Thursday, April 5, 2012

How the Other Half Lives

Of all the baloney terms that get thrown around in planning meetings, "neighborhood character" might be my least favorite. Part of DC's "character" (I refuse to say it without quotation marks) is that it is racially and economically segregated, and is increasingly unaffordable to the average mortal. Any policy or tradition that reinforces this disgraceful reality should be revisited.

DC is a place where people want to live. There are jobs, universities, and plenty of cultural and recreational attractions. It is the type of diverse and stimulating environment that fosters innovation and tolerance, and we as a city should embrace anyone who wants to call the District home. And yet many of our policies impede the supply of housing from responding to the high demand in a way that might make housing more affordable.

Why can't you and 5 families buy a piece of land in Spring Valley and split it into 6 smaller, less expensive pieces and build 6 separate houses? Because that is incompatible with the "neighborhood character." Why can't a non-profit organization buy a property there and build subsidized apartments for low income families? Because apartments would negatively alter the "urban fabric." Apparently there is something inherently wrong with putting anything other than a mansion next to a mansion, because almost all zoning codes prohibit the mixing of uses and building typologies on the majority of the land under their jurisdiction.

American Community Survey 2005-2009 5-year estimates
DC GIS shapefiles (


  1. Don't forget exclusionary zoning of "public" street parking.
    Oddly endorsed by GGW.

  2. Both types of zoning are give-aways to the 1% who can aford such addresses

  3. It's not so much about the 1% as maybe the top 25% to 30% of families by income, who are able to self-segregate in communities that can keep taxes low by keeping the number of low income people, especially low income families with children who need to be educated. This stuff is damaging to cities which were mostly built before zoning was invented and were at one time able to respond to demand for housing, but it's absolutely devastating to communities built since WWII, at least in the sense that this is what makes them so boring and lifeless. I suppose in a narrow sense residents "benefit" financially by propping up their property values and keeping taxes low, but the cost in terms of time lost, energy use and environmental impact is veyr high, and as long as the upper middle class can segregate itself some "good" schools, the political impetus to improve the education system for everyone else just isn't there. To some extent this is conscious, intentional segregation, but largely I think it's a result of treating your home like an investment. There's no way to have both affordable housing and rising property values - the one goal means "low prices" and the other means "high prices" and prices can't be high and low at the same time. My preference would be for people to invest in stocks and bonds, and buy a house because they want a decent place to live, not an investment. Hopefully this will start to happen now that home prices have been depressed for 5 years. The next generation to enter the market will probably regard real estate as a bad bet.

  4. I am not opposed to the existence of these residential areas. It is a small area in relation to the rest of the city and it is not like the whole city is like this, suburbia-like residences: large lots for single family dwellings. On the other hand, NW DC is pretty representative of capitalism so I don't think urban planning alone can fix the Keynesian havoc. Also, I think you are suggesting that if there is available space then it must host many families, I don't think the idea should be cramming people either. Your article is very interesting and thought provoking, I'm thinking of all these foreign governments properties, international organization buildings, non-profits and churches that make use of land and local services and don't pay taxes. I think that must raise the cost of housing in DC if locals "subsidize" those who do not pay anything. It would be interesting if you could show us stats about that and how it affects housing prices. Incredible maps, very good information! - Helena R.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Aah! Accidentally deleted this and don't know how to recover it. Here is what the deleted comment said:

      "Low-density large-lot tracts like this are alright with me, so long as the houses are expensive. This doesn't cause congestion. What causes congestion and affordability problems are the mid-density SFH tracts on small lots that aren't stepped up to multi-family, multi-storey."