Friday, July 19, 2024
HousingPolicyUrban Planning

Those People: NIMBYism in America’s 17th-Wealthiest County

If you, like me, are a part-time transplant resident of the District of Columbia– and are a policy nerd, no less- you might spend some time wondering about how urban growth works when it has to cross state lines. DC is separated from Virginia by a river, so that’s a fairly clear thing. But the line between DC and its inner-ring suburbs in Maryland are comparatively blurry. Sure, there are streets that follow the lines of the District’s elegant diagonal, but the urban fabric is contiguous.

But DC’s high housing prices are creating a lot of prospects of spillover growth into especially Montgomery County, which has created a growing backlash amid the Karens and Chads of the area. It’s a common thread across These United States in an era of housing shortage and paranoia about Those People.

NIMBYism And The Age of the Great Housing Shortage

I’ve followed this debate a bit, to say the least. I’ve especially followed it as a city planner who has been priced out of multiple apartments in my adult life, but also as a media junkie observing with some concern the national paranoia that especially right-wing media has stoked around the issue. You know the lines! We’ve heard it. If these commie politicians reduce the amount of regulation by way of liberalizing zoning laws, it will allow people to do things that they want to do with their private property.

This is what’s actually meant when we talk about reducing things like parking minimums or single-family restrictions.

But the lines that are actually used look more like this:

“Those people will move into your neighborhood.”

“People will move into our town who haven’t earned the right to move here.” Literal quote from a MoCo Nextdoor post. We know what people you’re talking about, Karen.

“It will lower property values.” (Narrator voice: Studies show that it wouldn’t lower their property values).

“What about the traffic? What about the parking?”

Ah, yes– this is my all-time favorite one. What about the parking? The “What about her e-mails?” of community development. Bro, if you don’t like problems with parking, there’s a real simple solution: don’t drive. The Traffic Is You! And DC, for all of the problems with the Metro falling apart, still has much better transit than most other places in the United States.

The kinds of things you see in DC: Realtors will sell a million-dollar house as a teardown so you can build an “Elegant Mansion.” Never mind that you could easily spend that million dollars somewhere else, say, to build a portfolio of revenue-generating real estate. The cost doesn’t matter. You have to be in the District– and this part of the District, no less! Economics and math are irrelevant. This is just an example of how messed up the markets are here.

What Should Be The Points of Agreement On Densification

Zoning reform should be an intuitive sell for both liberals and conservatives. Progressives can promote it because it ostensibly promotes increased diversity and equity in the form of more affordable housing. Conservatives can promote it because it promotes private property rights and markets. Realistically, though? Both sides hate it. And the opposition seems to fall largely along wealth lines, whether you’re black or white.

The value of “diversity of spaces” thing goes hand in hand with diversity of humans that populate those spaces, of course, but it also goes hand in hand with economic benefit as well. More competition! More creativity! More innovation! These are, of course, the things that make cities interesting.

“Well, you don’t want too much diversity,” my future-sister-in-law, an adoptive Marylander herself, sympathetic to the growing fascist movement in America, said, to which I had a major Nick Young Question Mark Meme moment. Yes, not-sis, I actually do want too much diversity! This country is getting less white and our cuisine is all the better for it! I’m going on a vacation to Miami, Vancouver, or New York, and I’m gonna eat all of the food! I’m not going on a vacation to, like, Jacksonville. Or Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the whitest cities in the country.

Bus islands, occasionally-protected bike lanes, and even a surface parking lot in the otherwise high-density downtown of Silver Spring, Maryland, which crams 80,000 residents into a comfortable, 8-square mile package. Silver Spring is contiguous with the District of Columbia.

Beyond the food– which is clearly the most obvious benefit of densification and having a diversity of spaces in which a diversity of tenants can produce a diversity of food, which I can then eat in large quantities- there’s quantifiable economic value in having a diversity of humans, whether we’re talking about a diversity of incomes, diversity of ethnicities, or even diversity of skillsets and jobs. Interesting, then, but completely unsurprising, that the densest city in MoCo, Silver Spring, is also the most diverse, while the cities and CDPs with the largest NIMBY contingents– Bethesda, Chevy Chase, and Kensington- are all, well, pretty white. Does this mean this is just about race? The age-old story?

Well, not exactly. Certainly partially.

“More Density Will Increase Values, Making Homeownership Farther Out Of Reach”

In Montgomery County, Darin Bartram, a wealthy attorney who lives in the aforementioned census-designated district of Kensington (half a square mile, 2,000-some residents), recently wrote in Bethesda Magazine about the Thrive 2050 comprehensive plan for Montgomery County. The plan addresses– but does not legislatively hardcode- a framework for densification.

But Mr. Bartram is big mad about this nonetheless. He writes:

A recently built Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in my neighborhood illustrates the concerns I have that liberalizing the type of housing in the R-60 zone will have a negative impact on home ownership. A house sold a few years ago for about $800,000. The owners recently added a detached ADU in the rear yard, and have now listed the house for sale at $1.2 million.

Realizing that this pricing is lofty in any part of the county, the fact remains that the construction has transformed a house that was affordable to one class of buyers into a house that is affordable to a narrower subset of buyers. And, the ADU will not be affordable to any buyer because it will not be for sale separately from the main house.

With respect to Mr. Bartram, who probably earns at least a couple hundred G’s plying the noble trade of corporate litigation, his law game is invariably stronger than his completely flawed understanding of real estate economics. We’ll leave aside the fact that someone who is making in the neighborhood of a quarter million and is siding with the Karen Supreme argument against deregulating zoning a wee teensy bit is definitely not doing it because they love poor people and want them to realize the American Dream.

Silver Spring is located at the extreme southeastern corner of the county, while the faintly orange urban corridor on the left “flank” of the city of Washington, DC connects the farthest-flung suburban ends of the city (Friendship Heights, Tenleytown-AU red line, etc.) with Bethesda, a suburban municipality that has its own downtown with real buildings. Source: this planning report.

The accessory dwelling unit is a dwelling unit— not purely an accessory. This is the difference between a wristwatch and a bracelet. The one tells time, which can be useful to productivity and showing up precisely when you mean to, to borrow a phrase, while the other one looks pretty. You don’t build an ADU because you want your house to look pretty. You build it because you want more housing units. It’s an economic proposition, whether you’re trying to save money for your in-laws when they visit (hence the term “in-law suite”) so they don’t have to stay at the Four Seasons in Georgetown for $1100 a night– yes, this same Four Seasons. Or it might be because you’re trying to create a new revenue stream by renting the property out.

In some markets, especially where the supply of homes for purchase is severely constrained, it may actually be far cheaper to rent, even when factoring in the equity component.

One thing ADU’s don’t do, however, is make it harder for people to find affordable housing. Will it drive up the individual value of a house being listed for sale? Well, yeah. But the way markets work, no matter where you are, there will always be demand for both rental and purchase. There’s a fairly easy way to calculate the horizons of tradeoff between the two. In some markets, especially where the supply of homes for purchase is severely constrained, it may actually be far cheaper to rent, even when factoring in the equity component.

To be clear, Bartram doesn’t care about affordable homes. If he did, he’d understand basic supply and demand. But the problem goes beyond some rich guy in the ‘burbs railing on the iniquities of zoning reform.

In Metro DC, there’s a problem that we don’t have in Detroit, and that’s that the metro area has in large part run out of space to build stuff affordably. This was highlighted monumentally with Amazon’s announcement that it was going to open up their second headquarters in DC, which they definitely hadn’t been planning all along, obviously. The city itself of Washington, DC still has vast swaths of underdeveloped space. Take a walk up New York Avenue from downtown DC east-northeast to the city’s border, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There are districts that are indistinguishable from Any Census-Designated Nowhere in Lorain County, Ohio, or what have you.

Maryland might benefit from a generally fairly progressive legislature. But MoCo, for its part, is rife with some serious classism that– shocker- often falls along racial lines. Silver Spring, located is doing the thing– ish. But the wealth-versus-density inverse correlation that contrasts the likes of Bethesda, Kensington, or Chevy Chase with Silver Spring or Rockville is all too apparent. It’s going to make equitable housing development extremely difficult in the near to mid-term future of Montgomery County. Decarbonization? Oh, yeah, that too. Unless Mr. Bartram and his associates want to buy everyone a Tesla. I mean, heck, I’m not gonna turn it down.

The houses of yesteryear generally have minimal setbacks and maximal floor area. Suburban zoning often encourages broad setbacks and limit floor-area ratios, but more so they limit density to single-family. Deference to the single-family paradigm– and vitriolic opposition to any effort to change it, even incrementally- is a vile holdover from the era of postwar racial covenants. This photo is from Southwest Detroit.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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