Developer-In-Chief: Obama Wants D.C. (And Other Cities) To Build More Housing

By next year, President Barack Obama will be just another D.C. resident, living in a rented Kalorama house until daughter Sasha finishes high school. That means he’ll be able to vote in local elections and take part in the city’s civic process, weighing in on everything from streetlight outages to development plans. (He could even be elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, should he choose to return to public office.)

But what type of engaged civic citizen might he be? It became more clear this week with the publication of a White House policy paper outlining his administration’s view on housing — and whether there’s enough of it in many of the country’s cities.

The answer? Not nearly.

“In a growing number of metropolitan areas, the returning health of the housing market and vibrant job growth haven’t led to resurgent construction industries and expanding housing options for working families, due to state and local rules inhibiting new housing development that have proliferated in recent decades,” says the 23-page Housing Development Toolkit.

In short, NIMBYs — the not-in-my-backyard activists — have had too much sway over the construction of new housing in and around many cities, the report says, and they have pushed rules limiting not only where and when housing can get built, but also if it even gets built at all.

The paper details some of the downsides of those rules: more competition for a smaller number of available units, resulting in sky-high home prices and rents; increasing income inequality as only the well-to-do can afford living in cities; slowing economic growth due to workers’ not being able to live in certain cities or regions; longer commutes; and even increased gentrification as development is pushed out of established neighborhoods that can restrict it and instead moves into low-income areas.

All of those trends are evident to a certain degree in the Washington region: Median home prices and family homelessness), income inequality is as stark as it’s ever been and local job growth is slower here than in cities like Atlanta, Dallas and Philadelphia — and one reason is the region’s high housing costs.

The White House policy paper says cities should do away with zoning rules and policies that overly restrict the construction of housing or make any construction more expensive by, say, requiring that a certain minimum number of parking spots be built with every new development. Instead, they should allow more by-right development and increased density, streamline construction permitting and use tax policy to move vacant land into use more quickly.

Local support for the smart-growth Obama

The paper has been a hit with local smart-growth advocates.

“I was impressed,” says Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It talked very clearly about the challenges facing housing affordability in the country, some of the zoning challenges we have, the neighborhood opposition to additional housing and mixed-use development.”

Schwartz says that overall, the region is doing well on policies proposed by the report, especially in D.C., Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Fairfax County.

“We have a strong local commitment to affordable housing. There are good inclusionary zoning for requiring affordable units in new development. In many cases D.C. is doing the best, followed by Montgomery and Arlington,” he says. “All the jurisdictions have been looking at their parking policies and trying to reduce the requirements or even eliminate parking minimums. D.C. has done so, Alexandria recently did so and Arlington is now looking at there’s.”

Just this month, D.C. enacted a long-awaited rewrite of its Zoning Code, which dated back to 1958. It includes certain changes that square with the White House policy paper: it’s now easier for residents to rent out accessory dwelling units — basements or carriage houses, in non-technical jargon — and parking minimums have been reduced in certain areas and eliminated in others.

And in July, the Zoning Commission approved changes to D.C.’s inclusionary zoning program, which allows developers to build more units if they set aside a certain percentage for low- and middle-income buyers. Under the changes, units built will be more affordable than in the past.

But the region still faces some of the restrictions and challenges outlined by the paper — namely neighborhood opposition to development projects.

“One of our greatest challenges now is neighborhood concerns about change and neighborhood opposition to some of this transit-oriented development, where even if a project is very well designed and would bring many community benefits, many of the projects are being reduced in size and number of units based on neighborhood opposition,” he says.

Schwartz names three projects that he says reflect that pattern: the Georgetown Day School development in Tenleytown, where neighborhood opposition caused the developer to cut 50 units of housing; the Westbard project in Bethesda, where the number of housing units was cut in half to just around 1,200; and in Lyttonsville, where some residents are fighting a development proposed for a planned Purple Line station.

In D.C., last year the Zoning Commission — spurred by some resident groups — limited pop-ups and condo conversions in certain residential neighborhoods. And in another case, the Northwest neighborhood of Lanier Heights down-zoned to prevent developers from expanding the size of rowhouses.

And the nation’s capital faces an even stricter limitation of development, this one imposed by Congress: the Height Act of 1910 limits how tall buildings can be, keeping them from growing far beyond 130 feet in even the densest parts of town. An August report from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development said that the height restrictions contribute to high land costs and limited remaining development opportunities. In 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission — backed by the D.C. Council — rejected a move to loosen the Height Act in certain peripheral neighborhoods.

The Height Act, of course, does not apply to communities in Virginia and Maryland — the commercial building 1812 North Moore, just across the river from D.C. in Arlington, is nearly 400 feet tall.

More development, more displacement?

But not everyone is on board with Obama’s endorsement of what have come to be known as “smart growth” principles. Chris Otten, an activist with D.C. for Reasonable Development, says the White House paper oversimplifies what ultimately drives housing costs.

“Housing markets and prices do not rise and fall with supply in an instant reaction model, where if you build more housing the prices automatically drop as predicted in this document and other smart growth mantras,” he says. “If developers get to build more housing by relaxing regulations, that lower-barrier housing produced will be priced the same as the housing they build now.”

Otten points to rents in D.C.: Even as new buildings have popped up in neighborhoods from U Street to Navy Yard, rents have continued to increase. And not only that, he says, but when new development occurs, it puts pressure on existing neighborhoods and residents by increasing property values — and forcing long-time residents out.

“If a developer, with help from the city, decides to build hundreds of market-units in a mega-complex box — that’s boring to boot — next to an established low-rise residential neighborhood, what of the housing prices for existing residents? Intuitively gentrification and subsequently displacement pressures will rise with the values of the land, tax rates, and rents,” he says.

He also worries of the impact on the environment and existing infrastructure from increased development, and says that planning and development decisions should flow from residents up instead of from governments down.

Schwartz agrees that many jurisdictions can do more to help lower rents and housing prices, from more aggressive inclusionary zoning policies to putting more public money into preserving and building affordable housing. And while he agrees that the public needs to remain involved in planning and development decisions, he says that as cities grow, development needs to be prioritized — especially in commercial corridors and areas near transit.

“With the community, we need to come up with good mixed-used redevelopment plans and streamline the approvals on the back end for the developers. Let’s save time and money. And let’s move much quicker with our commercial corridors to allow the zoning for those to be changed to provide more housing,” he says.

Image credit: Flickr/Roger Smith

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