Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Accessory Dwellings


Hear the candidates: Ward 6 on housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 6 on the DC Council. See all of the articles here.

Images from the candidate websites.

It's not that easy to find specific policy issues where Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson disagree. Both candidates vying to succeed Tommy Wells talk about affordable housing, jobs, seniors, and education.

Indeed, in their freeform statements about affordable housing, both cited the need to ensure housing for families as well as singles and roommates. Compare the candidates' initial statements on affordable housing:

The biggest difference between Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson is in their political paths. Allen worked as Wells' chief of staff and knows city policy backward and forward. Thompson also has a long record in public service, but at the federal level working for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; he has not been very active in local politics or policy in the recent past.

Thompson has been a quick study and has compelling values for the ward, though ones not very different from Allen's. Thompson said the ward needs "new leadership," but when pressed, did not articulate much in the way of specific objections to Tommy Wells' tenure, while Allen is running on the record he and Wells built.

When I asked each candidate about how DC would add the 41,000-105,000 new housing units it needs in the next 20 years, both cited Hill East as a place with substantial development opportunities. While continuing to emphasize the need for family housing, Allen also said we need to add housing by using existing buildings in "smarter or more flexible ways," like accessory dwellings:

We're a community full of alleys. We have a lot of homes that have carriage houses or they have alley access properties. To be able to allow those to be legal residences is important. It's important because it allows for that housing to be created.

It's also important becauseI'll bring it back to affordability. If you have a property that has a carriage house, you're looking at rising costs in the city. Being able to have that be part of your rent is actually a great part of making your home help you in terms of achieving affordability.

In a subsequent email, Thompson said he also supports this proposal. He wrote, "With the growing rate of the population in our city, we need to provide more housing and this is a way to do that. Additionally, allowing homeowners to collect income on their property increases the affordability of owning their home, especially seniors on fixed incomes."

When I asked him about housing supply during the interview, Thompson also talked about being "smart," using the same word as Allen, but also said "we've got to make sure we don't overbuild," and that "there are developments on the table in Ward 6 that have split neighborhoods because residents didn't feel like they had the input."

Was Thompson talking about the Hine school development, the mixed-use project at Eastern Market Metro? Among other things, yes, and he had this to say:

Clearly something didn't go right. A lot of folks are outraged. I've talked to folks throughout Ward 6 and that part of Capitol Hill often, and folks feel likesome feel like it's too large. I think it's too large. I think under the current proposal we've got right now it's important we go back and look at this again.

Even talking about the affordable housing units that are offered, they're not like the market rate units. So we're creating housing for 2 different classes of people and making sure people clearly know that's what we did. That's not right.

We're talking about building something that's much larger than anything else in the surrounding neighborhoods. So I think, again, we should have proper community input; input that actually is meaningful and is adhered to before we sign off on projects. It's important. Lots of folks would like to see that project done, including myself, but not under the current proposal.

On this, Allen does not agree. I asked him over email for his view, and he wrote:

This is a project that will create a vibrant mix of housing, retail, office, market space, and important affordable housing in the heart of Capitol Hill and on top of a Metro station. Fitting the character and context of the community is crucial and I believe the Advisory Neighborhood Commission did an outstanding job of managing the complex array of issues and interests put before them.

In regard to affordable housing, a much needed mix of affordability will be created in both the north and the south buildings, including dedicated affordable housing for seniors to help ensure our city prioritizes successful aging-in-place within our neighborhoods.

The project has been the focus of countless community meetings, living room conversations, and many hundreds of hours of public work by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, neighbors, the project's Community Advisory Committee throughout the decision-making and zoning process.

To get the best sense of Thompson and Allen unfiltered, watch the whole 10-15 minute housing exchange I had with each. In upcoming days, we'll look at the two candidates' views on education and transportation.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Both locations are now in Ward 6 following the 2012 redistricting (but we talked to the Ward 1 candidates there, too). Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.


Have you signed up to testify on the zoning update?

The epic hearings for DC's zoning update are coming up in just a few weeks (and so are Montgomery County's). Have you signed up to testify?

Photo by Rex Pe on Flickr.

There are 4 key hearings:

  • Wednesday November 6 on low-density residential areas. This includes the proposal to allow accessory apartments which will let a homeowner rent out a basement or garage to add housing and help with the bills.
  • Thursday, November 7 on moderate-density areas. That includes areas that could welcome more corner stores, though subject to many limitations.
  • Tuesday, November 12 on car and bike parking, the most talked-about part of the update. This hearing is actually full, but there is an overflow night on Tuesday, November 19 where you can speak.
  • Thursday, November 14 on downtown, where planners want to let property owners rather than regulations decide how much parking to build.

You can learn more about these proposals and other changes in the zoning update with a new set of "fact sheets" from the Office of Planning. They outline the main changes in each proposal around accessory apartments, alley lots, bike parking, car parking, corner stores, industrial zones, low-density residential areas, sustainability, zoning processes, and a general overview.

There will surely be many people testifying at the hearings about how welcoming new residents and businesses into DC's neighborhoods will destroy the quality of life in some way. We need to get as many people there as possible to show the Zoning Commissioners, a combination of federal and local appointees, that people of all ages want to see our city grow to be more affordable, walkable, and sustainable for all.


Sign up right now to testify on DC's zoning update

After 5 long years, DC's process to update its decades-old zoning code is almost done. But DC won't make important progress on reducing parking minimums, allowing accessory dwellings and corner stores, and more without your help.

The Zoning Commission just released dates for its public hearings on the zoning update. They will span 9 nights in November, with a different topic for each night. Residents will speak in the order they sign up, so please sign up right nowthe sooner you do, the earlier you will get to say your piece and then go home!

The most important night is Tuesday, November 12, when the Zoning Commission will hear input on proposed changes to parking minimums.

If you missed the scores of Greater Greater Washington articles on the update, the proposal calls for significantly reducing parking minimums in areas with good transit service and in higher-density residential zones. Originally, the Office of Planning considered eliminating parking requirements altogether near transit. While the new proposal has been watered down, it's still a huge step forward in building a more sustainable city.

Several other nights are very important as well. The hearings for corner stores and accessory dwellings are Wednesday, November 6 and Thursday, November 7 (with Wednesday covering the detached house zones up through low-density row houses like Georgetown, and Thursday being for other row house and apartment zones, like Capitol Hill and Petworth).

Thursday, November 14 is the hearing on downtown's zoning, including a proposal to eliminate parking minimums there.

Show your support

The most important thing supporters of the update can do at this point in the process is sign up to speak in person at one of the November hearings. Individuals not representing an organization have 3 minutes to speak. It really makes a difference to the Zoning Commission to see city residents moved to come out in support of a proposal, and no doubt, opponents will attend in great numbers as well.

If you aren't sure yet what you will say, don't worry. We are going to have a lot of articles on these topics in the coming weeks, and other resources to help you. But you don't need to be a policy expert. Some of the most effective testimony to the Zoning Commission is for people simply to talk about their own lives and neighborhoods.

While there are instructions for signing up to speak on the Office of Zoning news page, the Coalition for Smarter Growth reached out the the Zoning Commission to verify signup procedures and found out the person in charge of them is currently on vacation. We encourage supporters of the zoning update to use our form to submit your signup emails to make sure they go to the right place and help us better organize people at the hearings.

To sign up to testify, click the following links:

If you would like to speak in support of the zoning update at one of the upcoming hearings, you should sign up right away. It only will take a moment now, but the sooner you sign up, the earlier in the evening you will get to speak.


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.


Candidates want affordable housing, balk at more housing

One of the most significant ways to ensure some affordable housing is to provide more housing. It's not the only way and not sufficient on its own, but the clear connection between housing supply and price appears lost on multiple candidates for the April 23 DC Council at-large special election.

Photo by james.thompson on Flickr.

At a Chevy Chase Community Association meeting last week, many candidates affirmed support for affordable housing, according to a report on the Chevy Chase listserv, but then wavered or even outright opposed allowing people to rent out basements, garages, or parts of their homes to create new housing opportunities.

Lorrie Scally wrote:

Patrick Mara said "No" to the rentals because he feared they would result in an overflow of students into already crowded schools.

Meanwhile, according to Scally, "Matthew Frumin expressed his support for ADU rentals in all residential neighborhoods," while Elissa Silverman said she wants to ensure they don't impact neighbors much (similar to what she said on Let's Choose DC).

Yet, Scally said, "The candidates' presentations gave support to DC education issues and affordable housing for residents." Mara has endorsed affordable housing spending in the past; on one of the Let's Choose questions he actually answered, he said, "I'm certain we can find the millions need to fund libraries and affordable housing initiatives." He told the DC realtors, "The cultural diversity of DC is at risk if we do not protect and build affordable housing."

Anita Bonds did not attend the forum.

Adding housing must be a part of the housing strategy

About 1,000 more people move into the District each month than the number who leave. Moreover, the demand to come into DC is even greater than this.

Absent enough new housing, many people who want to come here will rent or buy units in gentrifying neighborhoods where prices are still lower than elsewhere. That raises housing prices in those neighborhoods, hastening the problem of some longtime residents being or feeling priced out, and others deciding to take a windfall and sell their houses at a big profit.

If we want longtime residents to stay, an important element of the equation is to find somewhere else for the people to live who want to come into DC. Basement and garage apartments are one important potential source. We already have large single-family houses with one or two retirees who aren't actually using the whole house. Letting them rent the space is a win-win for everyone except for those who want to keep the neighborhood exclusive and underpopulated relative to its 1950 size.

A lot of people in Ward 3 would rather the population growth go somewhere else. A lot of people vote in Ward 3, and several candidates are clearly seeking their votes. But letting a whole section of the city opt out of growth is not the right policy. It harms poorer neighborhoods by diverting more housing pressure to other areas, hastening gentrification.

How do the candidates stack up?

Four years ago, when I endorsed Patrick Mara, I perhaps assumed too readily that because he lives in a denser neighborhood and bicycles, he also supports a growing city. He might, but he came out strongly against a new matter-of-right building in Chevy Chase, opposes accessory dwellings, and refused to answer either of the two Let's Choose questions on growth. That's disappointing and a little surprising for someone who claims to want less government regulation.

I'm also disappointed Elissa Silverman has not been stronger on smart growth. She has less reason to try to pander for votes in Ward 3, when Ward 6 has become the highest-voting ward. Many of Ward 3's supposedly-liberal residents and newspapers nonetheless seem to go for whomever will lower their own taxes. As a supporter of affordable housing and equity for all neighborhoods, she also shouldn't tolerate some residents west of Rock Creek trying to redline growth and change solely to the east.

Unfortunately, while Matthew Frumin has been willing to stand up for (reasonable) growth more vocally than others, this morning's poll seems to confirm that he is most likely to play a "spoiler" role. Our readers, contributors, and I myself have often wrestled with how to think through the game theory of a race, and decide how much to weigh various policy positions or trade off candidate strengths versus electability.

This post is not an endorsement; our policy is to decide endorsements by a poll of recent, active contributors, which came out clearly for Silverman. On balance, I'm still going to vote for her, too. Besides, zoning isn't the only issue that matters, and she has some definite strengths on workforce development, oversight of city agencies, and more.

But just because we've endorsed should not prevent us from helping inform readers about candidates' positions, whether or not they comport with our endorsement (in this case, it's mostly a neutral effect), or holding candidates responsible for staking out good positions.


Mendelson grills accessory dwelling opponents

After being postponed a day because of the threat of snow, the marathon 7-hour oversight of the Office of Planning almost entirely revolved around the same controversial subject as the last 4-5 years: the zoning update.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson at the hearing.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson asked tough questions of people on both sides of the issue. At first, he wondered how some people could say the Office of Planning did plenty of public outreach while others complained it was lacking, but later in the hearing, he began to realize that no amount of communication would satisfy opponents.

Councilmember Muriel Bowser (ward 4), meanwhile, breezed in at the end to voice opposition to a number of elements of the zoning update, but misunderstood some key provisions around accessory dwellings.

"What am I missing here?"

Many people testified, including representatives from Ward 3 Vision and other supporters of the zoning update, but there were many opponents as well.

After hearing many complaints about proposals to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how threatening they would be to the character of neighborhoods, Chairman Mendelson tried to figure out what is so bad about having one in your neighborhood.

He calculated how many could fit in a block, then noted that not every property owner would want one. He asked Justine Kingham, "What am I missing here?"

When Kingham said that the issue is letting neighbors have a say in whether someone rents out a room in their house, Mendelson wondered aloud why it is anyone's business but the resident's own. "But should my neighbors decide whether I want somebody, one person coming in and out of the basement of my house or should I? Because that can be subjective."

Kingham then suggested that the Office of Planning limit the number of people who can live in an ADU, raising the specter of 5 "students" sharing a garage. In fact, there are limits: a main house plus an ADU can have only a maximum of 6 people combined.

Bowser: Enlarging ADUs is the problem

After all of the members of the public testified, Councilmember Bowser spoke about the good work that OP did in her ward but also raised concerns about some aspects of the zoning update, including effects of removing parking minimums and allowing corner stores by right.

Bowser opposes allowing accessory dwellings in existing detached garages. She said the reason is because people who live in them will want to enlarge them. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning pointed out, however, that under the proposed rules enlarging an exterior ADU will indeed require a special exception.

Bowser responded that she still thinks the Board of Zoning Adjustment will bias its decisions toward allowing people to expand ADUs once created, and therefore she still wants to have a longer process with hearings to create an external ADU in the first place.

Of course, no discussion of the zoning update would be complete without Linda Schmitt. In her vehement testimony, she said that the Office of Planning is trying to "remake every ward and every neighborhood," that her organization is not racist, and that a public input process that involves 700 people plus using Twitter isn't enough.

You can watch the entire hearing here.


Muriel Bowser unsure on parking minimums, corner stores

Wednesday is the final ward-based community information session for the zoning update, in Ward 4. This is a particularly important one as Councilmember Muriel Bowser seems undecided on, or leaning against, proposals to reduce parking minimums near transit or to permit corner stores in Petworth, and confused about the specifics of the proposal to let homeowners rent out a basement or garage.

Photo by Wayan Vota on Flickr.

The meeting starts at 6:30 (doors open at 6) at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW. As with the others, the Office of Planning will present, then there will be time for people to ask OP staff questions individually, followed by a "town hall" where people can speak at a microphone.

Bowser has already asked the Office of Planning to delay forward motion on the zoning update last year. In a December email to the Chevy Chase listserv, she expressed "concern" over many of the very important, fairly timid, yet fiercely opposed provisions of the zoning update:


I'm happy to answer any specific questions you have. My office has convened at least two meetings on the Zoning Update. I'll post to my website the major issues for which we've advocated. Briefly, the chief concerns raised in our meetings: parking requirements near transit zones, by right corner stores and accessory dwelling units, height requirements, non-residential uses in neighborhoods, and community input.

I remain concerned about parking requirements near transit zones and by right, non-residential uses in residential neighborhoods. I believe the issue with by right Accessory Dwelling Units (detached) has been removed from the recommendations.

Again, I'll alert you when a full summary of the issues is posted on my website. I've been invited to present to Citizens Association in January and will plan to spend some time discussing there as well.

Muriel Bowser
Ward 4 Councilmember

Explanations of accessory dwellings are confusing

Bowser appears to be, or to have been, confused about the accessory dwelling proposal. It's not surprising, since OP has been explaining it in a very opaque way.

At the Ward 3 meeting last week, OP's Jennifer Steingasser explained that the current, old regulations require a variance for an accessory dwelling inside a main house, but allow a unit by-right for a "domestic employee" above a garage. Steingasser said that OP's goal was to "flip" the two, allowing accessory units as of right inside main buildings but requiring a special exception for a new carriage house.

However, this wording confused many people, including some of our commenters who were at the meeting, as well as a vocal opponent who spent about 10 minutes arguing with Steingasser. I didn't agree with that opponent's views on the issue, but sympathized with her confusion as she received one complex answer after another that didn't elucidate the issue very well.

Accessory dwellings are an important policy. They are the easiest way to add housing choices without changing the built form of neighborhoods, help house people at stages of life where they want an English basement or small garage, and give homeowners a way to earn more income and help pay the mortgage or supplement a fixed retirement income.

The Office of Planning need not "spin" the issue as not really much of a change. Instead, they should proudly explain why this is the right policy and stand up for it.

Map shows more about corner store proposal

They are standing up for, and more clearly explaining, the corner store proposals. OP made this map of corner stores in Ward 4, and says they are working on comparable maps for other wards. (At the Ward 3 meeting, a few residents asked for Ward 3 specific maps; it wasn't clear to me why they couldn't just focus on the upper-left portion of a citywide map, but whatever.)

Image from the Office of Planning. Click for full version (PDF).

In the map above, the dark purple is the mixed-use or commercially zoned areas, and the light purple the "buffer zone" in which it will be illegal to create a corner store. The red dots are examples of the type of store that the new zoning will allow (though most of them are in the buffers).

Yellow is the area where corner stores will be legal under the zoning update; in Ward 4, it's pretty much just Petworth and a few other very small areas. With corner stores limited to actual corners or buildings originally built as commercial, there will be very few eligible sites, since most of the buildings already have residents in them.

Can you attend?

Thanks in part to Greater Greater Washington readers, people supporting the zoning code or asking for it to go further equaled the number of people opposing the changes at last week's Ward 3 meeting. One person asked OP to restore their proposal for parking maximums (which require just a transportation analysis to exceed), and another spoke up for lighter restrictions on corner stores.

DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Councilmember Mary Cheh, Zoning Commissioner Rob Miller, reporters Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis, and many others heard a wide range of views from residents, ranging from wanting more change to none at all. It's important to have a similar diversity of views at tomorrow's Ward 4 meeting, the last one of this series.

Please stop by Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd NW, at 6:30 (doors open at 6) and try to stay until about 8, when they'll let people speak in the town hall. The balance of views during that open mic session will likely have a lot of sway over whether Councilmember Bowser stands in the way of the zoning update or not.

Update: The original version of this post suggested that Bowser was leaning against or "unsure" on the accessory dwelling proposal. However, the email shows she is leaning against the other proposals. She does not appear to be undecided on, but apparently is confused about, the accessory dwelling proposal. The post has been corrected.


Walkability and garage apartments are not just for the young

Will reducing parking minimums and allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in upper Northwest neighborhoods make living more difficult for seniors? That's what a number of people argued at the Ward 3 zoning update meeting, but others cited seniors who will directly benefit from more housing, and more affordable housing, near transit.

Photo by KTesh on Flickr.

Claudia Phelps wrote on the Chevy Chase listserv after the meeting, Tuesday evening in Tenleytown:

I was astounded at how many OP supporters spoke. I believe that every 2nd comment throughout the question period praised OP's work and their ideas! Some people around me suggested that OP had paid them to be at the meeting. (We have just a teensy bit of trust issues, I would say)

Many people at the meeting noticed that the pro-OP/radical change speakers were younger (30ish), and the anti-OP/radical changes were not so young. Apartment dwellers vs homeowners, most likely.

That last sentence evokes many of the anti-renter statements that have circulated throughout the debate, where some people insinuate (or outright claim) that anyone who doesn't own property is less worthy of consideration or will even harm the neighborhood.

One person wrote afterward, "I'm especially concerned about ADUs, and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young children's safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units." Steve Seelig replied, "Personally, I am appalled to hear and read about suggestions that those who would live in ADUs are going to have a greater tendency to endanger the children of our neighborhood."

As for age, I actually didn't perceive much of a difference between people who supported the (very much not radical, indeed quite timid) OP proposal, and those who opposed it. One speaker, Tad Baldwin, has gray hair yet said how important he thinks the proposal to allow accessory dwellings is. Others who appeared to be in their 30s argued against some of the changes.

Still, a pervasive theme throughout the discussion was whether the zoning changes would create problems for seniors. Moira Gillick spoke about the virtues of walkable neighborhoods, and a few people (somewhat rudely) shouted over her that walking didn't work for older residents.

In fact, a lot of pedestrians in Ward 3 are seniors, such as those who live in the assisted living facilities in the area. It's also certainly true that some people face mobility challenges, and need access to a car.

The fallacy in this debate comes when people assume that because one mode doesn't work for them, it won't work for others. One speaker called it ridiculous that people would come live in a building, like the proposed parking-free Babe's apartments in Tenleytown, without cars. Yet two speakers just minutes before had talked about how they live in parts of Ward 3 without cars.

One woman said she's not going to take the bus to Safeway with 5 bags of groceries. Fair enough. She doesn't have to. But on a Metro ride home (from Tenleytown, in fact) the next day, I stood on an escalator behind a man with 4 large bags of groceries. The majority of people in Ward 3 have cars, and that's not going to change if zoning allows a few new housing units marketed to people without cars.

Many seniors will benefit from transit-oriented housing choices

Some of those people will be seniors who can't drive any more. Herb Caudill talked about his parents his wife's parents, who live in suburban New Jersey and are afraid of the day they won't be able to drive any longer. He said when they came to visit his home in Cleveland Park, they were amazed that he could walk to the grocery store, and asked if there was a library as well (there is!)

As a result, Caudill said, his parents are going to sell their house in New Jersey and their 2 cars and move into an apartment on Connecticut Avenue where they can walk to the library and museums. They can live independently even as their ability to drive declines.

(They will also become some of those "renters" that people are impugning on the listserv, or which people fear would come move into basements or converted garages and disrupt the character of the neighborhood.)

There is one obstacle for those like the elder Caudills Caudill's in-laws, he noted: affordability. It's far cheaper to live in most of suburban New Jersey than in Cleveland Park "because the supply of housing is so limited," he said. That's why we need proposals like the accessory dwelling plan. "This housing is not just for young people," he said.

This is why we need proposals like OP's that expand the supply of housing. If anything, this plan does not expand it enough. A property owner who doesn't have an external garage today will be able to still build one as of right once the zoning update proceeds, but won't then be able to rent it out.

Richard Layman argued that at least near transit, zoning should encourage people to add extra housing on large lots with enough space for it. We could help more people like the Caudills Caudill's wife's parents to live the retirement lives they want to have, but anxiety about "renters" and scarce parking has already led OP to water down its plans and lose out on one opportunity to let senior couples (and people of other ages) afford to come to DC.

The Office of Planning is holding their Ward 7 information meeting Saturday, 10 am at the DOES building, 4058 Minnesota Ave. NE, and a Twitter town hall using hashtag #ZRR at noon Monday, and finally the Ward 4 meeting at Takoma Education Campus, 7010 Piney Branch Rd. NW by Takoma Metro at 6:30 on Wednesday, January 16.

Correction: Herb Caudill emailed to clarify that the couple in question is his wife's parents, not his parents. I missed that when he was speaking at the event. Sorry for the error.


Epic Ward 3 zoning update meeting Tuesday night

This Tuesday is a very important day! It's my birthday. (And Kojo Nnamdi's.) Also, it's the zoning update meeting in Ward 3, a ward which houses many of the most strident opponents, but where a great many residents also support growing and more walkable neighborhoods.

Photo by Patrick Haney on Flickr.

Can you go to the meeting? You don't need to know much about the zoning update; it's a great chance to learn. It would also help a lot to say something. Many opponents will be there and not shy. The meeting is 6:30 pm at Wilson High School.

Reader Steve asked, "Do you have specific talking points that we should try to convey?" You can say whatever you want, of course, and make up your own mind, but below are a few themes you might want to mention.

In addition, there are many ways OP has backed off earlier plans based on either resident pressure or internal OP decisions to push for a less significant change than they had originally planned. Or there are ways the zoning update could go beyond the original proposals. Therefore, for each policy area, there are a few changes you could request, if you feel they match your own views.

Code organization

What's happening: The zoning update will restructure the zoning code (while keeping almost all provisions the same). Instead of having to look in up to 3 places for conflicting rules that all apply to your property, the key information will be in one place.

Main positive point: The zoning code is too hard to understand right now. It needs reorganizing into a form that better helps property owners understand what is and isn't legal on their property.

Parking minimums

What's happening: The zoning update removes minimum parking rules for buildings downtown, residential buildings under 10 units, and buildings in mixed-use and higher-density residential areas near Metro and frequent bus lines.

Main positive point: Current rules force many buildings to include more parking than their residents or workers need. It's really important to remove many of the parking minimums, especially downtown and near transit.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Fill in the "holes" in places like Logan Circle and Columbia Heights by making transit zones apply to non-residential uses in R-4 row house zones near transit.
  • Go even farther and have no minimum parking requirements at all, citywide.
  • Add parking maximums as well, in addition to one on 100,000-square foot parking lots. These would not have been absolute caps, but would just make developers do a Transportation Demand Management plan if they want to put in more parking than a set threshold.
Accessory dwellings

What's happening: In low- and moderate-density residential areas, people can't rent out a basement or existing garage without going through complex approvals. The proposal would allow this in most lower-density areas for interior units or existing external buildings, but still require a hearing for new or expanded external buildings.

Main positive point: Accessory dwellings help young people afford places to live and seniors age in place. They make housing more affordable and accommodate more residents without fundamentally changing the character of buildings in a neighborhood. They just let neighborhoods house the numbers of people they did 50 years ago.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Allow ADUs by right in new external structures as well (as long as the new external structure conforms to the other zoning rules).
  • Impose fewer restrictions such as on size, balconies, whether an artist can live above a studio, and more.
  • Include ADUs by right in Georgetown as wellthe current proposal requires a special exception for them (more on that later).
Corner stores

What's happening: Retail can locate in moderate density residential row house areas (not low-density or the higher density areas), as long as it's pretty far from other retail, in a corner building or historically commercial building, and satisfies many more restrictions.

Main positive point: People want to be able to walk to neighborhood-serving retail, and if they live in an area without a neighborhood commercial strip right nearby, they should be able to have a corner store to serve their needs.

Ways OP could go further:

  • Allow stores on properties besides literal "corners" and historically commercial buildings.
  • Allow corner stores even within 500 feet of mixed-use zones.
  • Let corner stores locate in row house and apartment zones (now R-5) as well; now they do not count.
  • Let the Board of Zoning Adjustment waive more of the conditions in a special exception hearing.
Green Area Ratio

What's happening: New or substantially changed buildings will need to get a certain score of environmental sustainability features, such as grass, green roof, stormwater management, or green walls, based on the property's size.

This will help reduce stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect and potentially make DC a more pleasant place to live even as it grows. Some fear it will also further disadvantage urban development versus exurban greenfields.

Other changes

There are many other small tweaks in the zoning update, mostly good.

Some top positive changes:

  • The new code requires more bicycle parking for buildings. There would be "long-term" spaces, such as in a locked room inside the building for employees or residents, and "short-term" outdoor racks for visitors or shoppers.
  • Larger garages will have to have a number of car sharing spaces. Surface parking lots need canopy trees to shade some of the lot.
  • Rules for building homes on alley lots become a little bit more permissive.
Proposals OP dropped:
  • The previous proposal had the same limits on the actual size of a house but did not prescribe how many stories you can have inside (except as the fire code limits). In low-density zones, OP reinstated a limit of 3 stories.
  • The original proposal let homeowners build a house of similar size to others nearby even if their lot has an extra-short rear yard. The Zoning Commission approved this idea but OP removed it.
The meeting is at Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St NW by the Tenleytown Metro. It starts at 6:30 with a presentation by Harriet Tregoning, an "open house" format where you can ask OP staff questions, and then a "town hall" where people can speak to the entire group about their views.


Panic! Your alley could have a cute, clean little brick house!

Linda Schmitt, head crusader against DC's zoning update, just sent out an email warning people about the accessory dwelling proposals:

Thought you might want to see what an ADU looks like. Photo provided by DC resident who says six of these are within shouting distance of her house. She is very upset and angry about it.
She attached this picture:

Clearly, we look at the same thing and see it differently, because this looks like a pretty charming, well-maintained little house that's doesn't mar the look of the neighborhood. Many of us would love to have six of these in the alleys, with people who have an incentive to keep them clean and more eyes on the street instead of just a garage which could attract rats.

Ultimately, most of this comes down to a simple matter of values. Would you like to have more people in your neighborhood, especially if they can fit into existing buildings? (The Office of Planning's current proposal does not allow ADUs in any accessory buildings constructed after the change goes into effect). Or do you want government rules that keep people away?

OP has shown statistics about how existing houses are holding far fewer people than they did 50 years ago. Schmitt wants a public policy that makes it impossible for these neighborhoods to accommodate the numbers of people they once did, without changing the built environment much at all.

Schmitt calls her group Neighbors for Neighborhoods, but maybe it should really be Neighbors for Empty Neighborhoods, or Neighbors Against More Neighbors.

Please try to make the zoning update meeting on Tuesday, January 8, 6:30 pm at Wilson High School, or one of the other remaining meetings in wards 5, 7, and 4.

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