Greater Greater Washington

Zoning


The waters are rising on housing unaffordability

As housing demand continues to outstrip supply, housing prices keep rising in neighborhoods where lower-income renters and seniors on fixed incomes can ill afford the extra cost. DC's zoning update could help make a small dent in this problem, just as a single environmental protection can slightly blunt climate change. But that will only happen if the zoning update doesn't get blocked or delayed.


Photo by sccart on Flickr.

At Monday's zoning update hearing, Zoning Commission Vice-Chair Marcie Cohen, who spent much of her career on affordable housing and community development, asked whether those who outright oppose changes to DC's zoning, without proposing alternative solutions to our problems, are akin to those denying global warming: problems are coming, and they'd ignore them rather than deal with them.

Cohen asked some of the witnesses,

I know you said that we should not rely on some of the policies that are in vogue today. However, I don't believe that we also have the luxury of ignoring what's happening. So there has to be a balance.

I'd like for you to at least describe to me some of the areas that you think we should be looking at, so that we do continue to have a city that is livable. If we don't do some of the things that the zoning rewrite is doing, I thinkmaybe some other people may thinkthat we are becoming like the deniers of global warming.

Maybe global warming won't happen if we wave around big clocks?

A group of people were outside the hearing protesting. They weren't shouting about problems with the specific proposals, like letting people rent out their basements and garages, or allowing more corner stores, or letting property owners decide how much parking they need. Instead, they want to delay the zoning update beyond the 5-plus years it's already taken.


Photo by the author.

This is misguided. In fact, it's not even clear that the group, calling itself DC Zoning Changes Network, actually opposes the core ideas of the zoning update. On policy, they have little in common with the upper Northwest "change nothing" opposition we've generally heard. The group wants to lower the income threshold for affordable housing and create an extra review step for any big box stores.

The protestors are holding up clocks to argue that the process, which has been dragging on for 5 years, still hasn't given community groups enough time to respond. They argue that because the DC Office of Planning (OP) submitted the latest version of the text on September 9, about 2 months ago, that's too short a timeframe, and there needs to be another 6-month comment period.

But the date of the last version of the text means nothing. The fundamental changes behind the zoning update were the subject of public working group meetings in 2008 and 2009, Zoning Commission hearings in 2009 and 2010, and more public meetings in 2012, task force and community meetings in between. Those haven't changed, except to get weaker over time as OP backed down on some ideas.

There are always people who haven't been following any particular issue and weren't aware of it, but it's hard to credibly say that the OP hasn't given people a lot of chances to weigh in.

The latest draft is just a little different because OP made changes based on the community input. If there has to be a 180-day comment period on this version, then what? If OP makes no changes, then one could argue it hasn't listened to anyone. If it makes some changes (and there are always small technical tweaks to make), then do we need another 180-day comment period because there's a new version?

Whether you agree with the Zoning Changes Network group or not, their policy suggestions could be evaluated on their own merits. Those don't have to be part of the zoning update right now, and shouldn't, because they are totally brand-new ideas that weren't part of this 5-year discussion. But the zoning update isn't the last time we will change zoning. New ideas for zoning changes can become reality at any time through "text amendments."

Even if everything in the zoning update goes forward, it will only make at best a small dent in this problem. The Office of Planning needs to soon turn its attention to doing more analysis and crafting more policy approaches to deal with skyrocketing housing costs. The sooner we get the zoning update over with, the sooner our planners can move on to the next, necessary steps.

If, instead, we wait, the water levels will keep rising.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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>There are always people who haven't been following any particular issue and weren't aware of it, but it's hard to credibly say that the OP hasn't given people a lot of chances to weigh in.<

As right as you are in this observation, the hardest part of the fight is always at the end.

by kob on Nov 6, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

The clock people's website is interesting. On the one hand, they seem to advocate more inclusionary housing. On the other hand, they embrace the old NIMBY trick of insisting on having ANCs get to weigh in on everything, one of the myriad delay tactics used to frustrate builders.

And of course, having ANCs weigh in on whether a building can go forward means a lot will not get built. Which then limits the amount of inclusionary units built. So it is not really clear to me if they have thought through their approach, or whether they really are NIMBYs in sheep's clothing.

by fongfong on Nov 6, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

The zoning update is mostly window dressing as concerns affordability and density. Real effects on both will only be accomplished by allowing more than 2 units per building in R-4 and more than 4 in R-5. Households are much smaller than when these buildings were built.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 6, 2013 3:43 pm • linkreport

Eliminate any and all forms of land zoning in DC. That is all.

by Bill on Nov 6, 2013 3:51 pm • linkreport

So it is not really clear to me if they have thought through their approach, or whether they really are NIMBYs in sheep's clothing.

It's the former. They are unable to reconcile two ideals that are in conflict in this instance: affordable housing and direct(ish) democracy. People Power! sounds great until you remember that it can and often will be used by established residents to oppose any change that might negatively impact their property values or preferred way of life. ANC as neighborhood-level, city-sanctioned condo board.

by Dizzy on Nov 6, 2013 4:06 pm • linkreport

fongfong, I think some people just fear change. Even if we have the same goals in some cases they might feel they are better off with the devil they know.

Tom, I agree partially on that however I think allowing accessory dwellings is probably the only change in the R1-R3 that will be seen in most of our lifetimes so it has value as well. I would much rather see upzoning within metro TOD zones but that is going to be an uphill battle for a long time.

by BTA on Nov 6, 2013 4:09 pm • linkreport

How about loosening one of the city's most onerous, subjective, and time consuming blocks to greater supply. The citys over the top historic preservation regulation. You cannot discuss affordability without acknowledging this topic.

by Hill Feller on Nov 6, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

I'm with Hill. It's not so much they are onerous as they have no real reasons for what they do.

by Crickey7 on Nov 6, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

BTA- I don't think up-zoning is necessary to increase the number of units allowed in each zone. 2 for R-4 and 4 for R-5 are pretty arbitrary rules that apply to thousands of buildings.

I doubt the accessory dwelling rules will be used for many (if any). I'd imagine it would be for buildings that haven't reached their legal limit but are presently prohibited from using their garage as a legal separate dwelling. meh. just meh.

Hill Feller- Historic preservation has no rules whatever limiting the number of units in a building.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 6, 2013 9:37 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris, out of curiosity, what would you consider a reasonable apartment size in sqft for those areas?

by Steve S. on Nov 6, 2013 10:39 pm • linkreport

Dave, glad to have you back and that things have settled enough that you have time to write a post.

" housing prices keep rising in neighborhoods where lower-income renters and seniors on fixed incomes can ill afford the extra cost"

If you unpack that, what you are saying is RENTAL prices are rising. If you already own a house (like a fixed income senior) an appreciation in the value of house isn't a negative.

Now 3 points:

1) In wards 7 and 8 -- where the majority of low income residents live - I don't see much evidence of a rental price explosion.

2) In popular areas elsewhere in city, a rental price increase isn't a bad thing. We use price a tool to measure how popular an area is -- if you can't afford to live in a popular area you need to move.

3) And again, more density isn't helping. According to delta, what the massive boom in apartment building is doing, at best, is moderating prices on new apartment rentals. If you are low-income, you are not living in Class A new buildings. And the evidence so far is there are continued rent increases (on existing tenants) in class B and lower. That is what people are complaining about, and density isn't helping that.

And the reason is we've also created a floor --- through Section 8 vouchers -- which is why it is hard to rent a 1BR for LESS than 1500 in the city. Market manipulation works on both ends.

ANd the biggest beneficary of this are eager gentrifers who want to buy a house, rent out the basement for essentialy the house payment, then use their income to rennovate the top.

by charlie on Nov 7, 2013 8:29 am • linkreport

@Tom, who cares about how many units historic preservation law allows in a building?

Historic preservation law is a significant obstacle to more affordable housing because:

- Builders require a higher return on investment to compensate for the risk that a proposed project will not be approved by local preservation fanatics and the HPRB; without this, housing that is on the bubble of being built or not built is not built. (All decisions are "on the margin" (of change) in economics lingo.)

- Historic preservation law is means by which groups delay, delay, and delay projects. Consider the case of the Heritage Foundation on PA Ave, SE; although it was a business, it is representative of a set of tactics and approaches. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society appealed the Heritage case to the Mayor's Agent then to the DC Court of Appeals. Heritage fought them and won but the Restoration Society's (and the preservation community's) "win a war of attrition" approach to opposing the construction of new housing stock drives up cost, delays construction, and in some cases ends up blocking supply.

- The HPRB is notorious for breezily suggesting that builders "consider taking off a floor", that is, sawing off X number of new apartments, etc. Not only does this reduce housing stock, it lowers the amount of housing available in the market, driving up cost for everyone.

- Preservationists block conversion of "historic" buildings into housing stock. The Georgetown Power Plant is a current example; the shotgun house on Capitol Hill is an example; there are tons of others.

- Consider all of the people --developers, investors, etc.-- that see an opportunity to build new housing but look at the preservation fanatics and the hoops that they would have to jump through and the costs that they would have to incur to satisfy them. They decide that, no, DC preservation law just makes it a losing proposition for me to build new housing. There is not a public record of these decisions but we can be sure that the city's aggregate loss of housing that is not even started because of preservation law is enormous.

by Hill Feller on Nov 7, 2013 8:30 am • linkreport

If you unpack that, what you are saying is RENTAL prices are rising. If you already own a house (like a fixed income senior) an appreciation in the value of house isn't a negative.

For-sale prices are rising, too - and it is getting harder and harder for middle-class folks to buy or even rent. And it's not just historic row houses that are seeing prices spike, but all kinds of housing. Supply is not meeting demand, broadly speaking.

1) In wards 7 and 8 -- where the majority of low income residents live - I don't see much evidence of a rental price explosion.

The assumption that most low-income residents only live in wards 7&8 is false. If there's an element of truth to it, it's going to be largely due to the loss of market-rate affordable housing elsewhere in the city.

2) In popular areas elsewhere in city, a rental price increase isn't a bad thing. We use price a tool to measure how popular an area is -- if you can't afford to live in a popular area you need to move.

We're not talking about personal decisions here, we are talking about city-wide decisions. If housing prices are rising so fast, that is a sign that the land values will support more density. The collective action for the city is to help make that happen, not to say 'sorry, you should move.' People will end up moving anyway - there's always going to be a natural level of churn.

3) And again, more density isn't helping. According to delta, what the massive boom in apartment building is doing, at best, is moderating prices on new apartment rentals. If you are low-income, you are not living in Class A new buildings. And the evidence so far is there are continued rent increases (on existing tenants) in class B and lower. That is what people are complaining about, and density isn't helping that.

The massive boom in apartments hasn't come online yet. You're saying that the summer heat isn't so bad when it's a couldy day in late April.

Also, you realize why Class B rents go up, right? Because Class B landlords think they can tap into the Class A market because it is undersupplied.

If you're arguing that density won't help, you're essentially arguing that growth won't help. Given the actual growth we are seeing, do you really believe that to be the case?

by Alex B. on Nov 7, 2013 9:01 am • linkreport

Is climate change going to replace National Socialism in Godwin's Law? Zoning debates have nothing in common with climate change denialism...except where development is occurring in likely flood zones. Zoning rules in DC do not threaten the existence of 50% of the world's species and the survival of the human race. In fact, in cities that may be wiped out by rising seawater, both sides in zoning battles are kinda missing the forest for the trees.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Nov 7, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

EF

A.Just to point out that the global warming scenario you describe is still consider the less likely scenario by most scientists (and I beleive even by Bill Mckibben) The more likely scenario is a couple of degrees C of warming with billions of dollars in costs, increased disease, SOME species lost (but we lose species anyway do to other human actions) and some really bad things happening in island nations and low lying agricultural areas. Issues of scale aside, its not really that different from the negative consequences of a housing affordability crisis, which is what Ms Cohen is (rightly or wrongly) positing as a consequence of the zoning code.

B. If one does think that the much scariers GW scenario is likely, it would seem that the changes to zoning code (and anything else that can impact net GHGs) would be even more imperative - though in this case the motivator would be the many ways "urbanism" reduces GHGs, rather than the housing affordability issue.

C. Climate denialism is clearly not like Nazism, since there are many Americans who proudly say there is no AGW (and even some who say there is not GW period) while admitted hitler fans are fairly scarce on the ground

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 9:57 am • linkreport

Zoning debates have nothing in common with climate change denialism...

Sure they do - a healthy dose of status quo bias combined with skepticism about the prospects for long-term changes in the city's environment.

by Alex B. on Nov 7, 2013 10:02 am • linkreport

Before the zoning regs are changed by the Zoning Commission, shouldn't the DC Council (the District's highest (and elected) legislative body) review and change the Comprehensive Plan, which has the force of a DC statute? A lot of the zoning reg rewrite is inconsistent, even contradictory of, the Comp Plan. Seems like the cart before the horse (and an admin body exceeding the governing law).

by Sally on Nov 7, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

my understanding is that its up to the zoning commission to determine if the rewrite is consistent with the comp plan (as OP and others seem to think it is consistent).

If the Council beleives that its not consistent, they might want to speak up.

If Council does not so speak up, or change the comp plan, perhaps based on their own beleif that the new code is not inconsistent with the plan, I suppose someone could go to court to block the new code. Or has that already occurred?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 7, 2013 10:43 am • linkreport

Before the zoning regs are changed by the Zoning Commission, shouldn't the DC Council (the District's highest (and elected) legislative body) review and change the Comprehensive Plan, which has the force of a DC statute?

No, they should not. For two reasons:

One, the existing Comp Plan is what called for the re-write in the first place.

Two, the Zoning Commission's job is to review cases and amendments to ensure they are consistent with the Comp Plan. The ZC is a quasi-judicial body for that reason: http://dcoz.dc.gov/services/zoning/commish.shtm

"The Zoning Commission (ZC) is an independent, quasi-judicial body. Created by the Zoning Act of 1920, as amended, the ZC is charged with preparing, adopting, and subsequently amending the Zoning Regulations and Zoning Map in a means not inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital area."

A lot of the zoning reg rewrite is inconsistent, even contradictory of, the Comp Plan. Seems like the cart before the horse (and an admin body exceeding the governing law).

I would disagree that the ZRR is inconsistent, but even so, the Zoning Commission is not an administrative body; it is a quasi-judicial one. They are the ones that ultimately decide if the revisions are consistent with the Comp Plan or not, not the DC Council.

by Alex B. on Nov 7, 2013 10:54 am • linkreport

@Steve S- DC has minimum requirements for units which are very small. However zoning matters much more and in (for example) close-in R-4 areas like Dupont and Logan, a 3K or 4K sq' rowhouse is limited to 2 units, in effect making, for example, a 2000 square foot minimum size in a 4Ksq' rowhouse. Ridiculous.

Doubling allowed density to 4 in R-4 and 8 in R-5 would soon provide almost double density. But even raising it 50% to 3 and 6 would still have an effective lower limit of 1K sq' in a typical 3K building and 1000 sq' is more than reasonable for what is typically a single person household now a days.

We have several 3-story rowhouses in my R-4 block with 3 units grandfathered in from when we were R-5. You can't tell any difference from the front of the house (except maybe more doorbells). Everyone's fine with the 3 unit houses. You don't get nearly the opposition that you do with greatly increasing the height (which is why we supported downzoning from R-5).

A house across from me (1410 S) was just developed into the legal 2 units by a developer. It ended up as 2 units @ 1500 sq' each selling for about $1.5M each. Both have single person new owners. That's a ridiculous maximum limit.

But that's how most of inner core residential is zoned.

by Tom Coumaris on Nov 7, 2013 11:40 am • linkreport

@AWalkerInTheCity

Not to venture into a debate about global warming, or the impact of acidification, melting tundras and methane releases, but I will say most confidently that the feedback problem is a huge wildcard in all of this. There is no confidence in any long-term scenario, beyond what may occur in this century, especially since we -- humanity -- are not doing anything of consequences to curtail escalating CO2 emissions.

Regarding OP, I thought the metaphor with global warming and rising rental cost was a bit of a reach but harmless. There's little predictable about global warming, much uncertainty, and clearly if most of the ice does melt, rental costs will be a moot issue for the low-lying lands in this area.

by kob on Nov 7, 2013 12:51 pm • linkreport

re-zoning without adequate transportation and parking and sidewalks and parks is turning DC into hell

by lc on Nov 13, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

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