09/09 Updates in DC zoning

The DC Zoning Regulations Review (ZRR) is a project that began in 2007 led by the DC Office of Planning (OP) to revise zoning regulations. This is the first time the DC Zoning Regulations have been comprehensively revised since 1958. It has long been clear that there is no more important fight for micro-housing in DC.

The rewrite has been an ideal opportunity to lobby for changes that would support legal, small scale housing that can fill in vacant lots, or empty land behind existing homes (detached accessory dwelling units (external ADU’s) commonly referred to as carriage houses), or in basement/in-home apartments (internal ADU’s).

Early drafts of the rewrite were not encouraging- no new alley construction (there are over 700 alley lots in DC), no ADU’s by right (i.e. a landowner would have to go through a very lengthy and expensive ‘special exception’ process to build an ADU behind their house), etc. Thus in 2013-2014 Brian at the Micro Showcase consulted with the Coalition for Smarter Growth to draft comments on the rewrite, testified several times at community hearings, and organized 55 Micro Showcase supporters who signed letters supporting ADU’s and alley dwellings in the District.

A recent review of the full proposed Title 11 (966 pages) and review with Office of Planning and the Coalition for Smarter Growth shows that our collective efforts have been fairly successful, in many cases leading to direct, line-by-line changes in the code that should encourage greater density and more affordable and small scale housing across the city. These changes are up for final review/comment until September 25, 2015, and then will be codified.

The Good:

a) Detached ADU’s: these are now allowed by right in the majority of residential zones, opening up tens of thousands of lots across the District for new micro housing. DC will shortly join Portland as one of the most progressive cities in the country on ADU’s.

b) Attached ADU’s: previous versions of the zoning code had very high square footage requirements on a primary residence to develop an internal ADU. The new version allows an ADU/apartment in most residential zones in the city in a house as small as 1200 ft2. (there is still unfortunately a higher bar for R-1 zones, 2000 ft2).

b) Alley development: alley development is now permitted in certain residential zones, and the minimum alley width has been decreased to 15ft. Unfortunately not all R-zones are included, but this is nonetheless substantially improved. (We note that the rewrite happily makes the Micro Showcase alley lot now fully legal for residential development.)

The Less Good:

a) Residency requirements: For attached and detached ADU’s, the rewrite imposes an owner residency requirement, which could potentially limit development.

b) Trailers: The rewrite does not make trailer living permittable in backyards- for a variety of understandable code and permitting issues this has long been a non-starter at Office of Planning, as it has been across the country, so no surprise here.

c) Alley trailers: The rewrite adds a provision making trailer living in alleys illegal (the Zoning Commission was transparent on several occasions that this was a direct response to sanitation issues with 2 trailers at the earlier Boneyard Studios popup). See DC policy on trailers.

A more detailed analysis is presented in the following chart – http://www.microshowcase.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/DC-microhousing-zoning-review.pdf

Source: http://www.microshowcase.com/dc-microhousing/

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Elaine Walker