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Posts in category Smart Growth

Development


50% of DC residents live on only 20% of the land

Also, a quarter lives on just 7% of it. I made these maps to illustrate that.


Maps produced by the author. Data comes from 2014 ACS five-year estimates.

According to survey data from the Census Bureau, 50% of DC's population lives on just under 19% of its total area (bodies of water are included). In absolute terms, that's almost 315,000 people living on roughly 8,000 acres.

Zooming in even more, we see that 25% of people living in DC inhabit just 7% of its land. These residents are mostly clustered around neighborhoods like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights, where housing is dense and transit is plentiful.

For comparison, 50% of New York City's population lives on only 11% of its land area:

Do you notice anything interesting in these maps?

Bicycling


What do you think of these bike plans for Columbia Pike?

Columbia Pike is one of Arlington's least bike-friendly corridors—there aren't any bike lanes, traffic is heavy, and the bike boulevards on parallel streets are disjointed and disconnected. The good news it that there's a plan to make the Pike a better place to bike. The bad? It isn't exactly going to win any awards.


Riding a bike down Columbia Pike? Harrowing. Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

The transportation planning for Columbia Pike largely grew out of 2004's Columbia Pike Streetscape Task Force Report. This report set the ultimate vision for what each block of the Pike will look like in the future, once the corridor redevelops.

With that ultimate vision expected to take 30 years or more, Arlington is undertaking a short-term solution, the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project. This project includes plans to create a way to bike down Columbia Pike, or on 9th Street or 12th Street, which parallel the Pike.


The bike-related infrastructure that's planned for Columba Pike. Map by the author, base map from Google Maps.

Below are the details of the project's plans for bike infrastructure, from the western end of Columbia Pike to the east:

The west end sidepath

Starting in the west, at the Fairfax County line, Columbia Pike will get a 10-foot wide shared-use path on the north side. The path will stretch from the county line to the bridge over Four Mile Run just east of Arlington Mill Community Center.

This portion of the Pike Multimodal project is slated to being begin construction fairly soon. Fans of such a facility would likely describe it as a "trail," detractors would probably say it's "just a wide sidewalk." Having a curb to protect you from traffic is certainly a plus, but mixing with pedestrians is a negative, and having a bike route that runs in two directions cross driveways and side streets is certainly a safety concern.


The narrow sidewalk that currently runs across Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

The Four Mile Run bridge is one of the gaps in planning for biking Columbia Pike. The 10-foot sidepath suddenly becomes a narrow and busy sidewalk that sits immediately adjacent to traffic. Right now, the only alternatives to biking in traffic over the bridge are sharing that sidewalk with pedestrians and other cyclists or detouring north past the community center, down into the stream valley via a number of switchbacks, across a fair weather ford over Four Mile Run, and then back up a steep hill to 9th Street.

Ideally, the county would either renovate the bridge to widen the sidewalk to 10 feet to match the sidepath to the west, or add a dedicated bicycle and pedestrian bridge either immediately to the north of the bridge, or further upstream to connect to 9th Street.


Fair weather crossing alternative to Four Mile Run Bridge. Photo by the author.

A bike boulevard for the central core

Moving east across the stream, the county's planned bike infrastructure transitions to a bike boulevard along 9th Street, which runs parallel to Columbia Pike. Bike boulevards are easy to bike on because while they're open to cars, they keep speeds and volumes low.

This quiet neighborhood street will get you approximately two blocks before arriving at the second potential gap in the planned bike network along Columbia Pike: crossing George Mason Drive. Most cyclists right now head another block to the north where they can safely cross George Mason Drive with a light at 8th Street.


The proposed 9th Street bike boulevard ends before George Mason Drive. Photo by the author.

While the additional two block detour is relatively negligible for someone on a long-distance ride, it could potentially double the length of a trip for anyone trying to go just a couple blocks. A better long-term solution would be a bridge across George Mason, from where it dead ends at Taylor Street to where it picks back up at Quincy Street.


9th Street before and after it reaches George Mason Drive. Image from Google Maps.

From Quincy, the 9th Street bike boulevard continues, to Glebe Road, where engineers evaluated the intersection for a HAWK signal to make crossing there easier and safer. Unfortunately, because the traffic control manual that Virginia's engineers defer to says a signal there isn't "warranted" because not enough people use the route, there won't be one.


View as a cyclist on 9th St Bike Blvd approaching Glebe. Photo by the author.

This is a common chicken-and-egg problem for bike and pedestrian crossings: Nobody crosses there because it's difficult and feels unsafe, and it's remaining difficult and unsafe because nobody crosses there. Common sense says that many cyclists and pedestrians are likely going out of there way to cross at Columbia Pike or at 8th Street so that they can do so at a light, but would prefer to cross at 9th if a signal were there.


9th Street at Glebe (Route 120), and the detour at Ivy Street. Image from Google Maps.

East of Glebe, cyclists are directed to detour up to 7th Street for one block at Ivy Street because of a one block stretch of one-way street between Ivy and Irving Street. The county proposed making this stretch of road two-way as part of the initial bike boulevard roll-out, but ran into fierce neighborhood opposition.

Nearby residents were very concerned about opening the street up to two-way traffic around a narrow curve with bad sight-lines and contended that while the curb-to-curb width may appear to be wide enough, the mature oak trees that line the street mean that nobody is actually able to park adjacent to the curb which leaves less room for driving than you might think at first glance.

The 9th Street bike boulevard continues east to the intersection with Walter Reed Drive. Here, Arlington engineers decided the intersection needs a full traffic signal. It will be installed as part of the long-delayed Walter Reed Drive Complete Streets Project sometime in the next few years. That project will also rebuild the intersection into a more traditional and understandable layout.

A sidepath for the east end

At Wayne Street, the 9th Street Bike Boulevard ends and the planned bike facility transitions back to a 10-foot shared use path on Columba Pike. That path is planned to stretch all the way from Wayne Street, down the hill, underneath the Washington Boulevard bridge, back up the hill past the Sheraton and all the way down past the Air Force Memorial to at least Joyce Street and potentially all the way to the Pentagon.

A stretch of the 10-foot path already runs under the new Washington Boulevard bridge. The remainder of the sidepath will be built as part of future phases of the Columbia Pike Multimodal Project, but probably not until 2018 or 2019.


New 10' sidepath beneath Washington Blvd bridge. Photo from Google Streetview

Again, the choice of a sidepath here is less than ideal. The sidepath would cross a number of side streets and driveways, not to mention the off-ramps from the Washington Boulevard bridge. Cyclists going downhill will pick up a fair amount of speed, and drivers rarely expect high-speed cyclists on what looks like a sidewalk, especially when they are coming from the "wrong direction" (because the sidepath is on the north side of Columbia Pike, cyclists headed east would be on the left side of the street).

From the east end of Columbia Pike, cyclists could continue along to the Route 27 trail past the Pentagon Memorial, or head along the Joyce Street sidepath to the future protected bike lane on Army Navy Drive into Pentagon City. Plans for this end of Columba Pike are somewhat in flux because of the land swap that is still being negotiated between Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington County and VDOT.

The land swap would potentially re-align Columbia Pike and reconfigure the Columbia Pike / Route 27 interchange near the Pentagon, changing it from its current cloverleaf configuration into a more compact signalized setup.

What about 12th Street?

There is also a bicycle boulevard on 12th Street, but given that it's on the opposite side of Columbia Pike from the sidepaths, I've focused on 9th Street in the context of a cyclist trying to travel the full length of Columbia Pike. People are unlikely to want to cross Columbia Pike multiple times just to continue on their way.

Why bike boulevards and sidepaths? Why not bike lanes or protected bike lanes?

If this plans seems a bit old-fashioned, building parallel boulevards and sidepaths instead of protected bike lanes, remember that they all grew out of that 2004 Streetscape Task Force Report. The biggest driver however, is space: there isn't that much of it, and there are a lot of competing demands for it.

In many places, the space available across Columbia Pike from building to building is less than 80 feet. In some places, the land the county currently owns is as narrow as 60 feet.
In that space, the county has been trying to accommodate wide sidewalks with street trees for a pleasant pedestrian experience, 24,000 vehicles a day with heavy transit traffic, and safe accommodation for cyclists. They don't all fit, and what has been compromised the most is the bicycle facilities.


In this cross section of Columbia Pike, there are 56 feet just for cars. The remaining space has to juggle bike lanes, pedestrian space, and trees. Image from Arlington County.

Converting some or all of the bike facilities on Columbia Pike to bike lanes or protected bike lanes would require identifying significant width to be taken away from some other use on the Pike. Turning a standard five-foot sidewalk into a ten-foot shared use path requires five feet of space beyond a typical Arlington Cross-section. Standard bike lanes would require an additional five feet, buffered or protected bike lanes additional width equal to the width of the buffer or the protection.

Does that space come out of the sidewalk? The street trees? The left turn lanes? The travel lanes?

Arlington County is set to spend over $100 million rebuilding Columbia Pike, and yet the "Complete Streets" project will not result in a bike facility that runs the entire length of the corridor. Is that really a complete street? Columbia Pike is the most affordable area of Arlington, and would be the ideal place to have top-notch facilities for one of the most affordable means of transportation: the bicycle.

Right now that isn't going to happen. Should it?

Zoning


Get to know DCís new zoning with this map

After years of delays and extensive public input, DC's zoning board approved a new zoning code in January. It will actually take effect in September. This map helps homeowners understand how the new zoning applies to them.

The zoning update includes some key steps forward, like allowing some homeowners to rent out garages or basements where it's illegal today.

Otherwise, unless you live downtown, nothing dramatic will change. The zoning update generally doesn't change the density and form someone can build in your neighborhood. Most specific rules, like how big and what shape a "court" can be, also don't change, and you're not expected to know them all unless you're an architect or land use attorney.

But what does it mean?

The reason so little seems to be changing is because the zoning code basically consists of three parts: an administrative framework, rules for development in general, and land use rules specific to each zone district.

Most of the rewrite was reorganizing existing rules written in 1958 and patched several times over the years. That means updating the language, addressing new uses, and closing loopholes. Sure, there are some big controversial city-wide changes like permitting granny cottages in single family residential areas and reducing parking minimums.

What will likely change is the name of the zone you live in. In the old code, most zones were R (Residential) or C (Commercial); now, residential zones include the old R, RF (for residential flats, like row houses), and RA (for apartments); many commercial zones, which have long allowed residential and commercial together, are called MU (mixed-use), or D for downtown zones, and so on.

This table shows how the existing zone districts fit into the new zones. The interactive map (image at the top of the post) lets you compare old and new zoning side by side.

There are a lot more zone districts now—sort of. Some neighborhoods (like Cleveland Park) have "overlays" that customize their zones. Many changed the underlying zoning dramatically, which wasn't readily understandable without flipping back and forth between sections.

In the new code, instead of overlays, there is just a new basic zone with all the rules from the underlying zone or the overlay. For example, the old R-1-B zone with the Foxhall and Tree and Slope overlay (for areas near the Potomac river on the west side of DC) will be R-9. The R-1-B zone with Naval Observatory overlay will be R-12.

The actual effect of the overlays remains, but you don't have to reconcile two totally different sections of zoning code to figure out what's going on. I think it's a lot simpler to understand, whether you're designing a building or imagining what your neighborhood could look like.

History


Building of the Week: Downtown's Woodward & Lothrop building

Located 11th Street NW between G and F Streets, DC's Woodward and Lothrop building is iconic: it appears in books and as a case study for developers, and we've even featured it ourselves (twice!). But while most of the attention focuses on the famous department store that lived in it, the building itself tells the story of how fast fashion eclipsed department store retail in the United States.


The Woodward & Lothrop building, sometime in the 1910s. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Woodward and Lothrop was founded in Washington in 1880 and settled into its flagship location on the 1000 block of F and G Streets NW in 1886. Architect James G. Hill designed the company's eclectic five-story headquarters, and real estate investor Calderon Carlisle funded the project.

The building was no skyscraper, but it shared the language of taller buildings: arcade windows and expansive showrooms covered in neoclassical ornament. The rich mix of materials included mahogany and French glass.

Thanks to continued success, owners Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lorthrop purchased most of the block by 1897. New acquisitions were renovated or expanded, notably a large addition in 1902 on G Street.


A picture from an advertisement in the 1913 edition of Rand McNally's Pictorial Guide to Washington. Photo from Streets of Washington.

Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was hired to unify and modernize the building. The result was eight stories and 400,000 square feet of retail space adorned with cast iron and leaded glass.

Cobb's design spoke to his Chicago roots. The building's two commercial levels featured elaborate ornamentation and American-made cast iron piers. The third floor was narrower and hid its steel frame under rustication. The subsequent four stories wear a Beaux-Arts uniform and end in a heavy cornice. This segmentation resembles that of Chicago skyscrapers.

For F Street, Woodward and Lothrop hired Frederick B. Pyle to build a terra cotta segment of the building. While designed to appear as a distinct structure, it was always integrated into the larger building.


Here, you can see the terra cotta part of the building, which runs along 10th Street. Photo from Douglas Development.

By 1927 the building took on its present appearance after the original Carlisle Building had been destroyed. Woodies, as it was affectionately known, operated here until 1994 with only modest changes.


The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from Streets of Washington.

By the end of the 20th century, the entire chain was bankrupt. The Washington location was abandoned, and its building auctioned to the Washington Opera. The Opera's plans to convert the landmarked space into a theater failed, and five years later it was acquired by developer Douglas Jemal.

The company renovated the space in 2002, putting offices on most floors and returning the ground level to retail space. Now a jaunt around the block allows you to shop at Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.


Image from Douglas Development.

Woodies led the way for department stores, both the rise and fall

These new tenants are no modern Woodies—because the department store as a business model is long in decline. In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline delves into how department stores were revolutionary when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, that revolution turned against them.


The Woodward & Lothrop floor at Christmas time, sometime in the 1960s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

In 1900, textile, patterns, and readymade home and clothing items under one roof gave upper class women a safe, socially acceptable escape from the household. These items' relative affordability meant a person didn't have to make all their own clothing anymore. By the post-war era, American pockets bulged, ready-to-wear was king, and competition was fierce in the industry. Mail order catalogs allowed you to peruse your regional chain's offerings, or you could drive to Montgomery Ward, Belk, or Burdines for mid-market sales.

But like its contemporary the land line, the department store model was due for change. Cline notes that by the 1970s malls and discount retailers mushroomed across America. These were descended upon by price conscious Americans—with an evaporating middle class, who would shop for mid-priced clothing? At the dawn of the 21st century, shopping preferences were clear: Forever 21 or the designer from whom the chain borrowed inspiration.

In the era of fast fashion—piles of stylish clothing go from sketch to store in a matter of weeks, selling for small sums—the moderate department store was too slow and expensive. Department stores tried to meet the new expectations, hastening their own demise with untenable discounts and a dwindling clientele.

Woodies was a casualty of this changing economy. Many of its stores were acquired by Macy's and Bloomingdales, chains that expanded nationally and weathered the shift partly by focusing on higher end customers. Woodies fell victim of its refusal to evolve—or as critics of fast fashion's labor and environmental effects argue, devolve.

Yet the signature building remains intact. The space itself epitomizes the changing retail tides of history. The eclectic buildings first brought together by Woodies have been recycled, reorganized, and parceled out to individual owners again. The structure remains to tell the tale.

Development


DC's 43,766 acres: 25% "roads," 2% high-rises

The District of Columbia spans over 68 square miles. About half its land area goes to buildings, 20% is open space, and over a quarter is "road infrastructure." Among residential land, half is single family detached houses while high-rise apartments occupy less than 2% of DC's total.


Land use in DC, 2006. Graph using data from the Comprehensive Plan.

I created the above chart using data in DC's Comprehensive Plan. That plan divides land into more categories, but for simplicity, I grouped many of them.

It's important to note that "roads" includes a lot of land that's not paved roads. That's because in many neighborhoods, the official public right-of-way includes much or all of people's front yards; the actual property line is at the building or between it and the sidewalk. This "roadway" space covers yards, sidewalks, tree boxes, some grassy areas, and more. Still, it's a big percentage.

The "jobs" category combines any sort of land use relating to where people work (commercial, industrial, public facilities, federal facilities, and institutional land). The "housing" category groups together of all of the housing categories.

The chart below breaks down the housing category:


Breakdown of DC's residential land, 2006.

Out of the almost 30% of DC's land which was used for housing in 2006, nearly half of that was occupied by single family detached homes—about 5,000 acres. The other half was split between rowhouses and low-rise apartments. Only about 4% of land dedicated to housing was occupied by high-rise apartments (so about 1.6% of the total).

This data is from 2006. I would expect some things have changed in ten years, but not everything. The large amount of "permanent open space"—much of it federal parkland—is not going anywhere.

How do these land use patterns affect our growing city? What changes should we expect, or should we advocate for?

Transit


This map shows how easy it is to take transit to work

We spend a lot of time praising neighborhood walkability and proximity to transit. But how valuable is the ability to walk to the grocery store if residents still need to drive a long distance to get to work?


A map of "Opportunity Score" values from Redfin for the DC area, with county boundaries added by the contributor. Scores are based on the number of jobs paying $40,000/year or more accessible by a transit commute of less than half an hour from a given point.

The real-estate company Redfin recently released an online tool called "Opportunity Score" that lets you explore the number of jobs that are accessible by transit from any address in a number of metro areas, including DC.

For any address in an area that the tool covers, the tool can calculate a numerical score between zero (least transit-accessible jobs) and one hundred (most transit accessible jobs). Alternatively, by searching for a metro area without a specific address, you can see a color-coded map of the numerical scores throughout the region, where green corresponds to the highest scores and red to the lowest.

The Transit Score map for the DC area reveals some interesting, if not entirely surprising, patterns. Thanks to Metro and good bus service, nearly everywhere within DC, Arlington, and Alexandria has good transit access to jobs.

Some places farther out are similar: several areas in Fairfax County (particularly in the vicinities of Tysons and Reston) and a large part of Montgomery County (in Silver Spring and along the Wisconsin Avenue-Rockville Pike corridor) have very good access to jobs.

In Prince George's County, however, things are quite different. The relative lack of high-paying jobs in the county and the low density around most of its Metro stations, along with more limited bus service, result in there being very few areas in the county where it is possible to commute to many jobs by transit in under thirty minutes.

Notably, the Prince George's County section of the Purple Line will connect a number of areas with low access to jobs to the employment centers in Bethesda and Silver Spring. However, this will serve only a very small portion of the county. Better bus service as well as increasing density in the more transit-accessible parts of the county are also essential to scaling back the car-dependence of commutes in Prince George's.

The tool might not be as useful for some as it is others

It is worth noting that Opportunity Score, which is based on Redfin's Walk Score tool, has a couple of notable limitations. The list of jobs only includes ones that pay over $40,000/year, so it doesn't tell you anything about the commutes to low-paying jobs (and people with those jobs are particularly likely to use transit).

It also considers some commuting options that only run at rush hour (i.e., I could take the Camden Line from my apartment in College Park, but it only runs at rush hour, so it doesn't do me much good if I have a night shift job, for example).

Most jobs that pay over $40,000 do follow the usual 9-to-5, though, so the fact that some of the transit considered is rush-hour-only will matter less to people looking for those jobs than to service workers looking for lower-paying jobs, but who will need to commute at less standard hours.

History


Not everyone agrees on where DC's Chinatown is

While DC's Chinatown officially spans roughly two square blocks in the city's central downtown area, a number of long-time residents have different ideas of the neighborhood's boundaries. This map shows how "Chinatown" means different things to different people.


The lines on the map represent 17 different definitions of where Chinatown begins and ends, along with DC's official boundaries. Map by Molly Carpenter, Pranita Rahbhise, Katy June-Friesen, and Dr. Willow Lung-Amam.

The map is part of a larger recent project by graduate students at the University of Maryland who wanted to better understand the rapid changes to the neighborhood and what they have meant for those in the Chinese American community with long term connections to it.

The researchers conducted 16 interviews with people who have long-term connections to Chinatown, either because they live there or are involved in the neighborhood through business and cultural organizations. They also interviewed eight people they met on the street or in restaurants or coffee shops. They asked those they spoke with to draw their own map of Chinatown and identify the places that were important to them.

While some identified Chinatown as a narrow strip of shops and restaurants along H Street, others saw the neighborhood as stretching from E Street to M Street. Meanwhile, others saw Chinatown as part of the larger Gallery Place or Penn Quarter neighborhoods.

Those more familiar with the neighborhood tended to see Chinatown as a shrinking span of restaurants along H Street NW, while newcomers or visitors tended to point to the Verizon Center and Gallery Place as the defining features of the neighborhood. And while many interviewed acknowledged that Chinatown has been shrinking, others recognized that the community has also spread out to the suburbs and is not dying.

Katy June-Friesen, one of the researchers, offered her take on why the people she interviewed had such varying definitions of Chinatown:

I think the way people understand the space, the neighborhood, depends on how they use and experience it. So for some elderly residents of Wah Luck House who speak little English, the neighborhood feels like it is shrinking, because there are fewer services and shops for them, such as a Chinese-speaking doctor or Chinese grocery store. Others (of Chinese background) who have long-term connections to Chinatown but don't live there may feel the place is more symbolic of history, culture, and traditions, but the boundaries or size of the neighborhood itself don't matter as much. A restaurant worker might think of Chinatown as just the strip of Chinese restaurants on H Street, while a non-Chinese newcomer to the area might not frequent those restaurants and might think of the neighborhood as "Gallery Place" or something other than "Chinatown."
Chinatown used to be in a different place, and it has seen a lot of change

First established in the 1880s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 5th Street NW, DC's first Chinatown was displaced in the 1930s by the Federal Triangle complex. As a result, Chinese immigrants began to settle in today's location.

In this new location, the community continued to grow through the mid-1960s, establishing schools, clubs, and other community organizations. However, by the mid-1960s, the population of the community began to decline, with many residents moving to the suburbs. Despite this decline, the population of Chinatown was 3,000 in 1970.

In subsequent years, the neighborhood has been the site of a number of revitalization efforts, including the construction of the Gallery Place Metro station and a new convention center (not to be confused with the current convention center), the establishment of a downtown historic zone, which includes Chinatown, as well as the later construction of the Verizon Center.

Recent years have seen changes to the neighborhood accelerate with the continued loss of Chinese residents and businesses. Much of this has been attributed to neighborhood affordability and buyout offers for local residents and business owners as part of a broader trend of redevelopment in the city.

Today, most of Chinatown's approximately 300 Chinese-American residents live in Wah Luck House and Museum Square, two subsidized housing complexes in the neighborhood.

Despite the diverse views of what constitutes Chinatown, all those interviewed expressed concern about keeping alive what the neighborhood means to them, namely Chinese culture and traditions.

Development


DC makes some of its affordable housing serve less wealthy residents (but not the poorest)

DC requires new apartment and condo buildings to include a number of affordable housing units, in a program called Inclusionary Zoning. Wednesday night, DC's Zoning Commission voted to make Inclusionary Zoning serve the group of residents who most need the housing this program can provide.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

What is inclusionary zoning?

Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) is a market-based tool for creating affordable housing that serves people of moderate incomes. Private developers still build housing as they wish, but have to rent or sell a small percentage of units to people making less money. It's had some success, but debate about the program continues.

IZ proposes to diversify our region's housing stock. In a high-demand area like ours, the market will naturally provide more expensive housing for higher-income people rather than cheaper housing. This is not a simple case of developer greed. The owner of a piece of property in a desirable, expensive area will want to sell it to whoever will give them the most money. If one group offers the land owner more money for the land (because they plan to build and sell luxury units), that group probably wins the sale over other groups looking to build moderately priced housing, or who want to use tax credits to build below-market housing.

Right now, in DC, many people who use tax credits to build lower-income housing can't win the bidding for enough land to build on. Where land is cheap, there is enough to go around for people to build units with diverse cost and meet diverse demand, though even then, without tax credits they can't sell units for less than it costs to construct them. But where land is scarce and demand is high, the market, on its own, won't provide housing for even moderate-income people.


Photo by Sharron on Flickr.

IZ tackles affordability and supply

When I walk around town talking about our region's housing shortage, many stop me and say, "What do you mean?! What about all of those luxury apartments and condos going up EVERYWHERE?" Land values explain a piece of that. Yes, we are building more housing than most other periods of DC's history, but there is a lot of pent up demand for housing at different cost levels that currently isn't being met.

Say I want to build a 5-story building with 50 units in it. To buy the land, get financing, and cover construction costs, I have to plan to rent the units at luxury prices. IZ changes two things. First, it forces me to build a number of units for people at lower incomes. That increases costs and could make my building unprofitable to construct, so IZ sweetens the deal: I can build my building higher and denser than normally allowed (about 20% larger, though it varies by zone).

When it's all said and done, my new plan after IZ is a 6-story building, and 5 of those 60 units are going to be rented at more affordable levels.

It's a compromise, yes. But is also unique in that it addresses the issue of housing supply (we just added 10 more units to the region!), as well as housing affordability (we just built 5 otherwise non-existent affordable options).

Other reasons IZ is exciting

The fact that IZ tackles our housing shortage from both a supply and affordability standpoint is one reason why advocates are for this policy tool, but there are other good things about it.

For one, if we are serious about building an inclusive city and region, this tool helps to do just that. People of different incomes can live (and afford to live!) in the same buildings and neighborhoods when IZ is applied well.

Recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life—16%, in Chyn's study—than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income living (which IZ pushes) could show a way out.

Another reason to like IZ is that it leverages the resources, knowledge and power of the private sector. There is an immense amount of money and expertise in the development field, and they are very interested in building more housing. IZ attempts to align for-profit development interests (build more) with broader community interests (build affordable), and advocates hope to harness the productive energy and capacity of the development field to meet the needs of a diverse and growing city.


Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

Spoiler alert: Not everyone is a fan of IZ

IZ offers both extra density (more money for property owners) and an expensive housing requirement (forced affordability constraints). Depending on the details of the program and the particular neighborhood or market conditions, the bonus could pay for the added expense, or not.

Further, IZ creates bureaucratic hurdles for the developer to go through. The process, paperwork, and the many legal and other experts required can add costs.

The early years of DC's IZ program saw problems with how the government was implementing it, including federal rules which made it impossible for buyers of IZ condo units to obtain mortgages. (DC changed the rules to deal with that obstacle.)

It's not just the developers

Developers are not alone in their criticisms of IZ. Some other affordable housing and low-income advocates are concerned about the program.

For some, it is simply a question of scale. Even in the hypothetical situation above, you can see this argument play out: we get 55 units of luxury housing, and 5 units of more affordable housing? For some that is simply not good enough, especially if there is a tool that would allow the original 50 units to be all affordable, or some significant percentage affordable.

Over that last few years since its inception in DC, IZ has created over 900 below-market price housing units, which is great. It's also true that in that same amount of time 21,000 total units have been created, and as noted earlier in my street conversations, many, many of those units are at luxury prices.


Map of IZ Production under old rules

Another concern some have about IZ is that it does not create "affordable enough" units. IZ laws mandate that a unit be affordable for people making a certain amount of money based on the Area Median Income (AMI). DC's current rules require some units at 80% of AMI and some at 50% of AMI, but the vast majority were 80%.

For a typical one-bedroom unit, an 80% AMI unit would rent for around $1,600 a month, while 60% would be around $1,100 a month. For many groups working alongside the poorest of our community (for example those making 30% or less of AMI), this does not serve the people in greatest need.

It's unlikely that IZ can create units at 30% of AMI, since those are so expensive to create and maintain compared to 50-80%. So IZ advocates mounted a campaign to create more deeply affordable units than before.

What has changed

This new change now requires all new rental units to be 60% of AMI (while condo units would be 80%). Currently, most new rental units being built were at 80%, but three-fourths of people on waiting lists for IZ units were around 60%.

Members of the Zoning Commission recognized that this was not serving the needs of many lower-income residents. During one hearing, Commissioner Michael Turnbull remarked, "[80% median family income] is basically market rate. People are saying, we can't afford that. The city is being gentrified. The people who grew up in the city are being kicked out." Commissioner Peter May agreed: "The house is on fire, and we are using a garden hose."

Yet there was opposition from the Bowser administration and the DC Building Industry Association to the proposal to lower the income targeting percentage to 60%. They put forth an alternative proposal. Under current rules, not all zones in DC have to incorporate IZ; the alternate option would add IZ to four zones (two of which, C2A and C2B, have some significant development potential, and two, SP1 and W2, that have very little) while keeping other zones as they have been.

Late Wednesday night, the Zoning Commission voted in favor of the 60% requirement. There will then be a 30-day period of public review before a second, final vote. For many of the thousands of residents who apply for the lottery to get access to these units each year, this drop will add greatly to their affordable options.

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