Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Housing

Development


Interning in DC? Here’s how to find a place to live.

DC's shortage of affordable housing options touches lots of permanent residents, but summer interns struggle with the problem as well. Below are three ways to find a place to stay when you're only coming to DC for the semester.


My home during my internship, at Connecticut and Cathedral NW.

Each season, a new wave of unpaid interns in search of work experience floods the nation's capitol. And before interns even arrive to DC, the search for housing acquaints them with the city's high cost of living. The housing market is already short on affordable options, and the need for short term leases and access to public transportation means even more barriers.

As most interns in DC are unpaid, the main qualifications for housing are that it's cheap, close to transport, and a short term lease. These three requirements can make for a lengthy and exhausting housing search within the current DC housing market.

Here are three go-to options for interns who are on the hunt:

1. Get housing through your school or program

Some lucky students' universities pick out housing out for them, usually in a building specifically designed for students. Because of the demand, many apartment complexes in DC are starting to specialize in short term leases for these students interning in DC. Universities sending students to DC frequently use this option, but interns searching for a short term lease can use it as individuals as well.

One example is where I currently live, Washington Intern Student Housing, aka WISH. WISH, along with Cheap Intern Housing and Cassa Housing, are some of the options for students searching for apartments with short term leases mostly occupied by students. At the WISH Woodley Park location, interns are offered a convenient location, but at a steep price: Places start at around $1,000 a month, and that's in a three-bedroom apartment where you're splitting a room.


The kitchen in my WISH apartment.

2. Stay in a local college dorm

Another option for summer interns are the university dorms from schools like American, George Washington, and Georgetown. This option offers students a chance to experience life at an University in DC, but for a price ranging from $310 to $450 a week for shared rooms.

These universities have web pages (linked above) dedicated to attracting and informing students about their summer rates and availability, along with contact information or an application for housing.

3. When all else fails… try Craigslist

The third option for interns is the exasperating Craigslist search. This option is not for the faint of heart, especially during the summer when the demand is the highest. I have some friends who sent dozens of emails to potential roommates, but even after weeks of trying never found a place to live.

In a Craigslist search, make sure to respond to a listing as soon as possible, but also be wary about your potential roommates. If your Craigslist search is not successful many interns might just turn to option one intern apartments, even though they can be a higher price.

It's possible to feel at home even if you're only here briefly

Once you find housing, be aware that life as an intern can be tough. It's not uncommon for city dwellers to have to make lots of maintenance requests, for everything from rat removal to broken refrigerators. It can also be hard to assimilate, as you're in DC for much longer than a tourist, but you aren't here for good.


Decorating a space is a go-to way to turn it into a home.

But the benefits to interning in DC outweigh the cost and stress of housing. In DC you have the opportunity to explore countless museums (for free), attend enlightening events, and network with inspiring people. And when it comes to feeling at home in your apartment, try making and spending time with friends, decorating, and cooking family recipes.

Do you have any tips for interns coming to DC?

Development


After the FBI moves, Pennsylvania Ave could be reborn

The FBI is decamping from its headquarters in the J. Edgar Hoover building, leaving the deteriorating 1974 brutalist building and its site on Pennsylvania Avenue up for reinvention. You can weigh in on what comes next for the site.


What should replace the Hoover Building's moat? Photo by Eric Fidler on Flickr.

The FBI has decided that the poor state of the existing building, claustrophobic offices, and extensive security requirements make this urban site a bad location for the police agency. The FBI has asked the General Services Administration, the landlord to federal agencies, to replace it. To keep costs down, the GSA is trying to negotiate a land swap in either Landover, Greenbelt, or Springfield.

Whether the FBI building becomes apartments, offices, or an institution depends heavily on special rules for the properties lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Called "square guidelines," the ones for the Hoover building's site are specific to the FBI, so the National Capital Planning Commission is is revising them for whoever occupies the building in the future. Meetings on Tuesday and Thursday are the only time the public will be able to give input before NCPC drafts the new guidelines.


The guidelines have to go through a lot of review. Schedule graphic from NCPC.

To execute the deal, the GSA has to make a clear offer for what can go at the downtown site. They're doing that through these square guidelines, created in the 1970s by a congressional organization, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.

The work of the PADC, like Pershing Park and Market Square, was a dramatic shift away from the grandiose official spaces that planners pushed in the first 70 years of the 20th century, into mixed uses and intimate spaces. To balance private development and public space, they created the guidelines. (A "square" is just a real estate term for a block; every lot in DC is part of a "square.")


The FBI Hoover Building site and the area controlled by PADC rules. Image from the NCPC.

The Hoover building will be a hot site for developers no matter what. But when it comes to how the building is use, the stakes are even higher for the public.

What kind of activities could happen there?

Under the new zoning code, the site will fall under the D-7 downtown zone district. That means a hotel or office space would be allowed to take up 10 times the amount of ground space the building covers, but that residential units could take up even more.

Because of that D-7 classification, residential development on the site wouldn't be subject to affordable housing requirements or bonuses. Maybe this should be an exception. Similarly, the swanky location could lend itself to development as investment properties, but those wouldn't lend themselves to street life. Are there ways to avoid that?

Perhaps there are other uses, like theaters, social organizations, or cultural programs that could be encouraged.

What will the actual building look like?

The square guidelines dictate a lot about urban form. One big decision is whether to divide the site. Technically, it's already two blocks: the much bigger Square 378 north of D Street, and the triangular Square 379 along Pennsylvania Avenue. The site will probably end up being multiple buildings, but what about rebuilding D Street to Pennsylvania Ave?

On one hand, that's an opportunity to add connectivity and increase the amount of retail. It might also limit the opportunity to build the northern square to the unusual 160' height permitted along Pennsylvania Avenue.

What percentage of the space should be open space? A public market used to stand nearby; perhaps Is a semi-private court like CityCenter the answer? Should the Pennsylvania Avenue side be more formal, and set back, while the E Street side might be more informal an commercial? Does the site need a commemorative space, like the nearby Navy Memorial?

How sustainable should it be?

Sustainability wasn't covered by the 1974 rules, but they could now. Given Climate change and the region's water quality issues, it's definitely one now. Whether it's requiring a low carbon impact, cleaning the air with plants, or managing runoff effectively, there are a lot of issues.

An opportunity to go beyond the easily gamed LEED system, and to ask for a measurable sign of sustainability, like some portion of the Living Building Challenge, or a concrete goal like net-zero energy use

On the other hand, there's a risk of adding tokens of sustainability that cost more than they're worth. The density and high energy efficiency the District requires may be enough of an environmental benefit.

Another possibility is preserving portions of the existing building, to save on expending new energy and carbon emissions? That will only make a difference if the energy to heat, cool, and light the building is dramatically lower than it is today. What parts of the building can be saved?

How the site connects to the rest of the city

The project also has implications for the Department of Labor's Frances Perkins Building, which the GSA is also looking to exchange. Integrated into the I-395 highway running beneath it, it also faces its surrounding streets with high walls and gloomy overhangs. Worse, even though it covers the highway, it blocks both C St. and Indiana Avenue.


The Francis Perkins buildings sits on a high plinth. Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

With the massive Capitol Crossing development over the highway two blocks north, the replacement of the Perkins building presents similar potentials for adding downtown residential density, enlivening the generous public space near Judiciary Square, and reconnecting downtown to the Union Station area.

While the square guidelines are just one part of a very long approvals process, the earlier the approvals agencies hear support for an walkable, inviting urban design, the better the outcome.

You can attend the meetings 6-8PM on Tuesday and Thursday, or watch it live and submit comments.

Development


Want to write about housing? We'll teach you how!

From bike lanes to Metro, Greater Greater Washington helps drive the conversation about transportation in our region. We could be saying more about housing, and you can help make it happen.


There's lots to say about all kinds of types of housing all over DC. Can you help us say it? Photo by Matt B on Flickr.

When I first heard about Greater Greater Washington, it was because of one our major political wins: the day thousands of readers saved the streetcar. There have been many others, all possible because we've built a platform and place to educate residents around issues that affect the places we live. This blog has become a powerful tool for information, argument, and action.

Our blog is growing in many ways, and one place we can afford to grow substantially right now is our focus on housing and development. What role can we play in shaping the conversation around housing in our region? What are the questions we want answered, the issues we want explored?

Write about housing for us

I'm constantly meeting with people across this city to discuss housing, and all the time, they say something like, "You know what I would love to read about? ______."

My answer is always the same: "Sounds like a great GGWash post! When can you write a draft?"

We have staff now at Greater Greater Washington, but we don't have staff writers! Our blog is sustained through the volunteers who recognize a story worth telling, and write it down. In the last quarter of this year alone we had 76 unique contributors help us build an archive of arguments, stories and issues that affect our region.

This upcoming Thursday, April 28th, from 6:30-8:30 we are hosting a workshop to help boost our coverage on housing. It will be our first in-person chance to explain a little of our thinking about what Greater Greater Washington can do about housing in the region, as well as a training for individuals and organizations who have similar visions and want to better engage our blog space with their ideas and stories.

Please fill out this form if you're interested in coming! We'll be in basement room A-9 at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.

Links


Worldwide links: MTA riding solo

New York's MTA is cancelling its membership in a league of nationwide transit agency, North Korea let outsiders get a look at its metro system, and Denver just opened a rail line to the airport. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Baptiste Pons on Flickr.

MTA, unsubscribed: New York MTA, the country's largest transit agency has cancelled its membership with APTA, the country's largest transit advocacy group. Citing a lack of support on commuter rail and legacy transit issues, the MTA will stop paying its $400,000 a year in dues, which are a huge part of APTA's budget. (TransitCenter)

Riding Dear Leader's Metro: North Korea wants people to see the positive side of the country. Previously, the government only allowed visitors into their two most lavish subway stations, but it recently opened up the line to visitors from the US, who took numerous pictures and video of the capital city's metro. (Earth Nutshell)

Rocky Mountain ride: Denver's commuter rail line to the airport begins service today after 30 years of planning. Local observers believe it will change the way locals think about their city. (Denver Post)

Walkability tradeoffs: When looking for a walkable neighborhood to live in, what are the important things to consider? This column says you should think about how long you plan to be there, whether you'll ever need a car, if you're ok with an older house, and how much solitude you'll want. (Washington Post)

Are we too efficient?: As technology advances and makes life in cities more efficient, from routes we take to groceries we get delivered, there is something to be said for being able to still get lost. Marcus Foth believes that increased efficiency, while good in theory, could lead to surroundings filled with things and places you already knew about, which could deprive us of life's interesting quirks. (City Metric)

Urbanization of people, not capital: African cities are growing so fast that capital hasn't been able to keep up, creating an informal economy based on street vendors subject to extortion. Additionally, dysfunctional property markets are leading to uneven growth and massive traffic jams. More formal institutional structures could support these growing urban places. (Mail and Guardian Africa)

Transit Trends on YouTube

I co-host a web show called Transit Trends with Erica Brennes of Moovel. This week, we talked about technology and transportation:

Development


Big developments serve a huge need, but smaller ones help cities too

It's pretty common to see new buildings with hundreds of units going up across the region. But what about smaller buildings, going up one at a time? That kind of small scale development, also referred to as incremental development, is an important part of building a city.


Neighborhoods like Georgetown came about one building at a time. Photo by Norman Maddeaux on Flickr.

Think about your favorite neighborhood in DC. Maybe it's tree-lined Swann Street by Logan Circle, with it's multi-colored row homes, all similar but with details that make them special, like the flower plantings on each stoop. Or maybe it's Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown—a bustling neighborhood commercial street with café seating and colorful shop windows selling specialty wares.

These special places were not created all at once; they are the result of a buildings being built, changed, and rebuilt, which has resulted in a rich urban fabric that supports renters, owners, merchants and service providers.

Today, that process is much more rare, with whole new neighborhoods going up all at once. These projects are often quite successful, and address the need for increased housing and retail in DC. But when large companies are the only ones building in neighborhoods, would-be smaller developers are left out.

Why do we want to avoid that? Because when communities are built by the people who live there, then those people are engaged in the neighborhood. Incremental development brings more wealth into the community; the developers of small projects reap the benefits of property ownership, including income-producing properties and tax benefits. And since small developers are literally invested, they have a stake in the decisions of the community, and take part in decision-making and neighborhood advocacy.

Furthermore, the spaces created by incremental development—from pop-up food kiosks to retail under residential—are more conducive to small entrepreneurs who can't take on the high rents and long terms of new larger retail spaces. In the boom and bust cycle of real estate, communities that are built incrementally are more resilient.

Today, real estate financing, the development process, and housing demand favor larger projects. So even if you want to, say, build a small coffee shop on that vacant corner lot, or fill in a hole in a commercial corridor with a multi-use building, it can be challenging to get the resources and permits to do so.

For example, banks are hesitant to lend money to build project types that have not been proven to create a profit, especially in up and coming neighborhoods. And even if you get financing for a mixed residential/retail building, then your project could be stymied by parking requirements that were meant for larger residential projects. There are roadblocks and unforeseen issues every step of the way.

If smaller projects aren't part of the mix, neighborhoods might be less likely to get a fine-grained feel. Also, it can mean less space for small retail, and fewer business opportunities for people interested in building cities.

A new non-profit is trying to change this

The Incremental Development Alliance was created by small scale developers who had been overwhelmed by the number of people reaching out to them seeking advice on how to build small, multi-unit buildings. Since the group's founding in 2015, the group has conducted over twenty workshops on this topic, and are the recipients of a Knight Foundation grant to encourage incremental development in Columbus, Georgia.

On May 13 and 14, one of the founders of IDA, John Anderson, will be in Silver Spring to run a workshop on developing small real estate projects. The Silver Spring Small Developer Boot Camp will begin with a networking on Friday at Fire Station 1, and run all day on Saturday at the Montgomery County Planning Department. Participants will learn about technical skills and resources to navigate development financing, zoning and entitlement, site selection and building design in order assemble small scale real estate deals.

Discounted pricing is available until this Friday, and registration is available online.

Development


The first two efforts to turn Petworth's Hebrew Home into housing failed. Will the third time be different?

Just a few blocks from the Petworth Metro, a District-owned apartment that most call the Hebrew Home has been vacant since 2009, and DC is asking for resident input on its latest effort to redevelop the land (the first two fell through). The end result could be 200 new units of mixed-income housing, along with retail and park space.


The Hebrew Home, looking west on Spring Road. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Located at 1125 Spring Road, the Hebrew Home's name is a reference to the building's original use serving the elderly Jewish population with housing and health care. From 1925 to 1969, the property grew to include an array of social services available to young and old within a community that both understood and supported the specific religious, linguistic, and cultural needs of its clients.

When the Hebrew Home determined it could no longer adequately serve the needs of the local Jewish population by remaining on Spring Road, it sold the property to the District government and moved into a new facility in Montgomery County.


The Hebrew Home and the adjacent Robeson School building, at 10th and Spring NW. Image from DMPED.

This isn't the first effort to redevelop the Hebrew Home

From 1968 until its closure in 2009, the District used the Hebrew Home site as a mental health facility for the homeless. Since it closed that facility, the District has attempted to breathe new life into the building without success.

In the fall of 2010, the DC Department of Human Services proposed using the site to shelter families instead of sending them to DC General. That plan would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 74 families. However, the site was removed from consideration due to then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser's concern that the immediate area had an "inordinate amount of group homes" and two homeless shelters within a two-block radius of the site.

More recently, efforts in 2014 to redevelop the historic structure and the Robeson School (which sits immediately adjacent, to the east) resulted in a plan to create approximately 200-units of housing with 90% designated as affordable, including a senior preference for 25% of the units.


The Robeson School building. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Development stalled again, however, when the District learned that it wouldn't be able to transfer ownership to the DC Housing Authority without a formal Request for Proposals process. Moreover, Bowser expressed reservations about the plan being weighted so heavily toward affordable housing. Due to these factors, the District restarted the process to develop the site in April with what it's calling OurRFP, a process in which the city solicits input from community members on how to use a site before developers start submitting proposals.

The Hebrew Home could become much-needed housing for all incomes

The first of two OurRFP workshops to decide how to redevelop the Hebrew Home was earlier this month. There, officials from DC's office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) shared some key data:

  • The lot is 144,400 square feet in size.
  • The site includes three buildings. The development will not include the small building at the western edge of the site.
  • The former Hebrew Home structure is historic, but the Robeson School is not and can be razed.
  • The property has good access to transportation. It's near the Georgia Avenue Metro station, numerous bus lines, and Capital Bikeshare stations.
  • The site has a walk score of 93 and a bike score in the 80s.

A map of the transit options surrounding the Hebrew Home. Image from DMPED.

Workshop attendees split into 13 working groups to discuss what they would like to see happen with the Hebrew Home.

The site has tremendous potential to provide a significant amount of housing in an area with ready access to public transportation and where housing prices and displacement are of great concern. Within my working group, there was general agreement that the RFP should start from the position of including a strong affordability component, with the financing then driving the configuration of affordable and market rate housing to a balanced level. There was an understanding that the economics of development will have an impact on what can be financed and that, at the end of the day, the development must become a reality for any housing to exist.

With regards to the living units, there's a need for both family-sized units and apartments for seniors. I would like to see every unit (if possible) be ADA compliant; as units become vacant in the future it would be ideal if any resident in need of housing would be able to move into the building and not be prevented due to the unit's configuration.


A map showing existing affordable housing surrounding the Hebrew Home site by location and number of affordable units. Image from DMPED.

As for the type of building that goes up, it is clear that people want the new construction to fit into the neighborhood context. Whether the building was traditional, modern, contemporary, or something else, the materials, massing, and architectural detailing's ability to make it fit the character of what's around it certainly exists.

We also discussed the massing of the new construction on the Robeson site. Some suggested that a by-right approach would be more in keeping with the neighborhood and better fit in. I countered that I would prefer a Planned Unit Developmentwhere a developer provides the community with benefits in exchange for a zoning exception— for three reasons:

  1. A PUD would allow for a slightly larger building. The existing Hebrew Home building is one story taller than allowed by by right, and I think that an additional story on the new construction that matched the height of the historic building would not be out of place, especially as it would be located between the Hebrew Home site and the Raymond School & Recreation Center.
  2. A PUD would also result in more oversight and community opportunities to participate.
  3. As zoned, the building is residential. But the existing Hebrew Home building has a space on the first floor with a separate entrance that could support a small store or possibly another use such as an early childhood development center.
I think the community would benefit from vetting these options to see if they're a good fit rather than not discussing them at all.

One of the last things the group discussed was the public space and sustainability. As part of this discussion, we talked about trees, benches, green roofs, and other possible uses for the existing green spaces. As this is an opportunity to enhance our natural environment, I also mentioned that we should advocate for all trees and landscaping to be native plantings. The green space between the small building at 1131 Spring Road and the Hebrew Home is also large enough for a small park or other type of public space.

There will be another OurRFP workshop in May, and DMPED anticipates releasing the RFP solicitation in June 2016.

A version of this post originally ran on Park View, DC.

Links


National Links: Hillary talks housing

Hillary Clinton is articulating her vision to help Americans with housing, what happens when people making decisions about transit don't know what it's like to depend on it, and a look at where row houses fit into the national landscape. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Veni on Flickr.

Hillary's housing hopes: Hillary Clinton wants living near quality jobs, schools, and transportation to be easier, and she's making affordable housing part of her agenda. Her proposal would boost funding for both programs that help people buy homes as well as public housing. (Virginia-Pilot)

Get the board on the bus: Given how much they influence how people get around, perhaps transit board members should ride the busor at least know details about the system they work on. Some recent applicants for the DART Board of Directors in Dallas are clueless when it comes to transit-oriented development and taxpaying riders. (Dallas Observer)

Reliant on row houses The row house is the workhorse of dense older cities around the country, but it's becoming less popular. It's possible that row houses could be the "missing middle" that can help address the country's housing needs. (Urban Omnibus)

Questioning King Car: Cars are a large part of American culture, like it or not. But they also cost a lot of money, time, and lives. Since September 11th, 2001, over 400,000 people have died in automobile collisions. Is that a worthwhile price to pay for convenience? (The Atlantic)

Bridges of Amsterdam city: Amsterdam has far more canals and bridges than the average city, but only one bridge runs across the large river that separates the more industrial side of the city from where most people live. There is a tunnel and a number of ferries, neither of which is idea for walking or biking. But as more development happens and free ferries are overwhelmed, a bridge may be the next step. (City Metric)

Struggling city streams: In the midwest, streams in urban places are rare. Detroit, for example, has lost 86% of its surface streams. That worries ecologists because streams regulate water flow and keep wildlife healthy. (Great Lakes Echo)

Are we building boredom?: Buildings designed like boxes are bad for us. Research shows that human excitement wanes on streets with boring facades, causing stress that affects our health and psychological wellbeing. (New York Magazine)

Quote of the Week

"I think it's important to remember that these are serious crimes with emotional consequences. It's interesting nonetheless to watch how burglars use architecture, but that isn't enough reason to treat them like folk heroes." - Architecture writer Geoff Manaugh discussing his new book, A Burglar's Guide to the City in Paste Magazine.

Development


90 new rowhouses at a Michigan Park seminary could help address the housing shortage

The St. Joseph's Seminary in Northeast DC's Michigan Park neighborhood has a large eight-acre property, but the seminary only uses two acres. Rather than let the rest sit empty, they plan to add 90 new rowhouses on four acres, and turn the rest into a park.


The historic seminary building, as seen from 13th Street NE. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

The Josephites, as the seminarians call themselves, have been working with developer EYA to build on the site. EYA's proposal is called 12th and Allison. It focuses on the northern part of the site, preserving the southern part and its historic seminary building.


Location of St. Joseph's Seminary. Image from EYA.

The Josephites would retain ownership of the southern part of the property, which includes both the building itself as well as a little over two acres of open space.

To the north, EYA would extend Webster Street through the block, connecting to 12th Street (Webster currently ends when it hits 13th, on the east side of the property). Surrounding the new Webster Street would be 90 rowhouses, most of them north of the new street.

Triplexes everywhere versus rowhouses and a park

Today the seminary grounds look sort of like a park. But they're not. The seminary is private property, and if the Josephites sell part or all of it, that part can be developed according to however it's zoned.

Almost all of Michigan Park is zoned R-2, which allows "semi-detached" housing like duplexes and triplexes. Many of the blocks surrounding the seminary are lined with the latter.

But developers rarely build triplexes these days. They require so many setbacks that it doesn't pencil out to add in any communal open spaces like parks. But the setbacks are rarely large enough to be very good private yards. For new construction in the city, regular rowhouses are more popular with both sellers and buyers.

Thus, EYA hopes to rezone the property to R-5A, the same as Providence Hospital across the street. R-5A zoning would allow for normal rowhouses, which in turn could be clustered together, allowing for better community open spaces.

But rezoning requires city action, and that opens the door to controversy.

At a community meeting in October of last year, a number of residents made it clear that they were opposed to development of any kind. At least twice throughout the winter, opponents spread these flyers throughout the neighborhood, forewarning against the evils of building:


Opponent flyer. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

Michigan Park is a cozy, moderate-density neighborhood. It's fair for residents to wonder about the impact of a new development, and hope to influence it. But hyperbole like that isn't helpful and isn't true. Saying this project would "irrevocably damage our community" is a stretch.

90 new units on two big blocks won't turn the place on its head. That's only a little denser in total than the surrounding blocks of duplexes and triplexes.

By clustering the development mostly north of Webster Street and preserving more open space south of it, the northern block will be noticeably denser than triplexes, but in return the historic seminary building and much of the open space on the south will be permanently preserved, designated historic, and off-limits to future development.

That's a good trade. Right now, if the Josephites wanted, they could sell their entire property and develop 100% of it as duplexes and triplexes by-right, whether anybody objected or not. Rather, in exchange for rezoning to allow rowhouses, the seminary and considerable open space will be saved.

Next steps

In April, EYA will present its latest plans at local ANC meetings. They've reduced the density of the proposal from 180 houses to 90, and promised to design the buildings in a high-quality, contextual way.

After that, they'll submit for zoning approval, and apply to the District's Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the seminary building as a landmark. Expect hearings on it this fall.

Development


More housing is now banned from Lanier Heights. Organizing is what won the day.

A group of neighbors in Lanier Heights are fighting to downzone their rowhouses, hoping to restrict the ability to convert them into denser, multi-resident units. Monday night they won, and they did it by out-organizing the opposition.


Lanier Heights. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Earlier in March over 50 residents packed the zoning board hearing room, holding orange "For R-4" signs quietly under their seats (under orders from zoning Commissioner Anthony Hood—"there will be no demonstrating in the hearing room"). For the next 3-plus hours, advocates from the neighborhood laid out the arguments to change their current zoning level from an R-5-B to an R-4, bringing tighter building constrictions to their blocks that would effectively bar the development of multi-unit buildings and pop-ups.

Proponents started organizing long ago

This March 21st meeting has been over four years in the making. A growing number of owners in the neighborhood have sold or converted their single family units into denser, multi-unit dwellings.

Some reacted strongly against this trend, and began to organize to stop it, seeing zoning as tool to halt the work. Denis Suski, a local resident, began to gather his neighbors together around these issues as early as 2012. The group knocked on doors, began to engage their ANC, and hosted numerous community meetings to educate and persuade others to join in the downzoning movement. They cited a number of arguments: parking problems, loss of the character of the neighborhood, cheap construction techniques, and removing family-sized units from a family neighborhood.


Lanier Heights Row houses next to a rehabbed "pop-up" on the left. Photo by Dan Malouff.

They encountered resistance, and that resistance started to organize as well. Opponents created an online group, Neighbors Against Downzoning (NADZ). They argued that Lanier Heights is already full of apartment buildings; that restricting further development in their neighborhood only was the very definition of NIMBYism; and that many of the stated concerns did not reflect the realities of the city, or even a majority of the affected neighbors.

Opponents also noted that this change would downzone everyone's homes in the area, no matter how they felt or what changes the future would hold. The debate has gone on for years, and it all came down to this final hearing, late Monday night in March.

How it went down that night

Given the length of this fight, it's not surprising that almost everyone in the room knew each other. Proponents and opposition shook hands, talked amongst themselves and spoke directly to each other in testimony. During the opening presentation, given by Mr. Suski, the crowd rumbled in approval and disapproval at appropriate moments, earning admonition from Commissioner Hood on a few occasions ("We don't demonstrate in the chamber. Let's keep it civil"). Suski opened with a long presentation that summarized all the downzoners' concerns and arguments. Afterwards, the floor opened for testimony, the overwhelming majority of which was in favor of the zoning change.

Many rallied against the loss of "air and light" suffered because of these new 50 foot walls on their back door steps. Others spoke of the city's need of a "diversity of housing" and to preserve the character and family culture of the rowhouse neighborhood. A few came out on the defense—"We are simply not a NIMBY neighborhood"—but rather insisted that this was about their rights as homeowners and neighbors.

A fraction of the attendees spoke out against the downzoning, saying that some of the home-types in this area no longer suit the needs of the city and should be split up into smaller units. What is more, they argued downzoning infringed on their rights as homeowners to be able to sell, profit and build on their own land.

This affects you, too

What was missing from the meeting was a larger discussion of how downzoning affects our city as whole. In a adding 1,000 new residents a month, more housing and more housing density is desperately needed. Proponents at the meetings set up this issue as a battle between personal homeowner rights and developers, but the larger issue of incoming residents needs to be part of the discussion.

As Ron Baker, an organizer with NADZ, said in an email, "[T]he downzoners are always complaining about "greedy developers" but this isn't about the developers. There is a huge wave of young people moving to DC who need housing that fits their needs and budgets."

This trend of increased restriction block by block is not new to DC, and hurts the city's current residents and future ones. If small cohorts of neighbors across the city similarly fight to restrict more dense development, our problems will only get worse. Zoning commissioners and the Office of Planning know this, but when faced with the overwhelming show of downzoning support in the room, the officials seemed to lean towards the change.


NADZ Neighborhood sign. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Organizing counts

No matter which side readers come out on in this argument, we should take away one lesson: don't ignore power of organization.

Both sides were organized; the downzoners were organized better.

As Billy Simpson, ANC 1C commissioner offered in support, "In my 3+ years of service, I have never seen a proposal as thoroughly community led and community vetted as this one." Mr. Suski and his team had spent years handing out fliers, personally talking to each neighbor, hosting forums, and giving out surveys. They arrived that night with clear arguments and presentations, aligned talking points and a strong sense of team and community.

The opposition was organized as well; their website is informative and thorough, and they too have been active in canvassing and posting neighborhood signs. But on one night in March their organization did not translate into as many butts in the seats, strength in numbers and testimony.

On Monday night the Zoning Commission took a final vote was taken on the matter, and the downzoning proposal was approved 5-0. You can see just how effective the organizing was in the side-switching that occurred. The Office of Planning in March took a neutral stance and offered no recommendation. Now, it submitted documents in favor of the downzoning.

Commissioner Rob Miller said that while he is typically "skeptical of downzoning in this city where we have critical demand for housing, and over 1,000 residents arriving a month," he was convinced by the show of support and argument presented in the March meeting. Marcie Cohen agreed, saying she "is concerned with downzoning" but was impressed by the "clarity and completeness" of this case.

National Park Service representative Peter May most directly attributed the downzoning win to the organizing work. He said the vote is "a testimony to the thoroughness of the work that was done before it was brought before us."

The hard work of community organization won here, and stripped away potential units in a city suffocating for more housing. Are we, Greater Greater Washington, ready to organize for the city and issues we care about?

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