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Posts about Zoning


How strict land-use rules keep poor people in Mississippi

For much of the 20th century, the US labor market presented unrivaled opportunity for low-income workers to move to greener economic pastures. If the economy sucked in Oklahoma, Colorado, or Mississippi, you could move to California, Connecticut, or New York. Though certain barriers to moving, like racial discrimination, have since lessened, new ones have risen to block low-income Americans' access to thriving cities.

Image by Peretz Partensky on Flickr.

This is the second in a series of posts on the social and economic costs of unusually strict land-use regulation. You can find the first post here.

According to a recent working paper by economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, it's getting harder for low-income and less-educated Americans to move to prosperous places. They find that, on net, these workers are trickling out of expensive cities, and stranded in poorer states. The reason, they argue, is restrictive land-use policies that price lower-wage workers out of economically-vibrant areas. This isn't just rough for a few individuals in Mississippi and other low-wage states; the authors find that the falling migration rates of lower-income workers might have increased US inequality by as much as 10% over the last three decades.

Let's back up to Ganong and Shoag's first observations. During the mid-20th century, average per capita incomes in poorer states grew faster than per capita incomes in richer states, closing the gap in average incomes between the two by about 1.8% per year.

This happened because in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, people migrated from poorer states to richer states. This migration increased the supply of labor in richer states, which caused local wages to rise more slowly. Conversely, cross-state migration decreased labor supply in poorer states, and helped buoy wages and incomes there.

Drawings by Jonathan Neeley.

But something happened in the last few decades. Fewer people were moving from poor to rich states.

The graphs below show the relationship between average state income and state population growth in 1940-1960 (left panel) and 1990-2010 (right).

Let's look at California in these graphs as an example. In 1940, people in California had high incomes (the state had a high "logged per capita income"). So from 1940-1960, California also had high population growth rate--people moved there to earn those high incomes themselves.

In 1990-2010, people living in California still had high incomes relative to people in other states. But its population growth rate had fallen dramatically--fewer people were moving to California. Why the change? The authors' argument is that restrictive land-use policies have kept people out.

All charts from Ganong and Shoag's paper.

And, as you might expect, this fall in migration slowed the rate at which incomes in rich and poor states came together. Between 1990 and 2010, income convergence was less than half what the authors observed before; just before the Great Recession, it had slowed to a crawl.

The graphs below show this. The left panel plots the relationship between initial state income in 1940 ("log income per capita"), and state income growth in 1940-1960. As we'd expect, the richer the state was initially, the lower its income growth--because lots of workers moved to those rich states, increasing their labor supplies, which tempered wage growth. Conversely, the lower the state's starting per capita income, the faster its income grew.

But this stopped happening in the 1990-2010 period, shown in the right panel. Both states that were rich and poor in 1990 experienced similar income growth in the 20 years that followed.

Mississippi is a good example of this. You can see that Mississippians had low incomes in 1940, but per capita income grew rapidly between 1940 and 1960, compared to other states. In other words, Mississippi was part of a broader trend during this period: a shrinking gap between rich and poor states. In 1990, the state still had the lowest per capita income of all states but its income growth rate was relatively worse--posting a growth rate barely better than already-wealthy Massachusetts. The result? More inequality across rich and poor states.
The role of land use regulations

To get at the role of land-use law, the authors created a way to measure how intense a state's land use regulations are. They track the number of local appeals court records that mention the phrase "land-use," scaled by the size of each metro. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of mentions has increased over time:

The authors show that, even accounting for the amount of available land, rich metros that developed more-restrictive land-use rules built less new housing, reduced migration among lower-income people, and curbed existing state trends towards per capita income convergence. This not only shunted the poor into low-wage states, it also exacerbated US inequality because the wealthy and educated are still streaming into rich areas. Migration is still worth it to them, as they are able to pay high rents and mortgages. As the authors write,

Had convergence continued apace through 2010, the increase in hourly wage inequality from 1980 to 2010 would have been approximately 10% smaller. The US is increasingly characterized by segregation along economic dimensions, with limited access for most workers to America's most productive cities and their amenities.
In other words, allowing for more housing (and more affordable housing) in places like suburban Washington could lower US inequality to levels seen in the mid-twentieth century. That seems worth the effort, or at least worth considering.


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.


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.

April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.

The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.

September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.

Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.

Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


Houston took this winning approach to adding housing. Could DC do the same?

Though DC has been adding lots of housing, new development is concentrated in large, expensive buildings in neighborhoods that are running out of empty lots to build on. Houston's approach to densification—replacing detached single family homes with townhouses—offers some important lessons for DC's long-term growth.

This type of infill is illegal in DC's low-density neighborhoods. All images from Google Maps.

DC set a record last year when it permitted nearly 5,000 new housing units, the most ever in recorded history. Looking at the breakdown of new units permitted, we see a striking pattern: almost all new housing is in large multifamily apartment buildings.

Chart by the author.

Because high-rises cost more to build than smaller buildings, they come with high price tags once completed. That means that new construction in DC is concentrated at the luxury end of the market, which is far too expensive for most households to afford.

All this new housing is geographically concentrated, too. Neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Southwest Waterfront have added the lion's share of DC's new housingplaces where there are many open lots to build on and few neighbors to complain. Meanwhile, DC's single family residential neighborhoods have largely avoided change.

While this has been an effective strategy in the last few years, it can't continue forever. There are only so many liberally-zoned former industrial sites and parking lots that we can build on. If DC is to continue to grow, areas that contain primarily single family homes will need to densify.

The Houston approach

Houston is famous for its car-oriented sprawl. Though it lacks a zoning code, the city has historically mandated low-density development through non-zoning regulations, like minimum lot sizes and stringent parking requirements.

But in 1999, Houston enacted sweeping land-use reforms: it decreased the minimum residential lot size from 5,000 square feet to 1,400 in close-in neighborhoods. In effect, this reform legalized townhouses in areas with suburban-style houses on huge lots. Two or three houses could now take the spot of one.

The political significance of these reforms cannot be overstated. Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it's exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that "missing middle" housingforms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs.

The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses:

The Rice Military neighborhood.

Shady Acres.

The infill process is typically incremental, with detached homes being replaced one at a time. This often leads to a diversity of housing styles on a single block:

Other blocks are unrecognizable in their transformation:

And in some parts of the city, this redevelopment process has gone hand-in-hand with light rail expansion:

(There are so many striking before-and-after images that I programmed a twitter bot, @densifyingHOU, that tweets one out every day.)

One major benefit of these townhouses: they're cheap! Development at this scale uses cheaper construction methods than those of large buildings, and Houston's straightforward permitting process reduces regulatory uncertainty and thus financing costs. A cursory search on real estate websites reveals luxury townhouses a mile from downtown from the low $300s.

Now, Houston's approach does have its flaws. Parking is still mandated, setback requirements and inward-facing homes make for a lousy pedestrian experience, and some new houses are, frankly, ugly. In some areas, unhappy homeowners have lobbied successfully for block-level regulations that re-outlaw townhouses.

But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling.

Planners in cities like DC should take note: the status quo, where we protect the low-density character of leafy neighborhoods and funnel development into a small portion of the city, needs a thorough rethinking.


Was your neighborhood "obsolete" in 1950?

The National Capital Park and Planning Commission, forerunner to today's NCPC, declared most of Shaw, Mount Vernon Square and Triangle, Capitol Hill, Southwest, Buena Vista and other neighborhoods "obsolete" in 1950. Yes, amazingly, they really used that term.

"Problem areas" and "obsolete characteristics" according to NCPPC, 1950.

That's some of the astounding information in the 1950 document Washington, Present and Future from NCPPC. ShawNeighborhood listserv participant RayM scanned a number of pages showing plans to radically remove multi-family dwellings from historic neighborhoods and force the kind of low-density, single-use, less walkable pattern of development that permanently destroyed many urban areas.

What was wrong? People lived in neighborhoods with alley dwellings, some of which were less well maintained. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talked about how planners in Boston declared the North End a similar "slum" simply because people lived at a certain population density per acre, and the view at the time was that government had to force people to live more spread out.

There are certainly reasons to believe race played a part as well; these neighborhoods were predominantly African-American. The solution, people thought at the time, was to tear down the old neighborhoods and build new ones in the "towers in the park" style of the housing projects we all know and loathe today. Here is their plan for Shaw:

Fortunately for Shaw, a thriving neighborhood with beautiful old row houses and some of DC's best-preserved carriage homes, most of this plan never came to pass. It largely did, however, in Southwest:

Besides wholesale demolition of neighborhoods, planners tried to push people out of so-called "blighted" neighborhoods with zoning. On Capitol Hill, for instance, the zoning plan wanted to take the fabric of different size buildings coexisting and declare that illegal. Instead, all commerce in the NE quadrant of the Hill would be restricted to H Street, Massachusetts, and a 2-block stretch of 8th, and all multifamily to Maryland Avenue.

They also wanted to widen 11th Street and demolish everything for 2 blocks on either side of East Capitol to create a new extended Mall. (This is the reason that the street between A and C NE is Constitution, not B, and likewise in SE is Independence, even though the original L'Enfant plan called them B Street).

Many of these decisions were efforts to segregate

It's important to recognize that some characteristics of the District today come directly out of explicit "social engineering" decisions that planners pushed on the District when the 1958 zoning code was written. Rules against accessory dwellings and corner stores, parking minimums and single-use zoning were all efforts to zone many of the people, mostly African-American, out of the neighborhoods.

That's just one reason to be pleased that last January, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6th, doing away with the code that came from this era.

This post originally ran in 2012, but since the history hasn't changed and the new zoning code goes into effect soon, we wanted to share it again!


Get to know DC’s new zoning with this map

After years of delays and extensive public input, DC's zoning board approved a new zoning code in January. It will actually take effect in September. This map helps homeowners understand how the new zoning applies to them.

The zoning update includes some key steps forward, like allowing some homeowners to rent out garages or basements where it's illegal today.

Otherwise, unless you live downtown, nothing dramatic will change. The zoning update generally doesn't change the density and form someone can build in your neighborhood. Most specific rules, like how big and what shape a "court" can be, also don't change, and you're not expected to know them all unless you're an architect or land use attorney.

But what does it mean?

The reason so little seems to be changing is because the zoning code basically consists of three parts: an administrative framework, rules for development in general, and land use rules specific to each zone district.

Most of the rewrite was reorganizing existing rules written in 1958 and patched several times over the years. That means updating the language, addressing new uses, and closing loopholes. Sure, there are some big controversial city-wide changes like permitting granny cottages in single family residential areas and reducing parking minimums.

What will likely change is the name of the zone you live in. In the old code, most zones were R (Residential) or C (Commercial); now, residential zones include the old R, RF (for residential flats, like row houses), and RA (for apartments); many commercial zones, which have long allowed residential and commercial together, are called MU (mixed-use), or D for downtown zones, and so on.

This table shows how the existing zone districts fit into the new zones. The interactive map (image at the top of the post) lets you compare old and new zoning side by side.

There are a lot more zone districts now—sort of. Some neighborhoods (like Cleveland Park) have "overlays" that customize their zones. Many changed the underlying zoning dramatically, which wasn't readily understandable without flipping back and forth between sections.

In the new code, instead of overlays, there is just a new basic zone with all the rules from the underlying zone or the overlay. For example, the old R-1-B zone with the Foxhall and Tree and Slope overlay (for areas near the Potomac river on the west side of DC) will be R-9. The R-1-B zone with Naval Observatory overlay will be R-12.

The actual effect of the overlays remains, but you don't have to reconcile two totally different sections of zoning code to figure out what's going on. I think it's a lot simpler to understand, whether you're designing a building or imagining what your neighborhood could look like.


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.

This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.

Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.

"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.

Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.

Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.

Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.


Take a closer look at these houses. They used to be stores.

For generations, DC had a healthy mix of stores and homes in every neighborhood. Only a fraction of that diversity is still there today because 60 years ago, the city's zoning laws changed to outlaw new retail from going up in residential areas. Some corner stores are still there, but most have turned into homes. In the photos below, check out former storefronts that are now somebody's living room window.

The entrance and windows in the front 9th and Q Street NW don't look like what's on most houses. That's because it used to be a restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

In 1958, DC's Zoning Commission designated a number of residential areas as R-4 or R-5 zones, meaning they were for row houses or apartment buildings, respectively. New retail space isn't permitted to open inside either type of zone.

The retail that was already there was grandfathered into the new law, meaning it's been allowed to stay (though if a store closes and remains vacant for three years, the location can no longer be commercial).

On the map below, which looks at the area north of East Capitol Street and south of H Street NE, the Zoning Commission's change limited new commercial buildings to the places in yellow:

Base image from Google Maps.

Below are a few examples of Capitol Hill buildings that used to house retail. We focused on that area because it's where we live, but as the photo above indicates, you can find buildings just like them all over the District.

1201 F Street NE

Photo by the authors.

Located at the intersection of 12th Street, F Street, and Maryland Avenue, this corner building once housed a grocery store owned by William G. Pond (you can read about that in Boyd's Directory of DC). The former bay window of the store is now the entrance to a home and the former store entrance facing the intersection is now a small window. The concrete steps leading to the original entrance are still visible on the right side of this photo.

711 E Street NE

Photo by the authors.

In 1910, Edward T. Noll built this one-story retail building and its twin at 713 E Street NE. The buildings have large, protruding bay windows and decorative overhangs, but are now both homes.

627 3rd Street NE

Photo by the authors.

Abutting an alley, this building has housed several grocery stores throughout its existence, including stores owned by Herman W. Menkin in 1909 (Boyd's Directory of DC, 1909), Myer and Rae Band from 1933 to 1969, and Cynthia Sewell as recently as 2011. The first-floor windows used to flank the entrance, with a sign overhead, but the entrance for the home is now on the right side of the building.

1000 Constitution Avenue NE

Photo by the author.

The corner of this building used to have an entrance facing the intersection, which has since been replaced by bricks. A door leading to what was once the entrance for the upstairs apartment is visible on the right side of the photo. In the early 1900's, Leon Skop ran a grocery store from this space.

The five buildings described above are among the many red pins in this incomplete map of former retail locations in or near the Capitol Hill Historic District. Photos and descriptions for each of these pins are available at our blog,

Red pins are homes that once included retail spaces. The pins are clustered in the Northwest corner of the map because the authors have not yet systematically catalogued former stores east of 14th Street NE and south of East Capitol Street. Base image from Google Maps.

In some places, corner stores are coming back!

After a laborious eight-year process, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6, 2016. For the first time since 1958, the code will permit new corner grocery stores by right.

Also, limited types of other corner stores will be allowed under a variance in seven of 34 types of residential zones. The areas zoned R-4 on Capitol Hill are included in this change.

Despite the well-documented benefits of street fronting stores—they provide an opportunity to meet neighbors, increase the number of eyes on the street, and create a pleasant place to complete your daily errands by foot—some DC residents opposed the 2016 zoning change out of fear that "corner stores would alter residential neighborhoods by bringing in a commercial use."

But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.

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