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Posts about Zoning


A zoning change in Fairfax will allow more density

In Fairfax, the zoning code now allows buildings that are near Metro stations or that are part of certain commercial corridors to be denser than than before. The Board of Supervisor's decision to approve the change last week is emblematic of an effort to make sure that new housing and office space are paired with transportation options.

Tysons Corner is one of the densest places in Fairfax, but the county is prepping for demand in other places as well. Photo by Ryan Stavely on Flickr.

The thought behind Fairfax's changes is that putting more density in these locations will allow the county's population to grow without adding much more congestion because new development will put people close to existing and coming public transportation.

And the commercial corridors that aren't as close to a Metro station may become denser as a way to create more mixed use areas in Fairfax where people don't have to drive as much for basic errands. This will also make these places ripe for future transit projects or improvements as well.

The county plans to do this by increasing the limit of a new building's floor area ratio, or FAR. FAR is a typical tool in figuring out how dense a building can be rather than just designating a number of floors or lot coverage. Two buildings that look different could have the same FAR depending on how they're built.

This is not really what the county has in mind. Photo of Sao Paolo Brazil by Kalexander2010 on Flickr.

The higher the FAR, the bigger and denser any building is allowed to be. Fairfax's new zoning will allow FARs up to 5.0 in designated areas, which is more than the current maximums of FAR 2.0 or 3.0 in many of the areas slated for rezoning. That means if a building takes up 100% of a building lot, the building can be built to a maximum of five stories. If the building takes up half the lot the building can be ten stories. Either way, the building is at FAR 5.0.

Here's what opponents said

The zoning changes did meet opposition from people who said that a FAR of 5.0 would be too extreme a jump from what has been allowed. Even some very urban places, like Rosslyn, which is home to some of the region's tallest buildings, has an allowed FAR of less than 5.0.

Another issue is whether or not Fairfax is allowing developers to build without having to provide anything to mitigate some of the negative effects from their projects in neighborhoods pinpointed for the change.

On an episode of the Kojo Nnamdi Show last week, before the Fairfax vote, Terry Maynard of the group Reston 20/20 argued that Fairfax was giving too much leeway to developers and not doing enough to protect existing communities from possible negative impacts of new development.

Another contention was that while greater density is okay or even ideal around the county's Metro stations, increasing density in places without rapid transit would just lead to more congestion, which would be harmful. Opponents of the increase argued that Fairfax should instead wait to develop areas after new public transportation investments have been made.

That's because while various comprehensive plans for the targeted neighborhoods contain recommendations for both density and mitigation, for neighbors the bill in front of the Board of Supervisors would only allow new density, leaving both the county and developers off the hook for providing the amenities and infrastructure promised in the comprehensive plan.

Plus for a county as large as Fairfax, many contend that such a general change ignores the differences in specific areas of the county.

Zoning fights in Fairfax aren't new

This wasn't exactly Fairfax's first rodeo when it comes to debating how dense an area should be.

Seven Corners ,at the extreme eastern edge of Fairfax County, has already been one major flashpoint in the fight over density and development in Fairfax. The neighborhoods in Seven Corners are already pretty dense, and the tangle of roadways that lends the area its name makes it a difficult place to get around no matter how you're traveling.

Plans to redevelop the area to build housing in existing commercial spaces and improve the road network (especially for pedestrians and cyclists) led to a major election challenge for Penny Gross, who represents the area on the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. The plan moved forward and Gross won her reelection last fall, but opponents still haven't given up and are likely to keep pressing the issue, especially as redevelopment begins in earnest.

More of this is coming to Fairfax. Photo by Dan Reed.

Reston is another big one. The area between the original development founded by Robert E. Simon and the Reston Town Center is already pretty dense, but Fairfax is planning for more growth to take advantage of the opening and further construction of the Silver Line. Those against more density say the area is already overburdened and Restonians are being asked to shoulder too much of the county's projected growth while developers aren't paying enough for the impacts of their projects.

Reston already looks like this. More is coming. Photo by Payton Chung.

More broadly, this is about Fairfax's fundamental approach to planning

For some, the thought of new businesses and residences in places with a lot of existing congestion is reason to be nervous. Many also feel that Fairfax is changing too much, and is no longer the suburban retreat that they felt like they bought into.

But some of Fairfax's current congestion and development problems stem from a history of growth that missed chances to mitigate congestion by building walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development. Keeping density low and sprawled out has ensured that many people have to drive for almost any trip they take, which is a problem Fairfax is now trying to fix.

An obsession with keeping car traffic moving is partly to blame for the zoning rules that actually make sure people drive more rather than less. That's especially true when development is contingent on whether or not a road is wide enough to handle expected traffic, as we know that widening roads usually just incentivizing people to drive.

Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth emphasized that point on that same episode of the Kojo Show I mentioned above. When the debate over whether or not FAR 5.0 would mean too much density, he was careful to point out that the way a building is designed is far more important than the actual density which can be configured in many ways.

It's also worth noting that a 5.0 FAR is just the maximum. Ultimately, the market will figure out how big a particular project should be, and not every building will be built to the maximum unless demand for development in these areas takes a very big, unexpected upswing.

Cities and neighborhoods thrive when they're allowed to change. That's why we still allow new construction even in neighborhoods with strict historic preservation rules. And its necessary to house a growing population as well. Embracing that and working with that knowledge in mind is being proactive about the future rather than accepting the inevitable.


National links: More biking in Atlanta

Atlanta's investing a ton of money in bike infrastructure, the negative effects of racist housing policies haven't gone anywhere, and sprawl is costing commuters big time. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Green Lane Project on Flickr.

Bike lanes for Atl: The Atlanta Regional Commission has approved $1 billion dollars for bike infrastructure in the region over a 25 year period. It sounds like a lot, but considering that it's part of an $85 billion plan... is it? (Bicycling)

Redlining the future: Historic housing policies that barred minorities from living in certain neighborhoods. One consequence that's still playing out is that very rich and very poor neighborhoods are increasing in number, and the children in the poor ones tend to make less money in the future and have more mental health problems. These cartoons explain the matter more in-depth. (Vox)

Sprawl Tax: Every year we hear about how much it costs Americans to be stuck in traffic, but what if we framed it as "how much policies that create congestion cause us?" Introducing the Sprawl Tax. In the 50 largest metro areas, sprawling land use costs commuters an average of $107 billion per year. (City Observatory)

Light rail in Austin: Transit advocates in Austin have been pushing for light rail for over 30 years. With the city focusing on mobility and a bond measure possibly going on this fall's ballot, they are hoping that the rail segment will be added to the mix. (Austin American Statesman)

On the edge: A common theme among transit planners is balancing service for an urban core versus the regional edge. It's important not to forget that transit functions as a network, meaning that if gets weaker in one place, it gets weaker everywhere. When we recognize that core improvements can help the edge and vice versa, our conversations are more productive. (Human Transit)

Quote of the Week

"These great shortcuts used to spread by word of mouth, but now they just spread like wildfire" - Traffic Engineer Paul Silberman on more and more cut through traffic directed off of main streets and into neighborhoods by the app Waze. (Washington Post)


A court ruling on a Brookland development could imperil future housing near Metro stations

DC's Court of Appeals has overturned approvals for a six-story apartment building across the street from the Brookland Metro station. The decision could give opponents in many parts of DC new ammunition to try to block new housing in their neighborhoods.

Rendering of the proposed 901 Monroe project. Image from the Menkiti Group.

Welcome to Brookland, a major front in development wars

Walk out the Brookland Metro station on the neighborhood side, turn right, and after walking along the loop with bus stops you will reach Monroe Street. On the other side is a large parcel where the Colonel Brooks' Tavern and some houses used to sit.

Now, that property, 901 Monroe Street NE, is empty. Neighbors have three times appealed, successfully, a decision by the DC Zoning Commission to allow a building with six floors, five stores, and 212 apartments.

In a nutshell, a panel of judges for DC's Court of Appeals looked a map in DC's Comprehensive Plan, called the Future Land Use Map (FLUM). The map shows this area in shades of orange, signifying that it is "moderate density." The definitions for the categories say that moderate density areas are generally ones with 2-4 story buildings.

This is not 2-4 stories. Therefore, the court said, it's not reasonable to allow a taller building. For a number of reasons, the legal issue is much more complicated, but here's the rub: There are a lot of places in the city that are orange on this map, and a lot of them have, or could soon have, buildings like this one.

Unless this ruling means that now, they may not be able to.

Once upon a time, some people wanted to build housing near Metro...

In 2010, the owners of 901 Monroe, a partnership between the Menkiti Group, Horning Brothers, and Jim Steigman, applied for a kind of zoning permission called a "Planned Unit Development." A PUD lets a building exceed the zoning for an area in exchange for a high-quality project that provides public benefits. DC's Zoning Commission, the hybrid federal-local board with final authority over zoning, reviews and decides on PUDs.

In 2012, the Zoning Commission approved the project. Neighbors appealed. A three-judge panel found that most of the approval was reasonable, but found some holes in the commission's findings, which it asked the commission to fill in. The commission did so, but by copying verbatim some suggested text from the developer, and in a second appeal, a different panel of judges said that was not okay, as well as identifying some other problems with the order.

The Zoning Commission approved the project a third time, and neighbors appealed a third time. This time, the judges said the commission's approval was not a reasonable interpretation of DC's Comprehensive Plan at all, and overturned the zoning approvals entirely.

Image from the DC Comprehensive Plan.

How comprehensive is the Comprehensive Plan?

DC's Comprehensive Plan, or "Comp Plan," is a document written by DC's Office of Planning and approved by the DC Council. By law, zoning decisions must be consistent with the Comp Plan.

Unfortunately, the Comp Plan is not all that consistent with itself. It contains long lists of policy statements, many vague and many pointing in different directions. It talks about the need to add housing near Metro stations but also the value of preserving single-family home neighborhoods. But what about when low-density houses surround Metro stations? The plan doesn't say how to reconcile these conflicts.

The Zoning Commission does that. In its PUDs and other processes, it considers the various Comp Plan provisions and strikes a balance (for better or worse). Courts in DC, following a widespread legal doctrine called "deference," generally avoid second-guessing Zoning Commission and other agency decisions if they are "not arbitrary and capricious."

In the first of the three appeals (which is referred to as Durant I because it's the first case brought by lead plaintiff and project neighbor Guy Durant), the court generally found the commission's balance-striking to be acceptable.

In its report, OP [the DC Office of Planning] indicated that in its view, the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between competing Plan policies, some of which encouraged new development around Metro stations, while others favored the preservation of existing neighborhoods.

[In a second, later report,] OP noted that "[t]here are elements ... that support development of the site as an important link between the new commercial uses that will be developed at [a recently-approved PUD project on Catholic University's campus] and the existing commercial uses on 12th Street. It also pointed to the existence of other, competing policies, which stressed conserving the local neighborhood's residential character. Ultimately, OP reiterated its conclusion that the developer's proposal struck an appropriate balance between these competing policies.

The Zoning Commission ultimately agreed, and the court in Durant I supported that approach, pointing out that:
Even if a proposal conflicts with one or more individual policies associated with the Comprehensive Plan, this does not, in and of itself, preclude the Commission from concluding that the action would be consistent with the Comprehensive Plan as a whole. The Plan is not a code of prohibitions; it is an interpretive guide, which the Commission must consider holistically. [Internal quotations omitted]
However, neighbors claimed the DC Office of Planning had misrepresented what the Future Land Use Map really said. OP's report said that the orange striped area in the map below made up about 50% of the proposed project, while neighbors argued it was 37.5%.

The Durant I court did agree that it wasn't clear that OP's 50% figure was right. Maybe the Zoning Commission had been misled by OP's report, and if so, maybe it would have made a different decision. The court couldn't presume it would have still approved the project, so it asked the Zoning Commission to take another look. "We conclude that the Commission must explicitly resolve the FLUM designation dispute and explain whether, and how, its resolution of the issue affects its ultimate decision."

What's "moderate"? It's a question that applies to more than politics

The Zoning Commission didn't think the 37.5% versus 50% was an issue, nor were any of the other deficiencies the court had identified in Durant I. It issued a new order confirming the approval.

Neighbors appealed again. Some of the second case revolved around whether it was okay for the Zoning Commission to copy, verbatim, suggested text from the developer. But the real relevant question was whether this project qualifies as "moderate density."

In many places in the Comprehensive Plan (including the striped area above) and a 2009 neighborhood specific plan called the Brookland Small Area Plan, the text talks about encouraging "moderate-density mixed use" or otherwise refers to allowed density as "moderate."

Moderate density is everything that's orange on the FLUM. The Comp Plan says moderate density areas are "characterized by a mix of single family homes, 2-4 unit buildings, row houses, and low-rise apartment buildings," while medium density areas are "neighborhoods or areas where mid-rise (4-7 story) apartment buildings are the predominant use."

The Brookland Small Area Plan also says that PUDs are acceptable up to a height of 50 feet in this area.

In Durant II, the court asked the Zoning Commission to better articulate why this 6-story building was "moderate density." It did, noting among other things that the building has setbacks above 50 feet and is set away from the street in a way that would make the overall look and feel of the building fit in with a moderate-density area.

But in the third and final appeal, Durant III, the judges said, "Although those considerations are potentially relevant to other issues, they do not support a conclusion that the proposed building constitutes a moderate-density use under the FLUM, because the FLUM's definitions of "moderate density" and "medium density" focus on buildings' actual physical characteristics, such as the number of stories or units in a building, rather than on how the building would look to an observer."

The opinion says that maybe the Zoning Commission could simply decide that medium density is also okay here, but since neither side asked for it to go back again for a fourth time, the court simply overturned the PUD approval. Bo Menkiti, owner of the Menkiti Group, says he and the other partners in the project are "still committed" to the project and are considering their options.

This case is making planners far more conservative

Meanwhile, however, this case has already reverberated in other proposals. Just south of Rhode Island Avenue from here, there's a proposal to redevelop the Brookland Manor garden apartment complex into a mixed-use village with larger buildings. But the whole neighborhood is colored orange on the FLUM. The DC Office of Planning has worried that some of the buildings didn't seem to fit with the "moderate" density label.

OP hasn't said so outright, but there's reason to believe this issue also was behind their refusal to allow a hearing on Georgetown Day School's proposal for an 80-foot building in an area that's—you guessed it—moderate density orange (and low density commercial pink) on the map.

Opponents of the proposed development at the former McMillan sand filtration plant are challenging that project in court, saying it doesn't fit with the FLUM's classification for the property.

It's not uncommon for opponents of a project to bring a lawsuit, but most of them, such as the ones recently for the Hine School by Eastern Market Metro or the West End library and fire station, don't succeeed. But Hine is seven stories at its highest point (more than 901 Monroe), yet its area on the map is orange.

It's not a log flume, but it's making a big splash

There is a lot of "moderate density" orange on the FLUM, including in many areas with some large apartment buildings. My block is orange, for instance, but behind my house is a large 9-story building; on the end of the block is one that's seven stories.

Heck, the Cairo apartment building, DC's tallest residential building, is 164 feet tall and in an orange zone on the FLUM. It sits among an area of mostly row houses, sure, but it's sure not moderate density.

Meanwhile, on many commercial corridors, the FLUM is a patchwork of color changes from one block to the next based on the prevailing land use right now. Again just in my neighborhood, one block of 17th Street which happens to have residential buildings (and tall ones) is colored residential and not commercial. Yet if they were ever redeveloped, ground-floor retail would be a sensible element to include, since there is retail across the street.

The same principles apply across DC. The FLUM is not really a vision for what neighborhoods could become; it's more a description of what they are now or how planners already anticipated they would change in 2006, when the map was made.

Paul Tummonds, an attorney for Goulston & Storrs which represents 901 Monroe, said, "The problem with the FLUM is that in large swaths, there was no forethought of future land use. It's more, 'This is what's there now.' I don't think there was a real planning perspective of what should be there in the future; it was a recitation of existing conditions."

If courts start taking the FLUM's "this broad area will probably be moderate density" as a stricter dictate that medium-density buildings are verboten, and if OP applies that to other proposals (as it may already be doing), that'd mean a big change for the ability to add housing on major corridors and near Metro stations, housing DC desperately needs.


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

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

Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

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

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

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

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

Image from the DC Office of Planning.

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

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

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

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

Image from the City of Minneapolis.

How to make an ADU work on your property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It's another delay for 200+ units of housing in Tenleytown

First, Georgetown Day School took 3 floors and 50 units of housing away from its proposed development in Tenleytown, following opposition from neighbors and the DC Office of Planning. Now, it has to delay the entire project because of a zoning technicality.

An earlier rendering of the project. Image from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

First, an exciting plan gets scaled down

The site on Wisconsin Avenue has been through many public battles over the years concerning denser, mixed use development, but this particular project originally looked to be one of the finer plans for the area.

Neighboring Georgetown Day School purchased the Safeway and adjacent parcel near 42nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue in 2013. It planned new school space, a pair of 9-story buildings with 270-290 units of housing (around 10% of those permanently affordable), and a host of other neighborhood amenities, including a bike share station, a beautiful set of pedestrian steps, and a small park.

Unfortunately, as soon as the plans were opened to public comment, a few neighbors began organizing against it. Last month, after the Office of Planning unexpectedly sided with opponents, GDS cut off one floor from one building and two from the other, removing 50 units of housing and a variety of amenities.

Aerial view of the project. Image from the PUD filing.

Now, another delay

This last week, another hiccup. The school decided to withdraw its application entirely and re-submit it. That's because, according to a letter released by the school, one of the opposing neighbors complained about an unspecified detail of the zoning regulations, and DC's Zoning Administrator (the official who interprets the zoning regulations and decides if projects comply with them) agreed with the objection.

Fortunately for GDS, this zoning provision (whatever it is) changed in DC's zoning update, which recently passed and will take effect in September. Therefore, rather than fight the Zoning Administrator's "informal" ruling, GDS will just withdraw and re-submit to be considered under the new rules.

Letter to the community from Georgetown Day School. Click to see the full letter.

Why this matters

While projects do need to conform to the zoning code, this also shows the great length project foes, particularly in some areas of DC such as this, will go to stop change. Remember, GDS's building would have been as tall as the one across the street, and now will be shorter. But that's apparently not enough for opponents.

GDS is fortunate that the zoning update is going into effect very soon, after more than eight years of delay getting finalized and approved. Otherwise, GDS would have had to fight the ruling, and the letter says, "While we may have prevailed at the Zoning Commission with our current PUD application, this informal ruling by the Zoning Administrator would have made us vulnerable to an appeal and cost us additional time and money."

We can imagine that the opposition will not sit idly by for the next round. This is a Tenleytown story, but it affects all of us in the city and region. With the current housing shortage, any loss of new housing, particularly so close to a Metro stop, is a loss we all feel.

If you are interested in staying informed and involved in this particular case, fill out the form below. We will continue to watch what happens here and look for ways for the larger community to make a difference.

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Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.

Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.

Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.


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

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

Lanier Heights. Photo by Dan Malouff.

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

Proponents started organizing long ago

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

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

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

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

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

How it went down that night

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

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

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

This affects you, too

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

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

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

NADZ Neighborhood sign. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Organizing counts

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

Both sides were organized; the downzoners were organized better.

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

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

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

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

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

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


America's most unattainable housing is right by downtown DC. That's a huge problem.

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

Five people are currently vying for the chance to occupy the White House this November, but only one will win. This is a classic supply and demand problem, and the solution is simple: Build more housing.

Concept rendering for The Estates At President's Park. Original image by Jeff Prouse.

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW is an extremely low-density property, with 82 acres housing a population of only 5 people (and a very small amount of office space). Even without adding new buildings, the existing one could become a taller apartment building with plenty of room for the Clintons, Sanderses, Trumps, Cruzes, and Kasichs, even without changes to Washington, DC's federal height limit.

This building is also located in a gated community with large open spaces around it which serve little purpose. They are off-limits to most pedestrian foot traffic and residents of the exclusive community are rarely seen using them either. The Ellipse, just to the south, is largely used as a parking lot. Developing some of these open areas could have provided even more housing.

Significant underutilized land. Photo by US Department of Defense via Wikimedia.

The exclusionary nature of this area has already prevented numerous families from being able to move here. According to news reports, families from Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, Arkansas, California, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and others gave up on their hopes of being able to move here for a better job. The lack of available housing is an clear impediment to labor mobility.

Historic preservationists and other groups may complain about such a move. After all, this house is one of many which tour groups frequently pass by on their tours, and some (but not all) US Presidents lived here, adding to its historic value.

However, Washington has many historic buildings; this one is not as architecturally interesting as the office building next door to the west. The National Park Service, which controls the area, is so under-funded it may have to shut down a bridge which carries 68,000 vehicles a day. NPS needs to prioritize its funds and not waste so much money on a property which few people can enjoy.

Original architect James Hoban actually proposed a larger building, but changed his initial design, supposedly to better reflect the "monumental" nature of Washington, DC. As Kriston Capps put it, it's a "Hoban cut off at the hipbone." "It's a perfect architectural metaphor for the almost-urbanism that characterizes life in Washington," he wrote.

Candidates react to the idea

Reached on his corporate jet, Donald Trump said, "I think it's terrific. I can make a great deal to build this and I'm working with the GSA on the hotel down the street which will open early and will be the best hotel in all of DC. I'm good at building things. I'm the best. I have built so many things. Good things, you know, really good things. I know how to build. I have the skills, the best skills. And I can get this done. And I have great taste in furniture, the best taste. We'll increase the quality of the finishes substantially, marble finishes, very, very high quality of luxury marble, the most luxurious marble you've ever seen. Just phenomenal luxury."

Based on the District's inclusionary zoning ordinance, the new White House will be required to include one affordable dwelling unit, which will likely go to Marco Rubio.

In a press release, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager said they'd worked out an agreement to use the basement to build an ultra-secure server room inaccessible to the House of Representatives.

Reached on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, Ted Cruz expressed his opposition to the proposal. "I'm an outsider. I don't need a building to live inside."

The Burlington, Vermont headquarters of Bernie Sanders' campaign sent this statement: "This is why we need to break up the big banks and make sure everyday Americans benefit instead of just Wall Street and big corporations."

While many are excited about the 1600 Penn project's increased density, others have expressed concern that this is simply another situation where developers will trigger displacement of another black family from a neighborhood with an overwhelming percentage of African-American residents according to the 2010 Census.

Still, this neighborhood is very close to ample parks, stores, jobs, and transportation, including multiple Metro stations. The low quantity of housing is a clear public policy failure. Let's end the Lafayette Square housing crisis immediately.

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