D.C. is trying to encourage larger family-size housing. OK, maybe not quite this large.
D.C. is trying to encourage larger family-size housing. OK, maybe not quite this large.

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Mention affordable housing in D.C. political circles these days, and you’re likely to be met with a question: affordable for whom? Mayor Vince Gray won praise for his plan to create or preserve 10,000 affordable units by 2020, but as of last fall, only 15 percent of those units were affordable to the poorest class of residents, those making under 30 percent of area median income.

Advocates inclined toward housing deregulation argue that the best course of action is simply to allow more housing to be built, by lifting zoning restrictions on building height and density. Supply will then catch up with demand, and costs will come down.

But that raises the next “for whom” question, one about household composition. The majority of the new apartments and condos rising up in D.C.’s hottest neighborhoods are studios and one-bedrooms. These units cater to the young, childless professionals who have flooded the city in recent years, but don’t do much for the larger families who are feeling pinched.

The D.C. Office of Planning has begun wading into this debate, taking measures to shore up the city’s supply of family housing. Last June, the agency released a proposal to restrict the conversion of rowhouses into multiple apartment or condo units, arguing that the move would preserve the supply, and thereby the affordability, of family-sized housing. That drew cries of foul from some advocates of more housing construction, including the Office of Planning’s previous director, Harriet Tregoning. “I am rather dismayed by the talk of family-sized housing needing to be in single-family dwellings,” Tregoning wrote to the Zoning Commission, which will rule on the proposal. “All over the world families live in what we call multi-family housing (an ironic term given the representation that these units must not be for families)—-apartments and condominiums.”

Now, the office has another proposal to boost family housing, but one that’s likely to appeal more to the likes of Tregoning.

As first reported by Eric Fidler at Greater Greater Washington, the Office of Planning has proposed a zoning amendment to encourage more family housing in a small area near Nationals Park that’s slated for large-scale development. The proposal would create exactly the type of units Tregoning promoted: family units in multi-family buildings.

The city, like others around the country, sometimes awards a “density bonus” to developers in exchange for affordable housing. In other words, if the developer is willing to set aside a percentage of the units for households making less than a certain income level, then the city will allow the developer to construct a bigger building than is otherwise allowed under the zoning code. This time, though, the city’s condition is slightly different: In exchange for bonus density in the zone near Nationals Park, developers must promise that at least 8 percent of the “bonus” area consists of three-bedroom or larger units.

That’s not a huge concession. Since three-bedroom units take up more space than one-bedrooms, a developer can commit 8 percent of the bonus space to three-bedrooms while constructing a lot fewer than 8 percent of the bonus apartments as three-bedrooms. If there are 15 bonus apartments, it’s entirely conceivable that only one would need to be a three-bedroom.

Still, if adopted, the proposal opens the door to more such moves. From a certain perspective, it’s a win-win: Unlike with the rowhouse proposal, the city gains family units without having to sacrifice smaller units that may be more affordable. That additional supply could help bring down the cost of family-size units, even in rowhouses.

But it also raises a different supply-and-demand question: If the city’s going to be granting bonus density, why doesn’t it allow developers to configure those extra units as the market demands? If people truly needed family units, the thinking goes, they’d be buying or renting them, and developers would respond by building more of them. Instead, developers seem to perceive that the demand for smaller units is greater, or at least that those units are more profitable.

As Fidler points out, D.C.’s housing stock may already be skewed toward larger units than the population demands. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, fewer than 25 percent of households in D.C. consist of three or more people. Yet 33 percent of the city’s housing units have three or more bedrooms, and 60 percent have two or more bedrooms.

Nonetheless, even with the three-bedroom restriction in the proposal, the bonus is likely to generate a lot more small units than family-size ones. That’s in keeping with the overall development trend in the city. According to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, permits were issued in the fourth quarter of 2014 for 288 single-family houses and 3,901 units in multi-family buildings. If this pattern continues, the shift from larger to smaller units will happen on its own—-and efforts like those by the Office of Planning might start to seem more necessary.

Photo courtesy of Estately