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Sixty-six people have written to the Zoning Commission about a proposal that would substantially limit property owners’ ability to expand rowhouses or convert them into condos. The overwhelming majority of the letter-writers, 52 of them, support the proposal. But among the 14 dissenters is an influential voice: the former boss of the office that hatched this plan.
Harriet Tregoning, who led the D.C. Office of Planning under mayors Adrian Fenty and Vince Gray before leaving for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year, pushed to allow for more housing flexibility to address the city’s growing population and rising housing costs, most notably in a proposed overhaul of the 1958 zoning code that’s now before the Zoning Commission. But a few months after she departed, the Office of Planning came up with another plan, one that could have the opposite effect. This proposal, unveiled in June, would restrict the addition of extra stories, or pop-ups, on rowhouses in medium-density R-4 zones, and the conversion of these rowhouses to multiple units. The Zoning Commission heard testimony on the proposal last week and has not yet ruled on it.
The Office of Planning’s Jennifer Steingasser testified last week that the proposal would help preserve affordable housing for families, rather than let it be converted to condos for singles or couples. But Tregoning, in her letter to the Zoning Commission, disagrees. “I am somewhat puzzled by the proposition that we can increase affordability by decreasing the supply of potential housing units,” she writes. “Restricting the number of units just limits the housing supply in some of the most central and transit- and amenity-supplied neighborhoods of the city.”
Tregoning argues that it’s not realistic to think that the city’s growing number of families can be accommodated solely in the relatively stagnant stock of single-family houses. “I am rather dismayed by the talk of family-sized housing needing to be in single-family dwellings,” she writes. “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.”
Tregoning says the possible downzoning of R-4 zones—-a term she and other critics of the proposal use due to the lower height allowances in the plan, even if Steingasser has insisted it’s not a downzoning—-is far out of sync with efforts in other cities facing housing crunches. She recently met with a former colleague who’s now San Francisco’s planning director. “He expressed astonishment that DC is considering a downzoning in the face of steeply rising housing costs,” she writes. “He thought it had been many decades since San Francisco had downzoned any residential land. To the contrary, the priority of the Mayor and all the relevant agencies was to try to increase the supply of housing and [do] everything possible to make San Francisco a more affordable place to live.”
Although she was initially reluctant to criticize a plan devised by her former Office of Planning colleagues, Tregoning writes, she felt compelled to weigh in on a proposal whose justification she felt was “drawn from too narrow and recent a time period” and whose consequences “may affect the city for decades to come.”
Tregoning’s full letter, first spotted by David Alpert at Greater Greater Washington, is below:
Photo by Darrow Montgomery