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Basement vs. cellar: Semantics could cause fewer rentals in D.C.

While cellars don’t count towards a building’s allowable size, basements do

Photo via Shutterstock/Andy Dean Photography

Is there a big difference between using the word, “basement,” or using the word, “cellar”? Apparently, and the difference could result in D.C.’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) allowing fewer rentals in the District.

In an article published by Greater Greater Washington, ANC 2B Chair Daniel Warwick defined the two terms this way: “Under D.C.’s zoning code, a floor is a cellar if the ceiling is no more than four feet above the ground outside (‘grade level,’ in technical parlance). It’s a basement if that distance is more than four feet.”

The Dupont Circle Citizens' Association (DCCA) filed an appeal to change the interpretation of rules that currently allow rowhouses to have an extra residential unit if there is a cellar because “cellars don’t count as a story.” According to Warwick, “DCCA is making a basic error of logic.”

The reason why the DCCA filed their appeal this October is because a Dupont Circle homeowner plans on adding one extra condo to their three-unit, three-story home with a cellar. In March 22, the Zoning Administrator approved the four-unit conversion, which the DCCA described in their pre-hearing statement filed with the BZA as “alleged improper interpretation and misapplication of the zoning code.”

Now, if the BZA approves DCCA’s appeal, that could result in homeowners not being allowed to rent out their cellars. In the Greater Greater Washington article, Warwick ran the numbers, and, according to him, a basement (or “cellar”) unit in the District costs an average sale price of $476/square foot, while the average sale price for a condo is $527/square foot.

Warwick further reported that if the BZA approves DCCA’s appeal, “many people’s ability to build on their row houses will be reduced by 25 percent.”

The hearing on DCCA’s claim is January 18.

A logical fallacy and a Dupont row house could mean less housing in all of DC [Greater Greater Washington]