Open letter to DC Zoning/Planning on Proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) and ADU Rules

Boneyard campout3This letter is in response to new proposed rules developed by the Office of Planning that will impact microhousing options and appears to target Boneyard Studios and other alley owners.  If you are a DC RESIDENT please consider SUBMITTING TESTIMONY to let these good folks know how you feel. (it’s easy!)   

DC Zoning Commission: Anthony J. Hood, Chairman; Marcie Cohen, Vice-Chairman; Robert Miller, District Resident; Michael G. Turnbull, Architect of the Capitol Designee; Peter G. May, National Park Service Designee.

DC Office of Planning: Ms. McCarthy, Director.

Ms. McCarthy and the DC Zoning Commission,

I would like to thank Ms. McCarthy for her recent comments praising Boneyard’s “high-quality” construction and “environmental stewardship.”  We have been working tirelessly, with our own savings, for over two years to make Boneyard Studios a beautiful showcase of micro housing, building a wide community of tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters in DC and across America, and developing one AIA award winning design.  We also recently hosted 17 representatives from multiple DC agencies to discuss how microhousing can play a role in expanding affordable housing options in the city, and potentially be applied to assist the homeless population.

I would also like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. This is a critical and often thankless job that could help make our city more sustainable and affordable.  I and many Boneyard Studios supporters contributed specific comments on making ADU’s more accessible, and appreciate that OP’s recent revisions took into account many of the recommendations on easing regulations on minimum lot sizes and house areas.  However we strongly wish that the ADU rules kept 1602.2, and would allow accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process.  We feel expanding ADU’s is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents. 

I also write today to clarify a few issues that have arisen out of the recent discussion of micro houses, alleys and the latest zoning language, particularly the ‘Camping in Alleys’ (CIA) language under 1609.2/1005/2 which was just recently proposed:  

No camp or any temporary place of abode in any tent, wagon, van, automobile, truck, or trailer of any description shall be permitted on an alley lot unless approved as a special exception subject to the following conditions: 
(1) The use shall be located so that it is not likely to become objectionable to adjoining and nearby property because of noise, traffic, parking, lighting, sanitation, or otherwise objectionable conditions.  
(2) Open fires shall not be permitted. 
(3) The use shall not be approved for more than two consecutive weeks and no more than one month per calendar year.
  • Transparency: In the 1100+ comments recently submitted to the Office of Planning regarding the zoning rewrite, we couldn’t find a single one that pertained to residential structures, tiny houses, wagons, trailers, tents or otherwise in alleys.  Yet on June 16 OP just added the new proposed text above explicitly prohibiting “alley camping” to the latest round of recommended zoning language.  It is unclear where the demand for such language is coming from, but it does not appear to be from the DC public commenting on the zoning rules.  Thus it is unclear who we should engage further on this issue, and would be obliged if you could inform us. 
  • Justification: Ms. McCarthy recently stated that “we need some level of controls so people aren’t setting up squatter camps in alleys”.  We are great fans of DC’s alleys, and are unaware of any squatting activity in any alley in DC, but would be interested to learn more about the cases you have found.  I would note that squatting is typically defined as “to settle on our occupy property, especially otherwise unoccupied property, without any title, right or payment of rent”.  I would like to clarify that I own my private property at Boneyard Studios outright, have full and clear title to it, pay all required property taxes to the District, and permit friends and the community to make use of it on a case by case basis.  We support controls on squatting in alleys, if there is justification for it.  But we find justification lacking, and the current language imprecise and overexpansive. 
  • Fairness: We quite enjoy having an overnight campout with friends on my private property once in a while (some pictures attached), and personally don’t see any need to apply for a special exception permit from DCRA for this.  However, if OP can make a compelling case to prohibit alley camping on private property, then we recommend that OP explicitly extend the proposed zoning rules fairly, to limit camping to all privately owned DC land — alleys as well as the countless empty DC lots with street frontage, residential front yards and back yards and side yards, rooftops and porches.  However, like us, I would expect that many DC residents may take umbrage at having to get a ‘special exception’ DCRA permit to pitch a tent, or have their kids take part in the annual Great American Backyard Campout sponsored by National Wildlife Foundation. Such a permit could take weeks, at considerable expense.
  • Consistency: Under DC code 604.1, open fires are already prohibited in DC, but under 604.2 are allowed for “Recreational purposes, including the cooking of food for human consumption on other than commercial premises”.  This would remain the case on alley lots, unless (under the draft regs proposed by OP) the lot was temporarily approved ‘by special exception’ for camping, in which case open fires are then prohibited. This does not seem consistent with existing rules under 604.  

Folks at Boneyard Studios look forward to using the lot daily as we have been for the past two years: hosting hundreds of enthusiastic visitors each month at our micro house showcase events, growing a showcase garden and orchard, undertaking projects in the wood/metal workshop, holding community events, and working on other art/music/work in the micro houses during the day.  In the interest of expanding affordable housing in DC, we strongly encourage OP to support micro housing units of all forms, be it multifamily apartments, connected or detached ADU’s, or trailer based micro homes. 


Brian Levy and the Boneyard Studios communityBoneyard camput2

Boneyard campout1

How to upload comments to DC Zoning

Thanks for your interest in submitting testimony on this important topic.

DC Zoning will only consider comments on ADU’s (accessory dwelling units), camping in alleys and other topics by submissions uploaded through their official channel. To do this:

a) The online IZIS system. In IZIS click on ‘Set up an account’, and register. Then login, and then click on “Submit Comments in a Case”.  Search for ‘08-06A‘. Click on ‘Select Case’. Type in text from the letter template below.  or

b) A PDF letter. At the IZIS site select “File Documents in an Existing Case” and upload your PDF letter, using text from template below.

cMail a letter to 441 4th Street, NW, Ste. 200-S, Washington, DC 20001.

NOTE: make sure when you submit comments you include the Case Number (08-06A – Alternative Text)

Letter template:

Office of Zoning, Case Number 08-06A-Alternative Text

I am a District resident in Ward __, and would like to sincerely thank OP and the Zoning Commission for your tireless work on the DC zoning rewrite. However, as the rules are finalized, I would ask you to please consider:

a) Eliminating the proposed CIA (Camping in Alleys) zoning rule introduced by the Office of Planning. It appears this rule was made in an untransparent fashion, appears unjustified, unequally restricts private property in the District, and is inconsistent with existing code. More importantly, it eliminates a potential source of affordable micro housing in DC we should be working to develop further.

b) Supporting stronger language that allow the widespread development of ADU’s. Specifically, the latest zoning rules on ADU’s should keep 1602.2, so residents can develop accessory apartments without going through a costly and time intensive special exemption process. I feel that expanding ADU (accessory dwelling units) is essential to increasing DC’s housing supply, expanding affordable housing, and allowing aging in place for DC residents.



take action: final comments on DC zoning changes

DC’s zoning has not been comprehensively updated since 1958. After 6 years of drafting and public input, the Office of Planning is about to finalize a new set of zoning regulations that could transform the city by allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s- carriage houses and microhomes behind an existing house, or basement apartments), as well as development of residential structures on alley lots.  If done correctly, this would be a huge boon for affordable housing in DC, and allow smaller housing units across town.

BUT! While the current draft is ok, it could be even better. There are conservative forces that would love to do away with any new affordable accessory dwelling units in the city, and the current rules are rather restrictive. So DC Residents, we need your help, this week! Once these final comments are in, the Zoning Commission will vote on the final package.  Please help by:

A: Signing the Petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
They have been on the forefront of advocating for progressive change.

B: Submitting written testimony to advocate for specific changes we need. Here is an easy testimony template with specific language changes we need (note these are my (Brian’s) views on ADU’s and alley lots).  Zoning Commission will only accept emailed comments in PDF format, which must include your signature. Email signed PDF to: .  Subject line of email must include the case number (08-06A) and the subtitle or subtitles that your testimony refers to (Subtitle D).

C: Testify at the Wards 1-8 public meetings around town this coming week. It’s easy, and the Coalition folks can support you.

Thanks- zoning is the DNA of a city, and it’s a rare moment when we can act to positively affect the character of our city for years to come! With thousands of us connected through Boneyard Studios, we can really make a difference.

build update: jay’s tiny house

Jay and Tony contemplate the next steps

Jay and Tony have been making some great progress on the matchbox tiny house Jay is building at Boneyard Studios. More pictures/info are available at Jay’s site. But the video update is the coolest, and shows some other progress around the lot.

lot update: tumbleweed house arrives

Tumbleweed was kind enough to lend us their Fencl model to do a tiny house showcase event a few months back. It’s still in DC, so we decided we’d temporarily store it on the lot to help everyone envision what a completed tiny house looks like (and inspire us as we build our own places).

We had a 12×22′ area excavated about 20” to minimize the step down from the trailer, and to reduce the view of the trailer bed.  This was designed for the larger and taller tiny house that will eventually be located there. For the shorter Fencl, the front porch is now actually slightly below grade, but still no steps are required to enter or exit.  In either case, we imagine that once some additional plantings are made around the excavation area there should be no view of the trailer and wheels at all.

We also rolled out our new trailer moving toy- the Parkit 360.  It’s basically a 1.5 hp electric motor+deep cycle battery with a hitch on it.  It worked, mostly, though there are a few glitches in the coupling system depending on your type of trailer- let’s just say that it’s not quite as easy to move a trailer as it seems on the website video.  But it was nevertheless a great help to siting the tiny house on a fairly narrow lot.

our great neighbors

We wanted to give a quick shout out to all the excellent neighbors immediately adjacent to the tiny house lot (and Councilmember McDuffie’s house) that we’ve met as we’ve knocked on doors and have been working outside each day (names abbreviated for privacy):

–S&T, who offered us power before our electricity was installed. (He also runs a very cool bike rental business, Bikes To Borrow). Brought us a bottle of wine to welcome us to the neighborhood.

–A&M, who stopped by with popsicles for us on one of the hottest workdays this year. A has been photographing the lot to document the positive changes, and sharing it with her class. Have a plot assigned in the community garden.

–All the workers rehabbing an old rowhouse next to the lot, who let us temporarily use water to keep the new trees alive, and who are always ready with a wave and smile.

–Mr. P, a long-standing resident of the neighborhood, who dropped by with cold water on the second hottest day of the year, and who also lent us a lawnmower to trim up the lot.  So kind.

–Ms. N, who let’s us use her hose to fill up the garden cistern each week. She is gardening in the community garden.

–E, who lent us a hand installing windows one day, and who walks by and waves a friendly hello at least 4x a day.

–Gwen (President of a nearby Tenant & Civic Association), and Kimberly who live nearby, and brightened our day with their passion for affordable housing, and their enthusiastic support of the project.

It turns out that the alley along the graveyard is quite a thoroughfare for many folks in the wider neighborhood. At least 5-6 times each day we are greeted kindly by neighbors curious about what we are up to, and who all seem pleased with the progress on the formerly empty and overgrown lot (one of them even informed us that part of the lot used to be a garden decades ago!).  So thanks neighbors, it’s been great to have so much positive energy out there.

lot update (late June): electricity on, lee’s house arrives, garden beds & fencing finished, garden happy hour

Some solid late June progress. After months of plotting, Pepco came out to hook up electricity, and suddenly power tools helped us complete the rest of the fence project in a few days- now just the 16 foot welded fence gate remains.  A huge thanks to Tony for some really excellent fence work! With power on, we also received and tested an electric Incinolet incinerator toilet (so far so good). The rest of the garden beds were built as Brian moved the 16 yards(!) of compost we had delivered, and a pear tree and some roses went in.  Lee’s tiny house was moved in for finishing, and we threw a little party to celebrate progress and introduce a bunch of friends to the space. Brian and Lee also taught a class on tiny house building on Saturday.  And Brian ordered a 250 gallon cistern for garden water, as well as a very cool new toy for moving the tiny homes around in tight alley spaces (can’t wait to post the videos on this one!).

A garden party to celebrate progress on the lot.

Tony did much of the heavy lifting on the fence building, and did really excellent work. He came up with the hog wire fence panel design- looks great!

Fencing is done, and just 2 garden beds left to put in…

The SUV (saab utility vehicle)

In early morning, with the grass unmowed, a bunch of purple flowers come out…

Pepco arrives at last to hook up the electricity ($2700 for one hour of work!)

repurposing space showcase

On Sunday we helped organize ‘Repurposing Space‘, a showcase of three ways local organizations are working to reuse vacant or underutilized land in the District.  The event took place at Wangari Gardens, a newly planned community garden space, orchard, rain garden, and community space located on 2.7 acres.  The DC Box Collective highlighted their work on adapting used shipping containers to fit the needs of under-resourced District neighborhoods.   Also on site was a Tumbleweed Fencl, a 130 square foot tiny home on wheels well suited for infilling urban backyards or alley spaces. Several hundred people came out to help in the garden, tour the Fencl, and learn move about tiny house living.  Steve Newbold was also on-site to talk about the construction of his tiny house.

For anyone interested in a community work day on the alley lot where we will be parking the tiny houses or a work day while we are building, please sign up here.

For DC metro folks interested in the new tiny house meetup group (we meet every few months to discuss all aspects of tiny living/houses), please sign up  for the Meetup Group

For anyone interested in taking a Tumbleweed Tiny House workshop this summer, you can sign up here (currently with a $100 discount).

meeting the neighbors

Tonight we knocked on all 22 doors of the rowhomes backing on the lot, meeting a bunch of folks and leaving flyers at the rest.  It was great to get out and meet neighbors, answer questions, and start off our engagement on a positive note. We dropped off fliers with some general information on what we’re up to:

What’s planned for the alley lot behind my house?
The alley lot changed ownership on March 26th and will be undergoing a transformation over the next 6+ months. All concrete will be removed from the lot, and a community garden area will be installed in the southern area.  10-15 trees will be planted, and a 8’x20’ garage/storage structure will be permitted and erected.  The existing parking area on the west side of the lot will be gravelled, and will serve as long term parking for four to five 8’x22’ tiny houses on wheels. The center of the lot will remain an open, grassy area with a picnic table open to the community. We look forward to discussing plans further with the community at the next community association meeting in May.

What are tiny houses?
Tiny houses on wheels provide an affordable, attractive, environmentally-friendly housing option for 1-2 people. Nationally the tiny house movement is growing, although most of these mobile units have been built on the West coast and parked in backyards in cities or on rural lands.  As property values and rents rise across the city, we want to showcase this potential option for low-cost District living.  Some of the best designs for tiny houses on wheels come from Tumbleweed Tiny Houses (  Adding small units to empty alley spaces also draws on a rich DC tradition of African American alley dwellings and alley culture that began during the Civil War era and continued during the Great Migration, as chronicled in a great book, ‘Alley Life in Washington’ by Jame Borchert.  

Where can I see a tiny house on wheels?
There will be a tiny house on wheels on display at the ‘Repurposing Space’ event this Sunday, April 15th, Noon-5pm at the new Wangari Gardens.  The gardens are located nearby – west of the Washington Hospital Center/Children’s Medical Center, bordered by Irving St. NW, Kenyon St. NW, and Park Pl. NW. More information is available at:

What about zoning?
The alley lot is zoned R-3. Current DC code does not permit the construction of habitable dwellings on a foundation on an alley lot unless the alley has a width of 30 feet or greater (see 11-2507 / R-3 Buildings on Alley Lots).  Private parking of vehicles and trailers (what tiny houses on wheels are classified as) on private property is permitted under DC zoning, as long as parking is not operated as a business (a DCRA license would be required in this case, and the owner does not plan to rent spaces or operate a business on the lot).  Per 11-321 (R-3 Accessory Uses and Buildings) and conversations with DCRA, a private garage up to 900 square feet may be constructed on the property.

Will I be able to park my car on the lot?
Prior to lot cleanup, parking will be allowed only to neighbors with a free windshield parking permit (the one with a tree on it). Unfortunately, after the lot is cleaned up and garden/garage installed, parking will not be permitted on the lot. While we understand parking in the neighborhood is limited, with few exceptions all rowhomes abutting the lot have up to 2 potential parking spaces behind them. 

Who are you all?
We (Lee, Brian, Gaby, Steve) are some DC residents who own and rent homes nearby.  We are interested in tiny houses on wheels as a model of simple, affordable living.  We will be building the homes this summer and won’t be living in them full time, although we will park them on the lot until other arrangements are made.  We really look forward to meeting you all and being respectful neighbors/stewards of the lot. Please contact us with any additional questions, or if you’re interested in a garden plot or free temporary parking permit.