Greater Greater Washington


Zoning shouldn't be used to judge lifestyles

In Greater Washington, we hear all kinds of arguments against new development. But sometimes arguments drift into lifestyle issues: the apartments are too small, the location is too loud, or the tenants wouldn't appropriately invest themselves in the community.

Photo by Joselito Tagarao on Flickr.

While unfair, this might be expected from the public. However, when policymakers start to consider their own preferences when making decisions, as in the region's debate about accessory dwellings, they tread on dangerous ground.

In Berkeley, California, officials are using lifestyle concerns to fight a proposed building with 70 "micro-units." or studio apartments ranging in size between 307 and 344 square feet. The building is close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to a hot commercial strip and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It would be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city's affordable housing fund. And it would be just 60 feet tall, not much higher than its neighbors.

Nearby neighbors aren't happy with it, citing the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, which aren't unusual complaints. But they also object to the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. Zoning commissioner Sophie Hahn concurred, comparing the units to "penitentiary housing" and said there wasn't enough room for "intimacy."

Rendering of the proposed building from the developer.

Though I don't want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others are a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some hangout, I'm not so concerned about my home's size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live in a Palisades mansion, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise downtown.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it's the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are "a new style of tenement housing," I get upset. And when policymakers like Sophie Hahn say studio apartment living is "a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing," that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

Floorplan of a proposed "micro-unit" apartment.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, surely there's something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue.

I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But will I advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it's preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That's freedom.

So it's not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It's the developer's job to determine that.

And in a free society, it's nobody's job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

A version of this piece appeared in The Greater Marin.

David Edmondson is a transportation and urban affairs enthusiast living in Mount Vernon Square. He blogs about Marin County, California, at The Greater Marin


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Tiny studio efficiencies might be the ideal choice in some urban neighborhoods but Fairfax County is proposing a new zoning designation to allow this kind of housing in residential neighborhoods. That could have a devastating impact on older suburbs already beset by illegal overcrowding and other code violations.

by Ellie on Sep 3, 2013 12:07 pm • linkreport

...kind of housing in residential neighborhoods.

Huh. Seems like a residential neighborhood is the right place for a kind of housing.

by Tina on Sep 3, 2013 12:21 pm • linkreport


I am curious what "devastating impact" you are envisioning a few more people in "residential neighborhoods" which are, by definition, meant for people to live in, will cause?

by Kyle-w on Sep 3, 2013 12:24 pm • linkreport

@Tina: Obviously, plenty of people don't mind these residential units. They just think they should be banned anywhere residential units are allowed.

@Ellie: That could have a devastating impact . . .

What sort of devastating impact?

by Gray on Sep 3, 2013 12:27 pm • linkreport

Im kind of guessing that Berkely isn't a real responsive place for "the market, choice, optimality, yada yada" Probably better their to talk about global warming, sustainability, living simply.

Now here in Fairfax where I live, the market, choice, optimality arguments are pretty good.

Ellie - I live in FFX County. We have serious problems with lack of affordable housing.

Codes should be enforced. But these units would be allowed by the County and so would not be violations.

Do you mean by code violation problems the old low rise apt complexes with large families (or multiple families) inhabiting them? Im not sure what the answer is for those. On the one hand the growth in the school age population is stressing fairfax, and those folks certainly represent more schooling costs than property tax $$. OTOH FFX still has a significantly lower burden in that respect than DC, PG, or I think even MoCo.

I doubt very much that families with children will live in microunits.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 3, 2013 12:31 pm • linkreport

You can't hold other development hostage because of conditions somewhere else.

Soon someone will come in and argue against a rental building because renters don't care about the community as much as homeowners.

by drumz on Sep 3, 2013 12:48 pm • linkreport

We definitely have a problem with the lack of affordable housing and that needs to be addressed, but allowing efficiency apartments in low-density areas could have unintended consequences that would destabilize neighborhoods. Fairfax County is not doing a very good job of enforcing codes that ban overcrowding. It would not be a good idea to give people incentives to gut houses and break them up into efficiency apartments.

by Ellie on Sep 3, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport


Linking to your blog is not a particularly strong argument. You have yet to explain how these would destabilize neighborhoods. This is certainly not going to lead to people gutting houses to create micro-units, as that is very much so not allowed under current law, nor will it ever be.

by Kyle-w on Sep 3, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

but allowing efficiency apartments in low-density areas could have unintended consequences that would destabilize neighborhoods.

Conversely, failing to allow efficiency apartments in low-density areas could have unintended consequences that would destablize neighborhoods.

Beware status quo bias.

by Alex B. on Sep 3, 2013 12:57 pm • linkreport

The building is close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to a hot commercial strip and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes.

Tiny studio efficiencies might be the ideal choice in some urban neighborhoods but Fairfax County is proposing a new zoning designation to allow this kind of housing in residential neighborhoods.

I know nothing of the referenced Fairfax Co zoning change but I do see a difference between what's being proposed in Berkeley and what the commenter is describing in Fairfax. The units in Berkeley sound like pricey housing (with positive externalities such as contributing $1.4M to the city's affordable housing fund) while similar sized units that are not walkable to transit, jobs, and amenities will invariably be low/lower income housing.

While fighting against low/er income housing in your backyard is NIMBYism, I can understand why people wouldn't want it. That said, to call the the impact "devastating" would be hyperbole.

Soon someone will come in and argue against a rental building because renters don't care about the community as much as homeowners.

While I don't think zoning should actively discriminate against rental housing (especially since there are already so many incentives for home ownership), there's some validity to that concern. That's part of the reason why most condo HOAs limit the number of rental units in the building.

by Falls Church on Sep 3, 2013 1:03 pm • linkreport

actually the link to Ellie's blog IS a a good argument, but in the opposite direction.

“R-2 lot located in an area that is surrounded by properties that have been rezoned to a higher density district or which is a transitional lot between residential and commercial uses.”

Ie the places where they would allow ADUs on SFH lots is ONLY in certain places where there are already other uses, or transitions to commercial areas. It wouldn't allow ADUs in the middle of SFH areas. And allowing ADUs does not necessarily mean breaking a SFH into multiple small units (I have not seen the actual proposed wording).

But the other part of the FFX county proposal, that is more important IMO (and more parallel to the project in berkeley that was the subject of this thread) is multifamily buildings in zones where multifamily is currently legal.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Sep 3, 2013 1:06 pm • linkreport

Falls church,

I won't deny that it might be true. Just that its a poor argument. It's usually tacked on to deflect or code other arguments and it ignores the fact that most people in general (homeowners or not) aren't really involved in local issues.

by drumz on Sep 3, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

From what I read on yor report it's not there is a specifically poor sited project but rather the county is studying what the impacts of such housing would be. The impacts could be "devastating" but you can't decry the adverse impacts without acknowledging the beneficial ones.

Short of a specific project it's hard for me to see the danger in the county's research.

by drumz on Sep 3, 2013 1:40 pm • linkreport

- Zoning commissioner Sophie Hahn concurred, comparing the units to "penitentiary housing" and said there wasn't enough room for "intimacy."

Sad to say that if Sophie can't find a spot for intimacy in these flats, she suffers from a lack of imagination.

by fongfong on Sep 3, 2013 1:50 pm • linkreport

I'm a little sympathetic to Ellie's post. I am also worried that micro units could cause problems, but think they're all avoidable with good design. Having seen overcrowded units in my neighborhood, I worry about:
- Insufficient trash pickup. Subdivided, dense houses seem to always have overflowing trash spilling into the alley.
- Loitering / causing problems outside. If there's no room inside, I wouldn't want everyone always spilling out on to the street / sidewalk / neighbor's yards / etc. For noise reasons if nothing else. Easily avoided with good common space, both indoors and out. As well as by integration into the city --- things to do nearby and good transpo!

Trash is even easier to solve. Related to the code concerns Ellie raises. Again, easily solved if you build to code.

But I could appreciate concerns with an ultra-dense apartment being developed without thinking about impacts. It's easy to be prejudiced against such development after seeing it done poorly.

by John on Sep 3, 2013 1:54 pm • linkreport

Micro-units need not be primary residences and occupied every day of the year. I could see people renting these as weekday or weekend pieds-à-terre, or as an alternative to extended stay hotels and "executive housing" for assignments that last up to a year. That's assuming landlords would require a year's lease with a no-sublet clause. Let's let the market decide and get the dead hand of zoning out of the way when it makes sense. I might even find micro-units attractive myself, if I move of my primary residence out of the city, during a transition to retirement. A micro-unit used during the work week is a viable alternative to a horrendous commute.

by Paul on Sep 3, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

The funny thing is, I actually lived in an apartment about that size in a very similar looking building my first year as a grad student in Berkeley. The building was closer to campus and the mail commercial drag and BART (the proposed building is actually a bit of a hike to either Downtown Berkeley or Ashby BART stations, though not an insurmountable one). My building officially was graduate student housing run by the University's dorm department and so probably didn't go through this same approval process, but it really was a micro-apartment building -- we all had our own kitchen and bathroom. It was a kind of depressing place, honestly, though more because it was full of grad students than because the apartments were so small.

Anyway, the building was brand new when I moved into in ... in 1996, so you think they'd have had some time to get used to the concept.

by jfruh on Sep 3, 2013 2:35 pm • linkreport

It would help if we linked to the actual Ffx county proposal:

It is still a work in progress, but several of concerns raised make me wonder if folks understand the hoops that will be required to make this work. The special exemption process isn't a cake walk, with a planning commision and BoS sensitive to the concerns of past boarding house issues.

As for the county's enforcement efforts, one has to realize that they have limited staff and very dependent on reporting from the public on this. I am very sympathetic to communities who were scarred by this in recent years. However, it is not on par with what the county is proposing with the new zoning rules.

by Chris22303 on Sep 3, 2013 3:00 pm • linkreport

One question I haven't seen is how affordable will these be? Basic utilities and the various appliances attached to them represent a large proportion of the cost per unit. These kinds of costs make renovation expensive and slower to produce returns, so that there are disincentives for improvements---I used to live in a building with a lot of studios and efficiencies, as well as one bedrooms and the smaller units lagged far behind in renovations--which made them cheap to buy, but also lagging in appreciation given the old kitchen and bathroom areas. A building constructed as rentals often has cheaper finishes but with turnover, they probably wear-out faster. In the long run, I'd wonder just how much more affordable these units would be.

by Rich on Sep 3, 2013 3:06 pm • linkreport

I agree with Chris. If you see a code violation, report it. Don't expect FFX to be out and about looking for violations, they are too short-staffed and overworked to do that.

As far as micro-units, I am in favor of the FFX proposal, especially considering the number of restrictions that are all ready placed on them.

by Thad on Sep 3, 2013 3:28 pm • linkreport

A bed,a desk and cooking and storage for food(toilet&bath would be nice too)-This seems like a reasonable definition of basic housing. Why would it be seen as a threat to "the housing market"? IMHO housing means a place to live. Investing in real estate is fine, but I don't believe the primary purpose of housing is to enrich such investors. I'm aware that local governments are very dependent on property taxes,which further distorts the "market"'. I myself live in highly subsidized housing, and I'm not proud of that. If a truly free housing market existed, I believe many of these micro units would be built.Economies of scale and market forces could combine to make them truly affordable. And couldn't modular construction with removable walls allow extra bedrooms to be added or removed,according to the percentage of families or singles in a building?

by Robert Lohman on Sep 3, 2013 6:59 pm • linkreport

You should just, for the record, be aware that lengua is one of the most sublime pleasures on this earth, with or without cilantro.

by MetroDerp on Sep 4, 2013 9:28 am • linkreport

I would never live in a micro apartment myself, but I know that neighborhood diversity is protected by having a range of options available. This could be excellent housing for those just starting out or elderly people who want to be someplace thriving or people who are into the minimalist lifestyle. Just because I'm a maximalist (I'm working on it), doesn't mean I should deny them the benefits of a neighborhood.

by Fabrisse on Sep 4, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

The funny thing is, I actually lived in an apartment about that size in a very similar looking building my first year as a grad student in Berkeley.

I remember those places! At Shattuck & Channing, right?

Yeah, not too exciting, but they were serviceable living spaces. Honestly, sometimes you just need a place to live that's accessible to work and doesn't give you to many problems. I'm moving to a similar place in the NYC-area.

by Tyro on Sep 4, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

While "micro-units" may work in some areas, it does not have a place in Fairfax. The reason why many choose to live in Fairfax is to avoid an urban style of living/density.

by John L. Smith on Sep 4, 2013 6:30 pm • linkreport

Fairfax is some 400 square miles and houses a million plus residents.

There are huge numbers of apartments and condos throughout all areas of the county. Tyson's corner is one of the largest CBDs in the country.

The urban living/density in fairfax is here. Best course is to allow it to continue in te county's more urban areas.

by drumz on Sep 4, 2013 6:34 pm • linkreport

Why does it have to be "urban"? Place the micro-units on H Street.

There is a growing movement among my neighbors to keep our area free from density/apartments/urban grid

by John L. Smith on Sep 4, 2013 6:41 pm • linkreport

I don't see a grid as inherently urban (plenty of suburbs have grids)

Anyway, lots of people want to live in fairfax as well as DC. The county should accommodate that as well as it can. This will mean a mix of urban and suburban areas. DC itself does this and is 5x smaller (in area) than fairfax.

It's useless to get caught up in questions about whether fairfax should remain a suburb or not because A: it's too late for that and B: is way too broad a question for a place the size of fair fairfax.

And C: form/design principles can still apply to developments whether urban or suburban.

by drumz on Sep 4, 2013 6:54 pm • linkreport

I live in a 356 square foot apartment and could not be happier. It has a wall unit, with bookcases, that hides the bed. It has a high ceilings, large windows, a stacked washer/drier, is filled with light, and uses very little energy. It's green and it's absolutely perfect.

I had to downsize my life when I moved here, but how much crap does one need?

In exchange for an affordable unit, I live close to everything: buses, Metro, stores, restaurants, parks, entertainment. I gave up my car.

Anyone believes small units are a bad idea is beyond hope. You can get a big unit and heat/chill empty space and pay Pepco for the privilege. You can contribute all you want to climate change.

by kob on Sep 4, 2013 9:02 pm • linkreport

You are aware that Zoning Requirements are by defintion an intervention in the market place that limits and sets bounds on choice? Those zoning provisions indicate the community has made an agreement (at least for now) on types of development that will and will not be allowed as a matter of right. Beyond matter of right, there is usually an appeal process to change treatment from the requirement if certain procedural and standards can be satisfied by those proposing the change. Those are considered usually by appointed zoning commissions. Zoning commissioners are neither market proxies or gods. They are swayed by both reason and emotion -- their own and that of the presenters and communities. For someone who touts themselves as an "urban affairs enthusiast", there seems to be a good deal of "what i want" and a bit of a libertarian flavor but not much knowledge of the world in this post. Hope you are better informed in future postings.

by Tom M on Sep 5, 2013 3:56 pm • linkreport

If anyone is interested in learning more about the potential impact of these units on older residential neighborhoods in Fairfax County, come to a Mason District Council meeting Monday, Sept. 9, at Peace Lutheran Church, 6362 Lincolnia Road, 7:30 p.m.

by Ellie on Sep 5, 2013 4:05 pm • linkreport


No we are aware that zoning is an intrusion on the market. But those intrusions shouldn't be deciding lifestyle choices for people by prohibiting certain types of apartments where they could work.

Broadly while the needs of existing residents are often noted and addressed zoning commissioners must often consider the needs of future residents and the community at large. Otherwise the point of zoning would be preserving status quo at all costs.

by drumz on Sep 5, 2013 4:46 pm • linkreport

While "micro-units" may work in some areas, it does not have a place in Fairfax.

"Fairfax" is an awfully large place to make such a generalized statement about, incorporating many urban areas where micro-units have a place and many benefits.

by Tyro on Sep 5, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

The reason why most HOAs restrict the amount of rental housing is to ensure that mortgages and/or FHA approval are available. It's nearly impossible to get a mortgage in a building that is 51% or more investment, and legally impossible to get an FHA mortgage. Yes, that falls under the category of "protecting property values" to an extent, but it's a more extreme variation on the usual NIMBYism. I'm not concerned that renters won't take care of their patio, making it an eyesore; I'm concerned that someone who might want to buy my home - when I'm ready to sell - for less than 100% cash won't be able to. That's a FAR bigger issue than how involved renters are in their community or whether they're more likely to - I dunno - come home drunk and loud at 2 AM. The landlords in my communities show up to HOA meetings on the regular and take care of the property, but too many of them and my home suddenly loses 2/3 of it's value as it becomes a "cash only" purchase. I should know...I bid on a "cash only" purchase in a building (new conversion) that had gone that way, only because it was so cheap. The place I bid on ultimately sold for 1/4 the price of the first half of the units, for which a mortgage could be obtained.

by Toni on Sep 5, 2013 8:50 pm • linkreport


I'd be willing to give it another try. Maybe. If someone else ordered it. But I can still remember the texture of biting into it and it felt like I was biting my own tongue. Too familiar, too... ew. Just no.

by David Edmondson on Sep 5, 2013 10:40 pm • linkreport

My personal experience with micro housing is two fold: as a student in San Francisco on a very limited budget I lived for a time in a SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotel for a time. A bedroom, closet and sink, all at about 300 sq ft if my memory is correct. Common bathroom and shower down the hall. Not my first choice of living arrangements, but it beat living rough on the street. Upon returning to DC I ended up for some years living in a Dupont Circle 4th floor walk-up that was about 400 sq ft, a bathroom and no kitchen, although I was able to create an ad hoc kitchen in a large walk-in closet that had a window.

Looking back having lived in my own single family, detached home (2 bedroom bungalow) in NW for 20+ years I still have considerable empathy for those less fortunate than myself and support zoning that allows accessory dwellings.

by JimW on Sep 9, 2013 6:24 am • linkreport

"There is a growing movement among my neighbors to keep our area free from density/apartments/urban grid"

Translation: "There is a growing movement among my neighbors to keep our area free from anyone who can't afford a single family home. As to where the expected population growth in the DC will be accommodated, other areas must absorb it all as we are unwilling to take on our fair share."

by Erica on Sep 9, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

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