D.C.’s Housing Crisis Isn’t Due to the Absence of Skyscrapers

Recently, a Washington Post op-ed argued that D.C. should alter the building height limitation:

And while certainly many factors affect the cost of housing in the city (such as demand, crime rates, school quality and proximity to public transportation), it is hard to ignore that artificially limiting the heights of buildings, and thereby the number of housing units, will tend to push rents higher. It’s also hard to ignore that the poor will feel such inflated rents more acutely than the rich. For a city with so much poverty and a dearth of affordable housing, any policy change with the potential to reduce the cost of housing should get careful consideration.

The height restrictions have structured the market in such a way that it produces expensive, boxy and relatively low-density commercial and residential buildings. As the debate begins to heat up, what we are hearing from the restrictions’ supporters is that they favor this sort of development for a number of reasons, but chief among them is this: the views. Certainly, the monuments are a big part of the District’s character, and it is not surprising that they would be weighted heavily in the debate.

This is a canard that gets trotted out all the time–although concern for the poor is new. Wonks love discussing this:

In particular, the shibboleth of D.C. policy wonks is the restriction on building heights to eight stories, so as not to overshadow the Washington Monument (aside: this does have the advantage of being exposed to direct sunlight for more than a few hours every day. Just saying).

What this mindset leaves out is a lot of other successful cities that are very dense also don’t require a lot of skyscrapers either, such as Boston.

But D.C. has two problems that wouldn’t be helped by skyscrapers. First, the streets are too damn wide; second, two-story buildings, which are quite common, are too short:

Well, obviously, apartments aren’t that large, which is the case for most cities. But besides that, Boston has two things going for it that most other cities don’t have: narrow streets and sidewalks. Not a lot of space is wasted in residential areas. Sidewalks at most are about nine to ten feet wide, and skinnier in other places (e.g., Beacon Hill). The streets typically are very narrow–about ten Mad Biologist paces (my pace length is about average)–if you factor in parked cars, add about four paces. Not only does this making walking around easier, but the real estate is used to house people, not air or cars. That allows much higher densities (although it makes drivers crazy at times) without skyscrapers.

Because, when you get down to it, skyscrapers are really popular with developers. City officials–including Boston’s Mayor Menino who would probably bulldoze the Paul Revere House and put a 50-story building there if he could get away with it. Why? Revenue:

Even if it doesn’t significantly lower rents, extra tax revenue from new residents and businesses could help fund affordable-housing initiatives for the District’s poorest residents.

Not to be cynical, but the apartments and many of the revenues will be geared towards upper-income families, not the poor. Sounds nice though. But I would go with five to six story buildings and denser street grids.

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1 Response to D.C.’s Housing Crisis Isn’t Due to the Absence of Skyscrapers

  1. andrewD says:

    So, how much “undeveloped land” does the Washington Post, Stephen Aresch, Darrell Issa and Elanor Holmes Norton own in Washington DC…or am I just being cynical
    “Follow the Money!”

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