DC rowhomes

Arguably no American city has transformed itself during the early years of the twenty-first century as much as Washington, DC. That transformation is fueling a debate unlike most others that we’ve become accustomed to in the nation’s capital. It’s a debate about the appeal of pop-ups.

Pop-ups are rowhomes that have been renovated to build additional stories atop the original structure. They’re already popular in more established cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Amsterdam. In DC, a pop-up typically means adding two or three stories on top of an existing two-story rowhome.

Pop-ups are increasingly popular as a way for smaller developers to take advantage of the city’s skyrocketing real estate market. For many DC residents, though, they're are eye-sores that risk scarring the city's architecture landscape.

For those opposed to them, pop-ups are an aesthetic threat to the city’s character. Although perhaps not as renowned for its rowhomes to the same degree as neighbors Baltimore and Philadelphia, DC’s rowhome neighborhoods are as beautiful as any. Their Victorian architecture gives them a quality that is uniquely DC. It’s this uniform look of two-story Victorian rows that residents hope to preserve by halting the spread of pop-ups.

Those in favor of pop-ups generally make an economic argument (although, there are those who would prefer the character of a more densely populated DC). The economic argument is based on the idea that pop-ups increase housing supply to address increased demand. The result is more affordable housing in a city that has seen growing competition for housing drive prices to historic levels. The population of DC has ballooned by roughly 75,000 new residents since 2000. This growth has put strain on the existing housing market. The average home sale price in DC is inching towards $500,000, making it higher than the average in every state except Hawaii. At the same time, average rents are also increasing. As of June 2014, the average rent in DC was $1,700 for a one-bedroom and $2,100 for a two-bedroom. The extra housing offered by pop-ups, their supporters argue, would help slow rising prices and keep the District more affordable. But even for all the growth inside the District, most of the region’s new residents are pushed to the fringes where housing is cheaper. From 2000 to 2010, the DC region sprawled more than any other major US city.

Connected to this economic argument, though, is a related point that adds a new layer to the discussion. It’s a point that is relatively unique to DC and which touches upon fairness and the very integrity of our nation’s democracy.

Climbing housing costs put DC at risk of becoming an elitist citadel whose husing market is accessible to only the very wealthy. But DC is unlike other American cities often criticized for their growing exclusivity, such as San Francisco and Manhattan. DC’s situation is complicated by the disproportionately high federal funding it receives and the privileges that the federal presence generates.

The District is among the highest recipients of federal funding per tax dollar paid by its residents. As the nation’s capital, its residents are the beneficiaries of privileges paid for by taxpayers across the country. These include among the country’s best transportation systems, parks systems, and cultural institutions. In addition, the federal government doubles up on services already offered by the District, such law enforcement and street cleaning.

That DC receives special treatment was not terribly controversial when anyone could avail themselves of those privileges. But now that DC is becoming affordable only to an elite minority, it raises a question of fairness. We already know that most Americans are uncomfortable with the idea that their tax dollars are being spent to produce benefits that largely accrue to the nation’s wealthiest citizens. And the same would likely be true here.

To avoid this situation, we need to be more purposeful in our efforts to make and keep DC affordable to a greater number of Americans. We also need to be cautious about DC transforming into a capital that no longer exhibits the ideals of our democracy. Pop-ups could realistically add thousands of new units to the District’s housing market. This would keep housing costs down and make the city and its amenities more accessible to the average American. Even though a pop-up may not be within DC’s traditional character, neither is an exclusive enclave of multi-million-dollar homes – especially when those home are made even more valuable from the privileges bestowed by disproportionate of federal spending.

Photo Credit: Pop-Up Rowhomes in DC/shutterstock