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Zoning


Zoning update retreat on housing and parking gets a chilly reception from the DC Zoning Commision

DC's Office of Planning (OP) may have backed down on some key provisions of the DC zoning update, but some members of DC's Zoning Commission, which has the final say on zoning, voiced skepticism about the recent changes at a meeting last week.


Photo by Horia Varlan on Flickr.

A majority of commissioners may be prepared to reject several of OP's proposed amendments, including one that would have made it harder for homeowners to rent out a carriage house or garage and another that would have required more parking near high-frequency bus lines.

Before that happens, though, you get to spend yet another fun evening testifying before the Zoning Commission! That's because some of the commissioners "want to hear what the public thinks" about these changes. They will hold another hearing, likely in early September, to hear from people who happen to have the time and interest in spending a whole evening in a government hearing room.

New, stricter hearing rules for accessory apartments don't go over well

One of the zoning update's significant policy changes would allow more people to rent out space in their basements, garages, or elsewhere. Today, that's illegal in the low-density residential zones (R-1 and R-2) and lower-density row house zones (R-3) like Georgetown, In other row house areas like Capitol Hill (R-4), a rental unit can be in the main house but not in a garage or other external building.

OP has cut back the proposal several times to require a "special exception," where the homeowner has to go to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a hearing, first for all accessory units in Georgetown and then for any newly-constructed external buildings.

Last month, bowing to what OP's Joel Lawson called "vociferous concern" from some residents, OP proposed also forcing a special exception hearing for any accessory apartment in any external building in the R-1 through R-3 zones. However, at the same time, planners also recommended allowing accessory apartments (by right inside the main building, by special exception outside) even for homes on lots that are smaller than the standard required lot size.


Photo by Brett VA on Flickr.

Some members of the Zoning Commission also were not on board with this retreat. Rob Miller, one the five members of the commission, said:

This is at least the second or third compromise on this issue that would be being made. ... The need for affordable housingand any kind of housingin this city is so critical. ... And so I cannot support the additional compromise that's proposed here, that would require all accessory apartments in accessory bldgs to go through a special exception process that can be a very burdensome process for an individual homeowner. They will either do it illegally, as I guess is being done now, or the housing just won't be provided.
Commissioner Marcie Cohen agreed:
I think that we're at a point where, as a city, we are obligated to create more housing. We are in a crisis. Of course many of us do have our own homes but there are a lot of people coming into our city on a monthly basis. ... Accessory apartments provide an alternative of affordable units. Many of them. I'm very concerned about the need for affordable housing, and many cities around the country are looking at accessory apartments as addressing housing need.
Cohen also talked about the need for seniors, as they age, to potentially have caregivers come live with them, and may want that caregiver to have a separate apartment for greater independence. She said, "To subject them to any process other than the process of getting the proper building permits and the proper certificate of occupancyI think that's enough process for them to go thorough, as opposed to going to zoning for an exception."

She concluded, "We've already compromised once, and I think this is watering it down too much and it's bad public policy."

Lawson pointed out that another change OP made (at the commission's request), dropping the minimum lot size would more than double the number of properties which would be eligible. However, that lot size rule was something OP added between November 2012 and July 2013, making it another restriction that cut down on accessory apartments from the original proposal (and one I didn't even notice at the time). So OP would just be reversing that limit while adding another.

Lawson said that there were some neighborhood concerns that OP could perhaps address by adding some new and specific conditions to matter-of-right accessory apartments. Peter May, the representative on the commission from the National Park Service and one of two federally-appointed members, also sounded unenthusiastic about OP's new special exception rule and said that perhaps a mixture of the two options would be better.

May also questioned another accessory apartment rule that would not allow an accessory apartment where more than six people live in the main home and the accessory apartment combined. May said that many people (including himself) have families of five or more, and under these rules, a family of five could not rent a basement or garage to a couple. He suggested OP look at another rule, perhaps one that only limits the number of people in the smaller accessory unit.

Chairman Anthony Hood, however, prefers the special exception. He said, "Anytime you can get public input, and I think this is very critical, whether it's new or existing, it's very critical."

Commissioners frown on higher parking minimums near major bus lines and in the West End

OP's plans to reduce parking minimum requirements, especially near transit, have also gone through multiple rounds of cutbacks. A new base parking requirement in mixed-use and multifamily areas would be lower in some places than today; in addition, OP had been proposing to cut the requirement in half around Metro stations, streetcar lines, and WMATA priority bus corridors.

On top of that, OP was proposing a new Transportation Demand Management (TDM) rule saying that where buildings significantly exceeded the minimum, larger buildings would need to include things like more bike parking, trees, car sharing spaces, electric car charging stations, and more green roofs, walls, or space. Garages with 100 more spaces than required would have to add a Capital Bikeshare station.

Last month's change dropped the lower parking requirement around bus corridors and also increased the threshold where TDM kicks in to two times the minimum instead of 1.5 times as in the original proposal. Further, the zoning update specifies no parking minimum in downtown zones, but some people in the West End also asked to exempt their area from this rule. OP agreed.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

OP got negative feedback from zoning commissioners on all three counts.

Marcie Cohen said,

We must begin to recognize that there's just too much congestion and traffic in this city, and that we have to have a multimodal effort.

I don't want to take anybody's car away, but on the other hand, we can encourage people by improving service to use buses and other forms of transportation. ... We have to recognize that we are choking in this city or we will choke if we continue our behaviors. So I am not in favor of removing parking reductions. ...

It's sort of like the old adage that if you widen the roads you get more cars. If you provide parking you get more cars. We have to now bite the bullet and say we can't afford that any more, for health reasons. Cars are the second largest producers of carbon emissions after energy plants. So I really feel strongly about the vehicle parking.

Rob Miller agreed with Cohen. Hood, however, did not:
Anytime we reduce parkingI am not in agreemence with some of what I've heard about cars. We all choose a way of life, and we all need to do a balanced approach.

One of the things I've watched is [Rhode Island] Row. We had a developer come in and say, we have so much parking. The caveat to that is that they don't let you park in the first three rows, and nobody tells you that.

We do a disservice to the residents of the city when we squeeze them out of parking, when people have a problem finding parking. ... I've heard the developer, they stopped me in the street, and said you made us build too much parking. You have 3 rows cut off. I forget why they do that.

I thought at first that Hood might be meaning the Metro garage, but Dan Stessel of WMATA checked with the Metro parking officials, who said the first three rows in the Rhode Island Row private garage are reserved for retail users and short-term parking. *

May, who is likely the swing vote on this issue, didn't take a clear position on the bus route parking minimum, but he definitely opposed having a minimum for the West End. He also disputed OP's change in the TDM threshold from 1.5x to 2x. He said, "If you're going to go with that many more spaces than the minimum required, then you need to do things to encourage people not to use cars."

What's next?

The commission "set down" OP's amendments for a hearing. According to Sharon Schellin of the Office of Zoning, they haven't picked a date yet, but it will likely be in early September.

On the accessory apartment and parking issues, where at least some commissioners didn't agree with the amendment, it'll still go to the hearing, but the hearing notice will essentially advertise two options, to go with OP's change but also not to. That's a choice with any of the amendments, but the notice will make clear that the commission may indeed not be taking OP's recommendation on this point.

Even though many of you have slogged through many, many hearings over six years on this issue, it'll be important to show up yet again, as some commsisioners may make up their minds, at least in part, based on how loud the push is on each side.

* The original version of this article speculated that Hood was talking about reserved parking at the Metro garage. However, Metro parking staff don't think that is the case, and he was probably talking about the private garage. The post has been updated.

Zoning


For the umpteenth time, DC's zoning update gets watered down some more

In the six-year-and-counting saga of DC's zoning update, the Office of Planning (OP) has watered down proposed zoning changes yet again. Planners have removed residents' right to put an accessory apartment in a carriage house or other external building and reinstated most of the existing parking minimum requirements around high-frequency bus lines.


Photo by martin on Flickr.

While the zoning update is still a meaningful step forward, it has become, over the years, a smaller and smaller step forward as opponents have successfully pushed for more and more delay, and as staff turnover has replaced people who'd already compromised with new people who look for a compromise.

OP did make a few positive changes, at the request of members of the Zoning Commission. Planners dropped a rule that only allowed accessory apartments on lots of a certain size. Commissioners felt this was unnecessary.

The fire department had pushed to require any accessory apartments be on an alley at least 24 feet wide, and reachable through other alleys that are also as wide. Many in blocks in historic neighborhoods like Capitol Hill do not have alleys that big. The Zoning Commission pushed back, and the new rules would only require at least 8 feet (though the Board of Zoning Adjustment would now be reviewing all of these).

However, there are two significant retreats.

Homeowners can still add an apartment their basements or elsewhere inside the house in a single-family residential areas where this is illegal today. However, they will have to file for a "special exception" with the Board of Zoning Adjustment to place such an apartment in a carriage house or other existing external building. While the BZA is often willing to grant special exceptions, it is a lengthy process requiring many months of time, hiring zoning attorneys, and more.

Parking minimums will still be cut in half around Metro stations and streetcar lines, but not around major bus corridors. That means along Wisconsin Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, Benning Road, and others, and in parts of Logan Circle, Adams Morgan, and many other neighborhoods, new buildings will still have to build parking at a rate which developers have said is often larger than the actual market demand.

By specifying that parking minimums get cut in half around streetcar lines (and Metro stations) but not high-frequency bus lines, OP is perpetuating the unfortunate assumption in DC government that buses don't count as meaningful transit.

The proposal does still set new and lower basic parking requirements for many types of buildings in many zones.

How many times has this happened already?

These retreats have become par for the course in the zoning update. The people on the original zoning update team, none of whom are still working on the project, crafted a set of changes to encourage new housing, walkability, and building near transit, and reduced the number of extra zoning hearings necessary for things that are in the public interest, like adding accessory apartments.

Over the six years since, successive staffers and leaders at OP whittled the plans down step by step. Here is a rough chronology for these two policy areas:

Parking minimums:

  • 2008 original consultant recommendation: Eliminate all minimums and institute maximums.
  • 2009: Retain minimums far from transit in commercial corridors and residential buildings over 10 units. Only establish maximums downtown and for very large lots.
  • 2010-11: Drop downtown maximums. Exclude moderate-density row house areas from lower minimums.
  • 2013: Keep minimums for all areas but instead cut minimums in half near Metro, streetcar, and bus lines.
  • 2014: Exclude areas around major bus lines.
Accessory dwellings:
  • 2009: Allow accessory dwellings in main house or external building subject to many conditions.
  • 2010: Exempt Georgetown so that a special exception is required there.
  • 2011: Also require a special exception for new or recently-renovated external buildings everywhere.
  • 2014: Require a special exception for all external buildings.
Was this necessary?

These changes didn't appear to come at the behest of the Zoning Commission. OP has created a spreadsheet of all commissioner comments, and they don't show the commissioners asking for these changes. Another spreadsheet of public comments shows many comments in support of OP's proposal. Yet OP's rationale for changing parking minimums and accessory dwelling rules is that "residents" asked for the change.

When Harriet Tregoning decided to cut back the parking proposal the last time, to halve rather than eliminate parking minimums, I wrote,

Maybe Tregoning has the pulse of the Zoning Commission. ... Maybe by making this particular change, as opposed to all of the other changes they've made to appease opposition over the last 5 years, maybe zoning commissioners will say, ah, it's clear OP has listened to public input, and we will therefore pass their proposal.

I hope so, but I think it's much more likely that opponents will use this concession to try to get another concession, and zoning commissioners will still cut something back even more. Everyone wants to strike a compromise. But when one zoning update head compromises, then he leaves, his boss takes over, and she compromises, then the agency director compromises, and finally zoning commissioners compromise, we're left with is a weak set of changes that do little to truly position the city for the future.

Looks about right.

There are many more smaller changes

The revision makes numerous other changes, some of which make sense. Corner store rules allow groceries in residential areas as of right; the new rules require these groceries to have a certain amount of fresh food.

Corner stores also have to get a special exception to sell any alcohol, which ought to alleviate concerns that the stores in poorer areas will just end up being liquor stores. Finally, corner stores are prohibited in the Foxhall neighborhood, which already has some small retail spaces.

Bicycle parking standards got tweaked to better match current practice. Some bicycle parking requirements will decrease. Larger garages no longer have to include car sharing spaces, but they get credit for multiple parking spaces if they do. The West End keeps parking requirements even though it will be part of the new downtown zone.

Some activists, who had started paying attention to the process fairly late, asked for a special exception for large retailers, and the Office of Planning added such a rule for retailers larger than 50,000 square feet.

In one recommendation to loosen a rule which OP did accept, I pointed out overly-restrictive limits on theaters in residential zones. They must get a variance, a very difficult burden, to operate even in buildings such as churches. The Spooky Action Theater discovered this when it tried to put on shows at 16th and S. So did the Keegan on Church Street when it bought its building and discovered its Certificate of Occupancy allowed for a theater arts school but not theater performance despite the building having been used for shows for decades.

Zoning Commissioners agreed, and OP wrote a rule allowing this by special exception, as I had suggested. It's an easier burden and one that still gives neighbors a chance to weigh in. However, OP's rule only applies to buildings with "existing theater or performance space" in an institutional building like a church or school (maybe reasonable), and only when the building owner is renting that space to an unrelated group. That latter rule basically makes this cover the Spooky Action situation and not the Keegan situation, making it at best a half solution.

You can see a complete list of changes in the tables on this post, or in great detail in the actual amendment text.

It's a very small measure now, but still worth passing

The zoning update still takes some steps to allow more housing across much of DC, though it will probably add a very small amount with all of the restrictions. A few buildings near Metro will more easily be able to match parking to actual demand, though many won't.

The zoning update is worth passing, but doesn't really solve the city's bigger problems of not having enough housing, especially in the places where it makes the most sense. If the proposal goes through this fall, OP will still have to find ways to add more housing, especially near transit, or see the city's housing costs continue to spiral ever higher.

Politics


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.

Zoning


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.

Zoning


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.

Zoning


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.

Politics


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.

Development


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.

Zoning


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:

Neighbors-

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.

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