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The Little Misfit Buildings That Make Cities Wonderful — And Hold Them Back

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The owner of this tiny home refused to sell to developers eyeing the block of Massachusetts Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets NW in the 2000s. The vacant property was eventually renovated and turned into a Pain Quotidien. (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

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The longtime owner of this pair of rowhomes on K Street NW is now planning to add a five-story addition of luxury apartments to the rear of the historic buildings. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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A lone remaining rowhouse at 13th and M streets in Northwest. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

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From the 1892 Real Estate Plat-Book of Washington, District of Columbia. Yellow buildings were wooden-frame construction, pink ones built in brick. (Courtesy of D.C. Public Library Special Collections, Washingtonian Map Collection)

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To buy this argument, you have to believe, as economists do, that increasing housing supply lowers housing prices. And that is a hard sell when a woman is nudged to leave her home so that a new apartment can accommodate 60 well-paid professionals. If that development happens without her, though, the woman gets none of the windfall from the rising value of the land underneath her — and all of those gains go instead to a developer. That’s not an equitable outcome either, Brooks argues.

The New Vegas Lounge on P Street NW (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

The New Vegas Lounge on P Street NW (Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

When holdouts sell, yes, developers win, but so do cities at large, Brooks argues. They’re able to add housing, or to boost the agglomeration benefits that kick in when businesses cluster tightly together. When new construction is blocked in existing neighborhoods, it may also migrate instead to the edge of town, consuming undeveloped land there and harming the environment.

“In the biggest, biggest, biggest picture,” Brooks says of holdouts, “we think it inhibits economic growth.”

At right, the First Tabernacle Beth El church on New York Avenue NW. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

At right, the First Tabernacle Beth El church on New York Avenue NW. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

It is a “tragedy of the anti-commons,” she and Lutz argue, in which fragmented ownership gets in the way of the greatest social good. The alternatives, though, are unappealing, too. Eminent domain — forcibly taking property from people — isn’t a fair answer. Nor would people want to give the community at large a vote on whether to force one member to sell their property.

“In some ways, you can see why the problem is so bad,” Brooks says, “because the solutions are so bad, too.”

It’s hard for economists to identify and count the developments that were never built because a lone property owner or two held out. But new development, for its part, often does find a way, hopscotching old buildings, hovering over them or hugging them close. And the resulting effect, for alert passersby, can be entrancing.

“That,” Baranes says, “is what makes living in a city, I think, interesting for all of us.”

Daron Taylor contributed to this report.

 

View original article here.