Let it grow
They were once a part of the free-spending group of young people who jolted Washington’s economy. Now older and with more financial strains, they are trying to find a new place in it.
Amid the talk of young newcomers and their fondness for social leaguesand artisanal-coffee shops, another reality exists: Many are struggling to keep pace with the city’s rising cost of housing. And as new millennials move into the District, older members of that generation — loosely defined as ranging from 18 to 34 years old — are heading out.
This odd, migratory pattern among younger D.C. residents is undoubtedly a problem, and one with which this author can personally identify, having moved last year from a squat, overpriced studio in Kalorama to a spacious two bedroom in Arlington, when the combination of lower taxes and split rent became simply too attractive to turn down. For others, such as those cited in the article, similar factors are no doubt at work.
Since the article’s publication, its author, Robert Samuels, has posited a number of potential remedies for the relevant problem. For instance, he has suggested making neighborhoods more walkable, or reforming and expanding the public transit system (which, in WMATA’s case, is decades overdue). Lower crime rates also would be essential for some of the more affordable areas of the city to attract new residents, Samuels notes.
All of these are good suggestions, as far as they go, but there’s one obvious solution that is completely ignored both in the original article and its sequel.
I refer to the century-old Height of Buildings Act of 1910, which restricts buildings in the District of Columbia to the rather diminutive height of 110 feet. While this particular height probably seemed formidable in 1910, today it only recalls a hilariously anachronistic phrase from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma:
Everything’s up to date in Kansas City
They’ve gone about as far as they can go
They went and built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a building oughtta grow
Here in D.C., regulators appear to believe eight stories is about as high as a building ought to grow. What seems to concern them less is how high this causes rent to grow. As Danny Vinik noted in The New Republic in May:
Zillow, a real-estate database, rates D.C. as the seventh-most expensive metro area in the country for residential renters. Office rents are third-highest in the U.S, according to commercial real estate firm Cassidy Turley. Increasing the supply of housing would bring down these rents significantly. That leaves more money in consumers’ pockets to spend on goods and services and more money with companies to boost wages or invest. That means more jobs, including many from the construction boom that would result from a relaxation of height restrictions. The increased density would lead to a larger underlying tax base and boost revenue to put toward city services. And, as Matt Yglesias has often written, allowing companies to cluster near each other has significant economic benefits.
One doesn’t have to be in favor of transforming the much-beloved D.C. skyline into a Tokyo-esque hive to see the problem, nor why even a modest increase in the height limit could drive down rents and allow more young people to stay in the city. Such an improvement would be at least as important as, say, updating the city’s public transit.
Of course, as in any policy fight, there are both economic interests and inherent resistance to change to be overcome. On the economic interests front, one can easily see how landlords and homeowners prefer a policy that sees their rents rise every year, irrespective of the age of the tenants who happen to be paying them, or that keeps the value of their homes increasing, irrespective of whether anyone can afford them.
As to resistance to change, one need only look to the fuss that more senior residents of the district raised over the addition of late night bars and bike lines to neighborhoods like Cleveland Park. Shortening their beloved skyline, even by a few stories, may be a bridge too far.
Still, D.C. has a choice: Embrace the future by letting its buildings grow up along with its younger inhabitants, or simply serve as one temporary stop for those young people on their way to environments with less regulatory meddling. It may be that many residents probably are all too happy to choose the second option, but they may need a reminder that economic growth also implies growth within the city. In this case, that growth may have to be vertical.