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November 21, 2012 11:42 AM An Unconvincing Case for the DC Height Limit

By Ryan Cooper

Over at the Atlantic Cities, Kaid Benfield has an “urbanist” case for the DC height limit, which might really be an elaborate plot to get Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias prescriptions for blood pressure medication. But let’s assume not.

First, let me clear away one small annoyance before getting to the meat of the case: Banfield’s repeated implication (which is common in this type of argument) that everyone who disagrees with him is a whinging carpetbagger who hasn’t earned the right to opine on his favorite city:

That said, I can’t sit on this any longer: the law that restricts the height of buildings in D.C. is under attack from all sorts of sources (many of them out-of-towners or relative newcomers to the city, probably not a coincidence).

Now, maybe I’m just a whinging carpetbagger who hasn’t earned the right to opine on such things, but this is bogus (I do live in DC, for the record). We don’t say that political reporters have to live in Ohio for ten years to opine on its swing state-iness, we don’t say health policy reporters have to be licensed doctors. Really, you don’t have to live in any city at all to write about its policies. It might help, sure, but like any policy matter, the meat of the understanding lies in study of the issue. Buses work pretty much the same everywhere.

With that out of the way, let’s take on the meat of the argument. The height limit stops DC from growing, argue the repeal-ists, but Banfield disagrees:

Actually, DC can grow under current law. In 1950, with the height restrictions fully in effect, the city’s population was 802,178. In 2011, its estimated population was 617,996. The truth is that we were a “shrinking city” until about a decade ago, and we are nowhere near full capacity today.

This leaves out a lot of history. DC’s absolute peak of population was in large part due to huge temporary wartime buildings which have since been demolished.

But consider: DC’s residential vacancy rate is extremely low, and its office vacancy rate is the lowest in the nation. Of the existing structures in the District, we quite clearly are at full capacity right now, and one reason we can’t get back to 1950 levels of density is the Height Act preventing additional construction. There are a lot of other reasons, most prominently grim NIMBY politics, but that is surely part of the explanation.

I suppose it’s not surprising that Banfield wouldn’t credit this point, since he apparently doesn’t believe in economics:

Building height has little to do with affordability. The argument that a limit on building height restricts housing supply and thus leads to higher prices is essentially the same argument made against Portland’s urban growth boundary. In both cases, it’s hogwash: if affordability were closely related to building height and density, New York City and San Francisco would be the two most affordable big cities in America.

This is wrong in about every way imaginable. What crude economics would suggest is that when you restrict the supply of something, you increase its price relative to what it would be otherwise. No one is saying that if you remove the restrictions the price will magically collapse. San Francisco is a paradigmatic example of this; apparently unbeknownst to Banfield, it has whopping great restrictions on its housing supply! Clearly DC, like other walkable cities with good public transport, will always be expensive—the high rents are evidence that it’s a desirable place to live. But to argue that supply restrictions have no effect on price is just loony—why does he think that places like Phoenix are so cheap if it isn’t high supply?

Banfield does make some decent points. I appreciate that he is in favor of density, and makes a good point that cities can get quite dense without tall buildings (while failing to note that Paris is five times denser than DC).

But his confusion is indicative of a common failure to consider economic evidence in favor of misty sentimentality. I’ve got nothing against sentimentality per se, it’s just that in these sorts of arguments the hard economics doesn’t even get a hearing. Consider that way back in 1998, a couple economists calculated that 22 percent of DC’s real estate price was due to regulatory restriction. Matt Yglesias, looking only at downtown DC, reframes that probably-underestimated calculation:

In other words, you could allow for skyscrapers in the central business district, impose a staggering 22 percent tax on office rents, eliminate the D.C. sales tax, and still come out with cheaper after-tax office rents and more tax revenue than we have today.

The Monthly offices are based in DC, and that extra rent is money that could be going to me and the other staff, money which I at least would mostly spend in DC on goods and services, increasing local employment and helping the overall economy. Multiplied across the city, that would be a substantial economic windfall for everyone involved. Don’t those sorts of considerations deserve equal weight with aesthetic considerations?

@ryanlcooper

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

Comments

  • K in VA on November 21, 2012 11:49 AM:

    If Paris can survive and probper with shorter buildings in the central, historic area, then a provincial town like Washington can stay the height it is already.

    If more lobbyists want more office space with quick access to the Hill and executive branch offices, then money should go to extend Metro to suburban office clusters currently lacking subway access, and to speed up Metro and add cars where access exists already.

    But, seriously, the absence of tall buildings is one of D.C.'s true charms. Don't change that.

  • c u n d gulag on November 21, 2012 11:58 AM:

    Philadelphia got rid of its height restriction decades ago, and it survived quite nicely, thank you.

    That, and it's got a much, much longer history than that late-comer on the swamp that's our nation's capital.

    But, having been born and raised in NY City, I'm kind of partial to tall buildings.
    Even the outer boroughts now have them. When I was a kid growing up, outside of Downtown Brooklyn, they all were kind of built low to the ground.

  • John on November 21, 2012 12:07 PM:

    But to argue that supply restrictions have no effect on price is just loony—why does he think that places like Phoenix are so cheap if it isn’t high supply?

    Are you really suggesting that DC should be more like Phoenix??

  • Hattie McDaniel on November 21, 2012 12:17 PM:

    After all the empty lots are developed, then we can talk about raising the height limit.

  • walden on November 21, 2012 12:22 PM:

    Benfield is right. And Yglesias is trying to reproduce the fondly recalled Manhattan of his upbringing. There is still plenty of room for development in DC without blowing up the height limit. Not every city has to pursue the same development path.

  • Ron Byers on November 21, 2012 12:51 PM:

    Who says more lobbyists working in ever taller highrises, ever closer to the Capital is good for America?

  • paul on November 21, 2012 1:39 PM:

    Even this article points out that rents wouldn't actually decline in the case of height restriction (and if they did, it would be a disaster on a huge scale, with bankruptcies, enormous local dislocation and the kind of shenanigans that marked cities like Denver and Houston during the oil crunch of the mid-80s (and indirectly triggered the S&L mess). The only claim is that someday in some mythical equilibrium state property values (and hence rents, yeah sure) would be 22% less than they would otherwise be. Which, by the way, would mean that city revenues from property taxes would also be 22% less than they would otherwise be.

    But I think that the aesthetic argument has some points that might argue for the elimination of height restrictions. Pretty soon after the elimination of the limit, the Capitol, the White House, even the Washington Monument -- all the structures that symbolize DC's role as the center of a democratic government -- would become invisible on the city's skyline, dwarfed by office buildings and residences for the ostentatious rich. Thus bringing the visual condition of Washington more in line with its political and economic realities.

  • Rich on November 21, 2012 2:17 PM:

    You only have to look at the borders of DC to see what high rise development creates---dead, ugly spaces. Rosslyn, VA is the classic, but Silver Spring's highrises (mostly residential have not created much in the way of vitality and are away from the the struggling downtown business/restaurant district. One promise of high rise development is density, except the selling point of highrises often is that they are self contained units and people don't want to deal with crowded lunchtime elevators, etc. to run errands or go onto the street, which doesn't even bode well for ground floor retail that you'd think would have a captive audience.

    This seems like a good example of panacea based policy and planning , which tends to be what has gotten use some of the most useless public spaces imaginable.

  • Urbanist on November 21, 2012 3:02 PM:

    A solution looking for a problem.

  • Jay on November 21, 2012 3:28 PM:

    Come on, lets take off those blinders, as long as D.C. remains America's Capital City with access to the seat of power, space here will be excessively high. No amount of skyscrapers will change that. If you don't believe access to power or being associated with said power is or prime value, just visit the local yellow pages and see how many business in and outside of the beltway use its supposed close proximity to the city as a plus when advertising. Heck ask the local professional football team to rename itself after Landover, Md where it plays, I wonder what the answer would be. As a longtime D.C. resident. too many spaces that have some historical value are being destroyed to fuel this upward expansion, to many outsiders who come here have no respect for D.C.'s history nor it's longtime residents, they want an environment that mimic that from which they came, and it's painful to see. It is not surprising that this debate is about the price of living here in D.C., no one ever debate the unfairness that exist under the constitutional mandates of D.C. status as a virtual territory. Lets argue the merits of taxing non-residents income that is derived here in the District, you think that could help with revenue for the city, voting rights, the D.C National guard jut arrived home from aiding Afghan citizens with gaining democracy, what about seeing the District becoming the 51st state, lets talk about that.

  • Doug on November 21, 2012 4:02 PM:

    "Don't monkey with old DC!"*

    Washington, DC is sui generis in this country. It's sole purpose is to provide a setting for the national government. There are 535 elected representatives who need housing. There are nine SC justices. The President and VP are provided with accommodations. The various governmental departments have their HQs in DC with the exception of Defense, which is just across the Potomac. Major embassies are clustered in one area of the district, with minor embassies scattered elsewhere. There's still plenty of room for people employed in DC, publicly or privately, to live in DC.
    The business of DC is government and the less provision for lobbyists in that city, the more it costs for them to work and reside there, the better off we'll all be.

    *(my apologies to Cole Porter's "Don't Monkey with Old Broadway!", I didn't have the time to tweak the lyrics, just the title)

  • Anonymous on November 21, 2012 5:49 PM:

    This is just about asthetics, but my hubby and I went to DC for vacation a couple of years ago; we spent most of the time near or on the Mall at the monuments, WH, Capital, and museums. We didn't rent a car, just rode the metro and walked, and absolutely loved the more human scale of the buildings, that sunlight got between the blocks, and that the historic buildings were not dwarfed by high rise buildings. I think all of that is pretty important and would hate to see it changed.

  • Crissa on November 22, 2012 3:14 AM:

    I think the DC height limits are unduly ridiculous - although height limits have their place - but DC still has huge paved parking lots. Until they go, any whine about height limits is silly.

  • Ted Lehmann on November 22, 2012 3:51 AM:

    The economic argument just isn't applicable to a city which serves up monuments and huge doses of patriotism and history to the nation as well as setting a tone for the world. Surround it with sterile suburbs all you want. The District belongs to all of us.

  • Robert Waldmann on November 22, 2012 4:49 AM:

    I was born right in Washington DC in George Washington University Hospital even. My momma (who is a carpet bagger from Ohio) supports the height limit. I oppose the height limit. I am not a carpet bagger.

    Now I am also case of America love it and leave it. I currently live in Rome Italy, but I was born in DC.

  • HMDK on November 23, 2012 2:11 PM:

    Speaking as a total foreigner, I hope you keep Washington, D.C. as it is. The city is a monument in itself. Americans often talk about the instant recognition of their big city skylines. And washington is great because it is probably the last major city that doesn't have shiny glass dildos everywhere.