Housing Complex

And Now for Something Completely Libertarian


ReasonTV, the visual operation of the prominent libertarian magazine, is out with a video that highlights the challenges faced by the builders of D.C.'s tiny houses, on an alley lot in Stronghold. The houses are compact, energy-efficient, and cheap to build—in the video, tiny carpenter Jay Austin says they can be constructed for as little as $10,000. That's a big deal in a city with runaway housing costs. But only if people can actually live in them. The tiny houses are permissible as curiosities and event sites, but can't, under the city's zoning laws, serve as residences.

Reason does a good job of summarizing this conundrum, then dives deep into libertarian territory. D.C.'s zoning authorities and Office of Planning directors—current chief Ellen McCarthy and her predecessor Harriet Tregoning—star as the big bad guys. Houston, whose lack of zoning restrictions gets routinely lauded by libertarian-leaning urbanists like Edward Glaeser, is the hero (and Tregoning's "whipping boy"). Take the politics as you will; the video is worth watching for its explanation of the tiny-house dilemma and its provocative arguments in the ongoing debate over how cities like the District should manage their growth:

Update, 3:11 pm. Austin himself has a conflicted reaction to the video. "I don’t know if I can vouch for a lack of zoning whatsoever," he says, referring to the video's use of his situation to promote zoning-free Houston.  "I think there’s a happy medium."

But Austin does say that the public fights over the tiny houses—from neighbor complaints to Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie's calibrated skepticism to a recent Office of Planning proposal against alley camping that appears aimed at these houses—have warmed him to the libertarian perspective. "I would never have identified as libertarian going into it," he says. "It sort of makes you question, how much is my government helping me?"

Screenshot from the ReasonTV video

  • M Williams

    Odd that DCOP is so gung ho on "micro"-units but against these. I guess these are not backed by deep pocketed developers.

  • Planner

    Somewhat misleading to harp on the DC zoning code that "hasn't been updated in 56 years" (when of course it's been updated via amendments in that time)and to leave out any mention that it's undergoing a complete updating and rewriting process right now. All in all, it's easier to convince that the tiny houses can be accommodated within a zoning system than it is to convince that eliminating zoning will lead to a libertarian nirvana.

  • Northwesterneer

    There are many Libertarian ideas (Uber and Lyft, Tiny houses, Burning Man, etc) which are only useful when cool, smart people do them but are disasters when strung out drug addicts and criminals do the same. Tiny Houses may seem cool now, but someone renting out their backyard shed to a poor family living in a shed is not cool- and is the exact result of changes to zoning laws.

  • DCCommish

    Leave them alone. We shoudl be paying more attention to people Like former ANC Commissioner and Attorney James Fournier right in Bloomingdale who built a two story garage without permits or zoning approval over 4 years ago and DCRA and Zoning haven't done S*** about that! These tiny houses are good for DC and for housing trends in general so screw DC Zoning and leave then alone! You Go Jay Austin!

  • David G.

    Houston is a complete hole. If no zoning gets results in Houston, then give me zoning! I'm not sure that Reason is doing itself any favors here.

  • Annoymous

    " ... right to be the architect of your own life." LOVE that quote from this film. I fail to understand why someone else gets to mandate I must have 120 sq ft per room with a minimum of 1200 square feet. There is only me and 1 teenager. We each need a sleeping area, kitchen and bathroom. I think we will be moving from the area b/c with this ridiculousness we will never afford a home. Too bad moving to TX is not an option. :-(

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