Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Zoning

Zoning


Can a new zoning code make Mt. Rainier inviting and affordable?

Long considered up and coming, Mount Rainier is a Prince George's neighborhood just east of the District line that's attracting investors and where house prices are rising. Typically, more zoning means higher housing costs, but Mount Rainier residents are trying to use zoning to keep their neighborhood inclusive and affordable. Is that possible?


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Mount Rainier's MO: cheap and funky

Mount Rainier is a historic streetcar suburb bordering DC's Ward 5 that has, for decades, been an affordable destination for renters and owners as well as a haven for interracial, gay, and immigrant families. It's a diverse community, where multiculturalism is not an ideology, but a way of life.

A major part of the city's charm is this neighborly community vibe, which in turn is created and encouraged by the city's urban fabric: early 1900s vernacular architecture including porches near the sidewalks, front yard art installations, and other community-building features. Today, the motto of the local grocery co-op sums it up: "still cheap, still funky."

Today, Mount Rainier is still mostly a cozy collection of small bungalows and Victorians. But home prices are spiraling up, making renovations a hot topic.

Mount Rainier has been here before: Prior to the bursting of the early 2000s real estate bubble, Mount Rainier saw a wave of ambitious home renovations that peppered cheap and/or architecturally deaf flips and McMansions amidst the subsequent foreclosure crisis.


A Mount Rainier house during renovations. Photo by Milo Shepherdson.

Mount Rainier might change its zoning

In a process tracing back to the aforementioned era, the Mount Rainier community is considering a new zoning overlay to cover its single family homes. This Architectural Conservation Overlay Zone (ACOZ) has been proposed as a middle ground between a flipping free-for-all and a restrictive historic district.

The goal of the ACOZ is to encourage renovation and new home construction that is compatible with the existing built environment while preventing poorly executed projects.

As currently proposed, new code would impose detailed design standards and significantly expand the cases in which a building permit is required for residential home construction and renovations.

All homeowners would receive a "pattern book" with guidance and resources about maintaining Mount Rainier's residential architectural fabric, and a local committee would review applications for any project that required a permit to ensure compliance with the standards.

This might sound scary to some, but this is actually exactly how the process works now: A volunteer design review board already reviews many house renovation permits in Mount Rainier, so there is ample precedent for this type of review. Considering that current county zoning requires the board to review permits for residential fences, fears of the ACOZ creating a significant new permitting hurdle may well be overstated.

This has worked in Mount Rainier before

Conventional wisdom says that land use controls like zoning increase the cost of construction and restrict supply, making housing less affordable. And while most would support the laudable goal of maintaining the much loved sleepy neighborhood look, there is always a concern for unintended consequences.

Luckily, this is not Mount Rainier's first experiment with trying to invent a type of zone that both welcomes growth and incorporates the existing built environment.

In 1994 Prince George's County created the first Mixed Use Town Center zone in Mount Rainier, the goal being to revitalize traditional storefronts and invigorate the commercial district. The award-winning 2010 update of this plan established a community vision for a revitalized downtown Mount Rainier as a walkable, green, lively neighborhood-oriented retail center.

As many communities nationwide chase major chains or tourism dollars, Mount Rainier has recommitted to the local, the independent, and the original, saving environmental and financial resources with adaptive reuse of our historic buildings. The MUTC plan incentivizes historic reuse by imposing far more stringent review requirements on new construction, and establishes design standards to promote compatible and quality development.


Image from Prince George's County.

Redevelopment in Mount Rainier is also shaped by a second, larger zoning overlay known as the Gateway Arts District that stretches from the District border up Rhode Island Ave through Brentwood, North Brentwood, and Hyattsville. The Arts District was created in 2001 to provide policy infrastructure for the further development of the local economy and existing arts community, prohibiting many land uses and establishing at times extremely detailed visual standards for buildings and signage.

Nationally, multijurisdictional arts districts are all but unheard of, and the Gateway Arts District remains very much a community-driven experiment in progress. The dream of rezoning specific properties from conventional residential, commercial, and industrial categories to flexible mixed-use zoning that enables arts entrepreneurs to locate is in part confounded by the challenges created by requiring compliance with the zone's detailed design standards. It is unclear if recent developments like conversion of Mount Rainier's historic firehouse into Red Dirt Studios happen because or in spite of the zoning overlay.

A positive outcome isn't guaranteed

There's no guarantee that we can truly achieve our shared goals through yet more zoning. Chapel Hill, NC, used a similar zoning overlay somewhat differently to police tensions between owners and investors managing homes as rentals. There, advocates for "neighborhood conservation" draw a distinction between renting homes to families versus group houses of unrelated individuals, a sign of both town-gown and anti-immigrant tensions.

Payton Chung recently drew attention to a case in LA "of what Mike Davis called 'slow-growth Know-Nothingism,' Anglos are using their superior access to the machinery of zoning and local elections to write into law their feelings about 'those' people."

The Mount Rainier community is at a turning point where it must make choices. Do we let the hand of the free market move over the city, or is our local government capable of implementing a well-intentioned and well-designed public process to regulate residential development? Will the ACOZ worsen already difficult permitting processes, drive up the cost of renovation, and create a historic preservation mafia? Or can preservation and affordable housing coexist?

The past and the present are colliding in Mount Rainier, as they have in many other once-affordable historic neighborhoods like Brookland, Takoma Park, and Silver Spring. We believe Mount Rainier is special. Can we achieve a different outcome?

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Development


Opponents of a new Dupont building gamble and lose

Well, they blew it. Last month, the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission decided to turn down a deal for neighborhood benefits in the proposed development at St. Thomas Parish and roll the dice on fighting the project. That turned out to be a bad bet.


Roulette image from Shutterstock.

On January 12, the Board of Zoning Adjustment unanimously approved a variance so that the proposed building could occupy 86.7% of the lot instead of the 80% normally allowed under zoning.

Arson destroyed the St. Thomas Parish at the corner of 18th and Church streets NW in 1970, and now the church is partnering with developer CAS Riegler to build a new church along with a residential building whose profits will help fund the religious one. After going through historic preservation approval, the design extended just a small amount closer to the nearby alley than in the first drafts, requiring a zoning variance.

CAS Riegler and St. Thomas representatives invited neighborhood leaders and nearby residents to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding for neighborhood benefits during and after construction, like rules for loading trucks or noise on the roof deck. But many residents objected from the start to the size of the proposed building, which is larger than adjacent row houses but shorter than other large apartment buildings a block to the east and to the north.

Based on that sentiment, in December the ANC threw away the negotiated MOU and instead decided to oppose the variance. (Disclosure: I participated in the MOU negotiations and supported the proposed final deal.)


Rendering of the proposed church building and the residential building behind.

Zoning board members critique poorly-directed opposition

When announcing the ruling, several BZA members chided the ANC and neighbors for arguing against the project as a whole instead of addressing the actual variance under discussion. Most opposition focused on the building's height, but the building steps back at higher floors; adding lot occupancy would have just taken a small amount from the lower floors, and only in the rear, on the alley.

Chairperson Marnique Heath said, "The request that they've made is just for 6.7% of lot occupancy, which is rather minor. The primary concern of the parties in opposition was in regard to the large scale... [but] the strongest concerns that the opposing parties had really wouldn't be addressed by not granting that request."

Peter May, the zoning commissioner from the National Park Service (read this for why a Park Service employee is involved here) said,

I cannot see where the parties in opposition have actually explained how their objections relate to the requested relief. A lot of people were objecting to the loss of the park and to the height of the building. I could find almost nothing that specifically relates to lot occupancy, which is where the relief is requested. ...

I'm frankly a bit disappointed. We often hear from neighbors who are unhappy with changes in the status quo, but I saw precious little appreciation from the neighbors for the 45 years they had for this public park, and I would hope that we would have seen more of that.

The only word to the contrary was from Fred Hill, a very new member of the BZA. Hill said he was "actually a little torn and "can understand why I wouldn't want something this large at the end of that block." But he went along with his colleagues on the issue of the law, recognizing that the variance wasn't actually about the size of the building.

Neighborhood leaders took a better approach in the past

Unfortunately, the ANC failed to steer a useful conversation in this situation. When there was controversy over the last church-related development project in the neighborhood, a parking lot at 17th and O, former commissioner and longtime resident Bob Meehan urged all parties to focus on achievable, specific requests that related to the zoning relief being debated. The main issue there was roof deck noise affecting residents at the building to the north; people negotiated and found some compromise.


Remember this? Photo by Adam Lewis.


What got built. Photo from Wikimedia.

Bob Meehan isn't on the ANC any more, and the relative lack of experience showed in the way many members had trouble evaluating how much weight their support or opposition would carry. In the end, that relegated the ANC to an ineffective position and left neighbors worse off.

Some commissioners decided to oppose the variance because of confusing and bad legal advice from the DC government about whether the MOU was enforceable. But others opposed it outright, and the ANC did not try to hold a special meeting or ask for a delay to work out any possible enforceability problems.

The whole situation is reminiscent of the 2013 government shutdown. John Boehner was trying to negotiate with Barack Obama, but his House GOP caucus kept refusing to make any kind of deal out of a zeal for partisan purity. As a consequence, the ultimate budget policies ended up being worse for the GOP than if they had made a deal.

DC needs more housing, and this corner is a good place for it. By implacably resisting the height of the proposed building and repeatedly refusing to engage on specific, achievable issues, the ANC really lost the chance to have a voice, to improve the quality of life without reducing the ability to add new housing.

Update: This article was edited to add a paragraph about the MOU's enforceability in response to questions.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Zoning


DC's zoning update finally passes!

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


Photo by muroo on Flickr.

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

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

Thank you, planners!

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

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


Opponents protest outside a 2013 hearing.

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Send your thanks

Please fill out the fields below. You can modify the subject line and email text; your letter will be most effective if you use your own words. Thanks!

First name:    Last name:

Email address:

Street:    ZIP code:

Development


It's now harder to add more housing near Adams Morgan

The Lanier Heights neighborhood has a mix of apartment buildings, row houses divided into multiple units, and single-family row houses. A group of residents want to to prohibit all but the last category, and their proposal took a significant step forward in December. But other neighbors have been mobilizing to stop it.


Photo by John Leszczynski on Flickr.

Lanier Heights is either in or just north of Adams Morgan, depending how you define neighborhood boundaries. It's the area behind the Adams Morgan Safeway, between Columbia Road and Mount Pleasant.

The area's zoning, R-5-B, makes it legal to put as many units in a building as the property owner would like. It's the same zoning as the rest of Greater Adams Morgan, most of Dupont Circle, and the blocks of Columbia Heights between 16th and 14th to the east.

But a spate of projects converting row houses into multi-unit buildings, often with additions, has stirred some residents to ask for the neighborhood to instead get the R-4 category, which applies to Mount Pleasant and the parts of Columbia Heights and Logan Circle east of 14th. R-4 only allows one or two units in most buildings.


Residential zoning in Lanier Heights (red oval) and surrounding areas. Blue is R-5-B, purple is R-4. Image by the author from DC zoning base map. Click for full version.

The request has been percolating since 2012, but the DC Zoning Commission recently "set down" the case for hearings. Under the commission's rules, this also meant that the stricter zoning came into effect immediately, at least temporarily, meaning the down-zoning has already happened on a provisional basis.

What are the arguments for and against the proposal?

Advocates for the change say that when a property owner converts a row house into a building with multiple units, they often add on top or in back of the house, cutting down on light to adjacent homes. The changes increase the demand for parking spaces, noise, and garbage.

Also, some proponents argue that the city needs family-sized housing, that most new larger buildings mainly comrprise studios and one- and two-bedroom units, and that row houses are a resource for larger housing that shouldn't be lost.


A rear addition to a row house on Lanier Place. Images from the rezoning application.

Other neighbors disagree. Unlike some recent zoning cases, there is an organized group opposing this change, called Neighbors Against Down-Zoning (and with the amusing acronym NADZ). Members of NADZ say they are themselves homeowners who want to protect property rights and want the ability to convert their own buildings one day, gaining financially and making it easier to remain in their houses as their needs for space decrease but financial needs, perhaps, increase.

A stricter zone doesn't fit all (or perhaps even most) existing buildings

A few things complicate the idea. For one, Lanier Heights is not entirely or predominantly row houses—there are a lot of apartment buildings there too. The neighbors applying for the zoning change have tried to draw the boundaries of the zone to exclude most of those, though this makes the rezoning apply to several small, discontinuous pieces of larger blocks—much smaller than almost all of DC's current zoning.


Image from the rezoning application.

Even so, the zone also wouldn't exclude every apartment building, according to the DC Office of Planning (OP)'s analysis of the zoning application, which doesn't take a position for or against the rezoning.

The current zone, R-5-B, also is more lenient than R-4 in many ways besides the number of units. Lots in R-5-B can be smaller or narrower than in R-4, while R-4 also requires a larger rear yard and (since a zoning change last year) limits the height of buildings more strictly. The OP report estimates that about 20-25% of the properties affected would exceed the maximum height under the R-4 rules. "Most," says the report, have sufficient area and width, while the report doesn't discuss the number with currently legal rear yards that would become illegal.

However, in another filing in the case, Ronald Baker of NADZ disputes that notion. He says that "Primarily due to issues of lot width, rear yard depth and building height, we believe that a majority of row houses do not conform to the standards of the new R-4 zone (even when only counting houses that have not been substantially altered from their original state)."

You can read the OP report, Baker's opposition, and other documents by going here and entering case number 15-09. The OP report is document #12 and Baker's rebuttal on this specific point is #13.

What will this do to overall housing supply?

A July 2014 article in the Washington City Paper summarized many of the concerns and arguments on this issue. Aaron Wiener wrote,

The appeal of the argument made by [proponents] is clear: Historic rowhouses are more attractive than converted apartment buildings, and no one wants a giant shadow cast on his or her backyard. The danger is what happens when this seductive logic is applied across the city. ...

The essence of the disagreement, for the sake of the city's wellbeing, is this: One side wants to preserve the character of Lanier Heights for its current residents; the other wants to make the neighborhood available to more people in the future. ... Greater density is needed in central neighborhood like Lanier Heights if we're to avoid taxing our roads and transit system with concentrated growth on the city's fringes.

The OP report references many provisions of DC's Comprehensive Plan. Many speak of the need to include more people: "By accommodating a larger number of jobs and residents, we can create the critical mass needed to support new services, sustain public transit, and improve regional environmental quality," (§217 7), and "Affordable renter- and owner-occupied housing production and preservation is central to the idea of growing more inclusively." (§ 218 3)

But at the same time, the plan also says things like, "In both residential and commercial settings, infill development must be sensitive to neighborhood context. High quality design standards should be required, the privacy of neighboring structures should be respected, and density and scale should reflect the desired character of the surrounding area." (§307 3)

Those who don't want to see much change in Lanier Heights could point to the many other R-4 neighborhoods, where new housing is much more difficult to add (and which OP made even more difficult with changes last year). Many neighborhoods have gotten an "opt-out" from adding new housing; should Lanier Heights too? But this opt-out has concentrated new housing in fewer new neighborhoods, and as more seek stricter protections, it will further constrain where DC can add the housing it needs.

Several people have said they are "not against development," like former ANC commissioner Elham Deborzorgi, who said "I'm all for higher density and I'm all for growth, but I'm not for growth in the wrong places, and I don't think row houses are the place for three, four, five units," according to and article in the Current, or resident Hilda Gore (document 15 in the case), who said "I am not opposed to growth" while supporting this downzoning.

But if not here, density and growth where? While there has been new housing in other parts of greater Adams Morgan, many other projects have also seen strident opposition, like at the Meridian Center on 16th Street. On the other hand, neighborhood commissioners favored new condos and retail in place of a gas station on Adams Mill Road in 2013.


2013 rendering of 1827 Adams Mill Road. Image from PGN Architects.

Are there alternatives?

Zoning is a very blunt instrument, as is clear from the debate over how a change from R-5-B to R-4 would render many existing buildings non-conforming. But right now, it's one of the few tools neighbors can even choose from. Another, a historic district, failed in 2008.

A down-zoning would simultaneously limit the number of people who can be in Lanier Heights, the sizes of buildings, and other types of changes property owners might want to make. But there may be ways to address some neighbor concerns without also slamming the door to new potential residents.

OP could pursue several avenues to identify even better policies than the down-zoning being discussed now or the broader R-4 change from last year. Some places to start might be:

Focus more on quality than density. One Comprehensive Plan provision quoted above calls for "high quality design standards," but neither R-5-B nor R-4 have anything to do with quality.

Wiener wrote,

In a sense, Lanier Heights' pop-ups are among the best examples of the right way to boost density. From the street, most range from nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive, at least compared with infamous pop-ups that have raised hackles in nearby neighborhoods, like the V Street NW middle finger or the Belmont Tower in Kalorama.
A change to R-4 would ban the most "nearly invisible to aesthetically inoffensive" additions as much as the most disruptive. Some of the testimony in the record in support of the change talks about shoddy construction that might not even comply with existing laws. There may be other ways to stop that besides a blanket ban.

Plan for the housing the area needs. The Comprehensive Plan simultaneously talks of adding housing while protecting neighborhood character. One way to square the two is to identify how much housing DC needs, divvy it up among parts of the city, and then lead more proactive efforts to figure out where it can go.

If the Adams Morgan ANC wants to support density in certain spots and limit in others, that's not outrageous. But the current case-by-case approach to zoning just looks at adding or removing allowable housing in one spot, not the larger need. A broader conversation could better balance neighbor desires with citywide interests.

Perhaps OP will think about these issues when it updates the Comprehensive Plan, a process that's slated to start this year. Meanwhile, the Zoning Commission will schedule hearings in the coming year on the specific zoning for Lanier Heights.

Correction: The original version of this article identified Elham Dehbozorgi as an ANC Commissioner, but she is no longer on the commission. Also, she asked that the article be adjusted to include more of her original quotation to provide more context; that has been added.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Zoning


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

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


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

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

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

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

Good changes got caught up inside bigger, harder ones

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

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

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

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

The zoning board says, let's go

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

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

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

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

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


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

Change may be less than a year away!

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Zoning


Look how real estate professionals in 1948 perpetuated segregation in DC

It wasn't that long ago that DC's Real Estate Board told agents not to sell homes in white areas to black people. A 1948 report called Segregation in Washington put the discrimination into plain language.


The problem in a picture. All images from the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation's Capital.

Segregation in DC looked a lot different in the early part of the century. There was plenty of racism, but legally DC retained a lot of strong Reconstruction-era civil rights laws. The result was that one block could be white and the next black. Or, in wealthier neighborhoods, the front of a block was white, while alley dwellings were black.

But, the 1948 report claims, someone surreptitiously cut these laws from from the District Code at the turn of the century. This opened the door for realtors to use racial covenants, legal agreements that forbid selling a house to blacks forever. By the 1920s, these contracts were widespread. Southern-style segregation policies cropped up in other areas as well, especially after the Wilson administration segregated federal agencies.


The report covered racism in all aspects of life.

The realtor's code of ethics even included a rule saying "no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised, or offered to colored people."

What often happened was that the supply of housing available to blacks got smaller. Both the white and black populations were growing, but most of the new housing was for whites.

Zoning, implemented in the 20s, favored detached single family homes. The city banned unsafe alley dwellings, but didn't create new housing for blacks. When apartment buildings went up in black neighborhoods, they often were whites-only.

Covenants, the report argues, appealed to the racism of white residents, who would pay extra to live in an "exclusive" neighborhood where the type of residents would be stable, familiar, and "high-class."

Realtors and developers were happy to meet the market for these contracts. They discouraged smaller apartment buildings that were harder to regulate, and advertised the better value of a house with a covenant on it.

The result was simple: new houses for blacks cost 30% more, so fewer could afford them. Rents were higher. Blacks had a hard time getting loans for repairs. And so, African Americans took smaller apartments in older neighborhoods.


The booklet sees hypocrisy.

More about the report

The report focused on housing segregation, but also covered similar practices in education, health, employment, and social life. Over twelve sections, the report charted how blacks and whites received unequal treatment in nearly every aspect of life, and how that took a toll on human lives. But, they argued, shrinking the supply of quality housing available to blacks was the root of the most corrosive social ills.

Its punchy text, written by Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who is often confused with his uncle, a Major League Baseball commissioner who had the same name), contained tables of facts, lurid stories, and humiliating anecdotes of foreigners disgusted by what they found blocks from the monuments. Infographics made dismal statistics like higher arrest rates and more expensive rents impossible to ignore.

The report was hugely successful, introducing a topic to a wide audience. It made space for activists who had been fighting segregation for years. Old arguments got traction in the political scene. It challenged the clout of civic associations and developers. In neighborhoods, it was much harder to openly defend racial covenants, so tactics to preserve neighborhood character changed.

It certainly didn't end housing discrimination. The effects of covenants, which were legal until 1968, meant that black families had less wealth, even as they became the majority group in DC. Much of the issues behind gentrification and concentrated poverty are not hangovers from slavery, but were proactively made worse in the 20th century to preserve some residents' sense of neighborhood character.


A typical chapter.


The book predicted relocation of blacks east of the Anacostia.


The report argues that segregation made unsanitary conditions worse.


The report lays blame on the real estate industry and citizens' associations.

Correction: The original version of this article said former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote Segregation in Washington. His nephew, who had the same name, actually wrote it.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Development


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

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


Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

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

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

Is this a good idea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An accessory apartment in an alley building.

Approve accessory apartments now!

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

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

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

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Zoning


DC Council chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking Mayor Bowser's zoning board nominee

Mayor Muriel Bowser has nominated David Franco, a local developer, to sit on the DC Zoning Commission, but DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson is blocking the nomination. I spoke with Franco about work, his vision for DC, and his views on the need to build more housing.


David Franco. Image from video by Level 2 Development.

Franco would replace Marcie Cohen, a former affordable housing and community development professional. Cohen has been a strong advocate for zoning that allows more overall housing in DC, speaking about the need for more housing many times. (Disclosure: she also lives on my block.)

It'll be important for Cohen's successor to also understand the importance of growing the District's housing supply so that new and long-time residents can all find places to live that they can afford. Does Franco? I sat down with him to find out.

Mendelson isn't happy about developer nominees

Mayor Bowser chose Franco after Cohen's term expired earlier this year. However, he first has to be confirmed by the DC Council, and the Zoning Commission falls under the purview of Chairman Phil Mendelson. After a few months passed without a hearing, Mendelson recently said he's not planning to move forward.

Mendelson told the Washington Blade that he's concerned about having developers on the commission. "David Franco is an active developer with a development company that has cases before the Zoning Commission," he told reporter Lou Chibbaro, Jr. "He or his company has appeared before the Zoning Commission several times over the last 24 months. That's the primary concern I have."

Mendelson also told Chibbaro he was unhappy Bowser didn't talk with stakeholders like citizens' groups before making her pick.

Whether developers should sit on the commission has been controversial in the past. When Adrian Fenty was mayor, he nominated two developers and the council, then chaired by Vincent Gray rejected one. When Gray went on to be mayor, he nominated Cohen and his longtime staffer Rob Miller; the commission now includes no developers.

Cohen's not a typical community member; Franco, not a typical developer

Both Cohen and Miller have been strong supporters of the overall need to build more housing. On recent cases about whether homeowners can rent out basements or garages or add units to row houses, Miller and Cohen have been the strongest votes for increasing housing supply. Chairman Anthony Hood (who Fenty wanted to replace and Gray renominated) along with Architect of the Capitol representative Michael Turnbull have been more skeptical of the need for housing, and the National Park Service's Peter May has been the swing vote on key decisions.

Unlike many developers, Franco has also been a supporter of the District's Inclusionary Zoning program which granted extra density in exchange for requiring projects to include some below-market affordable housing. He speaks very proudly of a deal he worked out to save affordable housing on 14th Street across from his View 14 development.

I recently spoke with Franco about his development work and his vision for his service on the Zoning Commission. Here are some of his answers; an upcoming post will delve into some specific issues we discussed in more detail.


Discount Mart in Anacostia. Photo by AboutMyTrip dotCom on Flickr.

Tell me a bit about your history in DC, including your business ventures, and your work in development.

My father owned a children's apparel, furniture and toy store on 12th and G Street, which was originally opened by my uncle in 1939. As a child, I grew up in my father's store and he helped launch my family's other retail venture, Discount Mart, which was a chain of discount department stores serving areas of northeast and southeast DC.

In my early 20s, I left the family business to join a partnership that acquired Tracks Nightclub and Trumpets restaurant. After a few years, I realized the nightlife business was not for me an decided to go back to my retail roots, opening up a chain of men's clothing stores catering to the gay market.

The business eventually grew to six outlets before I realized I could no longer ignore my passion for architecture and my fascination with urban planning, which led me to real estate development. I partnered with a close friend, Jeff Blum, and in 2003, we finished our first project together—a 12-unit condo development on Chapin Street called The Mercury.

We [later] acquired the Nehemiah Shopping Center, which had become run-down and crime-ridden at the time, and we redeveloped it into Capital View Apartments on 14th St. We also developed The Harper on 14th Street and the Keener-Squire and Takoma Central apartment buildings in Takoma, DC.


View 14, at the corner of 14th and Florida. Images from Level 2 Development.

What development project in DC are you most proud of and why?

Without a doubt, View 14 [at Florida Avenue and 14th Street NW] is our proudest accomplishment. Through the project's Planned Unit Development, we were able to come up with a really creative approach to save the 48-unit Crest Hill Apartments (now Milestone Apartments) from losing its low-income affordability, which would have resulted in the building being redeveloped as market-rate apartments.

During the time that we were beginning to develop View 14, Crest Hill Apartments across the street was being sold at market rate and the tenants could not afford to buy it without an additional $1 million in gap funding. The stories of families we met, some who had been there at least 25 years, resonated with us and inspired us to help our neighbors.

Our solution was to propose a $1 million contribution to the Sankofa Tenants Association as a portion of our affordability proffer along with some on-site units. The support we received for this approach was far-reaching and we received bench approval from the Zoning Commission in the second-fastest PUD of that time.

Soon after Zoning Commission approval, we funded the donation and saved the building, though our own project would soon be in peril with the financial meltdown. We funded the donation from equity, and took a huge risk. I remember a discussion with my business partner Jeff Blum during the dark days of the recession, lamenting that we may not be able finish construction and that all of the project equity was lost, and our company finished. We realized and both agreed, "If, in fact, all is lost, at least at the end of the day we did some good and saved 48 families from losing their homes."

There's often a tension between citywide priorities, like the need to create more housing, and local neighborhood interests which often manifest as opposition. How do you think the Zoning Commission should balance these pressures?
I think there are smart ways to create more housing where it is appropriate to do so. There is no catch-all solution, but rather it's a process that must include grassroots neighborhood input that is thoughtfully considered.

It's often a delicate balance of what's good for the people in the neighborhood and what's good for the larger community, but I don't think that those types of priorities and decisions need to have a winner and a loser. I think digging deep to understanding the issues and working hard to help develop and guide creative solutions will create more win-win solutions.


The Harper, at 14th and T.

How do you think the District could best approach the need for subsidized affordable housing?

There is no silver bullet. ... The District currently utilizes bonus density to subsidize affordable housing, which has been effective in generating new affordable housing and has not disrupted affordable housing production (contrary to the naysayers).

This is an effective tool and we should look at this more carefully as more affordable housing is sought, however, there will not be the same opportunities that came with the original bonus density plan. We cannot simply add bonus density ubiquitously without changing the character of our neighborhoods. We need to look at bonus density selectively and responsibly determine which areas can accommodate it and which areas cannot.

There are other [solutions], such as tax abatements, and we may also want to consider that to some degree we can't meet a zero-sum cost structure and that ultimately some land values will be reduced to enable new multi-family development opportunities. All of these solutions have their pros and cons and should be thoroughly analyzed and vetted.

Anything else you'd like people to know?
I would really like to clarify why I am interested in being a Zoning Commissioner. I will have the opportunity to utilize my passion for urban planning, my skills as a developer along with my passion for the District to positively impact this city that I've always called home.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Development


People pushing to limit Airbnb in DC say it raises housing prices. Does it?

At-large councilmember Vincent Orange is proposing two bills to limit the Airbnb short-term rental service in DC. Proponents say that taking housing out of the long-term rental pool will raise prices. However, Orange himself pooh-poohed this kind of argument the last time he was involved in a debate over housing supply. Which take is right?


Photo by OuiShare on Flickr.

Lydia DePillis reported on the two bills, one proposed by Unite Here Local 25, the hotel workers' union, and the other from large hotels.

The union bill would make it illegal to rent a unit on Airbnb except for renting out a room inside one's own house, in a single-family (detached or row) house, with a special permit, and after notifying all nearby neighbors and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

The industry bill would allow owners to rent out a totally independent unit like a legal basement apartment and not necessarily live at the property, but each person could only own a maximum of five Airbnb units and only one in any single building.

A Unite Here consultant analyzed Airbnb listings and found 66% of DC's 3,500 Airbnb units were for separate units, which the union's bill would outlaw. 40% of units were from owners who owned more than one (which also would be illegal under their bill). One owner had 79 units, DePillis reported.

Addendum: Since there was some confusion, it's also good to understand that Airbnb already faces some regulation in DC; in particular, it collects the same tax that hotels pay, which was one of the biggest complaints of an uneven playing field in the past.

Does Airbnb affect housing supply and prices?

Whatever you think of these specific provisions (and it seems there is a decent argument for some of them and not others), there's also a fascinating discussion about whether Airbnb raises the cost of long-term rental apartments in DC.

The general theory of housing supply holds that if the demand for apartments and houses exceeds the supply, the prices will rise and only the more affluent people will be able to afford them. When a proposal arises to restrict supply, like limitations on row houses enacted in June (often somewhat misleadingly called "pop-up regulations"), it raises a concern that the cut in potential supply will further exacerbate housing unaffordability.

Unite Here leader John Boardman told DePillis, "Are we going to allow Airbnb to subtract large numbers of housing units from an already waning housing stock? Are we going to allow that extraction to drive rents already higher than they are now?"

Councilmember Orange hasn't sympathized with the supply argument in the past. Earlier this year, he advocated for a blanket moratorium on making row houses have three or more units (a proposal which didn't pass).

There isn't unanimity on this issue among activists pushing for more housing supply as a way to keep rents from rising. In San Francisco, where a housing crunch is extremely acute right now, voters will consider a ballot initiative this year, Measure F, to limit Airbnb. While the pro-more-housing Renters PAC voted to oppose Measure F, PAC leader Sonja Trauss does think Airbnb pushes up prices. In a phone conversation, she said that while she has some specific qualms with F, Airbnb does remove units from the long-term rental market.

In DC, DePillis noted that Airbnb listings only represent at most 1.1% of housing units at the moment. A percentage point or two can certainly make a difference on the margins. On the other hand, "this won't affect many units" has also been an argument some have made against worrying about supply in other zoning cases.

The best solution to a "waning housing stock" is to grow the housing stock rather than keep it out of the hands of visitors, people who also should be able to find a place to stay. (Letting visitors enjoy neighborhoods beyond just downtown, where most hotels are, also boosts the economy and people's enjoyment of our wonderful city and region.)

This post has been updated with more information on Sonja Trauss's views on Measure F in San Francisco following a phone conversation.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Support Us