Part of the mission of Boneyard Studios is to support changes to DC zoning and building codes to allow higher density, affordable housing in the District.  Currently there are some excellent proposals on the table to allow for accessory dwelling units (typically carriage houses and basement apartments) in low-density parts of town.  The accessory dwelling proposals will:

  • Allow one accessory dwelling in the house or an existing separate building in single-family and low density row house zones
  • Not change higher-density row house and apartment zones
  • Require the owner to live in the house at the same time
  • Limit the overall size of the dwelling to 25% the size of the main one

There are also progressive proposals on parking, corner stores, and simplification of the zoning categories.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth has put together a great fact sheet on the issues. There is unfortunately some misinformation on the impact of the proposed changes, so it’s important that the DC City Council members hear from residents in support of zoning update.  So read up and if you’re a DC resident contact your City Council members with an easy on-line form to voice your support for a progressive DC zoning update.

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  1. I think it is important to point out that the proposed changes to DC code related to Accessory Dwelling Units does not go nearly far enough — it does little more than codify the status quo.

    If you really look at what these changes would do — they actually do very little. They make legal a lot of what is already happening. In the few cases where an ADU would now be allowed “by right,” there would continue to be so many conditions that restrict the size of the unit (to 25% of the existing house!), that these ADUs would be allowed only for the wealthiest DC landowners in the toniest neighborhoods that have the largest homes.

    The existing zoning regulations already allow a homeowner to provide a small apartment in an accessory building (like a garage or carriage house), but only if it is “sleeping or living quarters of domestic employees,” and only in R-1 zones. R-1 zones are typically the large detached homes on 50 by 100 foot lots — picture $1 million plus homes in Cleveland Park.

    OP has proposed that ADUs should be allowed by right , in the current R-1 and R-2 zones, which have larger houses and lots.

    The current R-3 zones would continue to allow ADUs only by special exception, a restriction that maintains a tremendous hurdle for homeowners, requiring them to appear before the Board of Zoning Adjustment and ask permission through the special exception process.

    In the current R-4 zones, new ADUs in an accessory building would not be permitted.

    The proposal would allow for (re)converting existing old carriage houses to provide living space.

    This is happening already, because renovating within the building envelope of an existing structure is relatively easy to do with nothing more than a postcard permit for non-weight bearing demo or repairs. Accessory apartments within existing buildings are nothing new — If you were to research all of the DC rental apartments offered on Craigslist, you would find that the vast majority of such apartments were never fully permitted, do not have a certificate of occupancy, and are hence not technically legal. The reason most homeowners do not go for all of the premits that are required and a C of O is all of the restrictions required by DCRA. OP’s proposal makes this process easier, which would mean more homeowners could pay more permit fees and higher tax assessments for the extra kitchens and bathrooms they put in without asking the city for permission.

    Converting a basement to an apartment can easily be done on the sly, and many garages, carriage houses, and stables all over town have also been made into dwellings; but the city is not getting paid any permit fees — because much of what is getting built cannot be permitted under current zoning.

    What this zoning proposal misses is the opportunity to build new ADUs where they are appropriate, but where homeowners cannot fly under the radar. There are many long skinny lots with small houses on them in R-4 zones. Many of these lots had accessory dwellings at the rear of the properties in the past, but nothing now. From the end of the Civil War until they were made illegal, ADUs in R-4 zones provided low income housing to 20,000 DC residents. R-4 zones in DC are the most dense residential neighborhoods, and there are many small two bedroom homes that only occupy a third of their long skinny lots. Allowing these homeowners to build an 800 square foot ADU by right, where 25% of their lot would remain open, could go a long way towards encouraging what most people think of as an ADU.

    It is a pity that the Office of Planning cannot get behind real ADU reforms.

    Reply
  2. [...] line: though it is far from what is needed, current zoning regulations are being debated to formally allow small housing in backyards and [...]

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