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To expand affordable housing, D.C. should reform single-family zoning: analysis

Three-quarters of D.C.’s residential tax lots allow only single-family homes by right

Homes in Woodley Park
Shutterstock

As the District advances changes to its long-term framework for development, a new report by a local think tank is calling for changes to the city’s zoning rules that would make way for more densely arranged homes and a greater diversity of housing types throughout D.C. This would serve to make housing more affordable and neighborhoods more inclusive of various income and racial groups, argues the D.C. Policy Center (DCPC), a pro-growth organization.

The District’s population has increased rapidly over the past decade, reaching over 700,000 people in 2018. That growth, absent a commensurate expansion in D.C.’s housing stock, has pushed up housing prices and contributed to displacement pressures. In an analysis released Wednesday, DCPC says to keep the city’s housing prices under control, officials should relax its zoning regime, particularly single-family zoning, which dominates the District’s land area.

About 75 percent of the residential tax lots in the city are designated for single-family homes, according to DCPC. In part because of this, it is hard to develop multifamily housing in much of the city, specifically areas skewing affluent and white. Another reason: minimum lot sizes.

“Almost all neighborhoods east of the Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods bordering the park on the east side up to Takoma to the north, and large section[s] of Wards 4 and 5 are zoned for low-density single-family dwellings on lots that cannot be smaller than 7,500 square feet. Areas zoned for semi-detached homes are scattered across the city, but are especially prominent in Wards 7, 8, 5, and parts of Ward 3. Capitol Hill and neighborhoods surrounding downtown are zoned for denser rowhouses.”

While D.C. has transformed significantly in recent years, DCPC notes that “single-family zoning looks pretty much the same (except for downtown) as it did almost a century ago, when zoning was first adopted in the District.” “If creating affordable housing and reversing practices that amplify racial inequities are truly concerns for the city, legislators should focus on reforming the entire zoning code—and especially zoning for single-family units—and not base such important policy on ad hoc changes,” writes executive director Yesim Sayin Taylor.

Current zoning by housing type
D.C. Policy Center
Current housing supply by housing type
D.C. Policy Center

DCPC finds that single-family zoning correlates with population density, race, and income:

  • Population density—D.C.’s overall population density is about 11,200 people per square mile, but in neighborhoods zoned for detached single-family homes, the population density is about 3,000 people per square mile (“similar to the population density of Manassas City”). Meanwhile, in areas with lots of multifamily buildings, such as NoMa, the population density is “typically over 30,000 [people] per square mile and can be as high as 66,000 [people] per square mile.”
  • Race—“The share of non-white families is significantly lower in parts of the city zoned exclusively for single-family homes, especially west of the Anacostia River.”
  • Income—Areas of D.C. zoned for detached single-family homes can be up to 60 percent occupied by households with incomes of more than $150,000 a year, versus a citywide average of 23 percent. The proportion is lower in areas with a lot of multifamily housing.
D.C. population demographics
D.C. Policy Center

Taylor writes that since 2006, most of the new construction in D.C. has occurred outside of areas zoned for single-family homes and that “continuing to build in these areas will do little to reverse the economic and racial segregation patterns in the city.” Permitting more density in single-family zones—even without eliminating them—could change those trends, she adds.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has pledged to see more than 36,000 new units of housing built in the city by 2025, including 12,000 units of affordable housing, and has said that the city’s current tools are insufficient to accomplish that goal. Some U.S. jurisdictions are loosening zoning regulations. Last year, Minneapolis ended exclusive single-family zoning, and late in June, Oregon legalized denser housing types in its cities (as a function of their populations).