Height of Folly: Why Housing in Washington, D.C., Is So Awful

The nation's capital is a swamp of dumb rules and jumbled zoning laws. Let's fix them.


This engraving from the pages of a 1870s Harper's magazine shows Washington, D.C., with nearly the same height restrictions we have today; WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

If D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and Rep. Darrell Issa get their way, Congress may finally relax the 102-year-old law that limits most building heights in Washington D.C. to no more than 130 feet. This would be a victory for good urban planning in the District, though a small one: Gray and Issa are saying that in most cases only about one additional story of development would be allowed.

But the real crisis of land use in Washington goes way beyond the height limit. It's that the District's planning and zoning apparatus is overall hostile to new development, usually allowing far less building that would be permitted by the Heights of Buildings Act of 1910. And while D.C.'s planning rules are restrictive, they are also arbitrary and unevenly enforced, making it a difficult market to enter.


Before I worked in public policy, I spent three years as a commercial real estate lending analyst for Wells Fargo. Nearly all of the project financings I worked on were in either New York City or Washington. And while both of these are expensive real estate markets with lots of rules about land use, there was a big difference between the two: New York, unlike Washington, has rule of law in land use.

Most development in New York City is done as-of-right. That means that, for any given piece of land, you can pick up a copy of the zoning declaration and figure out what you will be able to build: how many square feet of building area, how far it has to be set back from the street, how much parking, what kinds of uses, and so on. The incentive programs are also formulaic. For example, you get density bonuses in exchange for building public plazas.

There are exceptions to this rule. Most importantly, Manhattan has seen an unfortunate proliferation of "historic districts," where designs must be approved by a board of busybodies who will decide whether your plans for your property fit the neighborhood's character. Increasingly, these districts are being expanded to include vacant lots, and even a BP gas station on Houston Street, which recently needed historic district approval to change the doors on a storage shed.

But New York's historic districts, and the discretionary approvals they necessitate, are an exception to the usual development process. In D.C., a discretionary and arbitrary approval process is the norm for developments of any significant size.


It is normal for development projects in Washington, D.C. to obtain zoning variances or to go through a Planned Unit Development process, in which normal zoning rules are overridden. Officials in Washington tend to think of this as a strength of their planning process. The city shows "flexibility," approving extra development where the developer can demonstrate benefits to the community.

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Josh Barro is a contributor to Forbes.com and a fiscal policy analyst based in New York City.

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