DC Zoning Commission Approves Restrictions on Pop Ups

pop up

Thanks to all who sent links to the Washington Post update:

“The District’s Zoning Commission gave final approval Monday night to new regulations governing the “pop-up” homes sprouting up in some of the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods, reducing the maximum height of single-family rowhouses to 35 feet from 40 feet.

The new regulations affect only neighborhoods in the city’s “R-4” zone — which includes some of the city’s most vibrant residential areas, such as Capitol Hill, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights. The regulations go into effect immediately.”

152 Comment

  • How can I find out the zone of my townhouse in Petworth?

  • Too bad this doesn’t go into effect retroactively.. I’m looking at you 1013 V St!!

    • That still wouldnt matter. 1013 V Street is not in the R-4 zone.

    • And your comment perfectly illustrates how reactionary and short-sighted this whole thing is. 1013 V is zoned C-2-B, is not affected by this change, and would likely never be considered for downzoning. What this regulation change did, is take away my (until yesterday by-right) ability to raise my attic roof to standing height on Randolph Street. Congratulations. Thanks a lot.

      • This gets to the heart of why I hate this zoning change. Ignoring the question about condos/developers for a moment, this change has affected the property rights of thousands of people.

        This move was an incredibly short sighted action taken to appease a vocal group of NIMBYs, but it will do nothing to prevent house prices rising. About the only thing it will achieve is preventing horrible looking pop-ups. On that note though, why couldn’t there be some architectural committee that has to sign off on any pop-up to ensure it keeps with the character of the street/neighborhood?


          The online file for CASE 14-11 consists of more than 300 documents (called “exhibits”) from supporters and opponents of pop-ups.

          Opposition comments to the downzoning of R-4 neighborhoods come from a group of home owners, small developers, real estate professionals and smart growth advocates. They think these new restrictions will hurt property values, reduce home owner rights, and shut down an important option for adding new homes for the city’s growing population.

          Neighbors Against Downzoning has opposed changes that take long-held property rights away from home owners. We have observed “anti-pop-up hysteria” spread across the city in recent years. Today that hysteria has become legislation.

          EXHIBIT 268 expands upon our theory of anti-pop-up hysteria.

          A puzzling aspect of this case has been an absence of hard data on the actual scope of the alleged problem of pop-ups. If there is any official count of how many pop-ups have been built in recent years, how many are currently under construction or the number awaiting permits, it is a well-kept secret.

          Instead of meaningful data we have a handful of “problem” pop-ups repeatedly referenced by traditional media and prominently displayed in image-driven social media outlets. The most widely reviled pop-up, located at 1013 V Street NW, is not even in an R-4 or any other residential zone.

          This lack of hard data suggests that “problem” pop-ups are in fact quite rare.

          Now thanks to a list provided in EXHIBIT 308 (by an anti-pop-up crusader), we know that fewer than five dozen building permits were issued in R-4 zones for pop-ups from March 2014 through March 2015: an average of one building permit a week. Most were for conversions to a modest three dwellings for each pop-up.

          At the rate of five dozen pop-up permits annually, the conversion of all 35,000 homes in R-4 zones would take almost 600 years.

          That’s what we mean by “anti-pop-up hysteria.”

          • I’d be interested in seeing a map of where these 60 permits for pop-ups were issued. As far as architectural coherence is concerned, it takes only one pop-up to ruin what was previously a coherent block.
            Pop-ups are much less architecturally disruptive on blocks that are already higgledy-piggledy as far as having a mix of building heights, styles, etc.

          • Check the ZC website, IZIS, case 14-11, exhibit 308, pages 5 and 6 for the list.

          • Thanks, Anon 6:01 pm!

          • Ronald: How self-serving to refer to your own ZC 14-11 exhibit (#268) and not cite it as your own? Rather than being “anti pop-up hysteria”, I am hysterical at what you cite as hard evidence. The affordable housing argument is a falsehood driven by developer greed. If you beg to differ, then find another PhD economist and s/he and I can serve up a “verbal smack down ” and hash this out mano a mano. And, to be transparent on this, yes I am a proud community member of StopthePop DC.

    • 1013 V St isn’t R-4, so it wouldn’t be affected. Neither would the one in the picture, for that matter.

    • Uhhh It IS retroactive….to July 2014….. that’s what so GREAT about it!

      • Can someone explain how the rule applies retroactively to July 17, 2014? A building near me filed an application in February 2014 but did not receive a permit until October 2014. Is it keyed to the filing of the application or the issuance of the permit, or some other date?

  • This is so short-sighted and yet another way to make DC more expensive and less appealing.

    • Can you elaborate?

      • Accountering

        You know exactly what he/she is saying. Less housing/supply and same demand means price goes up to meet the demand curve. Very simple economics.

        • You’re right, I know exactly what he/she was saying and I was baiting he/she into a response. You got me.

        • Except it doesn’t work precisely that way with the housing market, in part because the conversions of SFHs into luxury condos results in a HUGE increase in price per square foot and thus drives up the prices for everything.

          • west_egg

            This is correct. And it drives up the price for un-renovated SFH’s because developers are willing to pay a bundle for them since they know they can pop up and convert it into 2-3 units. In other words, the price is based on the site’s potential, not the existing structure’s.

          • But wait, I thought the economics were “very simple”

          • Accountering

            So using our example. A large rowhouse gets purchased for $600,000 and carved into three $500,000 condos. That is 6 people (3 couples) that no longer will be in the housing market.
            With this new regulation, the house gets purchased for $600,000, flipped, and sold to a the wealthiest of those three couples who puts down more cash and is willing to up their mortgage, for $900,000. Those other two couples are still in the market.
            I do not agree with you that conversion of SFHs into luxury condos results in an increase in price/sq foot and drives up the price of everything, except for that one building.

          • How is this going to stop the conversion of SFHs into luxury condos? In Columbia Heights, there are a plethora of rowhouses converted into 2-level condos. I expect these places now will be converted into 1 2-level and 1 flat.
            The price per square foot might come down a but, but the per unit price of the dwelling(s), whether it is one SFH or two condos, will do nothing to decrease housing prices – or even slow their increase. And it will, unquestionably, limit the housing supply – whatever you think of the impact of that limitation, we all can agree that it will happen, right?

          • Accountering

            Bingo. Same process, end result is one 2/2, and one 1/1, instead of two 2/2s. Same $/SF, just less SF, less property tax revenue, and less 2+ BR units, that can house families.

        • Blithe

          And, of course, in real life, sometimes economics are not so simple. In the absence of one type of very specific choice: pop-ups that reach a maximum height of 40 feet, people will make others. From pop-ups with a maximum height of 35 feet, to more building on major streets and in areas already zoned for greater density, to moving to the burbs which they were thinking about doing anyway, to choosing different streets or different neighborhoods, or even different cities. As the supply of different resources changes in a multitude of ways, the demand — as well as the characteristics of those doing the demanding — can change in significant ways as well.

          • Accountering

            From my example above, and following with your example, they will move into a building on a major street. Great, those are just now seeing prices fall due to a ton of new building, so we stop pop-ups, demand for those goes back to where it was, and prices go up!
            They can move to the burbs – great! I thought we were trying to NOT price people out here?
            Choosing different streets or neighborhoods – excellent! Now demand three streets over or in a different neighborhood is higher, and there are 4 bids on that cute starter home, as opposed to three. Then bidding war, and prices go up!
            Or they move to different cities. I guess if your solution is that people move to the burbs or different cities, you are accomplishing that here.

        • Housing supply is also hugely dependent on money supply (i.e., how much a bank is willing to let you go into debt to finance that house). Very, very few people here on PoP’ville can afford to buy their house outright. Much of the price growth in DC is intimately tied on lenders’ increased risk appetite in recent years. If lending markets tighten…..well, you know the outcome.
          Places like Cleveland and Detroit need near-zero interest rates. Places like DC, SF, and NYC? Not so much.

    • Blithe

      Oh, Anonymous, you DO get that “appealing” is in the eye of the beholder, right?

    • I hear this argument a lot, but I struggle to see it as anything other than a red herring. I get that more housing generally means greater affordability, but it seems like most (all?) pop-ups that convert single family houses into condos result in really, really expensive housing. Does having a bunch more half-million dollar one-bedroom condos really make the city more affordable? What am I missing?

      • You are missing nothing.

      • Brand new homes are almost always going to be more expensive. If I move into a new luxury condominium, it leaves the older home I was living in before available to someone else. If you build enough new condos/homes then all these rich people stop bidding up the rents on older units.

        • I’m just not sure that is how it is working here. To use econ terminology, I just don’t think that the substitution effect is that much in play. I don’t think someone is deciding between buying an older 1-br condo versus a newer one. I also don’t think that in DC, with all the bad publicity bad flips are getting, a brand new piece of construction will necessarily go for more than a well maintained old one.

          • Accountering

            If the brand new 1 BR isn’t available (in 2012, it was impossible to buy a brand new construction, as the demand was insane) then you choose the older 1BR, as that is all that is available.

      • Blithe


        – What you’re missing is the opportunity for people able to buy really, really expensive housing, but possibly not really, really, really expensive housing — at least in their chosen neighborhoods — talk about their decisions as “helping to make the city more affordable”.

      • Accountering

        You are missing a lot. These SFHs were gone either way. They were either going to be flipped and become 1 800,000 home, or 2-3 400,000-600,000 homes. There are a lot more people in this area who can afford $400,000-600,000 than can afford $800,000. I would say that yes, having a lot more $400,000-$600,000 1 and 2BR homes does make the city more affordable, for the people who are choosing to buy them.

      • You may be right. But how does this restriction improve that situation?

        • It lowers the ROI, since the developer can now sell only (say) 3 luxury condos (basement, 1st floor, 2nd floor) rather than 4 (those plus a popped-up 3rd floor). Developers can still make hefty profits, but not as insanely hefty profits as before. Maybe this will give actual owner-occupants a chance at successfully bidding for a SFH.

          • Accountering

            So… Less housing is the benefit here? People sell to developers because they offer all cash, close in 15 days etc. Or because they take the houses that literally no one else wants, as they are shells.

          • justinbc

            I really do not care how much money developers make, as long as they’re following the law. And therein lies the real problem that people should be upset about. DCRA is full of people who are happy to look the other way for the right amount of money, and that’s where developer influence is at its worst. Let them build all day for all I care, as long as they’re doing it legally and to the proper standard.

          • if someone was willing to spend $750K for part of a rowhouse, you can be sure they’ll spend that on a whole rowhouse. the $500K rowhouse is increasingly a thing of the past, and restricting condo conversions will only speed the process up.

          • textdoc, if the only benefit of this is to limit developer’s ROI, than was the change really worth it? Conversions will still take place, they will still be as high-priced (or higher, because some will be bigger), and the only benefits are less housing and fewer profits. This seems, to me, to be an absurd result.

          • DCD, I think that the zoning changes are an imperfect solution, but I think they will discourage some of the fly-by-night developers and give owner-occupants a better chance to successfully bid for a single-family home.
            I would’ve preferred conservation districts (sometimes called “historic districts lite”), but it looks like that’s not happening any time soon.

          • DCD, higher prices are definitely going to be constrained by Fannie/Freddie loan limits. You see big cliff effects for housing prices where prices start to bump against these limits.
            Why do you think expensive (multiple millions of $) housing sits on the market for so long? It’s because the bank can’t sell it onto Fannie for a government-guaranteed securitization. It either has to sit on the bank’s balance sheet (risky and capital intensive) or be privately securitized ($$$ because it’s risky). Or it has to be an all-cash buyer.
            The fact that anyone is trying to make some sort of “….but but the free market!!” argument in this discussion is laughable. Every housing transaction and construction project is massively subsidized by the government in multiple ways.

          • How many developers are fly by night developers? What size of a problem are we talking about here textdoc? Because I think it’s more of a cover for restricting popups than it is a real problem.
            I would much rather fix DCRA, the agency that gets my tax dollars, yet takes bribes, doesn’t enforce effectively, and allows crappy developers to keep working. If you want to get to the root of the problem use the enforcers, not zoning regs.

          • Jeslett, I was speaking more about fly-by-night developers in terms of why pop-up projects are attractive to small-time developers (small scope, big ROI) and why I think it’s erroneous to argue that pop-ups “increase affordability.”
            Developers cutting corners (as we’ve read about in the Washington Post and elsewhere) is a separate issue, as you correctly note, and is indeed a significant problem. Of the three pop-ups being built on my block and the next block over, two have received stop-work orders for pretty flagrant violations (including starting construction with no permit at all). I have no way of knowing whether this 67% figure is representative, but it’s not exactly encouraging.
            The zoning change was put into place to limit pop-ups. That change will have an incidental, secondary effect of discouraging some of the fly-by-night developers… but as far as I know, that’s not the reason it was put forward.

          • Not really. Only two units are now allowed

      • The question is, who do we want things to be affordable for? The least affordable part of the DC housing market right now is single bedroom apartments. The demand for these apartments greatly outpaces their supply. Many young professionals need to be living with a significant other in order to afford a 1BR apartment, and many more are forced into looking for a bedroom in a group home or moving outside the city.
        When we choose not to convert single family homes into single bedroom condos/apartments we keep things affordable for the families that have the resources to purchase a home, but we also are restricting the supply of a highly sought housing type.

        • Easy – we incentivize developers to build ACTUAL 1BR apartment buildings. I don’t understand why it’s necessary to carve up a house to provide this type of housing. A mid-sized apartment building filled with 1BR and 2BR apartments would be significantly more cost efficient on a per square foot basis.

          • Exactly. Pop-ups are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to actually increasing supply.

          • But this is what I keep coming back to – what positive benefits will this change bring? It’s one thing to say that building luxury condos doesn’t address the problem, and I agree it’s a more nuanced argument than simple supply and demand. But that doesn’t answer the question of how will this specific change help. So far, what I have seen is that it will decrease developer’s ROI (shouldn’t be a goal of the zoning code), run off smaller developers (ditto), and make it easier for an owner-occupant to buy a SFH (sorry, but in my opinion that’s a pipe dream. If there’s still two units as a matter of right. there’s plenty of ROI still available, and even a shell in Columbia Heights and elsewhere isn’t what anyone in their right mind would consider affordable, much less a renovated place).
            There are also the non-economic benefits to downzoning that Irving Street identified – and let’s be honest, they are the impetus behind the downzoning movement, not any grand economic theory. The housing supply is a fig leaf – this happened because residents in Lanier Heights and elsewhere don’t like increased density because of traffic, parking (and in some instances, there’s an ugly subtext about “those people” who live in condos. I would have preserved the existing R-4 property rights (that were in place when all the people who are now complaining bought their homes). I prefer to not cater to the “I got mine, so now the rest of you can bugger off” sentiment.

          • Turning row houses in cities into multiple apartments (or into single room only occupancy) has been going on for over a century, probably much longer. It is caused by economic forces. In other times, it goes the other way – people buy houses turned into 2-4 apartments, or 8 rooms, and reconvert them back to single family houses. City neighborhoods have gone both up and down for a long time.

            In later years, as condo and coops became popular forms of ownership, sometimes the apartments were owned ones.

            While I like old SF housing stock, and do think that we lose part of a city’s historic housing stock when the inside detail is lost, I don’t think there’s a rational reason for prohibiting turning SF homes into multiple apartments. I know that owners of SF homes hate to see it, but I think it is mainly from an odd prejudice against those living in multifamily buildings. (Which never applied to themselves having legal or illegal basement rentals, oddly enough.)

            Sure, I’m all for banning ugly pop-ups, and think making all old districts into historic districts, such that exterior changes would have to be reviewed and approved, is a great idea. Yes, it impinges on property rights, but I think preserving the look of neighborhoods is worth that. Hopefully it would be done in a good way, preventing ugly finger pop-ups, but not shorter good ones, and presumably would allow someone to raise their attic roof tastefully.

            I like neighborhoods of mixed occupancy – they are the most vibrant – sf homes, condos, coops, apartments, and larger multifamily buildings, all inhabited by both owners and renters. There’s no reason SF homes can’t be multifamily if that’s what the current economy dictates, and nothing saying they can’t build multifamily buildings with some 3 and 4 bedroom units in them, too.

            Though I do think that the shoddy flips that destroy the structural integrity of homes, SF or otherwise, should be stopped. Not that you shouldn’t take down walls, but that it should be done right so the structure is still sound.

          • Dcd, you haven’t mentioned the issue of preserving historic architecture — I think that’s a big concern for many pop-up opponents. I know it’s my primary concern.

      • this is the “after this, therefore because of this” fallacy. what you are missing is that the price of housing in the city is going up with or without condo conversions. the question is whether that rowhouse would be cheaper as a renovated single family home, or cheaper as a renovated condo, not simply whether it went up. you can also add spillover effects, because the person who would have gotten a second or third unit in the house is now still looking for housing. and (s)he will outbid someone else on a different property. and so on.

        • You’re overlooking the possibility that a rowhouse could end up being purchased by an owner-occupant rather than a developer — that was what happened to most SFHs in R-4 zones before the pop-up craze took off.
          The price of housing in this city is going up with or without condo conversions… but condo conversions have made prices per square foot really skyrocket. And whereas developers used to buy and subdivide only houses that were in terrible condition, now they’re beating out potential owner-occupants for houses that are in good shape.

          • i’m not sure when you pinpoint the start of the “pop up craze”, but is it near the same time as the “luxury apartments craze”? because to me, in the late aughts is when the floodgates opened on the gentrification of the city. in addition to popups, you have large luxury apartment buildings along corridors on 14th, u, shaw, h st, admo, city market at o (is that shaw), columbia heights, etc.
            you can’t single out popups for increasing the price per square foot, i think they were simply capitalizing on the change in demand. and you don’t know what developers would have done in the alternate realty with this prohibition in place. perhaps they would have outbid everyone for single family homes, threw in a few shiny things, and re-sold them for $800k. perhaps people would have been throwing in high bids for lower quality single family homes, and hiring contractors to re-do them at a high price/sqft.

          • Accountering

            Why does the price per sq foot matter so much? What is wrong with someone CHOOSING to live in a smaller, nicer, cheaper house, as opposed to a flipped full 3/2 rowhome?

          • Because when developers buy up all the available SFHs and either split them into luxury condos or sell them as luxury SFHs, buyers don’t get to CHOOSE to live in a livable but unflipped house. And so people are now paying as much or more to live in a luxury condo than a rowhouse cost just a few years ago.
            Rockcreekrunner — I don’t think pop-ups really took off until 2011 or later. I know I saw very few before that time. Pop-ups aren’t solely responsible for increasing the price per square foot — luxury condo conversions are — but pop-ups exacerbate the problem by giving developers even larger ROIs and thus encouraging developers to buy not just shells and houses desperately needing repair, but perfectly livable houses too.

          • accounteering, at a certain point it matters as a barometer of whether people of different socioeconomic groups, or even families (there’s a severe shortage of 3 br if dc wants people to stay put while their kids are in middle/high school), can stay in dc. my point is that it’s going up based on much broader trends, and restricting popups will only make it worse.

          • Accountering

            The heart of the matter is, the random family isn’t going to get the house either way. That isn’t how it works in DC currently. The house (if appropriate a desirable to a developer) is going to get purchased by a developer, who is either going to flip it, and sell it for $300,000 more, or turn it into condos. All this does is make it so it will be smaller condos.

          • Pretty much all shells are going to get bought by developers — that’s pretty much inevitable.
            But the high ROI offered by popping up a single-family home and splitting it into multiple luxury condos means that even RENOVATED (albeit not luxury-flipped) houses are starting to get bid up by developers.

          • Yes, but that is the choice of the seller. No one dictates that they sell to all-cash developers when they could choose to sell to someone who wants to live in and renovate the home – except for the very worst shells, which have more structural issues than most buyers want to take on, they get the offers.
            Then there’s an additional real problem that most people who are working hard enough to afford the home don’t have the time or funds or inclination to do the major renovations that many of these require. So they’d rather purchase a rather ugly, but at least clean and new, developer special. As one person ready to start a family said to me about buying a renovated house rather than one that needed renovation “I want to raise a child, not a house.”

  • Any word on if they are going to continue to ignore the “to a maximum lot occupancy of 60%” section of the regulations?
    As a homeowner, it terrifies me more (than an additional 10 feet in height) that developers potentially can get a variance to build a three story wall the length of either side of our back garden, thus reducing air and light and diminishing the quality of life.

    • IIRC, the changes to the zoning regulations also include a provision that pop-backs/rear additions can go no more than 10 feet past the edge of the neighboring party walls. So that limits it a little.

  • I see this move adding 100k value to all mid tier /starter home properties. That will allow more buyers to compete against investors. Otherwise pricing in dc will become house by house vs neighborhoods.

    • How does making homes more expensive help buyers compete against investors?

      • Because the developers profit margin won’t be large enough for them to pursue, whereas a buyer can buy a 500k home; dump 150k into it and have it appraised in line with other already flipped 650k homes that were previously bought for 350-400k and where the profit margins were much greater. Until value catches up with the neighborhood, developers will back off.

    • Yup, this is a win for those little starter homes in Takoma, Brightwood, Ft. Totten, etc. They were going between $250k-$450k, in a couple of years with this provision, people will be lucky to find them for under $500k. Whatever affordability was left west of the river is about to be wiped out. What happens is demand is going to spread out to other areas of DC, it is not going to make homes any cheaper. If people cannot afford one neighborhood, they move onto the next. If anything this is adding fuel to the fire of DC gentrification, as the more moderately priced DC neighborhoods will likely get more expensive.

  • In an ideal world, where our Zoning Commission understood that supply and demand were a thing, the ZC would be required to balance any further restrictions on housing supply with an equivalent relaxation of zoning rules elsewhere in the city.

    • It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. There are plenty of places where developers could build apartment/condo buildings that aren’t pop-ups, or could convert SFHs into condos without involving pop-ups. It’s just that pop-ups are more appealing to a lot of fly-by-night developers who want small projects on which they can make a big, big return on investment.

      • Yea they can build elsewhere, but isnt the number one rule in RE location, location location. People want to be closer to the core.

        • There are tons of vacant storefront properties all over DC. Specifically, there are a lot on Georgia Avenue. What’s wrong with taking one or two of those and turning it into a 12 unit condo building? I suspect it’s what textdoc said…their ROI is much lower in that scenario.

          • Georgia ave is set to explode soon close to Walter Reed. Developers are already planning houses there and buying property there. The big developments are going to happen, but these smaller developments and pop-ups do have a role to play in meeting demand. It’s a small safety valve, but an important one. One that has just been shut.

          • I imagine ParkViewRes and I are both thinking of the stretch of Georgia Avenue that runs through Park View. There’s a frustrating amount of vacant corner lots and empty storefronts.

      • Well, yes, popups are much easier to build than whole new buildings. The solution to that is to make new buildings easier, rather than preventing homeowners from making their family home bigger.

        • This cuts to the core of it. It’s amazing watching commenters bend over backwards trying to find the economic intuition by which more restrictive housing stock is going to equal cheaper housing.

        • I don’t think that’s quite right that popups are easier to build than new buildings. I think it’s more that existing homes are easier to acquire than vacant lots. IE, the property acquisition is easier, not the construction (although maybe that’s what you meant).

          • IIRC, it’s cheaper and easier to acquire a permit for interior demolition than it is to acquire a raze permit. That’s why you often find developers keeping the front facade and nothing else, or developers pulling an “Oopsie!” and allowing a facade to collapse (as with the Ben’s on H Street).

      • “It’s just that pop-ups are more appealing to a lot of fly-by-night developers who want small projects on which they can make a big, big return on investment.”
        Exactly. I prefer the ZB and City Council to force these guys to concentrate their capital into construction on new, larger buildings in run down corridors, like Georgia Avenue, Rhode Island Ave, H Street, etc. There’s no reason for these guys to be competing with actual owner-occupiers for SFHs.
        Oh, you don’t have enough fly-by-night capital to build a real apartment building? Tough luck.

        • This shuts smaller operators out of the real estate investment game, and restricts competition to the few largest players. Restricting competition brings down prices how exactly?

          • I have no issue with that – this is EXACTLY the point of urban planning!
            So you’re saying the smaller operators will need to either adapt or die?
            Sounds like “the market” at work to me.

          • +1 to the OP Anon. I am shedding no tears for the developers.

          • The point of urban planning is to restrict competition? That would be news to my urban planning professors.

          • How would you restrict competition? Plenty of families will still be bidding against one another for a SFH. Market forces are still at work.
            It’s up to the zoning board and city council to determine the direction of development in our city. It’s their job to steer capital in a manner that balances quality of life, affordability, and economic sustainability for DC citizens. I’m totally fine with removing incentives for commercial developers to carve up SFHs and, instead, steer their capital to developing density in other parts of the city. That’s the point of urban planning.

      • “It’s just that pop-ups are more appealing to a lot of fly-by-night developers who want small projects on which they can make a big, big return on investment.”
        Exactly. I prefer the ZB and City Council to force these guys to concentrate their capital into construction on new, larger buildings in run down corridors, like Georgia Avenue, Rhode Island Ave, H Street, etc. There’s no reason for these guys to be competing with actual owner-occupiers for SFHs.
        Oh, you don’t have enough fly-by-night capital to build a real apartment building? Tough luck. Go get some more investors or bigger credit facility.

  • anyone consider that to accommodate for the 5 feet in lost height, developers will just start digging up basements a few feet and “pop-down”?

    • I assume a “pop up” adds another bedroom but I dont think a “pop down” could technically add a bedroom, right? Don’t bedrooms need at least one window?

      • without knowing the ins-and-outs of home construction (and i’m guessing this could only work with gutted shell rowhouses), i’m wondering if they could reconfigure the basement floor at a few feet lower, then accordingly build each floor 8 inches to a foot lower, and still configure two 2 floor units with slightly less ceiling clearance.

    • Yes!

      If London can have “iceberg” homes, why can’t the District

    • That comes with a price tag though as digging out a basement is not cheap. Plus you’re getting further underground, less light.

      • Yup. This ain’t going to happen, as the cost is onerous and underground square footage already sells at a discount (less light, prone to flooding and infestation, etc).

  • What a bunch of nonsense. This won’t fix the problem of developers not following code. DC could fix most of this by fixing DCRA as an agency. And the commissioner’s chairman actually said “No, but right now we have to do something. . . . Let’s keep it real.” This is blatant pandering and is a huge disservice to the city in the long run. What a bunch of incompetents.

  • This affordability argument for keeping popups only makes sense if you never got past chapter 1 of your economics textbook. Sure, making 3 1-2 bedroom units out of a rowhouse increases supply, but they are all marketed as luxury units and the price/sf is the same or more than adjacent rowhouses. And each popup conversion is taking a 3 bedroom unit and a basement studio out of the housing stock, making it even harder for those looking to stay in the District with their families.

    • And each new unit is normally cheaper than the previous rowhouse, adding to available stock. Thanks for the lesson, though!

      • I don’t think you get what I’m saying. Even if the popups add to the total number of “units” they do it by chopping up family housing into small condos. They’re only “cheaper” because they’re smaller – if you have 2 kids and are in the market for a 3 bedroom place then you’re SOL.

      • HaileUnlikely

        No it isn’t usually cheaper than the previous rowhouse. Each unit is usually cheaper than the previous rowhouse would have been if it had been renovated and then sold for profit by a developer, but oftentimes every single unit sells for more than the developer paid for the rowhouse originally, and sometimes (less often, but it definitely happens) each unit sells for more than it would have cost to buy and renovate the rowhouse (for an owner who bought the rowhouse and renovated it, not to buy the renovated rowhouse from a flipper)

  • See people? The process worked. There is no instant gratification. A moratorium would not have effected current pop-ups, not to mention it would have been illegal and opened the district up to a major lawsuit. As much as we all hate six story pop-ups, there was a process in place. The Mayor and the more rationale members of the council tried to reassure people that the commission was working as quickly as possible and that a resolution would be rendered soon, but I got the feeling from some people that they were either trying to scare people or were just trying to be inflammatory. This ruling seems fair to me. Hopefully it’s the last we hear about this issue and we can begin focusing on more important matters like crime and the schools.

  • Frustrating. I’ll probably never be able to afford to do it, but it’s so aggravating that if I want to pop up to accommodate space needs for a growing family, I’d have to add the cost of getting approval to go to 40 feet. If the concern was really condo conversions, then just ban the condo conversions. But this is really about the fact that there are a couple aesthetically ugly pop ups and people don’t like the look of them.

    • +1

    • you would never get it…. you can build a nice addition at 35 feet…..and how many do you need to accomodate? Are you the Waltons?

      • Accountering

        So now we are telling people how many kids they should have? Whats next?

      • Nope, because height is measured from the street. My front door is 12 steps up from the street, and therefore my house works out to 32.5 feet tall even though its only two floors and a 5.5′ attic. If I were one street over, where there houses are 5 steps up from the street, sure, no problem. But not my house — which I’ll point out I specifically bought in non-historic R-4 because I wanted the expansion rights. The people who were most vocal on this issue had the least idea what they were talking about. I’m disgusted.

      • I was wondering about this. I’m a non-engineer with almost zero sense of how big spaces are–is 35 feet really a significant change from 40 feet? I’m 5′ 9″, which seems pretty short in relation to a house.

    • Generations of families have lived in DC’s two and three story rowhouses. You can rehab your basement and easily fit four bedrooms in most rowhomes without popping up. Why do you need so much space?

      • Because people want to recreate the entire suburban experience of their youth here in the city, complete with play room, great room, front and back yard, 3.5 baths, cathedral ceilings, etc.
        People in NYC also somehow manage to raise three kids in an 1000 sq foot apartment that costs twice as much as the townhouses selling in Shaw. They gripe, but manage just fine and everyone has a good life. Go figure.

      • The onus should not be on the homeowner to prove they need the space. The onus should be on you to explain how you will be harmed if they have their extra 5 feet.

        • Let’s get real – it’s not about the homeowner needing 5 more feet. It’s all about the developer who needs that 5 extra feet so they can add an extra floor.
          95/100 of home owners in DC will never pop-up their SFH. It’s not going to happen. Flippers? They are going to pop-up 9 out of 10 SFHs they acquire.
          PS – Carlos, aren’t you a flipper? You own a bunch of places in Trinidad, right? If I’m confusing you with someone else, my apologies.

          • I’m not a flipper. I’m not even a homeowner, either. I’m just a 20-something who hates watching all my friends get priced out of the city when they go to buy their first home.

    • That’s us, too. We love our house and our neighborhood, but we’ll very likely have the grandparents move in with us in the next 5-10 years. Our plan was to put an addition on top, move the playroom/ office/ guest room up there, and clear out of the basement and give it to the grandparents. I don’t know where we are with regard to height, but it’s possible that this scuttled our plan of growing old in DC.

      • HaileUnlikely

        Apply for a variance. It will probably be granted. Hardly any homeowners can afford to build additions (up, back, down, or otherwise) to their own homes. It sucks that you are being adversely affected by this (I hope you apply for a variance and they give it to you), but please realize that if you really want to pop up your own home and and maintain it as your residence, you are the mega-exception, not the rule.

  • I juts want to throw out that in this discussion there are quality of life issues that are no less valid for being public goods and impossible to price (“market failures” — as some of you will remember from econ 101). Your popup makes my neighborhood more crowded, and less aesthetically appealing. It destroys a certain amount of history. It cuts into my daylight, and adds to my parking problems. In short, you profit from making my life worse.
    I am not at this point willing to make the argument that popups should be banned for these reasons. I will, however, suggest strongly that property rights and Econ 101-level market economics are not the only things to take into consideration.
    I wonder if Accountering (to pick on someone, but not vindictively) is sufficiently free-market-oriented to do away with zoning altogether and, if not, where the line is. I’m thinking of starting an urban free range chicken ranch…..

    • Make the actual analogy — you’d like to raise chickens and so you specifically research the zoning and buy a house in a zoning that allows chickens. Then, based on a dispute in another part of town in a district with completely different zoning, the zoning board decides to placate the mob by amending your zoning to prohibit chickens. Except instead of losing your right to raise chickens, I lost my right to move my office into a minor expansion of my attic. Thanks.

      • Zoning codes change all the time. That’s part of city living.

        • Uh, DC is trying to re-write its zoning code for the first time since the 50’s. They don’t change all the time.

          • And they certainly don’t change after two meetings, with no studies on homes effected, economic impact, multiple rounds of public meetings, etc. Find me another example of the zoning code being changed this way within ten years and you win.

      • For this argument, my concern is whether property rights/market economics (based on quantifiable money benefits) are the only the legitimate issues in this discussion. It asks if zoning, as a restriction on our economic rights, fundamentally illegitimate.
        You’re making a process argument. You accept zoning as legitimate, but object to the process (“placating the mob”) by which this change was instituted.
        They’re related, but different. I might disagree with Accountering, but find your argument more persuasive.

        • Thanks for bringing up the quality-of-life issues (aesthetics, history, daylight, parking, etc.) that are often overlooked in this discussion.

    • in other ways, it makes your life better. increased density supports a greater variety of restaurants and stores. it increases the tax base to help pay for city amenities. the question of where is the line between planning and free market is a good theoretical issue to discuss, but ultimately a slippery slope from the issue at hand.

      • I can think of many ways to generally increase density without plundering existing low-density areas — as keen as I am for yet another trendy bar or used furniture store on yet another traffic-clogged nightlife strip (he ranted).
        But, I think Accountering and other raise a valid point. Indeed, far from a “slippery slope,” its the core of the issue. At what point is the government allowed to limit your ability to enjoy and profit from your property as you see fit?

        • I think you’re misinterpreting. I don’t think Accountering rejects zoning, and I 100% do not. The point is that there was a standing restriction on economic rights in R-4 that everyone who did their research was aware of and worked within: 40′, 60% Coverage. Just because pop-up development is really heating up these days doesn’t mean that owners or developers are breaking the rules. The standing economic restrictions for R-4 always allowed that density/height. It’s the folks who are now objecting who didn’t do their homework on what the rules were when they bought, and complaining that the rules should now be what they merely assumed they would be. And yes, this process has been a clown show.

        • That is, this wasn’t a “low density” detached homes area. It was for rowhouses, 40’/60% coverage/4 units (now 35/10′ extension/2units).

        • I mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating:
          “The fact that anyone is trying to make some sort of “….but but the free market!!” argument in this discussion is laughable. Every housing transaction and construction project is massively subsidized by the government in multiple ways.”
          I don’t see how the local government restricting development in one manner is any different than another branch of the government granting home owners the mortgage interest deduction. Or preferential tax treatment of debt issued by commercial real estate companies. Or setting a near-zero interest rate. Or artificially lowering the cost of borrowing by providing a government guarantee on the performance of MBS.
          We can disagree with the good sense of these policies and their potential implication, but for some one to trot out a “free market” or “property rights” argument is just willful ignorance of all the “free shit” they’re getting from Uncle Sam.

          • Accountering

            I will happily side with you that the mortgage interest deduction should be done away with entirely. But for you to bring that unrelated issue into this discussion is just “willful ignorance” and not productive in the least.

    • Not sympathetic to this argument. You can’t choose to live in the city then declare that all density growth must stop after you’re in a neighborhood.

      • That’s not the argument that Irving Streete was making.

        • It’s exactly the argument he is making- “I can think of many ways to generally increase density without plundering existing low-density areas …”
          It’s the “I love my neighborhood so much, but I won’t make room for anyone new to move in and enjoy it” argument. Also known as the “I got mine” argument.
          Pop ups aren’t the root of increased density, parking issues, traffic, etc. It’s the shift in demographics that has made DC an incredibly desirable place to live with many jobs, which is attracting new residents and slowly but surely creating these “problems.” Times change, culture changes, and we need to change to keep up with it. Especially parking, which is much too cheap.

          • Your argument presupposes that the only way for anyone new to enter the neighborhood is via a pop-up condo conversion. “I got mine” is only applicable if you move into a pop-up condo conversion and then argue that further pop-up condo conversions should be forbidden.

          • No, you don’t have to live in a popup then become a NIMBY to proclaim “I got mine.”
            We’re talking about people in low density neighborhoods, those people can live in any type of dwelling, proclaiming that their neighborhood is great and now that they’re there, don’t change anything, especially don’t make room for more people to enjoy it as well.
            Frequently this argument is made under the guise of protecting a currently low density neighborhood from quality of life changes.

          • What do you mean by “those people can live in any type of dwelling”?

          • I think you’re overthinking the “I got mine” argument. It doesn’t mean “I got my popup, now you can’t get your popup,” it means “I got my place in this community (be it rent controlled apartment, SFH, spot in a hard to get group house, whatever) and now I don’t want anyone new to change my community.”
            In this case, Irving St has his house and he doesn’t want density to increase, thereby taking “his” parking, sunlight, etc. By restricting housing stock when demand is high, it would also mean he got his house when prices were good for him, so more supply would keep his property value climbing at a reasonable pace, whereas restricting it would have it increasing at an astronomical pace.
            The “I got mine” argument is generally applied in this latter case, as it mostly refers to property value, but it can be applied to quality of life as well. I think of it like a property value related subgenre of NIMBYism.
            The absurdity of it lies in the fact that these people claim to love their neighborhoods, but don’t think it would be prudent to allow more people into the neighborhood to love it too.

          • Jeslet — I mentioned that argument just below @ 2:22. I’m very sympathetic to your point (I’m doing a lot of thinking out loud here, so I probably contradict myself here and there). On the other hand, describing it as the “I got mine” argument is a little prejudicial, don’t you think? Especially as these things play out in DC.
            Given that the areas affected by popup restrictions (especially once you discount Historic Districts, a whole ‘nother argument) are a relatively small part of DC as a whole, and given that even they are cris-crossed with large streets and pocketed with commercially zoned blocks, one could significantly increase density by encouraging multistory construction in those places while “protecting” the historic low-rise areas (and lifting the height limit). To anon 1:46’s point, it’s arguable — probable — that shifting higher density develop away from A-M, Logan, etc. would be broadly beneficial in bringing new amenities and police interest to currently underserved neighborhoods.
            Whole cities, including Boulder and San Jose, are famously unaffordable because of restrictive zoning adopted in the name of “quality of life” (not to mention Westchester County, where I had a significant argument with a friend about their “no poor people allowed” zoning.)” I think that sort of thing is a mistake. That doesn’t mean that quality of life concerns are illegitimate (especially given that things like space, light, and parking are finite), nor does it mean that unrestricted up-popping is a necessary or even particularly effective means of creating affordable housing compared to other approaches.
            My one pissy aside — not to be pissy to you, but it’s going to sound generally pissy — is that for a number of people, particularly of my generation, there is a good quality of life in these neighborhoods because we took chances with our families and — literally — our lives to move into these neighborhoods and create that quality of life. That shouldn’t affect zoning decisions. But it certainly affects our outlook.
            [My use of “your” and “my” was purely rhetorical — I’m in a historic district and this has no effect on my house. But I am interested in the city as a whole, and find this a very complex and nuanced problem. Again, see my 2:22 response)

          • Nicely articulated, Irving Streete. Growth and architectural preservation don’t have to be incompatible.

    • Accountering

      I am not arguing to do away with zoning whatsoever. I am certain though that by restricting demand, all we are doing is making housing more expensive. Perhaps I am arguing against my own interests even, as I now own three properties in the city.

  • I’m surprised no one has raised two partially-persuasive broader arguments:
    1) Low density allows hypocritical, faux-egalitarian, mostly white people to protect their “quality of life” by erecting barriers to less affluent, possibly non-white neighbors. It’s how we build gated communities downtown.
    2) Low density zoning hurts the regional economy by making more expensive for new firms to establish themselves and more expensive to lure talent. I know, for example, my talented (more or less) hard-working son is scheming to get away from DC to a place he can afford. It will be a small but tangible loss for the city when he goes and, multiplied by thousands who move or never come, it has an effect.

    • On the contrary, the developers are most likely to rip off long-term elderly who aren’t up on the potential value of their home. These long-term homeowners are also least likely to be able to push back against the party wall & underpinning structural damage as well as loss of amenities caused by out-of-proportion pop-ups. The lower-income get pushed out, the developer pockets a chunk of change to take bank to his/her Potomac-based LLC and mansion, and the incoming generation is now squeezed to buy at much higher prices for much less square footage.

  • I find the calibration of the 35 foot limit to be interesting.
    Minimum ceiling height is required to be 7 feet by the building code. However, in most of the existing SFHs, the ceiling heights is already 9 feet on existing floors. So on an existing 3 story structure, you’d have 27 feet (plus an additional 1.5 to 2 feet for floor depth and the roof).
    It will be interesting to see if developers will somehow reduce the height of the existing floor in an attempt to add a 4th floor that just meets the 7 foot minimum height. That will start to feel claustrophobic.

  • I always think of Amsterdam when I think of tall beautiful row houses. Why do the ones around town have to deviate so far from the original architecture!? It’s not the height that’s the issue, it’s the cheap ass materials and shoddy looking construction.

    • For sure. There are small apartment buildings all over the city, old and new, that look just fine. It just irks me when a builder thinks he can improve a centry-old structure by plopping a vynil-clad box on top.

      • “Improve” in this case is spelled $$$ they don’t actually think they are “improving” the look of anything but the bottom line. Most developers live in the burbs and are blind to vinyl siding and tacky out of place buildings.

        As for more density = lower prices, this hasn’t really panned out in places with no hight restrictions like NY. The tallest buildings are often the most expensive.

  • Sure markets are messy, but limiting supply in a high demand/supply constrained city is in no way good for affordability.

    I predict this will be overturned in a few years as prices continue to rise. A new zoning committee will coming in an correct the over reaction. Pop ups and rowhouse conversions will probably come back with an architectural zoning review. Seattle’s city council had a similar freak out over micro unit construction, which they are new reconsidering.

  • UGH – I’ve just realized I’m R-4 by checking the zoning map. I have no intentions at all right now of building a pop-up (and probably never will), but the fact that this option is now taken away from me, blows my mind. I think what upsets me most – is that if I lived two-blocks away – it would be OK?! Give me a freaking break.

  • I support increased density but there has to be a variety of housing sizes and types. Who has the wherewithal to throw down $800K for a 2-bdrm converted condo. That’s what half-house condos are asking in my part of Petworth, but they’re mostly sitting empty because people with that kind of money want a whole house, so they’re looking elsewhere.
    Build more multi-story condo and apartment buildings, yes. (Ironically, there’s way more density in neighborhoods west of the park because of this). But leave some houses for people who want to stay in the city past their singleton 1-bdrm/group house years and buy a starter home.

    • If condo conversions aren’t selling (anecdotally, I also have a condo conversion pop up on my block that isn’t selling very quickly), then developers will stop building them. There’s no need to pass this overly broad law that hinders families that want to stay in the city and want to pop up for more space.

      • The vast majority of pop-ups are done by developers, not by owner-occupants. Pop-ups are so expensive to construct that the cost is prohibitive for most owner-occupants.

        • This decision is terrible for the city. Now the only new housing stock buyers should expect are $800k 2 level ‘house condos’. No one will be able to get new small 2 bedroom $500k condos anymore…

  • The ire that is being directed at restrictions on carving up R-4 rowhouses into condos because it will supposedly restrict housing supply and therefore result in higher housing prices is misplaced. Why are you not directing that anger at the NIMBYs in upper Northwest and elsewhere who have consistently opposed PUD’s and rezonings on major thoroghfares like Wisconsin Avenue in the vicinity of Metro stations. The number of additional units that could be added by increasing heights to 90 or 110 feet on one relatively large parcel would be more than the total number of new pop-ups added in R-4 zones across the total city per year. And the additional units would be in locations where additional height and density can be accommodated without a significant increase in traffic congestion.

    • NW Res: Good points.

      Neighbors Against Downzoning is concerned with the loss of home owner zoning rights. When a private citizen’s “Matter-of-Right” is turned into a “Matter-requiring-Neighborhood-ANC-BZA-Approval” that is a real loss for private citizens.

      What people do with their zoning rights is not our major concern. Add a story to their house for a growing family, convert a basement for their in-laws, sell to a developer who wants to turn it into 3 or more condos, choose NOT to sell to developers and only sell to a family, or do nothing at all: those are choices that we wish the Zoning Commission would have left to the home owner without new restrictions.

      Now that new restrictions have been voted into law by the Zoning Commission we will have a chance to see what the real effects will be on pop-up developments, home improvement projects, real estate values, etc.

      ZC Chairman Hood stated at a public hearing that if these regulations turn out to be too restrictive then the ZC can “step them back.” We presume if they are deemed insufficiently restrictive the ZC may decide to reduce zoning rights even further.

      Small scale pop-up condos and apartments won’t solve the city’s housing problems all by themselves, but they should be part of the solution.

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