The 109-Year Old Fire Safety Law That Helps The Rich Dominate American Politics

Photo credit to Richard Ricciardi on Flickr.

The Chamber of Commerce is America’s largest business advocacy group; the AFL-CIO is America’s largest confederation of labor unions; JP Morgan Chase is America’s largest bank; the Center on Foreign Relations is America’s most influential foreign policy think tank; and Kirkland & Ellis is one of the most powerful law firms in the country, spawning Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and three of Trump’s cabinet members, just to name those currently in power. What do these five political juggernauts have in common? They’re all less than a 10-minute walk away from the White House.

In recent years, the idea that the wealthy and powerful dominate (or, at the very least, hold disproportionate influence over) US politics has increasingly moved from being just one of many frameworks to study the topic from to an empirical fact verified by a growing body of political science research. There are countless ways that this happens, but one of the most important is simple: access.

It’s hard to understate exactly how much access matters in the dynamics of DC politics, and thus for all of US politics. “Access” means a lot of things: profile and reputation, social relationships, lobbying power, and more; all key tools for shaping law and policy. But even in the internet age, one of the most vital aspects to establishing access is simply presence. Quite literally being in the right place at the right time, accessing the new opportunities that are made available as they come, is key to holding and effectively wielding political power. The ties between presence and access take on an extreme importance in Washington, DC, not only because of the sheer scale of political decision-making that takes place there, but also because most people’s ability to be present in the city is highly limited. DC has the third longest commute time of any metropolitan area in America, one of the the highest average house prices, and comes in 15th out of 2,597 areas in the country for the highest rent for a one-room apartment.

Living and working- having a presence- in DC is expensive and time-consuming, and that means that those with more time and money have more access to the center of our national political power. This issue has recently started to gain attention from some in the form of Capitol Hill internships, nearly all of which are unpaid. Organizations like Pay Our Interns point out that, though interning in congress opens up massive opportunities and provides a path for many to enter the world of American politics, it costs an average of $6,000, money which unpaid interns must fork up for themselves. This means that access to the invaluable political opportunities of an internship are largely limited to the wealthy (and the white) at the moment. This is an example of how, because presence is a prerequisite for access, presence can also serve as a barrier to access.

Though the particularities of Washington DC’s internal dynamics are far from the most significant way in which the wealthy and powerful have acquired the disproportionate access they use to effectively control American politics, these issues are far more important than almost ever goes acknowledged. To better understand this, one need to look no further than an obscure construction law passed over a century ago. This law has quietly shaped the urban design and geographic layout of the city of Washington, DC in such a way that it crowds out those without capital and clout, literally running less-powerful segments of the American citizenry out of town and out of government.

At the turn of the 19th century, a new 14-story apartment building was constructed in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of DC. The Cairo tower prompted significant concern from its incumbent neighbors for a variety of reasons, some aesthetic, others more significant. One major and rather reasonable concern was that, should the building ever catch on fire, firefighters may not be able to reach the top with neccesary equipment in time to effectively and safely put it out. To prevent construction technology from speeding past public safety capabilities, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act of 1899, setting height regulations for different kinds of buildings and capping maximum height at 130 feet. Eleven years later, this law was amended by the Height of Buildings Act of 1910, which expanded upon the regulations and restricted the height of buildings in DC to the width of the street next to it plus 20 feet. This law has remained in effect ever since. For this reason, Washington DC has only seven buildings which are 200 feet or taller. Compare this to the slightly-smaller city of Boston, which has over 30 buildings more than twice that height despite its own (looser) height restrictions. Boston’s tallest building is almost 2.4 times as tall as DC’s tallest building.

This has had a myriad of unintended effects on the city. On the bright side, it allows for some great and expansive views from the high points and gives the exterior of DC a much more open feeling than other cities, the same feeling that Thomas Jefferson described as his ideal for the capital by favorably mentioning how Paris’ height restriction law “keeps the houses low and convenient, and the streets light and airy.” These aesthetic benefits are some of the only benefits, however.

The first negative effect that the building restrictions have had is to raise the price of real estate. Compare Boston’s tallest office building, the John Hancock Tower with 2.06 million square feet of space, to DC’s tallest office building, One Franklin Square with 0.59 million square feet of space. Despite both taking up one large block, John Hancock Tower features far more space available for use than One Franklin Square because it has been built up so much taller. Limits on the ability to build upwards are also limits on maximum potential space that can be developed for use by a city’s population. Thus, height limits function as a specific form of supply cap on real estate, and when there’s less supply for the same amount of demand, prices rise.

Research in Brazil found that height limits had mixed effects in this regard, raising the prices of rental units but lowering the prices of houses; however, we can’t directly compare the effects of real estate policies in developing economies with developed economies. In America, a 1994 study of Silicon Valley suggested that raising maximum height limits could lower the value of real estate, and a 1997 study of California as a whole found that the limits reduced the housing supply for cities that enacted them by thousands of units. Height limits alone are not the sole cause of DC’s crisis in the affordability of living, but they definitely contribute to it.

The second negative effect of building restrictions is urban sprawl. Higher prices for housing reduce demand to live in DC somewhat, but quite understandably there’s still a lot of pent-up demand to have a presence in America’s national capital. For this reason, the supply cap doesn’t just limit supply, it also shifts where it can be found. When city centers can’t build up, they simply build out. As the Washington Post’s Michael Grunwald noted in 2006:

One need look no further for proof of this than to simply cross the river into Arlington, the Virginia suburb where the height limit law doesn’t apply. Arlington has three buildings taller than any building in DC, all of which are almost sitting on its border.

Research in India has found that height restrictions’ combination of sprawl and higher prices harm citizen welfare, but again, that may not apply to DC. But a 2010 study of the entire United States found that counties which implemented height limits increased the sprawl of their urban areas by an average of 20 square miles- no small amount.

The body of research on the harmful effects of urban sprawl is as large as it is comprehensive. Sprawl significantly contributes to the destruction of nature and wildlife because of all of the suburban construction; infrastructure and public services costs rise because of how expensive it is to maintain a network so spread-out; greater distances and travel times harm socioeconomic mobility; more citizens living out of formal city boundaries lowers tax revenue; and citizens need to use cars as their primary means of transportation, resulting in higher carbon dioxide emissions, more traffic, more traffic deaths, and a decline in health because of the reduction in walking or biking. I’m not linking to all of the studies on this purely because even starting to cite all the work done on this topic would take hours.

The damage from the higher costs and greater sprawl caused by DC’s height limits isn’t just limited to the standard issues that come with them. This is because DC is not just a standard city: it is the host of America’s most powerful political institutions. There’s a premium on presence in Washington, both because of the benefits of individual advancement for those connected to the city’s opportunities and because of the chance for interests to acquire influence at the highest and most elite levels of the world’s most powerful government. The Chamber of Commerce is not paying for an office next to the White House for the view; they’re paying to make sure that whatever happens in there meets their approval, and that if something happens in there that displeases them, the President’s aides will be able to hear the screaming from across the road.

Who you know is an integral part of influencing political outcomes, and you can’t know anyone without presence. On paper, anyone has a right to establish a presence in DC to try and change the direction our country is going. But when presence in DC is prohibitively expensive, only those with deep enough pockets are able to acquire it. As political scientist E. E. Schattschneider famously quipped: “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”

So at the same time that the New York Times is reporting that the super-wealthy are moving to the city in droves because living in Washington “gives business owners and power players access to the seat of government,” cost-driven gentrification pushes the less-powerful out of the city at a rapid rate. A 2016 report from the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center noted that housing prices are pushing black residents out of central DC into Maryland’s neighboring Prince George’s County so forcefully that the city dropped from being 60% black in 2000 to an under 50% black city in 2014. That same gentrification has long been quietly pushing out less-well funded political organizations and causes to make room for their wealthier competitors. As far back as 2008, the DCist noted in a discussion about DC’s height restriction that:

This doesn’t mean that there are no groups advocating for the poor and marginalized in Washington- my example of labor unions at the beginning is a counter-example, and there are countless more. But it’s also undeniable that small wealthy groups have tremendous organizational advantages. Ask yourself who will win out when a branch of the oil lobby and a small anti-poverty advocacy group are both competing for the same office space and you’ll begin to understand the problem.

By contributing to the obscene real estate costs and rapid urban sprawl of DC, building height restrictions passed well over a century ago for public safety reasons now help to make Washington a city for the rich to live, study, work… and advocate for policies which benefit them. The height restrictions are not the single largest contributor to the cost and sprawl problems of the city, nor are they anywhere near the largest way that the wealthy maintain their grip on the levers of American government. But they do serve as a subtle and powerful reinforcement of the dominance of special interests, and indeed are a manifest representation of this feature of our political life: pay-for-play is so deeply ingrained in Washington that it is quite literally embedded in the architecture.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

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