will consist primarily of scattered site infill housing, public facilities, and institutional uses. Major changes in density over current (2005) conditions are not expected but some new development and reuse opportunities are anticipated. Neighborhood Conservation Areas that are designated “PDR” on the Future Land Use Map are expected to be retained with the mix of industrial, office, and retail uses they have historically provided. The guiding philosophy in Neighborhood Conservation Areas is to conserve and enhance established neighborhoods. Limited development and redevelopment opportunities do exist within these areas but they are small in scale.

Now, neighborhood enhancement areas:

Neighborhood Enhancement Areas are neighborhoods with substantial amounts of vacant residentially zoned land. They are primarily residential in character. … The main difference between Neighborhood Enhancement and Neighborhood Conservation Areas is the large amount of vacant land that exists in the Enhancement Areas. Neighborhood Enhancement Areas often contain many acres of undeveloped lots, whereas Neighborhood Conservation Areas appear to be “built out.” As infill development takes place on undeveloped lots, special care must be taken to avoid displacement nearby. Existing housing should be enhanced through rehabilitation assistance. New development in these areas should improve the real estate market, reduce crime and blight, and attract complementary new uses and services that better serve the needs of existing and future residents.

The “more than two dozen land use change areas,” meanwhile:

…Include many of the city’s large development opportunity sites, and other smaller sites that are undergoing redevelopment or that are anticipated to undergo redevelopment. Together, they represent much of the city’s supply of vacant and underutilized land.

Taken together, it’s very clear that the existing framework element—which, remember, was written in 2006—was deliberately designed to protect already-advantaged neighborhoods and push development away from them, to where it would presumably be less bothersome to the “homevoters” who are more likely to show up in protest.

This has shaken out just as the plan says: Parts of the city, like Rock Creek West, have not seen as much development because they, basically, didn’t have a lot of vacant lots. If your neighborhood has, or had, blocks of lived-in houses and not gap-toothed blight, it was, or is, worthy of conservation. Area elements or wards with lots of vacant lots, like Ward 6, saw lots of development, not solely because of developer speculation and profiteering, but because the city preordained it in its own plans.

Conveniently, where the framework element says you should build, and where it says you should conserve character, roughly tracks with where in the city you are legally allowed, by zoning, to build more or less housing. The types—neighborhood conservation areas, neighborhood enhancement areas, land use change areas, and commercial/mixed use areas—are visually displayed on the Plan’s Generalized Policy Map.

The Generalized Policy Map also shows similar spatial patterns as where you are required to build single-family homes (which was the subject of a recent DC Policy Center report), where subsidized units have been built, and where one can find life-saving shade.

Development is uneven and unfair, but it doesn’t have to be

We’ve written frequently that development in DC, even when it brings much-needed new housing, is uneven and unfair. In written testimony from March 2019, I implored DC’s Department of Housing and Community Development to comply with fair housing principles:

Two-thirds of new housing permits have been in two of DC’s 10 planning areas: Central Washington, which includes downtown and NoMa, and “Lower Anacostia Waterfront,” which encompasses Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard/Capitol Riverfront (as well as Poplar Point, which has not had any development yet). The 2006 Comprehensive Plan predicted these two areas would get about 30% of the growth rather than two-thirds.

As the DC Council works through the Framework Element, it’s important to consider how all of the above intersects with proposals like those that ULI is offering. If the Comp Plan is a guiding text for how the city is supposed to work, and the Framework Element’s intent is “to provide the foundation for the rest of the Comprehensive Plan,” it shouldn’t accrue additional advantage to particular neighborhoods where residents with a high level of social capital frequently stymie and block much-needed new housing.

A Framework that continues the current chapter’s legacy puts DC at risk of violating the Fair Housing Act. It also directly conflicts with, and could possibly negate, ULI’s suggested strategies like upzoning areas near transit and creating a by-right density bonus for affordable housing.

The Framework Element is a bill; the Comp Plan is as much a planning document as it is a political one. Every two years, DC residents have the opportunity to elect some councilmembers and ANC commissioners. Every four years, we elect a mayor.

If we want to move the needle on housing, we should choose our representatives on the basis of their commitment to both building housing in places where it’s effectively off-limits; to subsidizing housing that the private market cannot make affordable on its own; to thoughtfully preventing displacement through practices like build first, TOPA deals, and rent stabilization; and to standing up to the vocal minority of constituents who will protest any proposed change to their habitus.

Since this year is not an election year, in lieu of voting you can respond to Office of Planning’s survey about where affordable housing should be built in the District.