Dumb Arguments Against Changing The Height Act

The D.C. Office of Planning recently sent a proposal to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to update the 1910 Height Act. The proposal called for a modification of the formula used to calculate maximum height restrictions in the L’Enfant area and also to release the city of all federal height restrictions in the rest of the District. The city would set its own limits based on its zoning process.

Iss has taken a keen stance on D.C. issues and asked for the proposal, along with one from the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which presented a much more timid recommendation. While the fate of the 103-year-old law rests with Congress, D.C. residents have not been quiet about voicing their displeasure at the proposal. But the arguments against modifying the Height Act always seem to come up short.

The arguments in favor are pretty straightforward. The current housing restrictions severely limits the supply of residential and commercial space. That means higher rents for both residents and businesses, which are passed down to consumers through higher prices of goods. With more housing, rents would fall, prices would fall and more people would move into the city. This would not just provide a much larger customer base, but also a much larger tax base, giving the city more resources to spend on infrastructure and other programs. The arbitrary restrictions on the housing supply severely restrict economic growth. D.C.’s plan would start to change that.

Not everyone seems to get this though.

For instance, the President of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, Janet Quigley, recently published a piece that argued it “could raise housing costs.” This is entirely wrong. Here’s a simple, Econ 101 demonstration of what happens when you increase the availability of housing:

supply shifts out


Notice how price falls? In the case of housing, that’s rents. The amount of housing demanded increases as well, but this is a shift along the demand curve. It’s a result of the lower housing costs as the market reaches a new equilibrium. In and of itself, relaxing housing restrictions will lead to lower, not higher, housing costs.

But the most ludicrous argument I’ve seen against modifying the Height Act comes from Chris Otten, the director of the District Dynamos, when he questioned whether the population growth forecasts laid out by Planning Director Harriet Tregoning were accurate. Much of the impetus for changing the law comes from the fact that D.C. estimates that its current housing stock cannot keep pace with the city’s expected population growth. Otten thinks he’s found a hole in that argument. Here’s Aaron Wiener at City Paper:

Chris Otten, director of the Ralph Nader-backed District Dynamos, questioned Tregoning’s population growth forecasts, saying they do not account for increased cancer rates from disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

Wait. What?! Otten’s reason for doubting the growth forecasts is that more people may die of cancer thanks to potential nuclear meltdowns in the future. Of course, Otten could have come up with a hundred other potential future disasters that will restrict population growth. Why not the risk of a meteor shower? Or an alien attack? This line of argument is so absurd it goes to show how far opponents of changing the Height Act will go to stand in its way. Let’s hope Issa & Co. don’t give them a second thought.


2 thoughts on “Dumb Arguments Against Changing The Height Act

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