Dueling Press Releases Vol. 167 – Pop Up Fatigue Edition

In the blue corner:

“Concerned District residents are petitioning Mayor Muriel Bowser and other city officials for a moratorium on building permits for rowhouse “pop-up” conversions that are changing the character of D.C. neighborhoods. The petition asks the Mayor and other city officials to place a moratorium on building permits for rowhouse conversions to apartment buildings until D.C.’s Zoning Commission has completed its rewrite of the zoning rules. This request builds on a similar request from then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser in July 2014 to the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (“DCRA”) when then-Councilmember Bowser asked for a “hold” on any building permit requests until the Zoning Commission settled the issue of pop-ups. “Pop-up construction could have adverse, long-term effects on properties and neighborhoods that have not been fully considered,” then-Councilmember Bowser stated (See Attached Letter).

Letter (PDF)

With no movement from DCRA on the Mayor’s request for a hold on permits for pop-ups, District residents are appealing directly to the Mayor and the Zoning Commission for a moratorium on pop- up permits until the Zoning Commission has completed its rewrite of the zoning rules. District residents may sign the petition by accessing this link: http://tinyurl.com/stopthepopdc. StopthePopDC, a grassroots community group, is encouraging concerned District residents to sign the petition.

“We have heard from many seniors and other residents whose homes have been damaged from pop- up conversions,” says long-time D.C. resident and StopthePopDC member, Tracy Hart. “We need an immediate moratorium to protect homes from irreparable damage and to protect the character of our rowhouse communities.”

“Pop-up” is the term used to describe single-family rowhouses that have been converted to apartment/condominium buildings. Developers typically add one or more stories to an existing rowhouse and build large rear additions to gain square footage for each condominium. The resulting pop-up apartment buildings have been criticized as dwarfing nearby rowhouses and blocking air and natural light. Each condominium unit typically lists for $500,000 to $900,000.
StopthePopDC is a community group working to curb the practice of developers converting single- family rowhouses into multifamily apartment buildings (“pop-ups”).”

In the red corner:


Full release in PDF below:

JAN 2015 Letter (PDF)

44 Comment

  • Although I can probably find this out by reading the details, does anyone know what this means for homeowners who want to add a story to their rowhouse and keep it single family? At first glance, it appears that this is trying to stop developers popping up row homes and making them condos.

    • The ZC’s proposal makes no distinction between various types of owners. A resident homeowner and developer would both be forbidden from popping up a rowhouse.

      • If your house is currently 2 stories then you would need no change in procedure from today to add a third story.

        • To be clear, if you are a single-family homeowner wanting to pop-up a floor, neither the current, nor the Office of Planning proposed regulations, would prevent you from doing this, given that you do not exceed the height restriction.

          • Correct. The current height limit is 40 feet. The proposed new limit is 35 feet. It seems the Office of Planning chose this new limit simply because most R-4 houses they looked at (10,000 out of 35,000 were surveyed) already are 35 feet tall. So they proposed a new limit that would permit only the absolute minimum of change in the future.

    • Let’s say you are a home owner in an R-4 zone and you want to finish your attic level or maybe even add another floor to your house. Not sub-dividing and making condos or apartments, but just adding some space for your own use or that of your family.

      The R-4 zone allows heights up to 40 feet as a “matter-of-right.” You as a home owner in this zone have the RIGHT to build your house up to 40 feet. Your house might be 25 or 30 or 35 feet already, but you can build up to the 40 foot “by-right” limit.

      You still need to hire an architect (or at least a design-build company) to prepare plans to submit to the city in order to obtain a building permit. But if your plans are in compliance with zoning rules and building codes, you WILL get that permit because it is your RIGHT. Might take a few months and you will pay a fee for the permit, but you’ll get it eventually.

      Under the proposal before the Zoning Commission (case 14-11) home owner building rights in R-4 zones will be reduced to a maximum height of 35 feet. If you want (or need) that extra five feet that used to be yours “by-right” you’ll have to file with the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) for a “special exception” or a variance.

      You still need to pay for a set of architectural plans but then you will have to file with the BZA (and pay a fee). Then every property owner within 200 feet of your house will be mailed a letter about your request for an exception so that if anyone objects they will have time to prepare a case against you. The BZA will want to hear what your ANC has to say, too. If your ANC votes against your plans and a few of your neighbors object, well, you can go ahead and have your hearing before the BZA and take your chances. But you may or may not be approved.

      All this public notice, public review, ANC review, and BZA review will delay your project for months, maybe years. But if you do finally get your approval, then you go over to DCRA and file for your actual building permit. And pay a fee. And wait a few more weeks or months.

      Finally you can start paying the contractor to begin doing the actual construction, which probably will only take a couple weeks, maybe two months at most, since all you wanted to do was finish your attic and maybe add a roof deck in the rear.

      You as a home owner will be forced to deal with this lost time and extra cost because some people want to use these rules to shut down developers from buying a house like yours and converting it into condos.

      Does anyone know how many pop-ups have actually been built in R-4 zones? A couple dozen? Maybe a couple hundred? Out of a total of 35,000 existing homes? Where is the rational perspective, where is the sense of proportion?

      • Blithe

        Well, one argument would be that if there are a few hundred pop-ups, but each one mars the architectural integrity of an entire block, the pop-ups have a disproportionately negative impact on entire blocks and neighborhoods. Another argument against the pop-ups turned into condos is that when a block of what used to be single family row homes becomes permeated with small condos, the impact of the condos on such things as parking, trash collection, etc. is has a disproportionate impact on services and resources. So I guess what’s “rational” depends on your “perspective”.

        • Right. One pop-up ruins a block. That ruined block spoils the neighborhood. That spoiled neighborhood destroys the city. D.C. is now doomed, all because of one bad pop-up.

        • interesting thought experiment. but you can also apply the inverse. Maybe the unpopped houses ruin the block since they don’t fit in with the aesthetic ideal. If we used zoning to pop all the houses we would achieve the same uniformity that you find appealing.

          • Blithe

            I agree, and that’s a great argument for taking a closer look at what types of zoning standards can both encourage and manage development — while maintaining the architectural integrity that has long characterized many of DC’s row house neighborhoods.

  • Basic economics. Restrict the housing supply – drive up prices. A ban on pop-ups will do nothing to stop developers from buying up old row houses and demolishing them to make way for condo buildings.

    • Ahh, but presumably it costs significantly more to demolish and rebuild from scratch than it does to add a pop-up — otherwise, we’d be seeing developers doing the former.

    • Everyone keeps saying simple economics, but are there any examples of popups where the cost per square foot has gone down after the condo conversions have completed?

      • That’s not an appropriate comparison, because you’re comparing unrenovated and in many cases derelict properties with what is essentially new construction.

        • Why is it not an appropriate comparison? Just because a house isn’t renovated, doesn’t make out of the realms of being bought by a family, after all, some people like fixer uppers because they are cheaper

          So at that point again, you are taking a house that they could afford, putting it in the hands of developers, who will carve it up and sell individual condos for little less than the overall house was to begin with.

          And the popups that i’ve seen in Columbia heights, about 12 now I believe, none of them were derelict or abandoned, unrenovated and a little dated? sure, but by no means was it about to fall over until a developer outbid other families.

          • It’s not appropriate because you can’t compare a new construction condo subdivision with an old run down house. Compare new condos with new SFH renovations and you’ll find in many cases the SFH price per square foot is higher than a condo conversion. I posted examples of this somewhere on a previous thread. Banning popups isn’t going to stop buyers being outbid by developers – it just means you’re going to have a lot of expensive renovated rowhouses. That may be the goal for those that are opposed to increase density, but that’s not how they’re framing the argument. It’s all about preserving some mythical ideal of “family sized” housing, because who’d be against that?

          • Ah OK I get it, thanks for explaining. So in this instance then, when we talk about affordable housing, we can only compare new condominiums to their new development counter parts?

            This house used to be $500k, its condo’s are $425k, but its super affordable because you wouldn’t want to have lived in squalor, and when we compare it to another house the same size that was flipped instead of Popped, its $300,000 cheaper.

            Is that really what affordable housing means? genuinely? that affordable housing has a requirement of housing that is renovated?

      • Pretty sure everyone has gone to bed on this thread, but have to chime in on this.
        You’re comparing the wrong things. Don’t compare the unit before/after renovation, compare the effect of having more housing on the market vs. less. If you renovate the house and add units, you have the same number of people competing for more units, which helps keep prices (relatively) down. If you don’t, you have same number of people, fewer units. Price –> up.
        For a thought exercise, imagine what would happen to housing prices if no more units could be developed. Yes, they would go up, and fast.

    • If the demand curve is very steep (as in a hot market), then adding a units doesn’t budge price significantly. That’s basic economics.

    • “Expand” the housing supply by looking in more than one neighborhood.

    • Ok, how bout some basic economics?
      Right now, let’s say I can buy a 1200 sq ft unrenovated rowhouse for ~400k (that’s $333 per sw ft) finish the basement and pop it up for ~300k to get two units at ~1200 sq ft apiece and then sell those units for 600k apiece ($500pp sq ft) so with ~700k in you get 1.2mil out for a profit of 500k. The most delicious part is that I can go up to 500-600k depending on the lot size and location because I’m buying a multi-family building, those first time home buyers don’t stand a chance. Notice I’m on the low end of pp sq ft for hot neighborhoods in DC, the higher that number goes the more lucrative the pop-up.
      If I can’t pop up/subdivide that 1200 sq ft house it is ~1800 sq ft with an expensive basement dig, I can put a legal unit in it but it isn’t worth the hidden costs that may come up so it can be a 750k SFH home sale but first I have to buy it for 400k and put at least 100k into so that’s 250k back. Permits may take slightly less time and there may be some subs I don’t need to call in but overall mobilization costs are similar and it is a MUCH less appealing investment.
      So yes of course developers still CAN outbid owner occupants but SFHs (to convert into buildings) will not be the great investment they once were. They’ll probably focus on larger projects, once again the best investments for developers will be large houses (most owner occupants don’t have cash to buy/rehab a large home all at once) and ones that need gut rehabs (expensive and time consuming for home owners, not so much for developers). Once developers stop buying medium/small rowhouses as 2-4 unit building shells prices on those houses should go down because right now they are artificially inflated due to by right zoning, developers are willing to tack on tens of thousands beyond what a house is “worth” because it can be popped up by right.
      I can certainly appreciate what the billions of dollars in developer investment have done for DC but the current market while great for developers is, in the long run, bad for the city (ugly, not easily reversed) and bad for the housing market (the developer created bubble is real and it will burst).

      • Your analysis makes sense, but only in the near-term. Paucity of “new” 600k condos in desirable neighborhoods will force those buyers to compete for existing construction, thereby raising sqft prices. Many buyers in the market for a 600k unit will eventually compete with those looking for your 750k SFH, causing the SFH price to sky-rocket in the long-term. Limiting housing supply does not lower housing prices over the long-term – just look at San Francisco. Supply/demand stands the test of time: that’s basic economics.

        • The expansion of housing supply to DC faciliated by pop-up construction is infintismal compared to the large increase in housing supply in the commercial corridors of 14th Street, H Street NE, Massachusetts Avenue, etc. Most of the increase in housing supply is there, and those condos are becoming slow to move in terms of sales.

          • And the total number of all pop-ups (both the nice looking ones and the ugly ones) is pretty darned small compared to the 35,000 lots that will be affected if R-4 is downzoned.

  • I’m also concerned about this limiting home owner’s rights (YES RIGHTS) to add a third story without converting the home to a multi-family building. Also, I’m really confused about why the talk always centers around R-4 zones. All of this hoopla seems to originate with Lanier Heights, which is zoned R-5-B. Would this proposal affect all zones? So confused.

    • I could be wrong but I believe Lanier Heights being in an R5 zone were less restrictive than other parts of the city zoned as R4 and below, Lanier Heights then started to vote for Downzoning

      So if you look at NADZ (Neighbors Against Downzoning) they are a group that opposed down zoning from R5 to R4, they had a vote and ANC 1C voted to down zone.

      So now they’re looking to be Zone 4, where the zoning commission are looking to make changes to make it easier to build on large derelict/vacant building spots and harder to pop up row houses. So people like NADZ still has a dog in the fight, because even though they didn’t get what they wanted with down zoning, they may still have some sway overall with convincing the DCOZ to not make any changes/restrictions in terms of changes.

      In this case though, its a little odd, you Muriel Bowsers letter from June 2014 asking for the moratorium, but now shes mayor, she backtracked from that, saying that she will support whatever the zoning board decides.

      • AJ: You’re right, Lanier Heights is zoned R-5-B and there has been a petition going around to downzone the neighborhood to R-4. The ANC supported that petition. But the question of downzoning Lanier Heights is not currently before the Zoning Commission, the question of downzoning all existing R-4 zones is what they are discussing now (case 14-11). If R-4 is downzoned city wide, and then later Lanier Heights is downzoned to R-4, Lanier Heights will see a drop from its current 50 foot “by-right” limit down to the new 35 foot limit for R-4. NEIGHBORS AGAINST DOWNZONING formed to oppose a downzoning in Lanier Heights but we’ve warned people for months now that if downzoning fever goes city wide it will be a much bigger issue than the small Lanier Heights neighborhood. The difference between downzoning Lanier Heights (150 row houses) and downzoning all R-4 zones (35,000 homes) is the difference between lost potential property values of $30 – $50 million and somewhere between $5 – $10 billion. Five to ten BILLION dollars.

  • Does Bowser have the legal authority to halt by-right development?

    • Nope, she actually petitioned the comissioner when she was a rep, but now that she’s mayor she’s backed off of that stance and said what ever the board says she will respect, I suppose this letter is being dragged out as a bit of politicking, i.e. she was in favor of the moratorium but now she’s mayor she’s turned her back on those who helped her become mayor

      At least, thats my cynical point of view I suppose

    • Presumably, any projects already underway would not be impacted by the zoning change. But yes, the Office of Planning does have legal rights to change zoning laws.

  • If you check this property has a BZA hearing today 2719 Ontario Road NW. Plus, it’s not just a pop up issue. They want a variance to expand into their yard more than the 60% allowed, a variance for the floor area requirement, and a special exception from the open court requirments. It’s not as blase as the Neighbors against downsizing (hah what a name) make it out to be.

    • I just checked the file online and the letter of withdrawal of the application from the home owner and the acknowledgement of that withdrawal from the BZA are the most current exhibits (#31 and #32). Don’t know where you are getting your information but mine comes from the Interactive Zoning Information System (IZIS).

      Go to http://dcoz.dc.gov/main.html and check under ONLINE SERVICES.

      You can also read this warning on the website: Consumer Alert! The Importance of Competent Representation Before the Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustment


    • This is the story of how hard it can be to get a variance or a special exception. Not just about pop-ups. The funny thing is they claimed their proposal would be allowed BY RIGHT under R-4 (which does not use F.A.R.) so this could be a (very rare) case where downzoning would help the home owner build a pop-up.

      • The measure of how difficult it is to get a variance or special exception should be by how many variances and/or special exceptions have been denied outright. If you look through and do the numbers on this, almost all variances and special exceptions are granted, most on their first application. It would be good to do one’s homework on this before making assumptions.

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