Open letter to DC Zoning/Planning on Proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) and ADU Rules

Boneyard campout3This letter is in response to new proposed rules developed by the Office of Planning that will impact microhousing options and appears to target Boneyard Studios and other alley owners.  If you are a DC RESIDENT please consider SUBMITTING TESTIMONY to let these good folks know how you feel. (it’s easy!)   

DC Zoning Commission: Anthony J. Hood, Chairman; Marcie Cohen, Vice-Chairman; Robert Miller, District Resident; Michael G. Turnbull, Architect of the Capitol Designee; Peter G. May, National Park Service Designee.

DC Office of Planning: Ms. McCarthy, Director.

Ms. McCarthy and the DC Zoning Commission,

I would like to thank Ms. McCarthy for her recent comments praising Boneyard’s “high-quality” construction and “environmental stewardship.”  We have been working tirelessly, with our own savings, for over two years to make Boneyard Studios a beautiful showcase of micro housing, building a wide community of tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters in DC and across America, and developing one AIA award winning design.  We also recently hosted 17 representatives from multiple DC agencies to discuss how microhousing can play a role in expanding affordable housing options in the city, and potentially be applied to assist the homeless population.

I would also like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. This is a critical and often thankless job that could help make our city more sustainable and affordable.  I and many Boneyard Studios supporters contributed specific comments on making ADU’s more accessible, and appreciate that OP’s recent revisions took into account many of the recommendations on easing regulations on minimum lot sizes and house areas.  However we strongly wish that the ADU rules kept 1602.2, and would allow accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process.  We feel expanding ADU’s is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents. 

I also write today to clarify a few issues that have arisen out of the recent discussion of micro houses, alleys and the latest zoning language, particularly the ‘Camping in Alleys’ (CIA) language under 1609.2/1005/2 which was just recently proposed:  

No camp or any temporary place of abode in any tent, wagon, van, automobile, truck, or trailer of any description shall be permitted on an alley lot unless approved as a special exception subject to the following conditions: 
(1) The use shall be located so that it is not likely to become objectionable to adjoining and nearby property because of noise, traffic, parking, lighting, sanitation, or otherwise objectionable conditions.  
(2) Open fires shall not be permitted. 
(3) The use shall not be approved for more than two consecutive weeks and no more than one month per calendar year.
  • Transparency: In the 1100+ comments recently submitted to the Office of Planning regarding the zoning rewrite, we couldn’t find a single one that pertained to residential structures, tiny houses, wagons, trailers, tents or otherwise in alleys.  Yet on June 16 OP just added the new proposed text above explicitly prohibiting “alley camping” to the latest round of recommended zoning language.  It is unclear where the demand for such language is coming from, but it does not appear to be from the DC public commenting on the zoning rules.  Thus it is unclear who we should engage further on this issue, and would be obliged if you could inform us. 
  • Justification: Ms. McCarthy recently stated that “we need some level of controls so people aren’t setting up squatter camps in alleys”.  We are great fans of DC’s alleys, and are unaware of any squatting activity in any alley in DC, but would be interested to learn more about the cases you have found.  I would note that squatting is typically defined as “to settle on our occupy property, especially otherwise unoccupied property, without any title, right or payment of rent”.  I would like to clarify that I own my private property at Boneyard Studios outright, have full and clear title to it, pay all required property taxes to the District, and permit friends and the community to make use of it on a case by case basis.  We support controls on squatting in alleys, if there is justification for it.  But we find justification lacking, and the current language imprecise and overexpansive. 
  • Fairness: We quite enjoy having an overnight campout with friends on my private property once in a while (some pictures attached), and personally don’t see any need to apply for a special exception permit from DCRA for this.  However, if OP can make a compelling case to prohibit alley camping on private property, then we recommend that OP explicitly extend the proposed zoning rules fairly, to limit camping to all privately owned DC land — alleys as well as the countless empty DC lots with street frontage, residential front yards and back yards and side yards, rooftops and porches.  However, like us, I would expect that many DC residents may take umbrage at having to get a ‘special exception’ DCRA permit to pitch a tent, or have their kids take part in the annual Great American Backyard Campout sponsored by National Wildlife Foundation. Such a permit could take weeks, at considerable expense.
  • Consistency: Under DC code 604.1, open fires are already prohibited in DC, but under 604.2 are allowed for “Recreational purposes, including the cooking of food for human consumption on other than commercial premises”.  This would remain the case on alley lots, unless (under the draft regs proposed by OP) the lot was temporarily approved ‘by special exception’ for camping, in which case open fires are then prohibited. This does not seem consistent with existing rules under 604.  

Folks at Boneyard Studios look forward to using the lot daily as we have been for the past two years: hosting hundreds of enthusiastic visitors each month at our micro house showcase events, growing a showcase garden and orchard, undertaking projects in the wood/metal workshop, holding community events, and working on other art/music/work in the micro houses during the day.  In the interest of expanding affordable housing in DC, we strongly encourage OP to support micro housing units of all forms, be it multifamily apartments, connected or detached ADU’s, or trailer based micro homes. 


Brian Levy and the Boneyard Studios communityBoneyard camput2

Boneyard campout1

How to upload comments to DC Zoning

Thanks for your interest in submitting testimony on this important topic.

DC Zoning will only consider comments on ADU’s (accessory dwelling units), camping in alleys and other topics by submissions uploaded through their official channel. To do this:

a) The online IZIS system. In IZIS click on ‘Set up an account’, and register. Then login, and then click on “Submit Comments in a Case”.  Search for ‘08-06A‘. Click on ‘Select Case’. Type in text from the letter template below.  or

b) A PDF letter. At the IZIS site select “File Documents in an Existing Case” and upload your PDF letter, using text from template below.

cMail a letter to 441 4th Street, NW, Ste. 200-S, Washington, DC 20001.

NOTE: make sure when you submit comments you include the Case Number (08-06A – Alternative Text)

Letter template:

Office of Zoning, Case Number 08-06A-Alternative Text

I am a District resident in Ward __, and would like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. However, as the rules are finalized, I would ask you to please consider:

a) Eliminating the proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) zoning rule introduced by the Office of Planning. It appears this rule was made in an untransparent fashion, appears unjustified, unequally restricts private property in the District, and is inconsistent with existing code. More importantly, it eliminates a potential source of affordable micro housing in DC we should be working to develop further.

b) Supporting stronger language that allow the widespread development of ADU’s. Specifically, the latest zoning rules on ADU’s should keep 1602.2, so residents can develop accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process. I feel that expanding ADU (accessory dwelling units) is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents.



take action: final comments on DC zoning changes

DC’s zoning has not been comprehensively updated since 1958. After 6 years of drafting and public input, the Office of Planning is about to finalize a new set of zoning regulations that could transform the city by allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s- carriage houses and microhomes behind an existing house, or basement apartments), as well as development of residential structures on alley lots.  If done correctly, this would be a huge boon for affordable housing in DC, and allow smaller housing units across town.

BUT! While the current draft is ok, it could be even better. There are conservative forces that would love to do away with any new affordable accessory dwelling units in the city, and the current rules are rather restrictive. So DC Residents, we need your help, this week! Once these final comments are in, the Zoning Commission will vote on the final package.  Please help by:

A: Signing the Petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
They have been on the forefront of advocating for progressive change.

B: Submitting written testimony to advocate for specific changes we need. Here is an easy testimony template with specific language changes we need (note these are my (Brian’s) views on ADU’s and alley lots).  Zoning Commission will only accept emailed comments in PDF format, which must include your signature. Email signed PDF to: .  Subject line of email must include the case number (08-06A) and the subtitle or subtitles that your testimony refers to (Subtitle D).

C: Testify at the Wards 1-8 public meetings around town this coming week. It’s easy, and the Coalition folks can support you.

Thanks- zoning is the DNA of a city, and it’s a rare moment when we can act to positively affect the character of our city for years to come! With thousands of us connected through Boneyard Studios, we can really make a difference.

attend a DC zoning public input meeting

The D.C. Office of Planning released the long-awaited first draft of the proposed zoning changes (see in particular subtitle C+D), but we need your support. From the good folks at Greater Greater Washington and the Coalition for Smarter Growth:

The DC Zoning Update will make DC’s zoning code more understandable, give people more freedom to rent out their garages and basements, have local neighborhood corner stores, and remove some onerous and unnecessary parking minimum requirements. 

Some people are absolutely dead set against any change, and have been trying to scuttle the zoning update since the first day they heard about it, no matter how times the Office of Planning has come to meetings with them or weakened proposals to placate the opposition. It’s time to move forward to make sure our city can grow without adding to traffic, add more housing that people can afford, and become a better place to live for everyone.

The Office of Planning is holding 8 public input sessions by ward in December and January to educate residents about the zoning update and get feedback. We need to turn out in force to these meetings to stand up for good changes and/or push OP to make the proposals even better. 

Please sign up here.

DC’s Office of Planning will be explaining everything in detail at the meetings, but you can also learn more at their blog,, and from posts on Greater Greater Washington like these:

We’re posting more information on how the zoning changes could affect tiny houses in DC under FAQ’s.

tiny + stacked: dc micro apartments

Kudos to DC’s Urban Turf for continuing to cover the state of play with DC microhousing.  From today’s article “Is DC Ready for 275-Square Foot Housing?“, it is clear that in some respects DC is far ahead of the country in terms of minimum size regulations. While other cities such as San Francisco contentiously debate lowering minimum residential limits from 290 to 220 ft2, and NYC must waive square footage regulations to test microhousing, the DC limit is already set at 220 ft2.  Go DC.

This follows an earlier Urban Turf article (DC Almost Had 275-Square Foot Apartments) that chronicles how close DC was to having micro apartments in Chinatown, which would have put DC ahead of the rest of the country in developing these units.  For now, we cede leadership to NYC, where Bloomberg has championed microunits, and where a 60-unit micro-studio building will be going up next summer.

It would seem that an informal poll (Would DC Residents Live in a Micro-Studio?) shows great support for these small housing options. And as one responder noted, “As a landlord in DC, I know I could fill micro-apartments all day.”  The article concludes that “Someone needs to take the first step and figure it out…then you’ll see buildings getting carved up into smaller and smaller units.”

Bottom line: though it is far from what is needed, current zoning regulations are being debated to formally allow small housing in backyards and basements (as accessory dwelling units) and empty lots.  But when it comes to apartment buildings, there’s less policy work to do.  So we hope enlightened DC developers may see the logic (and demand) for micro apartments, and make DC a leader of this urban affordable housing movement.

UPDATE: DC Mud reports on Oct 15 that 330-380 square foot micro apartments are being planned as part of the “Parcel 2″ development in The Wharf complex in SW DC.

support changes to DC’s zoning code

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.

lot update (early june): fencing, electricity, compost, fruit trees!

Some pictures from the lot taken over the past couple weeks – Brian and Tony are almost done with the fencing, compost was delivered, garden beds are being built, and some of the fruit trees are planted already!  Plus, Brian installed his birdfeeder and hammock hooks are going up soon.  Lee returned from Brazil excited to see all the progress made on the lot.  Tony is off to South Carolina next weekend to pick up her tiny house shell and trailer.  Brian and Jay’s trailers are parked and waiting to be built.

View from the South with garden beds and a bit of the hogwire fencing to be put in on graveyard side of lot

View from the North side of the lot

Brian picked up a bunch of sixteen foot sections of hog wire fencing from a farm supply store near Baltimore- this will be used to finish up the fence. We got it to fit in the 17′ Uhaul, barely.

We thought we could save time digging fence post holes with a gas powered augur. Within 10 minutes of fruitless battle with rock and concrete, we realized that each of the 44 holes for the fence would need to be dug the old fashioned way.

Tony and Brian designed a removable fence – post system in order to be able to take off fence panels when moving the houses on wheels into or out of the lot.

A 4 foot deep hole was dug to put the electrical pole into, per DC code and Tony and Brian installed a 20′, 6×6 electrical pole — tough lifting!

16 yards of compost arrives to fill garden beds

Fruit trees and garden beds ready to be filled and planted

lot update (early may): got an alley lot address

Without a registered address, it is not possible to do very much on an un-named alley lot (even if it has a lot/square number) apart from cleaning it up, as no city permits can be granted to a lot without a street address.  After five meetings at DCRA, I have formal word from the Chief Building Official that an address shall be assigned to the alley lot. The official address will now allow us to apply for official permitting of perimeter fencing, a storage container, further excavation beyond 50 ft2, and an electric hookup. Great news, and a big thanks to DCRA (who are great folks doing hard work with limited resources).

For the code geeks: the lot is zoned R-3, and the planned fencing, garden installation, lighting, and construction of a garage is fully permitted under current R-3 zoning regs (for buildings, specifically see 11-204 ‘accessory buildings’ and 11-2507 ‘building on alley lots’).  DCRA was originally citing (below) as cause to not assign an address to the lot. After further meetings the code official decided that an address could be assigned under 124.6.3 and 124.6.4, given the public welfare benefits this project will convey– the lot is currently unfenced, poorly lit, and a regular source of illegal parking, dumping, and occasional criminal activity– just last week a stolen abandoned vehicle had to be removed from the lot.  Relevant sections of DC Code are below.

DC CODE (excerpts)

124.5.2 Street Numbers Every record and tax lot that is legally capable of supporting a structure or a site facility shall have an address regardless of whether the property is occupied or vacant. When a record lot is vacant, but within an existing tax lot that contains a structure or structures, the vacant lot should be assigned the same street number as the tax lot. Every building with an entrance from a public, private street named alley shall have an assigned street number. No street number shall be assigned to a building, site facility or occupancy that has its access onto an unnamed street or alley.  If an address is required for an occupancy, structure or site facility in such an instance, the street or alley must first be named according to the process described in Section 124.6.3 below.


124.6  Administration

124.6.1 The code official shall maintain a master file of assigned addresses and maintain a master address mapping database.

124.6.2 The code official is responsible for determining whether an address is required for any given parcel, structure, site facility or other condition.

124.6.3 The code official may grant a waiver of the business rules contained in this Protocol, based upon the evidence presented, if the code official finds that the waiver: Benefits the public health, safety and welfare; Does not create conflicts or duplicate addresses; and Is in the best interest of the District of Columbia.

124.6.4 The code official is responsible for assigning a new address under the following conditions: A new parcel of land (whether tax lot or record lot) is created through the subdivision process; A new structure is constructed on a vacant property; An existing structure is reconfigured to create additional occupancies or units; A new structure is constructed on property already containing one or more structures that have addresses; A new site facility that is constructed on a property parcel, or right-of-way;  An existing structure is renovated to relocate the main entrance to a different street frontage.

124.6.5  The code official, the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the E-911 Coordinator shall confer on recommended street names for public streets to ensure that no duplication occurs and that no streets with names that sound alike, or could create confusion for the delivery of emergency and non-emergency services, are created.


How does one get a reliable supply of water to garden a forlorn alley lot in DC? There seem to be 5 options:

  • Tap the water.  So, how complicated could it be to install a water spigot 100 ft from a DC water main?  Off to DC Water office for 2 hours to pull maps and consult the (very good) folks there.   DC Water is not thrilled about having to provide maintenance on any new alley water lines, as they are often located on narrow alleys their large trucks can’t deal with.  So we’d need a lawyer to draft a covenant to exempt DC Water from maintenance requirements.  Then we need a civil engineer to detail the line hookup (running from the street down and alley to the lot) and submit basic plans to DC Water for permitting.   Then a permit from DDOT (transportation) for a public space permit to dig up the alley to the road.  Then a plumber to come out dig and lay line.  Then DC Water to come out and tap the water line and install the meter, then the plumber to come out again, fill the trench and make it all pretty.  So bottom line:  5 entities, lots of legwork, probably $10-15K, and 6 months.  Doable, but rather a pain.
  • Buy the water: Thanks to the preponderance of above-ground swimming pools in northern Virginia, there are several pool filling services that can deliver water to your door. $325/delivery, up to 5000 gallons.  $500 for a 1000 gallon tank. This could probably work just fine.
  • Pray for water: it’s possible to collect and store and treat rainwater, but the rain gods are fickle. We’ll likely have some sort of rain collection system for garden use though.
  • Friend the water: technically there 13 neighbors with property backing on the lot, so perhaps we can find a friendly one to throw a hose over the alleyway once a week to fill a tank.  Maybe in exchange for a parking space? We shall explore.
  • Make the water:  There are at least 10 companies peddling ‘electric condensing water generation units’ (i.e. glorified dehumidifiers) online like this one.  Using power (and no small amount of it), these units pull purified water out of the air, provided there is water in the air.  As we are all too aware, DC’s relative humidity never falls below 40% (and is typically 50-60%), so we’d be good.  These units aren’t the cheapest, but small residential water coolers can provide daily cooking and drinking needs (in fact they appear to compete directly with water cooler delivery services).  Water for showers is another question.  There are also industrial sized units that use 2kW and generate up to 50 gal/day.

So DC Water, we’ll probably spare you for now.


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