Do Houses Need to be Converted to Multi-Unit Dwellings for a Sustainable Community?

Houses, such as these on Warder Street, can be attractive to developers wanting to create condos or apartments

While there are many development issues that concern me as I see area real estate purchased and flipped by developers, one that is near the top of my list is chopping existing houses up into multifamily dwellings. I understand that there is a certain level of density that developers — and those willing to open a new business — consider desirable. But I’m not convinced that chopping up our housing stock to create more density is the right solution.

Fortunately, to increase density legally with our existing housing stock a developer needs to go before the ANC and the Board of Zoning Adjustment before they can convert a house into more that two units in most cases. This is because the zoning in our area — at least off of Georgia Avenue — is R-4 which is for single-family residential uses. Within the R-4 zoning, conversions of existing buildings to apartments is permitted for lots with a minimum lot area of 900 square feet per dwelling unit. The rear yard requirement is twenty (20) feet. Very few houses actually have the land to meet this permitted use.

This does not mean that we don’t already have properties in the neighborhood that have already been converted. Examples of these are more numerous in Columbia Heights than in Park View due to the availability of three story houses. In Park View, such houses are primarily on northern Warder, Quebec Place, and Rock Creek Church Road. They can be found throughout Columbia Heights.

It seems to me that the community’s need for smaller apartment and/or condo space is being addressed with the new development that has occurred on 14th Street and is continuing to arrive on Georgia Avenue. I’ve seen existing houses converted to multi-unit dwellings — most commonly by finishing off the basement as rental space. What I have not seen is new single family houses built.

My concern with the increase in smaller living spaces in the region can primarily be summed up as: 1) Children, and 2) Parking.

Children — At meeting after meeting I’ve heard about the importance of families to healthy communities. I happen to agree with this. If our community’s stock of single family houses shrinks, we may eventually have fewer families with children living in the community, and development issues such as the modernized school or renovated Recreation Center will end up being less relevant  — and less beneficial — to the neighborhood’s residents.

Parking — Parking is tight on many blocks already. Many families may have one or two cars that are parked on the street. Additional living units created in former single family houses generally don’t include onsite parking, thus increasing the number of vehicles in the area requiring surface parking.

Hopefully the development trend in Park View will continue to favor renovating single-family houses rather than chopping them up. Within our current zoning laws there really isn’t much more that can be done than take each project requiring public input as they come up.


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7 Comments on “Do Houses Need to be Converted to Multi-Unit Dwellings for a Sustainable Community?”

  1. lex Says:

    While I agree with most of what you said, I disagree with your take on the parking issue. I don’t see HOW one adds density without making parking more difficult (the obviouse exception being underground parking at new projects), and therefore I don’t think a potential lack of parking is a good reason to reject change.

    Drive to any of the ‘developed’ mixed-use northwest neighborhoods and try to find a parking spot at 9 PM. A Scarcity of parking is the sign of good things.

    And socially we should deny newcomers all the benefits of Park View because we don’t want to walk a couple blocks to our cars? It sounds lazy to me.

    And yes I own a car.

    So I say no to chopping up old houses but yes to increased density even at the expense of parking.

    • Wes Says:

      my preference is not to have to circle the block for an hour or park a half mile from my house due to lack of parking spaces. I can’t see how anyone would think that is a good thing.

  2. […] But Kent, can't people live in smaller spaces with children and without cars? [ParkViewDC] […]

  3. dan reed! Says:

    What, families can’t live in apartments? I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring, and I currently live in a rowhouse in West Philadelphia that’s been chopped up into apartments. My neighbors are a mix of grad students (like me), working adults, and young families. About a quarter of the 25 homes on my block have been subdivided into apartments, and the mix is similar.

    Rents may not be as high here as they are in DC, but it’s a desirable neighborhood with one of the few good schools in the city, and families are getting priced out. So living in a converted rowhouse is often the best and most economical option for many people.

    And the best part? You can’t tell from the street that I live in an apartment. These are six-bedroom, 3000sf houses that 100 years ago held large families. Today, my house holds four apartments and six people. Between us, we have exactly one car. Is that really an increase in density? I don’t think so.

    I have a lot of family in Petworth/Park View and I remember that not too long ago this wasn’t a very desirable area. Now, it’s increasingly popular – and expensive. I’d love to move back to your neighborhood, but according to you, I’d have to be able to buy an entire house. Is that really fair, Kent?

  4. JS Says:

    Kent –

    You mentioned that the community’s need for smaller spaces is being met by the new construction on 14th & Georgia. I don’t think this is the case give the extremely high rents being asked for (and received) in these buildings. When I was looking to move, the 1-BRs in converted rowhouses were substantially cheaper than the 1-BRs in the large, newly constructed apartments. I’m not sure what the going rates for the new Dontaelli building at 14th & Quincy are going to be, but I’d wager that they’re going to be at least $2000/mo. That’s unaffordable for myself, a young professional. My 1-BR, converted rowhouse (on one of the streets you mentioned) is substantially cheaper and allowed me to get my own non-group house accomodations. If I had to pay the going rates at Park Place or any of the buildings by the Columbia Heights metro, I couldn’t live in the area. Scraping together the downpayment for a ~400K house is going to take a while, and I’d like to live in and get a sense for the area before purchasing. My converted row house allows me to do that. Allowing the only multifamily housing in the area to be brand new construction would not.

    • Kent Says:

      Understood. I think the rents in the city, especially in newer construction, is higher then it should be. And yes, a healthy housing stock would have more than enough options for every housing need desired.

      I guess where I lament is that I often see single family homes converted before I see older, vacant apartment buildings renovated and returned to productive use. There are several on the 700 b/o Newton Place, one on Otis Place just west of E.L Haynes, a few on the 700 b/o Park Road, and I recall one finally being renovated on the 700 b/o Lamont.

      • dan reed! Says:

        Of course, there are also dilapidated or vacant houses that could be put to use again, whether as a single-family house or as apartments. And it takes far less money and time to renovate a house than it does to renovate an entire apartment building. Why wait for someone who has the capital to do an entire building when the demand for housing exists now?

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