When hunting for places to rent, D.C. residents often find themselves out of luck. Skyrocketing prices relegate many would-be city dwellers – like graduate students at GW – to find places to live in Virginia or Maryland.
Figuring out why is as easy as looking up. If it struck you as odd that a city with such high demand for affordable living has no high rises like other big cities, you’re not alone. D.C. buildings are handicapped by the Height of Buildings Act, an obscure law passed more than a century ago that Congress never got around to repealing.
The National Capital Planning Commission has proposed that Congress loosen its restrictions, but isn’t going far enough. Not only that, but the federal city planning agency has taken its recommendation to public hearings this month, and it’s facing illogical resistance from residents.
The law – which is based on emotion, not rationale – has huge negative repercussions. Rents in the District are more unaffordable for low-wage workers than every state in the nation except Hawaii, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And office space in the District is the most expensive in the United States, even edging out Manhattan.
If the heights of buildings are unrestricted, students will have more opportunities for affordable housing during their time at school – and afterwards, for the many that choose to stay in the District. Because many public sector jobs have relatively low starting salaries, cheaper rentals in more affordable housing units would ease the burden on students wishing to pursue these goals.
High-density housing also has positive environmental effects, as it makes residents less reliant on cars and creates walkable neighborhoods. And a construction boom would help employ more D.C. residents in blue-collar jobs.
Besides, the reasons for the law in the first place are anachronistic. At the turn of the 20th century, cities across America passed laws restricting the height of buildings for fear that high rises were fire hazards. Eventually, these concerns were addressed, and the laws were repealed all across the country.
But the initiative to do away with building height restrictions has been met with a torrent of misguided criticism by some local activists. The opposition – mostly by older residents who have banded together to be a brick wall against progress – seems unconcerned about the toll the District’s high cost of living takes on lower-income District residents, including students.
One such group is the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, an influential organization fiercely devoted to preserving the Height of Buildings Act. Nancy Macwood, chair of the committee, told me that the District is “iconically related to its skyline,” and that the new construction would undermine tourism. But she’s wrong: Tourists come to the District to see the Smithsonian Museums, the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, not its skyline.
Macwood also argued that the current housing stock is sufficient to meet the District’s demands. But this is ironic to say the least. We’ve seen clear examples of local development over the last decade in more affordable areas like Arlington and Friendship Heights.
Over the last 22 years, the population of D.C. has been basically flat while Arlington has grown by more than 30 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Surely these residents would live in the District – closer to their offices and classrooms – if more reasonably priced housing options were available.
The Committee of the 100 is not publicly opposed to affordable housing in the District. It just seems to be against all credible proposals that could bring about such change. And it’s a shame that their power prevents District leaders from making urban planning decisions based on facts instead of nostalgia.
The writer is a second-year student in the law school.