The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Endless zoning update delay hurts homeowners

Remember DC's zoning update? The source of massive public debate last year, and public hearings way back in 2008? It's still slowly grinding along, but the long delays even on less controversial provisions are making life difficult for actual homeowners today.

Carriage houses in Naylor Court. Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

A friend and her husband recently bought a DC row house for them and their two children. The row house has 2 stories plus a basement. In the rear is a 2-story carriage house, which a previous owner renovated into a separate apartment. However, it doesn't have the permits to be a legal unit.

This friend would like to rent out the carriage house. Nothing would change on the outside of the building. The adjacent houses also have garages or carriage houses on this alley, and the only windows face the alley or face the main property.

Unfortunately, DC's zoning laws make this difficult.

This house is in an R-4 zone, which encompasses many of the moderate density row house neighborhoods like Shaw, Bloomingdale, Petworth, Capitol Hill, and Trinidad. (It's the purple in the large map about halfway down this post). In an R-4, it's totally legal to make a house into 2 units, as long as both are inside the main building. But to use an existing accessory building like a garage requires a variance.

As we discussed in the context of theaters in residential zones on Friday, a variance is actually very difficult to get. There has to be some "exceptional" condition of the property. Sometimes DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment stretches pretty far to find exceptional conditions when neighbors don't object, but they can't always; in one case, a property owner wanted to build a garage on the alley to match the garages for every other property on the same alley. Nobody objected, but the board couldn't find an "exceptional" condition because that lot was exactly the same as every other lot (only without a garage).

This friend can try to get a variance, which would mean hiring zoning lawyers and a process lasting the better part of a year. Or, she and her husband can substantially renovate the house to make the basement a separate unit instead, at great expense. They might be able to maneuver around the zoning laws by somehow connecting the carriage house to the main house with a walkway, so it no longer counts as a separate building.

Or, instead of any of these undesirable and expensive approaches, DC could just pass its zoning update already. One of the proposals for row house areas would allow the legal 2nd unit to go in an accessory building, like a garage. The Zoning Commission, the federal-local hybrid board that decides the zoning in DC, decided on this and other recommendations on June 8, 2009, so we've just passed the 4-year anniversary of when they actually ruled on these proposals.

At the time, the plan was for the Office of Planning (OP) to go and write detailed text based on the Zoning Commission's guidance. The head of the project, Travis Parker, then got a job running a planning department in Colorado, and the team lost another member, Michael Guilioni, slowing the whole process. Opponents of the more controversial pieces of the update then asked for more delays, more public meetings, more task force meetings, and more process.

It's time to move forward on the zoning update. OP deputy director Jennifer Steingasser told the Dupont Circle ANC that they've recently shown the latest set of drafts to their task force, a group of residents from stakeholder groups and various wards. After that, it's time to bring the drafts to the Zoning Commission for the final phase: a formal "setdown" and formal hearings where residents can make their case for or against the proposals.

Even small tweaks that will fix pervasive problems with the zoning code have been stuck in limbo for over 5 years because this process is taking so long. It's time to bring the best draft to the Zoning Commission, have hearings, and approve the zoning update so that homeowners like these, and many others around the city, don't have to keep waiting to better enjoy and afford their properties.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

We have to update the zoning laws to accommodate the owners of an illegally built structure? Plenty of reasons for quick rule-making, but not this.

by Jasper on Jun 17, 2013 2:48 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but your friends knew the rules when they bought the house.

by mch on Jun 17, 2013 2:50 pm • linkreport

These comments miss the point, which maybe I didn't make super clearly. We've *already* decided to make this change. The zoning commission discussed it 4 years ago. It's not a source of significant opposition, or at least not one of the issues that's drawn the main ire; this is for row house zones.

So because of all the other stuff, changes like this one are stuck in limbo. The owners know the rules, but they also know that the DC Zoning Commission is almost certainly planning to fix this silly rule. Why should they have to wait a few more years?

And Jasper, the structure isn't illegally built. It was legally built, just not legally made into an apartment. There are a great many apartments like that around DC.

by David Alpert on Jun 17, 2013 2:58 pm • linkreport

We have to update the zoning laws to accommodate the owners of an illegally built structure?

Uh, no. The structure is legal. It just isn't legal as an apartment for some reason (even though an apartment wihtin a single structure is legal). Because our zoning laws are absurd.

I'll bet this house and carraige house pre-dates zoning in the city anyway.

Plenty of reasons for quick rule-making, but not this.

This isn't even an appeal for quick rule making, it's an appeal to finish a long and slow rule making.

by Alex B. on Jun 17, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

We have to update the zoning laws to accommodate the owners of an illegally built structure?

The structure is legal, having people living in it is legal (I believe), renting it out is not. That's dumb.

by MLD on Jun 17, 2013 3:01 pm • linkreport

Yeah, this is pretty much exactly how the update is supposed to work.

Now we have to deal with the tautology of "the use as rental is illegal, therefore it is illegal" that will be used as a defense of the previous zoning.

by drumz on Jun 17, 2013 3:12 pm • linkreport

Would one solution not be, you know, just to go ahead and rent it? I'm sure it wouldn't be the first apartment rented in DC that didn't meet code/zoning.

by renegade09 on Jun 17, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

renegade09: Yes, they could rent it illegally, but these friends would like to be law-abiding.

by David Alpert on Jun 17, 2013 3:46 pm • linkreport

Well they are just going to have to wait like everybody else. This just sounds like whining. There is a reason why things like this take so long. Everyone should have a chance to have their say.

by Aitor on Jun 17, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

How long? It's been 5 years. How long is long enough?

by David Alpert on Jun 17, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

They should have learned how long zoning takes (read corrupt) before diving into this.

by Skant on Jun 17, 2013 3:58 pm • linkreport

Except if you've only owned the house since latter half of 2009 there shouldn't be any "diving" to speak of. The city council either needs to pass the plan or say what OP needs to change.

by drumz on Jun 17, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

drumz, OP is interfacing with the Zoning Commission on the ZRR. The D.C. Council doesn't have a vote on the regs, though it can prod OP to go in a certain direction through its oversight over that agency.

by Patrick Kennedy on Jun 17, 2013 4:28 pm • linkreport

As an architect practicing in DC, I have talked myself out of a lot work due to this and a few other outdated provisions of the Zoning Code. Basically I tell these would-be clients I'd love to work on these projects but DC makes it very, very difficult. I have to walk away having given the homeowner the right advice, but I have dashed their hopes for something that appears reasonable (renting a carriage house or alley dwelling) to most people. Just changing the off-street parking requirements and accessory building provisions would be a huge boon to historic neighborhoods, not to mention having a positive effect on affordable housing. Faster please... All the city needs to do is get out of the way. Get it done!

by Paul on Jun 17, 2013 4:38 pm • linkreport

R-4 zones today require 900 sq ft per unit. Ie Under today's rules, they'd need a lot that was a minimum of 1,800 square feet to add a second legal unit in the basement or in a connected garage. Will the 900 sq ft requirement be part of the new zoning regs? Do your friends have a minimum 1,800 sq ft lot? Also, anyone have any idea how the changes will affect R-5 zones? I think they are already permitted in these zones by the regs, but don't easily get permitted in practice because of factors such as being in alleys that aren't wide enough for fire trucks, access to metered utilities etc. Won't the R-4 properties face the same permitting issues even after the change to allow units in ADUs. Or will the zoning fix all the other issues preventing the legal rental of carriage houses. I've read what OP
has posted, and I don't see these other issues being addressed.

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

@ David Alpert:the structure isn't illegally built

I should have worded that better. Nevertheless, rules should not be changed to get rule-breakers in the right. They should be changed to be made better.

GGW should be careful not to become a whine-site of people with miserable experiences. On the one hand, examples like this make bureaucratic issues human and that is good. On the other hand, if you publish too many personal experiences, you might end up being seen as a bunch of whiners. That would be sad because you generally have very good arguments, which you do not want to be overshadowed by emotional issues.

by Jasper on Jun 17, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

Nevertheless, rules should not be changed to get rule-breakers in the right. They should be changed to be made better.

Why not both? In any case, the rules are already changed but haven't been made official. If there is a reason for the hold up why don't we know it? What's holding back the hand that will sign the change?

by drumz on Jun 17, 2013 5:01 pm • linkreport

I find it amusing when somebody refers to a legitimate complaint about something that is manifestly unjust and arbitrary as 'whining'.

by renegade09 on Jun 17, 2013 5:27 pm • linkreport

" the rules are already changed but haven't been made official".

That's like saying a same sex couple should file combined taxes based on President Obama's support for gay marriage. OP voicing their opinion that this rule should be changed doesn't automatically make it so.

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 6:16 pm • linkreport

I've had similar issues. This is probably grandfathered in from before zoning. A quick search of the Blaist maps at MLK would probably show this.

Not 100% kosher but there's always the possibility of having a housemate who's agreed area is the carriage house. The carriage house should be considered part of the main unit.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 17, 2013 6:51 pm • linkreport

Tom, that could work if the carriage house doesn't have a kitchen.

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 6:59 pm • linkreport

@neighbor- Even what qualifies as a kitchen is vague. I've always been told a regular stove is necessary. Years ago I even had an inspector tell me he was going to get a Coke and when he got back to have a stove covered. OTOH I know a couple people who have full kitchenettes in guest suites.

The whole roommate with designated area vs. separate apartment thing can get very muddy, especially when there's an owner-occupant.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 17, 2013 8:21 pm • linkreport

@A neighbor. The 900 sf per unit rule applies only for three or more units. Two units are allowed by right in R-4, provided they are in the principal structure, not an accessory building.

by Paul on Jun 17, 2013 8:24 pm • linkreport

@Jasper - bruh, what? People with separate buildings shouldn't be allowed to rent those out? Even though those structures were likely build 70 plus years ago? What exactly are you arguing for?

The sad part of the zoning update is it should allow ADUs in buildings that are not already present. Then it would have some real teeth to it and could intact some hugely positive changes to the city.

by h st ll on Jun 17, 2013 9:12 pm • linkreport

" the rules are already changed but haven't been made official".

That's like saying a same sex couple should file combined taxes based on President Obama's support for gay marriage.

True, but in this scenario let's pretend that president Obama has had a bill to legalize gay marriage sitting on his desk for him to sign for 5 years now and we don't know why he hasn't. That seems similar to what's happened here.

by drumz on Jun 17, 2013 9:35 pm • linkreport

@Paul, that's possible but its not what R-4 says when you look it up today on the Zoning website. Not that is be surprised if the website was wrong.

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 11:07 pm • linkreport

"Permits matter-of-right development of single-family residential uses (including detached, semi-detached, row dwellings, and flats), churches and public schools with a minimum lot width of 18 feet, a minimum lot area of 1,800 square feet and a maximum lot occupancy of 60% for row dwellings, churches and flats, a minimum lot width of 30 feet and a minimum lot area of 3,000 square feet for semi-detached structures, a minimum lot width of 40 feet and a minimum lot area of 4,000 square feet and 40% lot occupancy for all other structures (20% lot occupancy for public recreation and community centers); and a maximum height of three (3) stories/forty (40) feet (60 feet for churches and schools and 45 feet for public recreation and community centers). Conversions of existing buildings to apartments are permitted for lots with a minimum lot area of 900 square feet per dwelling unit. Rear yard requirement is twenty (20) feet,"

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 11:15 pm • linkreport

Drums, the difference is that
Obama can only have a bill waiting for him to sign which the Comgress has already passed. This bill has even been voted on. Never mind being fully discussed.

by A neighbor on Jun 17, 2013 11:18 pm • linkreport

Ie Tom and his roommate can only 'live in sin' for now, and there's nothing wrong with that!

by A neighbor on Jun 18, 2013 12:41 am • linkreport

@A neighbor, R-4 permits matter-of-right development of a "flat." A flat is a two-family dwelling. "Apartments" are three units or more and subject to the 900 sf rule.

by Paul on Jun 18, 2013 7:32 am • linkreport

Parts of OP's proposed DC zoning re-write already seem dated -- sort of like the clueless school districts that were still building 'open plan schools' well into the 90s after the trend leaders had abandoned the concept. In DC's case, that would be Harriet Tregoning's idea to eliminate minimum off-street parking requirements for many types of development. That may sound good to some, until one realizes that Portland, Oregon -- that leading US laboratory of many good things urban -- has now eliminated the elimination of off-street parking requirements. They tried that experiment and concluded that the negatives outweighed the positives. Hopefully the DC Zoning Commission and Council will heed Portland's experience.

by James on Jun 18, 2013 8:41 am • linkreport

Yes, no parking minimums is such a dated, irresponsible, and unnatural proposal. I mean, it's only how these cities were built in the first place!

by MLD on Jun 18, 2013 8:53 am • linkreport

Paul, thanks for the explanation about the meaning of flats in this context. Overseas it simply means apartment. I didn't know it had a different meaning in the US.

by A neighbor on Jun 18, 2013 11:54 am • linkreport

@ A neighbor. No worries. Arcane rules. :) "Flat" has a very particular meaning in the DC Zoning Code, see section 199 "Definitions." Even to most Americans "flat" is a synonym for "apartment." Other cities (like Chicago) make distinctions between "2 Flats" and "3 Flats." DC just has single-family dwellings, "flats," and apartments.

by Paul on Jun 18, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

This only highlights how trivial the proposed changes in dwelling units is. When much of Dupont/Logan downzoned fairly recently from R5 to R4 we weren't thinking about the limitations on number of units.

DC density could be increased enormously by allowing 3 instead of 2 units in R4 by right.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 18, 2013 12:53 pm • linkreport

@Tom, but wasn't the down zoning done specifically to keep developmental pressures away from those blocks which retained the original historic single family (inclusive of basement flats) look? Ie those blocks which had already transitioned the apartment and other multi family dwelling use retained the R-5 designation. This occurred less than 10 years ago, why would the zoning commission undo this density down zoning so soon? It seems to have been successful in steering development to those blocks which has already transitioned (eg 14th St) and preserving those that hadn't (eg your block of S St. )

by A neighbor on Jun 18, 2013 1:09 pm • linkreport

@Neighbor- Zoning basically is about what's there presently and for that reason our area certainly was much more R4 than R5. I think the development pressures were potential for height; too many new renovations were putting too much up top and the R4 height limit was more compatible with our housing. However, I don't think division of houses into units was a motivation.

As far as steering development to 14th, we now have the weirdness of 8-story buildings book-ending 2-story blocks. It would be better if they were a little lower and more new units were provided in the existing stock.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 18, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

@Tom, Good points about density vs. height. As for the book ending, I think that's more of a matter of adjusting to a street regaining the height it once had. Look at 16th Street where you have a similar situation of 8 story buildings book ending 2 story rowhouses on either side of it. No one thinks its strange because its always been that way.

by A neighbor on Jun 18, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

I like the traditional London/Paris/most European cities method of increasing density in existing stock and not allowing the odd pop-up.

Plus, the choice between 6 or 7 stories (plus the top add-on floor) is startling. Over 6 floors requires a concrete building that takes 2 years to build, as opposed to 1 for a 6 story frame one. It also requires a substructure that becomes a garage. I'd rather lower the 7-story areas to 6 and make up for density by allowing more units in existing rowhouses.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 18, 2013 10:54 pm • linkreport

I'd rather have a concrete building of any height than a lousy stick building that will likely be falling apart in less than 50 years. Too bad the US housing market is so focused on fast and cheap.

by Mike on Jun 19, 2013 9:05 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

We are switching over to our new website. Commenting on the old site is now disabled. Thank you for your patience and pardon our dust!

Support Us