Friday, May 4, 2007
Is the beauty and grandeur of the Washington, D.C., skyline such that it shouldn’t be punctuated by tall buildings? From time to time, there are proposals to ease the federal government’s land use law that in effect limits buildings to about a dozen stories in the nation’s capital. Remarkably, the tallest building in the city remains, except for the Capitol and various spires and columns, the Cairo apartment building, which was constructed to a then-monstrous 16 stories in 1894 (a fact almost as remarkable as the fact that New York’s tallest building was finished in 1931), at the dawn of the elevator age. For decades, critics of the Washington law have suggested that it makes D.C.’s office architecture bland.
Today, sprawl and pollution are added to the list of the unwanted effects of the height restriction. By limiting the supply of office space downtown (the famous K Street area is packed with back-to-back dozen-storey buildings, with hardly a single gap), the law pushes offices to the outskirts, most famously Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, an “edge city” that is one of America’s largest in terms of office space. The Washington Post published this week an article about the renewed debate over whether to amend the height restrictions. Advocates of change point out that the de-centralizing effect of the law exacerbates traffic and greenhouse gas emissions in the Washington area. Supporters of the height restriction, such as architectural critic Witold Rybczynski, argue that allowing tall buildings in Washington would destroy its unique character and make it look like anyplace else, just as tall buildings in Rybczynski’s Philadelphia make it look like a smaller version of New York.
European cities have also struggled with height limits, of course. The most famous compromise solution is that in Paris, where high-rises cannot be built in the old city, but are encouraged in La Defense, just northwest of the city, on the line of Champs-Elysees. Washington’s law has created its own versions of La Defense, the closest of which is Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac River. (I’ve often wondered whether tourists flying down the river to National Airport are confused as to which side of the river the “downtown” sits). Changing the law to allow tall buildings in certain areas would create a windfall for those favored sectors. Nonetheless, I think Washington would be better off to allow tall buildings that do not impede the visual vistas of the monumental core.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Earlier this week, I criticized a key provision of the Fair Housing Act that allows discrimination against people under 55. Today comes a story about the other half of 42 U.S.C. sec. 3607(b)(1), which allows local governments to bar big group houses. Specifically, the provision states that “Nothing in this subchapter limits the applicability of any reasonable local, State, or Federal restrictions regarding the maximum number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling.” This allows government to use land use laws to keep out big houses of undesirables, such as recovering drug addicts, petty criminals, and college students. Although the biggest court case about the exception resulted in a victory in 1995 for the Oxford House, an organization that sets up group houses for recovering addicts, that decision was largely the result of the fact that Edmonds, Wash., imposed an occupancy maximum only on groups that weren’t traditional “families.”
Currently, in Columbia, S.C., the Columbia Outreach Addiction and Recovery Services is fighting a city ruling denying a special exemption for an existing 13-person group house for recovering addicts. The challengers assert that the city is violating both the FrHA and the Americans for Disabilities Act. They will have an uphill battle. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Oxford House case that sec. 3607(b)(1) was designed to prevent overcrowding, not to foster traditional families, smart local governments can still craft ordinances that, in effect, will bar only big group houses. Such ordinances are spurred largely not by concerns of overcrowding, of course (overcrowding is hardly an issue in any American house these days), but to keep out unwanted group houses.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Among the most depressing of the myriad stories about post-Katrina New Orleans is the uncertainty of public housing in the city. A federal judge recently ruled that a lawsuit by an advocacy group for public housing residents will go to trial later this year. The Advancement Project asserts that HUD and the Housing Authority Of New Orleans are violating both landlord-tenant law by not allowing residents to return to their buildings and federal housing law by discriminating against black people in government decisionmaking.
HUD's plan is to demolish some of the old public housing units and to replace some of them with new housing that mixes people of various types of income. It is no doubt true that some public housing buildings were not significantly damaged by Katrina. Nonetheless, for anyone who saw the deplorable state of much of New Orleans's public housing before Katrina, the prospect of re-working how the very poor are housed in New Orleans seems too promising to pass up. It is hard to disagree with the Washington Post's editorial that laments the lawsuit's effect of delaying the new plans.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Why does American law allow housing discrimination against younger (under 55) people? This is a follow up to Friday's post.
Law does not allow a housing development to be restricted to "whites only" (as used to be common before the Fair Housing Act of 1968) or "Catholics only" or "native-born Americans only." So why did the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act make "older people only" acceptable? The most cynical rationale is that older people are well organized and have political clout, so this is why they got their exception. But is there a more reputable justification?
Fifty years ago, one might have said that older people are among the poorest and least powerful members of society, and thus a small benefit to them -- we give them a chance to live among their "kind" -- is a small bone we toss to them. But this sort of argument makes little sense today, when older persons are just about as well off financially as younger people are. Similarly, an argument that they are a small, underprivileged minority that needs protection from the ruthlessness of the market makes no sense today, with about a quarter of the population over 55. From my perspective in Florida, older people have always had market clout, of course, and this power is growing in places across the nation, as the famous "baby boom" generation passes to old age. Is it because older people "deserve" the option to live in discriminatory housing? But this merely begs the question.
The fact that law gives a special privilege to older persons is especially odd in this era, when real estate developers create housing that is designed to appeal especially to certain categories of people -- families with kids, urban yuppies, and even gay couples. There is no doubt that even without the 55-plus law, many condo and housing developments (and not just in Florida and Arizona) would be overwhelmingly filled with older persons. Why does law give a group that holds considerable power in the market even more power, including the power to exclude those who aren't like them? Another cynical argument, which I discussed on Friday, is that local governments like the idea of developments that discourage government-service-demanding children. But such a craven argument falls within the same category as the residents who tried to enforce no-blacks covenants in the 1940s and restaurants that tried to defy the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s.
I will say it boldly. In this age of a crowded nation of families and poorer persons searching for affordable housing, there is no cogent social policy justification for a law that permits developments in which younger people are excluded.