Most of the "debates" on DC housing policy miss the obvious that a broad repricing is underway and widespread
There is a discussion on the historicwashington e-list about the R4 issue ("DC may impose limits on rowhouse heights," "A bad zoning plan would restrict expansion of housing in," editorial, Washington Post). R4 is the primary rowhouse residential zone.
There are proposed zoning changes that would put limits on upward expansions of houses, which are frequently referred to as popups, as well as the breaking up of rowhouses from single houses to flats (two units) or even more units.
I have been concerned about "popups" for many years because they tend to be poorly designed and diminish the place value of neighborhoods.
For example, in some neighborhoods like Bloomingdale, height extensions can eliminate key architectural elements of houses that distinguish the neighborhood, such as the wrecked turret in the house pictured at left.
In fact, even the Post has written about it for awhile. I went around with the author of this piece ("New Rowhouse Rooflines Raising Eyebrows in D.C.") as he was preparing to write it back in 2007 (and in fact he wore me out, he wanted to keep going...).
From the list (edited and expanded):
The "affordable housing" argument about how keeping extant and historic buildings rather than demolishing them contributes to the maintenance of affordable housing is somewhat of a chimera as Washington is going through a broad repricing of housing, both for single family and for multiunit.
The repricing is significantly pushing prices upward, as more neighborhoods become attractive at the metropolitan scale.
This results from significantly increased demand chasing a limited supply and as a result, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to buy houses for less than $500,000 in most of the neighborhoods in the core of the city and/or those neighborhoods particularly well served by transit, especially in those neighborhoods marked by the presence of historic housing stock.
This is true for all of Northwest now, and a majority of near Northeast neighborhoods. The houses that are priced lower tend to have significant issues. But those pricing anomalies are short term and "corrected" over time through renovation and resale.
DC's rowhouse building stock is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the city's built environment. The photo at right (Washington Post) is of Columbia Heights, which is marked by particularly large houses that are easily converted to smaller units.
Housing production even in the intermediate term doesn't reduce or brake prices much, because it is still outpaced by demand being greater than supply.
However, when you add units, by breaking up larger rowhouses into smaller units, the accessibility to housing is being expanded and there is probably a barely discernible brake on pricing because supply is increased.
But they aren't affordable by any traditional definition, e.g., because of the repricing. These units serve "middle income" households, if there is a recognition that this is a much higher middle income (probably between $100,000 and $250,000 annual household income) than what has traditionally been thought of as "affordable" in Washington, DC.
That comes from the pricing shift and the resultant sorting of the households towards the upper end of household income stratas.
So it's fatuous to claim that keeping the housing stock fully the way it is in the Northwest quadrant of the city especially will retain "affordability," especially from the standpoint of access to housing by lower income segments of the population.
Note that the article in the Washington Post Saturday Real Estate section about Anacostia ("Anacostia's burgeoning potential catches the attention of home buyers") discussed how it is possible there to buy new houses, even new construction, for under $200,000. That's because the location and place values of the area are lower compared to the Northwest and Near Northeast sections of the city.
We are far from the days into the early 2000s, where someone could buy a house in the H St. neighborhood for under $100,000 or a studio apartment in the Cairo for under $95,000.
Also by way of comparison, yesterday I was in Baltimore for a walking tour as part of a conference, in the neighborhood anchored by Hollins Market, about 7 blocks from the Baltimore Hilton, Camden Yards, the Convention Center, the Camden MARC railroad station, and the University of Maryland medical campus, but across MLK Avenue, which is a ring road on the west of Downtown.
This row of houses on Union Square in Baltimore dates to 1858. Flickr photo by Marc Szarkowski.
Besides the public market, the neighborhood also has a square, Union, with a great deal of potential.
While the houses on the square were quite attractive, we were told that prices are near $200,000.
In the greater neighborhood, one can find many large enough houses (messed up inside from the standpoint of preservation for sure and often what I refer to as "wacked") for $60,000 or less.
Now that's affordable...
The R4 debate is more complicated than either the proponents or the opponents are making it out to be. There are three elements.
1. Breaking up of large houses into smaller units.
2. Making smaller houses into larger houses by extending them upwards, usually in ways that diminish the architectural qualities of both the house and the row of houses on the block.
3. The legal differences between areas designated as historic and those that are not. In historic districts, popups are generally barred as part of the building regulation review process, while in undesignated areas the zoning disconnect allows the expansion--even if the house is virtually identical to a house in a designated neighborhood.
Large R4 houses get "broken" up into smaller units because the cost of the house as a single unit is significantly higher than most households can afford to either buy or maintain, and also results in "overhousing" or small households having far more space per capita than is preferred from a public policy standpoint.
Near P and North Capitol Streets NW. Photographer unknown.
Why people are opposed: design and place value. It is the expansion of houses, when done poorly and typically this is done poorly, which significantly diminishes the place value of neighborhoods, which is the primary point of contention for people like me.
... Even if simultaneously it makes housing if not more affordable, at least more accessible to more households, accommodates more residents, and contributing to the economic and social health of neighborhoods and the city.
Why people are opposed: parking, parking, parking. Other opponents don't want more residents in their neighborhoods, primarily because of the competition for street parking, as the space in front of a rowhouse typically is only enough for one car, and households with multiple cars and houses with multiple units further stress the limited inventory of parking .
I argue the solution to the diminishment of place value from R4 conversion is a combination of design review and much more specific guidance and requirements on how to do it, accompanied by some restrictions on conversion, based on property size and height.
Plus actively attracting to the city more people who don't prefer automobility. As more residents use cars less, this supports other elements of urban life like local retail, which further promotes sustainable mobility, further reducing car use, etc.
The issue gets further complicated because some people claim that they have bought houses, as owner occupied residences, because the house has the zoning authority to be expanded. They may or may not be truthful when they say they do this because it allows them to be able to afford to buy a house in a rising market.
Photo of a DC rowhouse with a legal English basement apartment by Jeremy Crandell, on Flickr.
So they oppose the move to restrict housing expansion as downzoning (Neighbors Against Down-Zoning).
Buying a house and converting a basement into a legally rentable "English basement" is a similar strategy. So could adding a carriage house (accessory dwelling unit). But neither approach requires significant changes to the existing built envelope of the property.
The problem, as I have been pointing out for years and years, comes from how zoning allows for taller houses than were typically constructed when the neighborhoods were first built.
One can argue that the disconnect in zoning between allowable height and prevailing height is an error, not an inherent property right, if maintenance of the architectural characteristics of the house and place are important to maintaining place value.
Be that as it may, the Office of Planning and other stakeholders, by not adequately explaining what is going on (and even if they did it might not make a difference) is making a more complicated and seemingly difficult to understand situation even more complicated.
And allowing the issue to fester for years and years doesn't make it easier to deal with when the agency is finally forced to deal with it.