The Washington Informer
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Apart from a notable decline during the 2007–2009 Great Recession, the nation’s capital has seen a surge in housing demand over the past two decades, supported by what industry insiders called strong market fundamentals. From 2000 to 2020, the District of Columbia’s population swelled by approximately 130,000 individuals, marking a 20% increase. However, a new report highlights why this growth needs more uniformity citywide.
Brookings found that five neighborhoods experiencing the highest growth accounted for nearly 30% of the new housing built in the District between 2000 and 2020. Even more strikingly, in terms of growth, the next five neighborhoods produced 10% of the new housing despite collectively occupying a mere 5% of the city’s land area.
Most of these high-growth areas are centrally located, with a significant share near the region’s employment opportunities. Clusters of growth surround downtown and the Union Station/NoMa neighborhood. Nine of the top 10 areas are north of the National Mall, except Navy Yard, home to the Nationals baseball stadium.
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District officials enacted a new citywide zoning law in 2016, formalizing years of primarily technical, minor modifications. Although rezoning resulted in minor modifications to land use allocations and structure types in most neighborhoods, it offered a dual opportunity to augment housing capacity.
The initial approach, as detailed in the report “Where 20 years of new housing was built in Washington, D.C. – and where it wasn’t,” entailed the conversion of land that was previously undeveloped to accommodate housing. This phenomenon was demonstrated by areas of land that were originally classified as “Other” in 2003 but underwent rezoning to accommodate single-family, multifamily, or commercial/industrial development. Notwithstanding land categorized as “Other,” scholars emphasize the importance of mentioning that a segment is occupied by parks owned by the National Park Service and government facilities, rendering them improbable candidates for conversion.
A distinctive aspect of the high-growth neighborhoods was limited land allocation exclusively for single-family homes in 2003. While the median D.C. neighborhood dedicated approximately 60% of land for that purpose, the top five developing areas designated less than 8% for single-family homes, with two having none.
“The District’s strategy of reallocating underused non-residential land to housing has successfully created substantial amounts of housing over the past 20 years,” researchers Leah Brooks and Jenny Schuetz wrote in the report. Brooks serves as the director for the Center for Washington Area Studies at George Washington University, and Schuetz is a senior fellow at Brookings. They acknowledged that focusing development in select neighborhoods has both benefits and drawbacks.
Brooks and Schuetz discovered that putting a lot of homes in places with lots of public transportation helps developers achieve economies of scale, which lowers the soft costs per housing unit for big projects. Researchers also found that vertical development makes more money in places with more expensive land. This method encourages people to live car-light lives and brings in more tax money through new stores, restaurants, and entertainment places.
Additionally, Brooks and Schuetz highlighted the detrimental consequences of excluding affluent, predominantly white communities from new construction, and continued restrictions on access to essential amenities, including public transportation, high-performing schools, and enhanced environmental conditions.
 “Avoiding short-term conflicts over zoning changes may delay addressing long-term economic and racial disparities,” they cautioned.
Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored… More by Stacy M. Brown
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