By Dave Oberting
A representative of Economic Growth DC attended Monday’s Height Act hearing. The Height Act is a law passed in 1910 that limits the height of buildings in the District of Columbia. The actual limit varies slightly in certain parts of town, but it was intended to give the District a horizontal, Paris-like feel. There are several reasons Congress should raise the height limit:
First and foremost, raising the height limit would spur additional real estate development, which would in turn create potentially thousands of high-paying, largely union construction jobs. There were many folks at Monday’s hearing wearing name tags that read “Save the Height Act.” None of them were unemployed construction workers.
Secondly, the laws of supply and demand dictate that if you increase the supply of housing, the cost of that housing decreases, or at the very least, slows the rate of increase. Affordable housing is a terrible problem in the District as over 1,000 people move to the District every month. This has put severe upward pressure on the cost of homes and rents. Increasing the supply of housing will bring the market into more of an equilibrium and arrest the rate of increase.
Right now we face a housing shortage in certain areas of the city. The District is only 68 square miles and it is relatively densely packed. In the near future, we will max out the amount of real estate we can develop under current law. The only place left to go is up.
One of the primary objections to increasing the limit is aesthetics. People are concerned about how increasing the limits would affect the visual representation and character of the city. Smart development does not have to ruin anyone’s views. Most of the changes will be outside of older, mainly residential areas.
A change in the height limit is not a free pass for unrestrained development. Development still has to pass through an arduous zoning, planning, and historical preservation review. The National Capital Planning Commission could weigh in at any time. Residents would be able to challenge any proposed development they don’t like in court. Making changes to the Height Act will not result in immediate increases in heights, but it provides the city with flexibility for the future.
The House Oversight Committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa is a true of friend of the District and he has a personal, direct interest in the Height Act. There is no guarantee that the next chair of the committee will have the same level of interest or commitment. We should take advantage of Chairman Issa’s focus on this issue and make changes now while the iron is hot. As mentioned, this may never lead to increased heights, but it would be crucial to have the option.
Lastly, this is clearly an autonomy issue. No other jurisdiction in the country lacks the power to control the development of its territory. We have to win our autonomy one issue at a time. We should take advantage of the opportunity to capture any element of autonomy that presents itself. Raise the height limit.
Dave Oberting is the Executive Director of Economic Growth DC, a political and economic advocacy organization. Follow him on Twitter @GrowthDC and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org