AFFORDABLE HOUSING was a major issue in District elections for mayor and council, with most candidates agreeing that new strategies and investments are needed to meet the demand. So it is rather curious — even counterproductive — that city planners have advanced a plan that would limit the ability to expand housing in key neighborhoods. The zoning board should not sign off on such an ill-advised plan.
A proposal unveiled last year by the D.C. Office of Planning would limit the ability of property owners to expand rowhouses or convert them into condos. Neighborhoods in the R-4 zone, which accounts for about 35 percent of the District’s low-density residential lots, would see the maximum building height allowed as a matter of right lowered from 40 feet to 35 feet; condo conversions would generally be limited to two units.
The proposal was developed largely in response to resident complaints about pop-ups, rowhouses that are renovated with upward extensions. We are sympathetic to complaints about unsightly additions that are incompatible with the character of a block. But it is by no means clear that this proposal would be the best solution to those issues. The lower height limit might curtail some of the worst pop-ups (note, though, that the most egregious cases have been in neighborhoods that would not be covered in the down-zoning) but the more common complaints about bad design or cheap construction would go unaddressed. A far better approach, as underscored by several speakers at the Zoning Commission’s recent public hearing on the issue, would be for a design review process that would help to ensure neighborhood compatibility. Another problem with the plan is that it diminishes the value of homes.
What’s most concerning, though, is that the proposal would restrict housing at a time when more is needed to meet the demand. Not only will this lead to higher housing costs, but it also basically puts off-limits the very parts of the city where transit and other amenities are in place to support the needed new development.
Harriet Tregoning, who once led the Office of Planning, is among those opposing the change, and her thoughtful letter about the likely consequences of this move hopefully will give city officials pause. The Zoning Commission, which has the final say and is set to discuss the issue Feb. 9, should make clear this ill-advised down-zoning is a non-starter. City planners, under the direction of the new administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), need to take another look and come up with a comprehensive strategy that addresses issues of neighborhood character without adversely affecting the supply and cost of housing.