How the poor pay the price for D.C.’s height limits

There have been noises of late about revisiting the height restrictions that have kept the District short, squat — and expensive. In the days since Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, began speaking with D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) about the restriction, the discussion has centered on the possibility of increasing commercial development and accommodating the city’s growing population. That is all well and good, but what we should be talking about is how relaxing the height limits could help many people who are already here.

Consider this: A family of four earning $23,050 (the poverty threshold) in Southeast can easily spend $9,000 a year, or almost 40 percent of their income, on housing. This isn’t just an economic abstraction; this is the reality facing many of the District’s poorest residents. And while certainly many factors affect the cost of housing in the city (such as demand, crime rates, school quality and proximity to public transportation), it is hard to ignore that artificially limiting the heights of buildings, and thereby the number of housing units, will tend to push rents higher. It’s also hard to ignore that the poor will feel such inflated rents more acutely than the rich. For a city with so much poverty and a dearth of affordable housing, any policy change with the potential to reduce the cost of housing should get careful consideration.

The height restrictions have structured the market in such a way that it produces expensive, boxy and relatively low-density commercial and residential buildings. As the debate begins to heat up, what we are hearing from the restrictions’ supporters is that they favor this sort of development for a number of reasons, but chief among them is this: the views. Certainly, the monuments are a big part of the District’s character, and it is not surprising that they would be weighted heavily in the debate. Former D.C. Council member William P. Lightfoot even was recently quoted in The Post saying that relaxing the restrictions by even one story “will block someone’s view, and that is wrong.”

Really? I like the monuments, too, but my suspicion is that view-anxiety is an affliction of the wealthy. But I’m inclined to let them keep their views; let’s just impose a sightline tax on all households that earn, say, 500 percent of the poverty threshold and have a view of one of the major monuments. We can use the resulting revenue to fund housing vouchers.

Here’s a less puckish proposal: Leave the current height restrictions for all of Northwest and all buildings in a six-block radius around Capitol Hill and the Mall. For the rest of the city, set maximum heights somewhere between 25 and 35 stories. That should be enough to increase density and exert some downward pressure on housing costs. Even if it doesn’t significantly lower rents, extra tax revenue from new residents and businesses could help fund affordable-housing initiatives for the District’s poorest residents. To my mind, a taller, more affordable District would be a nicer sight than any view of a monument.

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