Income Inequality Lurks Beneath D.C.'s 'Pop-Up' Housing Debate

Rowhouse additions offend the sensibilities of some homeowners. But when cities protect their interests, they do so at the expense of residents.

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The Ella, a pop-up condo on V Street NW in Washington, D.C. (Washington Fine Properties LLC/HomeVisit)

A new proposal from the D.C. Office of Planning aims to do something about the housing problem in Washington, D.C. Not the lack-of housing problem, but the tacky housing problem. The proposed zoning update takes aim at a range of alleged offenders, tiny houses and relaxed parking minimums among them. But chief among the changes is a provision that would place additional limits on one of the most controversial housing expansion trends in this city of late: so-called "pop-ups," or vertical additions to the traditionally narrow D.C. rowhouse.  

In the past, the Office of Planning has been transparent about the fact that residents and homeowners don't like zoning changes that would make for more residents and homeowners. As former planning director Harriet Tregoning told the Washington City Paper last year, a proposal to ease parking minimums downtown and near mass transit was "really wigging people out." So the department scaled those changes back.

Yet the Office of Planning is entirely aware that the center cannot hold. The department acknowledged as much last year in a report on D.C.'s capacity for growth. "A supply of developable space is necessary for the District to accommodate its growth," the report reads. "Without the ability of supply to meet demand the city would face ever increasing price pressures that would limit who could afford to live here and constrain the city's economic growth."

It's worse than that, even. As a joint report published this month by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, and the Maryland Center on Economic Policy shows, the lack of affordable housing in D.C. is an engine for rising income inequality. 

FPI

As both David Alpert and Aaron Wiener explain at length, the new zoning rules would prohibit residents from building granny flats or accessory apartments, ban "camping on alley lots" (a restriction on new tiny-house developments), and dial back even the modest concessions over parking minimums offered previously by the Office of Planning.

Worse still, the proposal designates a zone—R4, which includes some of the fastest-growing and -gentrifying neighborhoods in the city—where pop-up rowhouse condo conversions would more or less be banned.

Rowhouses can't be converted into larger, multifamily condos in the R4 zone, which encompasses D.C.'s fastest-growing neighborhoods. (Courtesy Greater Greater Washington)

One frustrating aspect of the debate about the future of housing in this city, and in a dozen more cities like it where a rental crisis looms over the future, is the focus on aesthetics. The local blog DCist dubbed one prominent (and I mean prominent) pop-up condo development "a middle finger to taste and scale." Another widely read real-estate blog called it a "monster." Several more reporters and websites followed cue. 

So amid some rather negative planning developments in the District this week, it was refreshing to hear two planners debate D.C.'s pop-ups not as they're usually discussed—as a matter of taste, of aesthetics—but in terms of protecting incumbent homeowner interests vs. ensuring the housing capacity of the city. I'm fortunate that Alpert was able to share testimony from the Zoning Commission meeting, where Zoning Commission chair Anthony Hood cut to the heart of the matter:

While I understand the need, there are a lot of folks in this city who bought in their areas for a reason. ... Do we just throw everybody on top of them or do we kind of balance that out? ... While there is a need for housing, we have to be delicate with that because [anyone] in this city who's been there a long time, they spent a lot of money in purchasing their homes which is their biggest investment, and they didn't buy into that.

To be fair, the Office of Planning claims that by protecting existing rowhouses and other (relatively dense) single-family structures that characterize the R4 zone, they are ensuring housing diversity. Elsewhere, and also throughout R4, developers are building multifamily apartment and condo buildings; preserving rowhouses preserves units for families instead of carving them up into smaller condos.

Photo courtesy of Nate Guggenheim, Washington Fine Properties LLC, and HomeVisit

I think Hood's comments hit closer to the mark—especially since the Office of Planning has retreated from other solutions, like rolling back parking minimums, that could promote building more housing. In practice, the no pop-up condos plan works a lot like San Francisco's "No Wall" argument. It's protectionist. 

By the Office of Planning's own accounting, demand will greatly outstrip supply in D.C. if the status quo is maintained. The city needs to stop talking about whether pop-up condo conversions are "ugly"—full stop. That argument is a veiled sort of NIMBYism, whereby a debate over aesthetics implies mutual interest. But really, only one side wins when the rules are made to stop development to protect a homeowner's lovely view.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.