Free to Choose Underground Housing

Free to Choose Underground Housing

NIMBYs are a fairly predictable bunch. Excluding those who make arguments in good faith that are nonetheless wrong, they are either unapologetically selfish (“it will reduce my property value!”) or use the arguments made by the well-meaning NIMBYs as window dressing to mask more sinister motivations (e.g. excluding residents of color from their neighborhoods.)

But here’s a new argument against increased housing development: people shouldn’t be allowed to live here because it’s bad for them. This is the argument made by anti-development types in Washington, D.C. opposing a new housing development funded by the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple.

David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington reports:

One [objection to the development] is a tax abatement which the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, DC CFO, and many other people think is unnecessary.

The first point is quite reasonable. Though the development would (marginally) increase housing supply in the neighborhood, they’d still be able to capture the rents that landlords in D.C. already capture.

A second is your more typical neighborhood opposition to new buildings. It will “overwhelm” the nearby townhouses and “block views” of the temple from the back, people say.

This point is so tired it’s almost not worth responding to, but for an interesting twist. The Masons, the ones who have the strongest ties to “neighborhood character” deliberately chose to reduce the development’s height. This was in part to avoid the arduous zoning change process, but also because “they felt it would overshadow the temple itself.”

Instead of adding more floors on top, therefore, the plans call for more below-ground units. There will be two “English basement” levels, one just a few feet below ground and the other fully below ground…

But some neighborhood activists don’t think living below ground is acceptable at all. When told about the plans for bright lighting, Victor Wexler, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the area, rebutted, “What about God’s light?” according to Schwartzman.

It’s the third point I want to call special attention to. This is a particularly egregious case of paternalism. We’re not just talking about puritans, nannies, and other busybodies trying to take away things that bring a lot of people just a little bit of joy, like cigarettes or fast food.

This is about taking away one more option for people struggling to find housing in their budget. “Check your privilege” tweeted Randy Downs, an ANC commissioner in the neighborhood.

I live in a basement apartment, and while I don’t get as much natural light as I would like I’ve found an easy fix–going outside. As one resident put it, “Unless the plan is for children to be held captive in ‘the cellar’ for the entirety of their childhoods, never to be let out to go to school or the library or friends houses or visit a nearby park, [this point] is nothing but … a false narrative to rally the easily frightened.”

The specific argument made by Wexler is foolish to say the least, but it’s premised on a dangerous notion: we must restrict housing choice because people might make the wrong one, and we know what’s best.

But, even if you think it’s acceptable for policy to intervene and restrict the ability of people to lead their lives as they see fit, opposing this underground development is actively counterproductive to the health and wellbeing of the would-be residents.

D.C. has one of the most restrictive housing markets in the country, which forces people to either cram themselves into row homes or move further from their jobs (possibly to the point where they can’t afford to work in or near the city). This, in turn, has the effect of adding to commute times, which has its own negative health effects, especially for drivers.

It’s Victor Wexler and other do-gooders doing harm, not the potential residents of these underground units, that need to see the light.

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By |2018-11-29T07:22:19-08:00November 29th, 2018|Blog, Land Use Regulation|