Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Columbia Heights residents debate splitting single family homes into condos

There's an interesting debate over at the Columbia Heights Yahoo listserve about subdividing rowhouses -- one resident, Phil Robey, said he was tired of it, arguing that developers make lots of money while ruining the character of the neighborhood and taking away parking.

He wants to have a meeting about restricting it somewhat, which is when the conversation got going. Some folks agreed, saying you could "down-zone" the area to R4, meaning it would be less dense and houses could only be cut into two units, while others said doing that would only make housing more expensive. A resident chimed in, saying cutting rowhouses into 4 units makes the area into the suburbs, and then somebody who lives in such a unit disagreed -- it's still a rowhouse, after all.

I'm no expert but it seems to me that cutting supply in a high demand area like Columbia Heights can only make things pricier. I don't really see a big hit if some houses are converted into multiple units, but there ought to be a balance -- otherwise you lose all the units that would otherwise house families, replaced by those for singles or couples.

Often though, these kind of developments happen in formerly abandoned buildings, like the one at 13th and Otis I wrote about a while ago -- it's more economical for a developer to fix one abandoned house into multiple units than just one. I think many folks (especially planners) would argue that more density is a good thing. What do you think?

Here's Phil's original post:
How many neighbors out there are sick of seeing 100+ year old houses in Columbia Heights destroyed by developers - most of whom come in, make tons of money cutting houses into 5 or more units, and then move on. This not only ruins the character of the neighborhood, it greatly restricts our parking.

I've brought this issue up with Jim Graham and his advice has been to declare our houses "historical." The problem is, that only restricts the exterior of the house - it does not restrict development of the interior.

I believe we need a law that restricts development of most houses in CH to Two (2) units. I am thinking about arranging a meeting on this at either my house (2600 block of 13th St.) or at the Church on the corner of 13th and Fairmont. I would like to see what Briane Nadeau has to say about restricting development.

Any one interested in joining me in putting together such a meeting?


  1. Thanks for printing my post. I have lived here since 1991 - back when the neighborhood was much different. I am excited to see a rejuvenation of sorts - but I agree with you: a percentage or mix housing types is good. Unfortunately, there is nothing to ensure that most of the houses won't become condos. And once they're gone, they're gone.

  2. This is a good discussion and one that is overdue for the neighborhood. I would like to add some clarification. Much of Columbia Heights is already zoned R-4 according to the zoning map. There are also two areas here that often get intertwined. As noted correctly, density is a zoning issue. So, in talking about how many units can be in a structure the zoning regulations (or approved variances from the zoning code) are in play.

    As to neighborhood character and architecture, that is a preservation conversation. At this time, a historic district is the only option available that would review the design and architectural merits of additions or changes to the existing housing stock.

  3. Andrew, the house on 13th & Otis is the very relevant to the discussion. Converting 3 bedroom rowhouse inventory in Columbia Heights into 4 units condos or apartments is just plain greed and is generally counter productive to neighborhood development. CH does have an inventory or larger 3 and 4 story rowhouses that makes some sense to make into 2 and 3 unit buildings. But some of these are being turned into 6 to 10 unit buildings. Again doing so is generally counter-productive to diversity in Columbia Heights. And sets of development race to the bottom.


  4. such say "IS NOT very relevant"

  5. Converting 3 bedroom rowhouse inventory in Columbia Heights into 4 units condos or apartments is just plain greed and is generally counter productive to neighborhood development.

    Nonsense. By subdividing a rowhouse into condos, developers are taking one property that is affordable to few and making it affordable to many as the cost of a condo is invariably lower than that of a full rowhouse. It also brings density, which should be welcomed. The downside is zero, save for the exception of parking, but then since many people don't own cars this isn't that big of a deal (furthermore, we could ensure plenty of parking simply by charging a market price for it rather than giving it away so cheaply thus creating lots of demand). This issue is such an obvious slam dunk it is bizarre to me how anyone could be on the opposing side.

  6. I think there is a little confusion about being able to turn a row house into 4 units. There are not that many row houses that qualify to be converted into 4 units. For every 900 sq ft of lot you can build one unit. There are not that many row houses with lots of 3600 sq ft or more. As a developer we typically buy and renovate the worse of the worse. Look at Baltimore for example, there are few developers that want to renovate homes there, what you have are these 100 year old homes that are left abandoned. One after another after another. What do you think that did to home values. Be careful what you wish for. The DC real estate market would not be where it is without developers. Home values didn't rise by themselves.


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