Re-examining Single Family Zoning

Single-family zoning, its historical roots and its impact on everything from equity to climate change, has been under scrutiny in recent years in cities and states around the United States. Minneapolis and Oregon have recently passed laws that allow some form of multi-family housing in areas previously reserved for single family homes. California, Maryland and Virginia lawmakers are also engaged in the issue. Here at home, the District of Columbia is looking into whether changes to single-family zoning can help alleviate is housing crunch that has seen a 52% increase in median home prices since 2011.

Last summer, the D.C. Council ordered the Office of Planning (OP) to submit guidance on options to get different types of housing from single family zones and the impact on affordability and equity of allowing small multifamily homes in all residential zones. In response to this madate, OP issued the “Single-Family Zoning in the District of Columbia” report this spring. It’s a relatively-easy and very informative read that I recommend to all those interested in planning and housing policy in D.C.

Here are some of the key points from the report:

Cleveland Park is home to a variety of residential zones, with medium and high density zoning along its Avenues, semi-detached zoning (R-2) in the northern parts and single-family detached (R-1) in the southern parts. Interestingly, there are wonderful examples of gentle density, or “missing middle housing” in our most restrictive zones – the types of housing that would not be permitted today.

  • In D.C., “historians have established that language that implies that certain neighborhoods need ‘protection’ from others stems from a history of racism and segregation.”
  • In the Rock Creek West area (a.k.a. Ward 3) , 77% of the land is reserved for single-family detached homes, which account for just 29% of the households.
  • OP recommends creating “gentle density,” i.e. du-, tri, and quad-plexes, walk-up apartments, residential flats and accessory dwelling units in single-family zones in areas of “high-cost, high-opportunity areas as well as near transit.” Cleveland Park checks both of these boxes.
  • Allowing multi-family homes in single-family zones will help with affordability (spreading land costs), improve equity, and be more environmentally friendly.
  • Any changes to single-family zoning must happen during a re-write of the Comprehensive Plan, and not during the current amendment process. The next re-write of the Plan is set to happen by 2026.
1900’s-era Semi-detached homes in single-family detached zone (R-1-B)
1920’s-era Multi-family apartment building in single-family detached zone (R-1-B)

The single-family zoning issue is one that should and will be discussed in our community and across the city over the next few years. The City’s report is a good place to start in understanding where the debate is coming from and where it is heading.

Join the discussion on single-family housing at Cleveland Park Smart Growth, either on our listserv or Facebook Group.

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