The White House Housing Development Toolkit And Democracy

A couple of weeks ago, the White House released a ten-point “Housing Development Toolkit” plan (pdf) to address the housing problem (which, by the way, does little to address the long-term fiscal instability of the suburbs. But I digress). I liked all of the suggestions…except for the first one:

1. Establish by-right development

Most development today goes through a discretionary review process prior to approval, such as public hearings or local legislative actions. These processes predispose development decisions to become centers of controversy, and can add significant costs to the overall development budget due to the delay and uncertainty they engender. The tradeoffs that developers make to account for those additional costs can result in lost affordability, quality, or quantity of units developed. “As-of-right” or “by-right” development allows projects to be approved administratively when proposals meet local zoning requirements.31 Such streamlining allows for greater certainty and more efficient development and, depending on a locality’s regulatory approach, supports lessening of barriers from density limits and other zoning requirements. It can also be targeted to achieve public goals by making “by-right” approval contingent on increased affordable housing, transit-oriented development, or energy efficiency.

A 2014 report by the Urban Land Institute concludes that “municipalities can facilitate more efficient development time frames and reduce costs by enabling more by-right development. This can be accomplished by relaxing restrictions related to density, building height, unit size, and parking minimums, thereby freeing developers from the need to seek waivers, variances, or rezoning.”

There are times when democracy–or at least taking the time to consider other opinions–usually isn’t the best option: a firefight, for instance. But I think it’s very dangerous to replace citizen participation–as annoying and stupid as some citizens can be–with the prerogative of those who are able to purchase expensive property.

Consider three recent developments in D.C. First, let’s look at the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) new Dupont Circle digs.

This was stupid for two reasons. It replaced what historically had been housing, in a neighborhood that desperately needs more housing [link to Shaw gentrification piece], with a think tank. Leaving aside that it’s an idiotic think tank, even if it were one I agreed with such as CEPR or EPI, I would oppose it. Keep in mind, this removed possible housing. In addition, AEI owns the building and is a non-profit, so there’s no tax revenue coming in. This definitely should have been slowed down.

Staying in Dupont Circle, there’s a micro-unit building that’s going up. Luxury micro-units are stupid, but the tl;dr version is these should have been regular apartments that people won’t use as pied-a-terres, again in a cramped neighborhood. I have no problem with the building, just what it’s being used for.

While we’re on the subject of micro-units, Bladgen Alley (Mount Vernon) is getting a whole bunch of them. The target renter is people who earn at least $150,000 per year. Needless to say, there’s no affordable housing included in the project*. Again, the issue isn’t a new building, but the stupid use of a new building.

Without community input–which is to say, democracy–there’s no recourse whatsoever to prevent more bad ideas from becoming reality.

I realize people’s frustrations with community input. Democracy is messy and unwieldy. I’m not unaware of the costs either. But turning these decisions over to the rich, without any democratic process, doesn’t seem like a good idea either. Because a key underlying problem isn’t housing scarcity, but income inequality–which is already corroding our democracy in so many ways.

*As I understand it, micro-unit buildings also don’t have to provide low-income housing.

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