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Should adding more housing be illegal even when neighbors support it?

If a property owner wants to divide a row house into multiple units, the neighbors agree, and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission does not object, should they be able to?

Photo by Andrew Wiseman on Flickr.

The Office of Planning (OP)'s recent "anti-pop-up" zoning proposal would halt this practice, in an effort to keep row houses as one- or two-family homes and reduce the financial incentive to add on top and in back. But at two members of DC's Zoning Commission were not at all pleased with this proposal.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that the Board of Zoning Adjustment has been granting many variances recently to allow these multi-family conversions, but only when—and because—the neighbors and ANC endorse the idea. In fact, he said, the BZA has been sometimes having to bend over backward to get such a request to meet the strict variance criteria. But, at least in his thinking, if this is something neighbors support, why shouldn't it be allowed?

OP's Jennifer Steingasser acknowledged that in the recent BZA cases, there has indeed been neighborhood support. Often that's because a property is vacant and crumbling, and neighbors are eager to see someone invest the considerable capital that might be necessary to overhaul it. Small developers have said that the economics only work out to do such substantial work if they can create more units.

Federal representative Michael Turnbull, who works for the Architect of the Capitol, doesn't believe that. He said, "I'm not really convinced by these marketing studies. For every marketing study that says one thing, you can get another marketing study that says, well no. ... So it's a little bit self-serving. I always look askance at these things."

But Miller does not agree. He said,

I think this proposal significantly constrains the ability of our existing housing stock ... and the existing zoning code to accommodate a growing population, including a growing proportion of smaller household sizes. We are very fortunate to have an existing housing stock that can partially accommodate this change and growth in our city. Cities are dynamic and we need to manage the change and make sure it doesn't change the residential character of a neighborhood, but I think we should do more to manage the change rather than just throw up additional roadblocks.
In response to much of the pushback OP has already received on its draft, Steingasser has developed some alternative approaches. One, which garnered some praise from the commission, would still allow converting row houses into apartments, but require that units beyond the first and second be below market rate units under DC's inclusionary zoning law.

This would permit more housing, but set some aside for people with lower incomes, perhaps ensuring that these neighborhoods remain mixed-income as they grow more dense. It would be helpful to know more about the economics of these conversions to ensure that property owners would still be able to afford them; otherwise, it's just a ban in another guise.

Miller also asked OP to add another option that would make multifamily conversions a "special exception" instead of a variance. In a special exception, impact on the neighborhood is the main test, rather than uniqueness financial need.

Where's the big picture?

Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that OP should be making any proposal as part of a larger housing strategy instead of as a one-off reaction to public pressure. "I just don't think we have a comprehensive housing policy in this city and I'm worried about all the unintended consequences of [this proposal]. I personally prefer the alternatives that you have [proposed]. I do believe we must have opportunities that are supported by an ANC and supported by a neighborhood to move ahead with higher density in an R-4 district."

In response to questions about the impact on housing supply, Steingasser repeatedly said that the rules didn't originate out of an analysis about housing; rather, they were an effort to respond to public outcry about pop-ups (including a sudden election-year interest in the issue from councilmember Jim Graham, who later lost his primary).

But this is exactly the problem. OP has now in several cases proposed new limits on zoning which, officials readily acknowledge, arose entirely in response to some requests by some neighbors. OP should certainly listen to neighbor concerns, but needs to also think about the big picture. Miller pointed out that they got feedback on many different issues, like fixing Inclusionary Zoning, and asked, why has OP reacted so quickly to this particular one right now?

Every change, especially one that affects the overall housing supply, has an impact beyond just the immediate neighbors and the people who have specifically met with Steingasser or testified at a hearing. The Office of Planning needs to have a broader idea of how much housing of different types DC has and how much it needs.

A policy that pushes more row houses to be family-sized housing and discourages small apartments in row houses could be a reasonable one, so long as DC also has a bigger plan for how to provide the smaller sized housing that other people want. As UrbanTurf recently discussed, many families would prefer a row house (we certainly did).

Maybe a comprehensive housing supply strategy will conclude that fewer row houses should turn into apartments while more apartments should go on other spots. But at the moment, there are no concrete numbers about the demand and likely supply. There are just handwaving statements about how more units will appear at places like McMillan (maybe not enough, and even fewer if opponents get their way) or that we need more family housing.

The Office of Planning is going to be doing more quantitative housing analysis as it prepares to revise the DC Comprehensive Plan. Steingasser also told the Zoning Commission that OP has more data on row houses and family-sized housing. While this proposal might be a piece of a puzzle, it would make far more sense to propose it as part of a fuller plan to ensure DC has the amount and sizes of housing it needs.

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. 


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Absolute key question on the District's housing strategy: "Where is the big picture?"

Simply answer: There is none.

by Lurker on Jul 22, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

In many cases, the "pop ups" are creating more family housing, not taking it away. In Bloomingdale its common for the 4 level houses to be split into 2 3 bedroom condos, which have enough room (typically 1500 SF or so) for a family. They sell well because there's a lot of demand for that. 1500 SF and 3 bedrooms are very expensive if you are talking rowhouses in DC proper. Young families that don't come from money can't afford rowhouses in DC proper, but don't want to be exiled to suburbs. The pop ups are just the market solving that conundrum in a way that bothers a lot of people. The way to solve this is to build lots more rowhouses or force developers (they won't do this on their own because 1-2 br's are more lucrative) to build lots of 3br condos. I'm very skeptical that popup critics really care to do this because when push comes to shove, they really love restricting supply, which increases the value of their own real estate.

by 11luke on Jul 22, 2014 12:01 pm • linkreport

If DC came up with a clearer way of handling pop ups, I think people wouldn't mind the added density. That's why many of these neighborhoods are so desirable in the first place.

by Thayer-D on Jul 22, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

11Luke pretty much nails it. I am always astonished when people wring their hands as the market tries to find ways to increase density, increase housing supply, and lower housing prices.

It is SOOOOOOOO tempting to think that if we just finally get all the experts, the planners, the PhDs, the whoevers together with the right information that they will be able to think and plan our way out of this.

But it's not going to happen. There is too much distributed information and the bets approach is to let individual buyers and suppliers find each other with the government providing clear and predictable rules. This business of micromanagement is madness.

by Hill Feller on Jul 22, 2014 1:09 pm • linkreport

In Bloomingdale its common for the 4 level houses to be split into 2 3 bedroom condos, which have enough room (typically 1500 SF or so) for a family.

I know that around U St, Columbia Heights and the Logan circle area, a lot of the popups are developed into smaller units - 1 and 2-bedroom condos. It could just be that certain homes in some neighborhoods are smaller than others and so are better suited for conversion to smaller units.

by Scoot on Jul 22, 2014 1:13 pm • linkreport

Yeah, 11luke nailed it.

by h st ll on Jul 22, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

While 11luke is onto something for some homeowners, I don't agree that every opponent of growth or pop-ups is focused on their own property values.

Didja see the story in the morning update about the gentrification of Annacostia? Folks were quoted there about the belief there should be no changes in any of the homes in that neighborhood. That any improvements would tend to push current residents out of the neighborhoods. These folks are not concerned about their property values increasing - they cannot afford the upkeep of their homes in the first place. They don't want to have to move or to cash in on their increased property values; they want things to remain as they have been.

And where I live in Chevy Chase, it is not about maintaining property values. It is instead about having no new development so that keeping their suburban, driving-centric lifestyle as it always was.

It is not always about the money.

by fongfong on Jul 22, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

whether or not ANCs approve or reject should be immaterial.

by Richard Layman on Jul 22, 2014 2:25 pm • linkreport

I don't think DA is calling for planners to substitute for the market.

There are a range of interventions in the market already, in the form of existing zoning regs of all kinds, decisions about how to use District owned property, decisions about transit, etc. There are proposals to make it harder to develop, and proposals to make it easier. And almost each and every one of them tends to lead to the issue of how much housing the market can and will provide, at what prices and with what consequences for displacement, under different scenarios. But there is no data based answer to that - its mostly folks shouting at each other. There is the build out analysis that OP did for the height act proposal, but that was designed with a fairly limited purpose, and was arguably inadequate for that.

Whether you want free market solutions only, or are open to other solutions as well, I can't imagine why people would not welcome a more sophisticated set of data, forecasts and scenarios, for use in at least framing the policy debate.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jul 22, 2014 2:42 pm • linkreport

If OP and BZA were serious about this (I sincerely doubt it -- their equivalents in other American cities don't take this responsibility seriously enough either), they'd do the following --

1. OP sets a goal for # of additional housing units (along with subtypes like family-sized vs. single person household, owner-occupied vs. rented, luxury vs. middle-class vs. affordable, etc.).

2. BZA factors in those goals when approving special exceptions and varances.

3. Actual production of units (perhaps at the construction permit stage) are reviewed at the end of the year and policy (including at, say, the redevelopment agency) is shifted accordingly.

Until then, the knee-jerk reactions of OP to publicity and the rabble-rabble crowd have little credibility to stand on.

Honestly, though, I don't see the value in allowing a two-story duplex to become three-story stacked flats. Constraining a remodeler to two units (but allowing the height increase) would result in cheaper (per person) units and allow for a wider diversity of household sizes. Learn to embrace the group home lifestyle, yuppies!

by Vinnie on Jul 22, 2014 2:55 pm • linkreport

Should adding more housing be illegal even when neighbors support it?

Yes. Because then the opposite would also be true.

My point is: neighbors do not own the neighborhood. Their voice should be heard, and that's all. Zoning decisions should be made on the city-level because the city's interests outweigh NIMBY protests.

In other words, letting neighbors solely decide on what happens in their neighborhood equates to handing over the city to NIMBYs.

by Jasper on Jul 22, 2014 4:08 pm • linkreport

I was out with a some supporters hanging street signs for our Libertarian candidates this week, in Anacostia and near RFK stadium. I noticed that out between 21st nd 17th Streets on Capitol Hill developers were adding third floors to two story houses, which in some cases may have been part of a condo conversion. Of course in the closer in, more well healed parts of Capitol Hill, three story houses are very common. But in many areas heavily regulated for historical preservation or other rationales (Seaton or Caroline Streets in DuPont for example), one could no longer add a third floor or often add much of anything that could be seen from the sidewalk in front of a house. I don't think it is surprising that DC housing prices and rents continue to climb, when the supply is restricted and the federal government imports 1000 new highly paid employees into DC every month.

by Bruce Majors on Jul 22, 2014 4:09 pm • linkreport

To answer the bigger question, rather than "pop ups-good or bad":

No, zoning should reflect policy made through democratic/representative procedures, not the whims of private actors. That creates much too much room for favoritism, discrimination, and ad hoc/inconsistent policies.

If a specific neighborhood (or even block) wants to get together to form restrictive covenants, or a zoning overlay, they should be encouraged to do so. But the city should not allow changes on a piecemeal basis through ad hoc approvals by some neighbors and an ANC.

by ah on Jul 22, 2014 4:21 pm • linkreport

Good point, Jasper. Goose, gander, sauce, etc.

by Hill Feller on Jul 22, 2014 4:50 pm • linkreport

But in many areas heavily regulated for historical preservation or other rationales (Seaton or Caroline Streets in DuPont for example), one could no longer add a third floor or often add much of anything that could be seen from the sidewalk in front of a house. I don't think it is surprising that DC housing prices and rents continue to climb, when the supply is restricted and the federal government imports 1000 new highly paid employees into DC every month.

Interesting you should use those streets as an example considering that, being historic blocks, those are actually quite dense. Just take a look at the census tract data and you'll see.

by Scoot on Jul 22, 2014 4:52 pm • linkreport

I think they are dense blocks because they are smaller houses either semidetached or attached with small foot prints. The point I think is that we will probably end up seeing tall buildings and more innovative construction in lower income neighborhoods where the residents don't oppose any new construction. Elsewhere higher rents will continue. Of course, as things are now, our long term incumbents may steer any of this development they can to approved developer/campaign developers.

by Bruce Majors on Jul 22, 2014 5:29 pm • linkreport

h st ll -- I disagree with your take a bit. It's not that the answer isn't obvious, it's that everyone is doing their best to ignore the reality of the market.

I joke that I wasn't that good at economics (actually I was bad at Macro and pretty good at micro) but the real estate market has really taught me how market economics work.

The basic point is that changes in the housing market make large houses, especially in the city, uneconomic for the "traditional urban households" that existed when they were first built (except for the fact that back then, typically many more people lived in a house that were not part of the "nuclear family").

So houses that are "flexibly built" that can be modified, get modified, to better the demands of a greater majority of urban households active in the market today.

That means large rowhouses get converted. Small four unit apartment buildings get converted to condos. That's different from the popup argument.

Popups may or may not result in additional units. But in any case, the real issue is that they are mostly done badly.

At a W4 zoning meeting a couple summers ago, people were complaining about "rooming houses" that they are illegal, etc. I said that they exist because the houses are way too big to be owned and occupied by a single family and that it would be better to legalize them and inspect and regulate the units.

Similarly, the reason that there are so many "big churches" or institutional uses in big houses on 16th St. NW, bugging residents is that the buildings are too big for typical households.

ADUs is another issue. For similar reasons, adding units to houses expands the ability to pay for otherwise increasingly expensive houses.

And there have been a bunch of articles in the major newspapers about increased renting of rooms by seniors, and there was an article in the Post about "house sharing," something that was standard practice in Ann Arbor when I went to college.

These are all logical market responses. But people don't want to be logical. And planners are not doing their job. But then they are in a classic boundary spanning position where they will always lose out.

By not having a definitive "paper" on what's going on wrt these issues, we are operating in a vacuum.

It reminds me of the Winston Churchill quote, "you can always count on America to do the right thing (long pause) after she has exhausted all other alternatives." That's politics in a nutshell.

But this really matters in terms of urban resiliency and the resiliency of neighborhoods. I've been meaning to write about this issue, using this argument, in part by extending the arguments from this blog entry on housing stock in the midwest:

He argues that Detroit is in particularly bad shape because of the lack of flexible housing stock--small houses not capable of being broken up into smaller units.

Basically what's happening in DC is that people are trying to make housing unit flexibility illegal.

It's a really bad thing in terms of planning for a more robust economic and social future for the city, especially because various demographic trends mean we need more residents, not fewer, to support the range of civic, social, entertainment, and retail assets and amenities that we think make up a quality neighborhood, district, or city.

by Richard Layman on Jul 22, 2014 5:36 pm • linkreport

Jasper + ah = correct

by Breastaurant on Jul 22, 2014 7:49 pm • linkreport

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