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Posts about Accessory Dwellings


The Obama administration says zoning is at the heart of some huge economic problems

The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.

Houses in DC. Photo by nevermindtheend.

The White House's Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor's note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to "laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing."

It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:

"When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods."
Here's what we can do about the problem

The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:

1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.

Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.

Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.

Luckily, a lot of cities are catching onto the logic here, including DC, and also New York City.

2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn't have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.

Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it's now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.

3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.

The White House's toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.

This matters in our region. A lot.

No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:

"The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions."
The White House's report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn't getting used.

This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It's worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.


Want to add a small apartment to your house in DC? That will soon be allowed.

It used to be that many homeowners in DC weren't allowed to build a small apartment, called an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), onto their property. Under DC's new zoning code, they will soon have the right to build some without seeking special permission.

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An ADU could be a basement or attic apartment, or an apartment over a garage or small cottage in the backyard. The important thing is that you can rent an ADU to a tenant. Allowing ADUs to go up more freely is one of the biggest changes of the new zoning code, which will take effect starting September 6.

In DC, households are shrinking from large families to singles or couples, while demand for housing is rising. Allowing homeowners to rent out parts of their property can help alleviate this demand, while providing income to offset the increasing cost of property.

Apartments have always been relatively easy for homeowners to add in higher-density row house zones—consider the classic DC "English Basement." Under the old zoning code they were allowed with a special exception, but now they are allowed by right in residential neighborhoods.

A big change under the new zoning code is making it easier to build new apartments in accessory buildings and inside houses. In the past, the lowest-density R-1 zones were the only place homeowners could build them, and even in those cases, they had to be occupied by a "domestic," meaning a family member or servant—a rather outdated stipulation.

Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Also, a apartment in an accessory building (a separate building on the property, like a garage) required a variance, meaning the owner would need to prove that they have a unique condition or situation that would make it a burden to comply with existing regulations. That was pretty much impossible, since accessory buildings were not allowed.

If the accessory building is already on the property, then homeowners can add an apartment by right. If the accessory building isn't there yet, the homeowner only needs a special exception, which neighbors can only stop by demonstrating that the building would be an undue burden on them.

These apartments are subject to conditions, such as those found in the building code that make sure there is enough living space and that the space is safe. The homeowner has to still live on the property, and there are a number of other conditions as well.

Under the new code, buildings can house a garage, artist studio, or storage area in addition to the apartment. They can't have a roof deck, perhaps because there's more of an argument that those are burdensome to neighbors. Apartments in accessory buildings also have to have dedicated access to the street.

Image from the City of Minneapolis.

How to make an ADU work on your property

Other things to consider with an ADU? First, keep in mind that only three people are allowed to live in the unit, with an additional three in the main home. Additionally, to rent out the property, homeowners need a Residential Rental Business License from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

There's also the question of how to actually build it. Few people have the experience or skills to construct an apartment or small building by themselves. With labor and materials, how much will it cost? How can you make sure that the rent you are charging will cover the cost of your financing and provide rental income?

Especially when building an accessory building, there are many that first time builders may not consider. Because even a small building requires a foundation, four exterior walls, and roof, they will be considerably more costly than an interior apartment.

Other costs include an architect's fees, as well as fees to tie into utilities. And, while its tempting to save 8-15% and not hire an architect, you don't want to skimp here; an architect's job is to make sure buildings are up to code and therefore legally rentable. With so many conditions in the new zoning code, you want to be certain you're meeting them.

Financial feasibility is also a major concern. Financing can come from banks either through loans, or refinancing the property, or it can come from friends and family. If a bank is making the loan, then the repayments may be higher, which may impact the rents that need to be charged. Its important to understand the rental demand in the neighborhood, and compare the prices being charged to the desired rent for your unit. Make sure the market can bear your rents.

If you are interested in learning how to use tools like financial modeling for rental properties, and in talking through financing options for small real estate projects like accessory units, consider attending the Small Developer Bootcamp in Silver Spring from Friday, May 13 to Saturday, May 14. This training designed to teach people how to build the kind of small real estate projects that make cities better and it is sponsored by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Correction: The initial version of this article suggested that the zoning changes were now in effect. They take effect September 6. Also, this article initially reflected an earlier proposal for the zoning update which would have allowed apartments in accessory buildings by right under some circumstances; the final version requires a special exception hearing.

Correction 2: My bad. I totally messed up this correction. I incorrectly thought that the DC Office of Planning had taken out the by right permission to build an accessory apartment in an external building. This is wrong. Well, it's right and wrong. OP did try to take that out, but this was one retreat that the Zoning Commission rejected and asked OP to reverse. I therefore incorrectly corrected this article. Emily Brown's original was more accurate, and has been restored (with a few minor edits).—David Alpert


DC's zoning update finally passes!

Seven and a half years ago, residents turned out to a pivotal hearing on reforming DC's zoning code. Last week, after a tumultuous and controversial three quarters of a decade, the changes they were pushing for won final approval. Please thank the people who made this happen!

Photo by muroo on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission voted unanimously on January 14 to adopt a brand-new zoning code. Planners hope the new code will make zoning rules simpler and easier to understand, though it's unquestionably still complex. It also incorporates some significant policy reforms:

  • Accessory apartments: It will be legal to rent out a basement or other part of a house in many areas where it wasn't legal before. Homeowners who want to rent out a garage or carriage house will still have to go through a hearing, but may not need a hearing, or if they need one, they will have an easier time getting approval. This will let DC add more housing in ways that have little impact on neighborhoods.
  • Parking minimums: New buildings, especially near Metro and frequent bus lines, will be able to build less parking in keeping with newer data on how many people actually drive. This will drive down the cost of construction and potentially make some lower-cost new housing possible where it wouldn't have succeeded before.
  • Corner stores: It will be possible (though not trivial) to open grocery stores in residential row house areas, subject to a lot of restrictions. There will also be a more difficult path to open other kinds of stores. This might give residents a new way to get food without having to drive a long distance.
  • Expanded downtown: The downtown DC area is much larger than just the part around Metro Center, and the zoning now reflects that, incorporating NoMa, the Capitol Riverfront, and other high density central areas in the Comprehensive Plan.
While it's taken a long time, and many details got watered down along the way, this is a really big deal and a significant step forward.

Thank you, planners!

Please thank the Office of Planning's development review leaders, Jennifer Steingasser and Joel Lawson, for their work in getting this over the finish line, and the DC Zoning Commission for approving the changes. OP held over 350 meetings over more than eight years. Most recently, the team sorted through hundreds of comments, compiled detailed responses to reassure commissioners that public input had been considered, and made many technical changes to respond to useful suggestions from that input.

The commission approved the plan despite unflagging opposition from a group of people who ceaselessly asked for more and more delays up to the end (despite having little substantive complaint with the changes) and, according to some reports, may still try to bring a lawsuit to block the zoning update. AAA Mid-Atlantic also put out a last-ditch fearmongering press release that WTOP's Nick Iannelli dutifully transcribed.

Opponents protest outside a 2013 hearing.

This vote doesn't mean the zoning code changes overnight. The new text will take effect September 6. Before that, OP still has work to do to help inform people about the change and ensure that the people in the Office of Zoning, who actually review and approve permit applications, are up to speed.

It's been a long road for all of us who've advocated for eight years, and even more for the people at OP who've held meetings, summarized feedback, made changes, and then rinsed and repeated over and over. Come celebrate this victory at our upcoming happy hour on January 28 in Adams Morgan, one area that will benefit from the new regulations. And please fill out the form below to give the government officials involved a quick thank you for their work.

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DC's move to legalize a little more housing (and other zoning changes): The finish line is in sight!

If you want to rent out a basement or garage and can't today, you might be able to by the end of 2016. DC's long-running zoning update finally got, um, "preliminary final action" approval at a meeting Monday.

This might be mostly legal in less than a year. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The zoning update, in a nutshell, does two types of things. First, it will completely overhaul the District's zoning code to be more modern and, at least in theory, more understandable. Second, it makes a few targeted policy reforms, like allowing buildings near transit to have less parking if the owner doesn't think it's necessary, or letting homeowners in low-density areas rent out a basement or a garage or other space in a home to make some extra money and provide more housing.

Other changes let grocery stores possibly locate in residential areas as long as they're on corners and comply with a raft of other limitations; make it easier for theaters to operate in church basements and elsewhere in residential zones, subject to a public hearing; expand the area where certain downtown zoning applies; and a plethora of other small tweaks.

Advocates of keeping the cost of housing reasonable have been eager for the provisions to allow renting basements and garages (accessory apartments). Doing so creates the potential for more housing, and lower minimum parking requirements, which reduce the cost of building housing. Unfortunately, these efforts, which gained general Zoning Commission assent in 2009, have been waiting since, while the DC Office of Planning in the meantime pushed through other zoning changes that reduced potential new housing.

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

One reason the zoning update has been delayed so many years is because a new zoning code is certainly intricate. The Office of Planning's former staffers who ran the zoning update back in 2008 may have made a tactical mistake in coupling key policy changes together with the new code in its complexity; anyone uncomfortable with the scale of such an undertaking balked at parts of the process even if their intent was not to hasten the rise in housing prices.

For example, several neighborhoods now have "overlays" which add special zoning rules on top of the base ones for similar areas. The new code instead sets up new base zones for each area with an overlay, so property owners don't have to look in two places and reconcile conflicting rules. But to people familiar with the old code, this is initially confusing, and the new approach has some cons along with the pros.

Coupling the important policy changes with technical ones like this hooked the effort to add housing to a very slow caravan. This afforded more chances for opponents of the actual changes to lobby to water them down. Politicians nervous about adding housing could couch concerns in the language of confusion or community engagement more readily.

The changes to accessory apartments and parking minimums are valuable, if too little on their own to make much dent in DC's housing needs which have grown since 2008. Had these more modest changes passed in 2010, say, it could have moved the ball forward and given people a chance to demonstrate these changes don't cause calamity. Accessory apartments would not have brought criminals into a building or engendered elder abuse, as some of the more strident opponents claimed; buildings with less parking would not have brought carmageddon.

The zoning board says, let's go

Much of the public opposition, at this point, is not really about substance, but process; the Committee of 100 argued that the code needs a third party review (and, of course, substantially more delay). Ward 4 councilmember Brandon Todd asked for another month's delay. But DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board which makes the final decisions on zoning, has had enough of this process after eight years.

Chairman Anthony Hood did repeatedly express that he was "nervous" about signing off on a new zoning code. He worried about having to stand in front of Costco (which is relatively near his home) and defend the new zoning code to neighbors. He bit at the Committee of 100's independent-review idea, but the other commissioners felt the time for that was long past and the code was ready for approval.

Well, almost: The Office of Planning still has to make a few more small, mostly technical tweaks and present a final version. The commission will consider taking "final final" action (versus this week's "preliminary final" action) on January 14, but there will be no more testimony in the meantime.

Also since the last revision, OP has backed off somewhat on its plans for alley lots; there will have to be a hearing before alley lots can get housing, while previously OP was proposing allowing one dwelling unit on such a lot without a hearing.

If approved in its final form, the Office of Zoning, which administers the zoning code, will publish it in the DC Register, and then six months later, the new zoning code will apply. Anyone applying for a building permit before that date will use the old code; after (with a few exceptions), the new one.

Residential zones as of 2008. Accessory apartment rules apply to R-1 (yellow), R-2 (orange), R-3 (red), and R-4 (purple). Image by David Alpert from Office of Zoning base map.

Change may be less than a year away!

This means that if you live in one of the low-density areas of the city (generally, detached houses, or houses in pairs which share one wall—yellow and orange in the above map, or a very small set of areas with row houses that are categorized R-3 today, red in the above map) you will be able to rent out a part of your house as a separate unit, with a variety of restrictions, but without having to go through a public hearing.

If you live in one of those areas, or a moderate-density row house area like Columbia Heights or Capitol Hill (purple in the above map) and you have a garage, you will be able create a unit in that garage. However, you will still have to show up at a public hearing where neighbors will be able to oppose (or support) the idea, and will probably need a zoning lawyer to navigate that process.

A few buildings will be able to get built with less cost. A few corner groceries may appear in some residential areas. It'll be a significant, but small and long-awaited, step forward.


Vincent Orange wants to build 1,000 tiny houses. That's a great idea if they go in these spots.

Vincent Orange wants to have DC build 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income and young residents of DC, spread around the city. His bill is kind of "gimmicky" and has some problems, but underneath, there are some good ideas as well.

Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

Orange's bill calls for the DC government to build the 1,000 houses, spread equally across the city's eight wards. Each would be 600 square feet, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, electricity, plumbing, and heating. He'd limit the construction cost to $50,000.

The Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity (currently, Courtney Snowden) would set up a process to pick locations, offer these homes to residents, especially first-time homebuyers, and keep the price under $50,000.

Is this a good idea?

Like many Orange bills, this reads a bit more like an idea someone might throw out on a listserv or blog than legislation. Orange has a habit of thinking of something, then writing a bill which describes his idea in incredible specificity. Such a bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, but generates some headlines.

Also like many Orange bills, this one includes some illegal provisions. In this case, by calling for housing specifically for millennials, it likely violates federal fair housing rules forbidding discrimination against older people.

But if we just pretend he wrote a blog post somewhere about this idea instead of a bill, is it a good idea? If we peel away a few of the conflicting details, there are some good ideas at the core.

  • Orange is acknowledging that we need to build more housing in DC. Lower-income residents and young people who can't afford expensive homes are indeed two of the groups most in need of housing.

    Many of the millennials, in particular, are willing to live in smaller spaces to be in areas with good walkability and transportation. That also applies to some lower-income residents, but many have families and a tiny house might not offer enough space.

  • Orange wants to spread the housing out across the city. This is the right policy. Every neighborhood should be a part of the solution and none should get a veto over accommodating more residents.

    Helping low-income kids grow up in wealthier areas also gives them a better chance to succeed long-term, though again, that benefit would only come if families moved into what are pretty small spaces.

This isn't the best use of all land, but is a good use of some

On much of the city's land, tiny houses aren't a great idea. If you're going to put a small dwelling unit there, it's even better to put a small apartment building with four, eight, twelve, or more units. The building could have outdoor space that people share; there are a lot of great buildings like this all around DC.

There is one place where this is a great idea: Alleys. All around DC there are small garages, sheds, or historic carriage houses along alleys. Some people have large backyards and don't need all of that space. There are also some alley lots, lots that border an alley but no main road, such as in blocks where the alleys make a loop.

Property owners could build tiny houses here or convert existing garages to tiny houses. This would be a perfect way to give existing owners some income and create new housing in the kinds of spaces Orange is talking about.

The DC Office of Planning was trying to legalize these units, called accessory apartments. The long-running DC zoning update, now eight years in the works, included provisions to allow them. But, facing outcry from some residents of upper Northwest neighborhoods, they pulled back on the rule on accessory apartments in separate buildings.

An accessory apartment in an alley building.

Approve accessory apartments now!

If the zoning update ever gets approved (the DC Zoning Commission was going to discuss it on October 22 but delayed until November 16), property owners could build an accessory apartment in an existing or new garage, but would have to still go through a time-consuming zoning hearing first.

These would be perfect spots for Orange's 1,000 tiny houses. He could help encourage this to happen by asking the Zoning Commission to move forward with the accessory apartment rules. He might also consider asking the government to set up a program that could help interested homeowners create these accessory apartments on their lots and navigate the zoning approval process to get them done.

Many other cities have these, called "laneway housing" or some such. It's not crazy at all to try to create 1,000 tiny houses—as accessory apartments. Great idea, Councilmember Orange!


Friday's your last chance to speak up on DC's zoning code (and you should!)

Opponents of DC's zoning update are continuing to try to delay changes that will add housing and make it less expensive to build. But DC's zoning commission has had enough of delay. They now need to hear support from residents to actually approve the changes.

Photo by Warren R.M. Stuart on Flickr.

The final deadline to comment on the proposal, which has been going on for eight years, is this Friday.

Here are the key provisions and my comments. If you agree, the best thing to do is write a short (1-2 sentences is fine) explanation in your own words of the same general concept (or any other you believe in) and submit it through the online tool, linked next to each item below.

Accessory apartments: This proposal will let homeowners in detached house zones rent out a basement, other room, or existing garage to earn some more money from otherwise-unused space as well as providing someone else a place to live.

Comment here, and select section 253.8. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal for accessory apartments. Many homeowners have extra space and need money to help cover a mortgage, pay for needs in retirement, or other expenses. Meanwhile, many people need places to live in DC. This proposal is a win-win that addresses both needs."

Parking: The new zoning code will lower minimum parking requirements, most deeply around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and high-frequency bus corridors.

Comment here, and select section 701. I'm saying, "Please approve the proposal to reduce minimum parking requirements. These requirements are often unnecessary and drive up the cost of new housing. Issues with street parking should be solved through street parking rules and not in the zoning code."

If you want to go further, you can advocate for even deeper reductions, or an outright elimination, of the parking minimums. The original proposal got watered down over time.

You can also comment on any of the other changes, all of which you can read about in The Office of Planning's zoning update blog.

The online tool is the easiest way to comment. You can also email a PDF letter to or use one of the other methods at the bottom of this page.

The zoning board says enough is enough

At least 40 opponents sent letters asking to extend the time even further. They also asked to have the Office of Planning go back to neighborhoods for yet another round of meetings, and to translate the zoning code into more languages.

Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, who had pushed for more meetings and some delays in the past, has had enough. He said,

We've extended the time and extended the time and extended the time. I understand this is a new undertaking, but ... we extended it 90 days, and on our own, because of concerns of things ending in August, we extended it a few more days ... so it went from 90 to 119 days. To extend it again and keep extending it and keep extending it; I think this city will not have a new zoning code which was forecast years ago. I think we have done due diligence for the residents in this city. It's probably 8 years now. This is an 8-year project.
On the translation issue, OP's Jennifer Steingasser noted that the agency had previously created and circulated a fact sheet, explaining the main changes, in Amharic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Zoning staff said a full translation of the text would cost $100,000 per language and is not required by law.

The commission voted unanimously to deny all of the extension requests, except for one from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4A to submit its testimony about two weeks late. That ANC will get its minor extension; everyone else needs to speak by this Friday, September 23 25.

Go do it!


This is your very last chance to weigh in on DC's epic 8-year zoning update (probably)

DC homeowners could soon have more freedom to rent out their basements and carriage houses, residential neighborhoods could get more corner groceries, and there might be less unneeded and unused parking in new buildings. That's if DC's Zoning Commission gives final sign-off to an update of the zoning code this fall. First, there's one last public comment period for residents to weigh in.

DC started revising its zoning way back in early 2008. A new Comprehensive Plan had just been approved, and it called for adjustments to the zoning code. Also, the code dated back to 1958, and while it had been amended along the way, it also had many outdated elements.

The Office of Planning convened public meetings to get resident input on what should change. Most of the changes are just reorganizing the code, ostensibly to be easier to use. Through those meetings, the planners also came up with some specific policy changes on a few topics.

What's changing?

One big change would let people rent out a basement or an external garage in zones where that's illegal today. While most row house zones allow a basement unit, and in many places "English basements" are common, that's not allowed in the lowest density row house zones and the zones with detached and semi-detached houses.

The zoning update would legalize such units, though with a number of restrictions: The owner still has to live in the house, there can't be more than a certain number of people, the door has to be below ground level or on the side to keep the house looking like a single-family house, and others.

Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

A second topic is car parking. Outdated assumptions that assumed people would drive, which date from long before Metro even existed, required more parking than necessary in many buildings, driving up the costs of new housing. Numerous examples surfaced of buildings which had built parking as prescribed by zoning and then found many required spaces difficult to rent or sell, or garages even going mostly empty.

The zoning board was also regularly granting exceptions to the parking rules, adding time and expense. The new minimums would give much more flexibility citywide and even more around Metro stations, high-frequency bus corridors, or streetcar lines.

Another change would make it easier for grocery stores to locate in residential zones, if they can occupy a corner building or one that was historically a commercial building, sell fresh food and at most a very small amount of liquor, and other restrictions.

Some neighborhoods have corner groceries in residential areas that have existed for a long time. But in neighborhoods without them, they can't start up; with this change, it's possible one could.

Photo by rockcreek on Flickr.

There are a lot more details, and you can learn a lot from the Office of Planning's summary blog posts explaining the rules on accessory apartments (like basements), car parking, and corner stores, as well as changes to alley lot rules, loading zones, downtown zoning, and industrial zones.

How you can speak up, one last time

The DC Zoning Commission will make the final decision on the new zoning code soon. The commission has heard testimony over many years at this point. It published the nearly-final new code in the DC Register in May for the last, legally-required official public comment period, and that comment period closes on September 25.

The commission probably won't make many changes, as it's already heard most of the arguments on each side, but you never know; with the recent "pop-up" rules, one commissioner, Park Service representative Peter May, who cast the swing vote, changed his mind after the final comment period, reversing a previous decision. Opponents of the zoning update are trying to generate public comments against the final draft.

If you want to weigh in, you can comment at a special page on the Zoning Commission website. Parking is in Subtitle C, General Rules, while accessory apartments and corner stores are in Subtitle U, Use Permissions. (If you followed earlier versions, they've moved out of the chapters on the various types of zones where the used to be into a new Subtitle U that consolidates all rules around uses in one place.)

Didn't I testify on this before? Maybe in 2009?

If you're been reading Greater Greater Washington or following DC planning, you might have participated in the zoning update process before. Maybe it was around 2009-2010, when the Zoning Commission had a first set of hearings on the broad policy questions. Or 2012, when the Office of Planning held public meetings in every ward on the proposal.

You might have participated in late 2013, when the Zoning Commission held its hearings on the actual text, or early 2014, when it held another set just because opponents said they hadn't had enough time to prepare. Or maybe you sent in comments in 2014, when Mayor Vince Gray asked for another six months to allow even more comment.

But this might be the last time. If the Zoning Commission takes "final action," then the zoning could could become effective... sometime soon. The commission has not said exactly when the new code actually would take effect, and there could be a grace period.

If the commission takes immediate action, then the code will become final about two years after the Office of Planning formally submitted it. That came after about 5½ years of OP deliberations on the code.

The original public process statement estimated 2-3 years for the whole process from start to finish; it has now been 7½. Most of the extra came because opponents of the changes continually complained to Zoning Commission Chairman Anthony Hood, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, and others, claiming the code was a "moving target."

Hood and others responded by asking for more public process, but opponents simply kept arguing that they hadn't been consulted enough, asking for even more and more process. When OP made changes in response to opponents' requests, the opponents then even took that opportunity to claim that since OP had made changes, the code was some kind of moving target and some part of the process should start over.

A group of people protest to ask for delays in the zoning update process. Photo by the author.

For context, the recent "pop-up" rules, which added more restrictive zoning rules for many of DC's row house areas, went from OP's presentation to the Zoning Commission to final implementation in a day less than one year. The commission also made that change effective immediately upon approval rather than having a "vesting" grace period.

You can encourage the Zoning Commission to not waste any more time by submitting comments on the comment form. We can hope this saga can complete before DC gets yet another new Comprehensive Plan, which OP plans to start on this fall.


Finally, DC's zoning update steps forward

After a debate that has stretched for seven years, reforms for lower parking requirements near transit, basement apartments, and corner grocery stores are actually close to becoming reality in DC.

Photo by Lachlan Hardy on Flickr.

The DC Zoning Commission has been deliberating on the zoning update this week. The commissioners embraced most of the DC Office of Planning's proposals while even rejecting at least one of OP's recent steps backward.

Buildings near transit (including priority bus corridors) will be able to have half the parking that's otherwise required if they are willing to forego residential parking permits. Homeowners will be able to put accessory apartments inside their houses without a special hearing, but will have to go through one to use a carriage house. And corner grocery stores will be able to open in residential row house areas if they sell fresh food.

This is a major milestone in the grueling zoning regulations revision process that began in 2007 just after the DC Council adopted the 2006 Comprehensive Plan. Opponents of the update repeatedly asked the commission and the Office of Planning and for more outreach, more meetings, and more delay. In response, officials stretched out the process and added dozens of meetings, fact sheets, and hearings throughout the city. But the process now has an end in sight.

If you're interested in the wonky details, below are many of the specifics about what is changing in DC's zoning.

What happened with accessory apartments

Tuesday night, the commission debated whether to allow accessory apartments in owner-occupied homes in low-density areas. Currently, higher-density residential zones allow two or more units in a single building (like a rowhouse), but low density zones (including some row house areas like Georgetown) allow only one unit except for an antiquated domestic worker provision.

While Chairman Anthony Hood tried to only permit accessory apartments if the owner goes through a special exception hearing, the rest of the commissioners voted to allow homeowners to have one accessory unit inside their home as a matter of right.

However, when it came to garages or carriage houses, the commission didn't question the recent OP revision to only allow accessory units there after a special exception hearing. They adopted that rule with no discussion.

The commissioners did ease restrictions on the lot size and home size required to qualify for an accessory unit. They removed a minimum lot size rule altogether and shrank the required house size from a large 2,000 square feet to a more modest 1,200 square feet in R-2 and R-3 zones. They also removed a combined six-person cap on the total number of people in the primary residence and accessory apartment; instead, they will simply limit the number of people in the accessory apartment to three.

What happened with corner stores

The Zoning Commission approved a proposal to make some corner stores legal in medium-density residential zones for the first time since the city adopted its 1958 zoning code. Commissioner Marcie Cohen argued that corner stores were an important way to help seniors have easy access to daily needs.

However, through the years, the list of rules for what stores are allowable got longer and longer. What the Zoning Commission finally approved was only allowing small grocery stores as a matter of right if they devote a certain area devoted to perishable foods like dairy, fresh produce, fresh meats, and food that must be prepared at home. Beer and wine sales can't exceed 15% of the floor area and requires a special exception hearing.

While these stringent rules will mean that few new corner grocery stores will sprout up, it is likely to inspire a few small entrepreneurs to open up small groceries. Beyond the small grocery stores that would qualify as matter of right, the rule would also allow other types of stores if they go through a special exception process with the Board of Zoning Adjustment.

What's happening with parking

The commission agreed to reduce required parking by 50% for developments near transit (½ mile from Metro or ¼ mile from streetcar or bus priority corridor). In doing so, the Zoning Commission rebuffed the Office of Planning's recent proposal to exclude bus priority corridors from the list of transit services that would qualify.

The commission also inserted one significant change that hadn't been part of the earlier proposals: Developments that take advantage of the 50% reduction would also be ineligible for residential parking permits (RPP).

Current housing developments tend to contain one space for each two or three units voluntarily. The new rule will require just under three for developments away from transti (technically, one per three units after the first four). Cutting that in half means a minimum of one per six units near transit, clearly below market demand.

In effect, therefore, most developments will still park above the minimum, and allows the market to decide what is appropriate rather than forcing most buildings to build more. At easily $50,000 per parking space, this is an important way to make housing less expensive to build.

The commission did adopt OP's suggestion to exclude the West End neighborhood from the Downtown zone that requires no parking, but seemed to support for removing requirements from downtown. However, Chairman Anthony Hood expressed skepticism toward any proposal that removed parking mandates entirely. The commission will consider the downtown zones tonight.

Commissioners also agreed to require one space for each single family home but waive that if no alley access is available. This is a fair compromise that will protect continuous sidewalks and not force curb cuts and driveways on a rowhouse block.

If a property owner feels it's impractical to provide the required parking, it will also be easier to get an exception. The owner will now only need a "special exception" rather than the much more stringent "variance" standard that applies today. Either way, however, asking for a reduction requires a trip to the Board of Zoning Adjustment, which costs time and money.

The new special exception rule will allow the board to reduce parking requirements by considering the lack of demand, proximity to transit, or, in a provision added by Commissioner Marcie Cohen, the affordability of the housing. Any special exception would also require a Transportation Demand Management Plan, or traffic and parking demand reduction plan, which DDOT would need to approve.

Buildings can also share parking or put parking off-site to meet the parking requirements. If a project proposes building more than twice the minimum required for a building where the minimum is 20 spaces or more, the developer will have to add amenities like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, or green roofs.

The commission will deliberate on the last few items tonight. After that, officials will create a new draft of the zoning code for one more round of public comment.


One more chance to make the zoning update better

This summer, the DC Office of Planning further softened its ever-more-timid zoning update proposal, but there's good news: some zoning commissioners don't agree with the latest retreat. However, if they're going to prevail, you have to trundle down to Judiciary Square one more time this coming Monday to speak at a hearing.

Photo by Terry McCombs on Flickr.

In July, the Office of Planning backed off on reducing parking minimums along busy bus corridors, and weakened proposals that would make it easier to rent out a carriage house on your property.

These revisions were the latest disappointments in a chain of compromises dating back to 2009, and were the final straw for many people who supported the zoning update as a serious tool in making DC more walkable and inclusive.

It's not an episode of the Twilight Zone: there really is one more hearing on the long-running zoning update show, on Monday, September 8th, and this one's really important.

Commissioners aren't sure about OP's latest retreat

OP's latest changes were part of a big package of tweaks based on input from residents and the Zoning Commission. Some amendments made a lot of sense, but on these two, OP didn't listen to the large numbers of residents—including many of you—who had testified in favor of key zoning update proposals during the last rounds of hearings.

But this time, some members of the Zoning Commission pushed back on the retreat. At a July meeting, Commissioners Marcie Cohen and Rob Miller both expressed skepticism about the changes. They wondered why, when DC is facing a growing shortage of accessible affordable housing, OP would back off a policy that would encourage more and cheaper housing options.

The other commissioners said they would listen to what the public had to say. Therefore, the hearing next week gives residents a chance to recommend two alternatives: OP's proposed amendment, and the previous, stronger version. Even though evening hearings are easier for some people than others, the numbers of residents who speak up for each alternative may well determine which way the commission goes.

Reduced parking mandates and fewer restrictions on accessory units are creative solutions to create more mixed-income communities (and help existing residents affordably age in place), and the "alternative text" is a big step back forward after too many steps backward.

It's been a long road

The pace of the zoning update process has been frustrating to many supporters. They worry that increased public participation (a good thing) is being misused by opponents as an excuse to delay the process indefinitely—or at least until the reform has been weakened enough to be ineffective.

But we really are nearing (if not already in) the homestretch of this process. And, after a series of compromises, there are finally signs that members of the Zoning Commission understand that we have an opportunity to create the framework for a more walkable and inclusive future DC in the face of our growing affordable housing crisis.

Please sign up to testify Monday evening. The hearing begins at 6:00 PM at One Judiciary Square / 441 4th Street NW, by the Judiciary Square Metro station. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has a streamlined sign-up tool to help you register to speak on Monday night.

While the process can seem daunting to those unaccustomed to sitting through long municipal meetings (which is probably a large majority of everyone reading this), it's not that hard. Just write a short statement that will take no more than three minutes to speak out loud (slowly).

Say you support the "alternative language" that matches the September version of zoning update on parking around bus corridors and accessory apartments in carriage houses. Talk about where in the city you live and why these proposals matter to you. In fact, here's a step-by-step guide to how to testify.

Then print out at least one copy to hand in (if you can) and bring it with you to the hearing. Wait until your name is called, come to the table, and when it's your turn, say your piece.

If you've already testified before at one or many of the previous rounds of meetings and hearings, we know you're probably sick of the zoning update by now. Still, this is a really important moment to make yourself heard. This hearing is covering a set of edits rather than the entire zoning update, and commissioners are not just going through the motions: they really want to hear whether residents prefer OP's latest retreat or the last, somewhat more progressive proposal.

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