Saturday, February 28, 2015
Friday, February 27, 2015
Proposed Santa Clara County cellphone tracker has high potential for abuse, say critics
By Eric Kurhi firstname.lastname@example.org
A sheriff's proposal in Santa Clara County is placing new scrutiny on a surveillance technology already in use around the Bay Area -- a cellphone tracking system that may help in the war on crime but has the ability to infringe on innocent bystanders' privacy.
The technology in question -- which was quietly implemented in San Jose, Oakland and Fremont but will get a public hearing Tuesday when supervisors are asked to approve its purchase -- is a suitcase-sized device that mimics a cellphone tower to connect with all phones in a specific area. How large an area is one of many aspects that agencies have not made known, citing nondisclosure agreements regarding the technology. Sheriff's officials said it will be used purely to locate the subject of an investigation since it can find a phone through walls, even if the owner isn't making a call.
But privacy advocates argue that it can do far more than that -- for instance, scooping up details about the phone use of thousands of people at a demonstration -- and have called for greater public disclosure when law enforcement agencies seek to acquire the devices and strict limits on how they are used in the field.
Commonly known by its brand name "StingRay," the device is technically called an "International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher." When cellphones within its range connect, it harvests the IMSI from all of them, which could include data from thousands of unsuspecting people. If the authorities have the IMSI of a subject -- which sheriff's officials said they wouldn't obtain without a search warrant -- they can focus on where the phone's signal is coming from and, after moving the device a few times, triangulate a location to within 10 feet.
Alan Butler, legal counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said researchers have successfully demonstrated it can be much more invasive.
"It could process calls, monitor what numbers are being called, reroute calls," Butler said. "There's a tech term called 'man-in-the-middle attack,' where if it's between me and the phone company tower, I would think I'm connected to AT&T but in reality in between is the phony tower."
Butler said it could also work to identify an unknown person of interest. The target's IMSI could be collected along with everyone else's in a given area, such as a street corner known as a hot spot for crime. Another sweep could be done when the person is at a new site and a comparison of codes found in both locations would reveal the repeated digits belonging to the subject.
"It's a unique ID that might as well be your Social Security number," Butler said. "It is tied to your device and your account, the thing that is always in your pocket. It's an identifier that can be used to track you wherever you go."
And Butler said it's not hard for authorities to find out who is behind that number.
"Typically subscriber information can be obtained by law enforcement without any court order whatsoever," he said.
That kind of function is of grave concern, said Nadia Kayyali of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has been closely watching jurisdictions that have acquired StingRays, including Oakland, Fremont and San Francisco.
"Nationwide, there has been at least one agency that said it intended to use it to collect data on protesters," Kayyali said.
The ACLU has been pushing for local agencies to create a clear policy that would mandate a public vetting and evaluation of potentially invasive technology such as the cellphone interceptors and drones. Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who asked staff to look at such an ordinance in November, was concerned about the lack of opportunity for public input before the matter goes up for a vote Tuesday. Simitian said he would like to see the request -- which would be paid for by an approved $500,000 federal Homeland Security grant that expires in May -- put before a committee for discussion before returning to the board for a vote.
"Here we are at the point of approving it, and we don't have a draft policy and no real protections to prevent the misuse and abuse of technology," he said. "Without a complete understanding of what we are buying, how it will be used and what privacy measures will be in place, it's premature to say the least."
Kayyali said that while the StingRay in Oakland was quietly implemented, crowds raised a ruckus at City Council meetings last year when that city aimed to create a sort of one-stop shop for collected information called the Domain Awareness Center. The resulting backlash resulted in a scaled-down vision for the surveillance hub and a privacy ordinance moving through committee that if approved would be among the "strongest in the country." It would set very specific rules regarding collected information, including that from the StingRay, defining who can access it and how it can be used.
While such proposals are encouraging, Kayyali said it's been "incredibly frustrating to see this keep happening again and again in the Bay Area. If there's a silver lining, it's that when people do hear about these things the concern is real."
Thursday, February 26, 2015
Energy isn’t the only thing that’s green when you’re pushing the clean-energy agenda. Oregon governor John Kitzhaber may have announced that he will resign, but a sweeping FBI investigation of him and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, is only getting started. While the story involves personal failings, the green-energy lobbying scandal that brought them down has national lessons and implications. If oil companies and pharmaceutical concerns shouldn’t exercise undue influence in government, the same is true for green energy — which can’t yet survive in the marketplace without giant subsidies or special tax favors.
While Hayes was living in the governor’s mansion with the self-bestowed title of “Oregon’s First Lady,” she collected a series of consulting contracts and “fellowship” money from people with an interest in shaping state energy and environmental policy. She then ordered state employees to help run her private business and take actions in accord with the wishes of the green-energy groups that were paying her. Some of the groups first identified by Willamette Week were sketchy.
The Clean Economy Development Center (CEDC) gave Hayes $118,000 as a “fellow” for “work that Hayes and Kitzhaber’s office have yet to describe in any detail.” The arrangement was made by Dan Carol, a Kitzhaber campaign adviser who was later hired by the governor and his highest-paid aide, at $165,000 a year. CEDC had its tax-exempt status yanked by the IRS in 2014.
Then there was Demos, a New York–based left-wing group normally prominent in attacking voter-ID laws. But in Oregon, Demos persuaded Hayes and Kitzhaber to consider using a “genuine progress indicator” as a substitute for traditional GDP models of growth. In 2013, Governor Kitzhaber and Hayes accepted the invitation of Demos executive Lew Daly to accompany him to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan to study the “genuine progress indicator” concept. The next month, Hayes landed a $25,000 consulting contract with Demos. Within days, in violation of the law, she held a meeting promoting Demos’s concept at the state-owned governor’s mansion.
The San Francisco–based Energy Foundation gave Hayes $40,000 in 2013 to create a green-energy communications strategy. This foundation had also funded almost two-thirds of her $118,000 CDEC fellowship. Although much of its funding is obscure, one of the Energy Foundation’s most prominent backers is Tom Steyer, the California billionaire who last year plowed millions into Democratic campaigns and fighting the Keystone pipeline. Among the recipients of his largesse was the Oregon Democratic party, which netted $100,000 from his NextGen Climate Action group. More scandals might be waiting in the wings.
Last year, the Daily Caller reported that Kitzhaber signed a deal with the governors of Washington and California to implement low-carbon fuel standards that would raise the cost of transportation. But that may have been just the beginning of a much bigger scheme to push green-energy agendas. Chris Horner, of the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, used Freedom of Information Act requests to unearth a ten-page 2014 e-mail thread from the Washington governor’s office to allies working in various other governors’ offices.
The thrust was advice on how to launch “a nationally coordinated, multi-year ‘states strategy’ focused on driving outcomes contemplated by the president’s climate action plan,” to “spread climate coordination and collaboration.” The Kitzhaber aide in the e-mails is Dan Carol, who was so helpful in securing that lucrative green-energy fellowship for the governor’s fiancée. The e-mail participants discuss “Dan’s concept” to use their offices to push the climate agenda. It would be funded by “major environmental donors,” such as Steyer and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. A private White House dinner would be arranged “to create buy-in among” the donors. Recipients of the e-mails were assured that Council on Environmental Quality staff at the White House “were interested and felt [the White House’s David] Agnew, [counselor to the president John] Podesta, et al.” would also be interested.
Far from being embarrassed by the green-energy scandals that piled up during its first term, the Obama administration is doubling down on its green agenda. It has dismissed Solyndra, the politically connected solar-panel maker that wasted $535 million of taxpayer money and got President Obama to promote its wares, as an aberration. But the Washington Post reported in 2012 that Solyndra was hardly an anomaly, given that under Obama “$3.9 billion in federal grants and financing flowed to 21 companies backed by firms with connections to five Obama-administration staffers and advisers.” It’s not that no one raised warning signs.
Then–Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, then–budget director Jacob Lew, and then–National Economic Council director Gene Sperling all opposed many or most of the green-energy schemes that have since failed. But Energy Secretary Steven Chu ignored these voices and handed out the cash anyway. Obama may not have had a Cylvia Hayes advising him, but the conflicts of interest he created were nonetheless major-league.
By now, it must be clear that just because green-energy advocates claim the “cleanest” of motives, they haven’t overcome the all-too-common desire to reap personal profit at the expense of the general public. “The modern green machine is a network of wealthy foundations and consultant groups that finance activists who promote and advise sympathetic politicians,” the Wall Street Journal editorial page observed on Saturday.
Just as with any business lobby, such groups deserve scrutiny about the lengths to which they will go to further their self-interest. As the Kitzhaber scandal in Oregon has shown, green-energy interests can be the most brazen of all because they believe their perceived good intentions will block needed scrutiny. The scandal involving a lone food-supplement owner who corrupted Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife with gifts pales by comparison with what happened in Oregon, and the McDonnell scandal received far greater coverage. It’s time the media woke up and realized that they have a new watchdog role in covering the financial — or “green” — interests of the green lobby.
Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/398648/kitzhaber-and-greedy-greens-john-fund
Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/398648/kitzhaber-and-greedy-greens-john-fund
It is time to stop our green worship of the electric car. It costs us a fortune, cuts little CO2 and surprisingly kills almost twice the number of people compared with regular gasoline cars.
It is time to stop our green worship of the electric car. It costs us a fortune, cuts little CO2 and surprisingly kills almost twice the number of people compared with regular gasoline cars.
Electric cars' global-warming benefits are small. It isadvertised as a zero-emissions car, but in reality it only shifts emissions to electricity production, with most coming from fossil fuels. As green venture capitalist Vinod Khosla likes to point out, "Electric cars are coal-powered cars."
The most popular electric car, a Nissan Leaf, over a 90,000-mile lifetime will emit 31 metric tons of CO2, based on emissions from its production, its electricity consumption at average U.S. fuel mix and its ultimate scrapping. A comparable diesel Mercedes CDI A160 over a similar lifetime will emit 3 tons more across its production, diesel consumption and ultimate scrapping.
The results are similar for the top-line Tesla car, emitting about 44 tons, about 5 tons less than a similar Audi A7 Quattro.
Subsidies vs. savings
Yes, in both cases the electric car is better, but only by a tiny bit. Avoiding 3 tons of CO2 would cost less than $27 on Europe's emissions trading market. The annual benefit is about the cost of a cup of coffee. Yet U.S. taxpayers spend up to $7,500 in tax breaks for less than $27 of climate benefits. That's a bad deal.
The other main benefit from electric cars was supposed to be lower air pollution. Yes, it might be powered by coal, but unlike the regular car, coal emissions are far away from the city centers where more people live and where damage from air pollution hits hardest.
However, new research in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences foundthat while gasoline cars pollute closer to home, coal-fired power pollutes a lot more.
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The researchers estimate that if the U.S. has 10% more gasoline cars in 2020, 870 more people will die each year in the U.S. from air pollution. Hybrids, because they are cleaner, will kill just 610 people. But 10% more electric vehicles powered on the average U.S. electricity mix will kill 1,617 more people every year, mostly from coal pollution. The electric car kills almost three times as many as a hybrid.
Of course, electric car proponents would venture that the perceived rapid ramp-up of renewables will make future electric cars much cleaner. This, however, is mostly wishful thinking. Today, the U.S. gets 14% of its electric power from renewables. In 25 years, Obama's Energy Information Administration estimates this will have gone up just 3 percentage points to 17%.
Similarly, fossil fuels generate 65% of U.S. electricity today, and will generate 64% in 2040, although natural gas will gain four percentage points and lead to slightly cleaner power.
Instead of focusing on electric cars, we should focus on making coal-fired power cleaner.
What proponents say
Proponents could also argue that the more mileage an electric car logs, the more its carbon footprint is reduced because the battery production is a significant part of their total emissions.
Yet, it hardly matters. The added mileage saves little in the way of emissions, and the electric car's extended use might mean it would have to replace its batteries, entirely blowing the climate benefit.
Moreover, because the Nissan gives you only 84 miles on a charge, most people buy it as a second car for shorter trips. If such a second car goes only 50,000 miles, it will actually end up emitting more CO2.
In the public conversation, electric cars are seen as the new uber-green. But they're nothing of the sort. If we had 25 million extra electric cars rather than gasoline cars on the road in 2020, they would over their lifetime avoid 75 million tons of CO2 at a market value of more than half a billion dollars.
However, at present-day subsidies, they would cost a phenomenal $188 billion whilecreating more pollution than gasoline cars, costing about $35 billion in lives cut short by poor air quality. For every dollar of cost, the electric car does less than half a cent of good.
For the next decades, hybrids are the way to go, while we innovate cheaper green energy that hopefully over some decades will make the electric car worthwhile.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
By Susan Shelley
Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton made news recently by writing on his company’s blog that the nation’s official 5.6 percent unemployment rate is a “Big Lie.”
The capital letters make that a reference to the propaganda technique of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who recommended telling a lie so big that people would believe it only because no one would have the gall to make up such a thing.
A few days later Clifton appeared on CNBC and tried to clarify that he wasn’t calling the Bureau of Labor Statistics a bunch of liars. “I need to make that very, very clear so that I don’t suddenly disappear,” he said. “I need to make it home tonight.”
That “disappear” comment is a reference to Stalin’s purges of intellectuals in the Soviet Union.
Was he joking?
They’re never joking.
What is in Jim Clifton’s head that’s causing these totalitarian references to fall out of his mouth? He sounds like he’s afraid of the government.
Maybe he is.
Gallup is a U.S. government contractor, and it’s risky to tick off a client. Gallup has done consulting work for the U.S. Army on civilian personnel recruitment, for the Social Security Administration on marketing research, for the Department of Agriculture, the Office of Personnel Management, the Peace Corps, the Farm Service Agency, the Department of Education, the Federal Trade Commission, the Air Force, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, according to the Federal Procurement Data System.
There have been a few bumps.
In 2013, Gallup paid $10.5 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle charges that the company overstated its costs on no-bid contracts with the State Department and the U.S. Mint. The settlement also ended litigation over charges that Gallup offered a job to a FEMA employee in exchange for help getting work for the company. As the U.S. attorney explained it, “This case exposed a cozy arrangement between a contractor and a government employee where nobody was looking out for the American taxpayer.”
But all was forgiven. Last October, Gallup won a $2.5 million contract to do a customer satisfaction study for the Department of Labor.
And then the CEO compared their unemployment numbers to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels.
In a totalitarian state, the government exercises total control over business, and an executive who steps out of line could very well disappear, but what we have here is a totalitarian state of mind.
Before he was afraid of disappearing, Jim Clifton wrote a scathing commentary exposing the tricks of government statisticians. He revealed that “a job” is defined as at least one hour of work for at least $20, “unemployed” doesn’t include people who desperately want a job but have given up trying to find one, and the number of full-time jobs in America is a “staggeringly low” 44 percent of the adult population, leaving 30 million “out of work or severely underemployed.”
He must have felt a cold stab of fear when he realized he was criticizing a client worth millions of dollars to his company. That kind of thing can cause a CEO to lose his job.
In this economy, that’s the same as disappearing.
Where the government has too much control over business, executives have a strong incentive to shade their public comments in a way that’s pleasing to government officials. This is especially dangerous when the business is news and information, or polling data, because the public may be fed a distorted picture of reality.
If it’s not quite totalitarian propaganda, it’s a little too close for comfort.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Marin City residents talk about the community they love.
My Evening in Marin City with a "Facilitator" for Massive Redevelopment
Marin City meets slick "Facilitators" who will help find "Community Consensus" before they start Knocking down buildings.
I took Royce McLemore up on her invitation to attend tonight's meeting on "the future of housing" in Marin City. I brought my video equipment to tape but didn't bring it out because I felt too much of an outsider and I really just wanted to listen and learn.
The community room was packed with people and they had a nice meal from Outback steak house for everyone. A big semi circle of tables were situated at the back of the room with name tags for a massive advisory council of residents and "interested parties". The discussion for the evening was about the future of "Golden Gate Village". the large public housing designed by Aaron Green, the same architect who supervised the building of the Civic Center.
The facilitator and his team had all of the typical tools of the trade. He assured everyone that "everybody's input is important" and "we want to make sure we hear from everybody" and at the end of the process, "we will decide as a group what is best for the community" We have seen this process over and over again . It is called "consensus building" by planners, we call it "Delphi manipulation" to achieve an appearance of community choice.
I stayed silent for the evening, observing. The audience, 95% African American, spoke with great feeling about its history, family and good times. Many trace their roots to the old South and grandparents came to build ships for World War II. I don't think I have seen a tighter knit community anywhere in Marin.
The audience was shrewd and peppered the facilitator with questions. Many were suspicious of the plans and remembered bad experiences with redevelopment in Fillmore in San Francisco. They fear that they will be ejected from their homes and forced to live in Oakland and Antioch. A lot spoke they have "no where else to go" if they are forced to leave. even if it is temporary it will shred their community. Like many people throughout Marin, they consider Marin their home and feel privileged to live here.
The facilitator announced that a "working group" had formed to help decide what is" best" for the greater community. Of the 25 members only 3 or 4 actually live in Golden Gate village. Many felt that it should be at least 2/3 residents for a fair outcome. The audience had caught on to one of the first tricks of the planners to stuff shills into the audience and on voting committees.
The planner said that Golden Gate Village is just the first "phase" of the project but they will be talking about ALL of Marin City.
As many of us know, Marin City is one of the few "Priority Development Areas" left in Marin. It will mean a massive "densification" and population increase (perhaps another 10,000 people?)
The African American facilitator has worked in Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco Hunter's Point and all over the country. He was articulate, charming and dangerous.
Royce spoke passionately about preserving the community and the beautiful architecture, the people, the history. Her vision is to enhance the beauty of the place and making it better in contrast to knocking buildings down displacing thousands and shredding their community.
Each of the golden gate building were upzoned from 40 units per acre to 60 units an acre. This means, they will be coming down or the generous living area between buildings will become new apartments.
I am convinced once the word gets out across Marin City, they will be the most determined foe of developers and politicians. They have a deep abiding love for their community, have deep familial ties and will not give up. This is a land war.
The battle of Marin isn't the battle against housing. It is a battle for our communities and our beautiful landscape. Marin City is an important city to watch and lend our support. We share a common enemies of a powerful over reaching government and crony development.
We shall save Marin again!
BlackBerry and ATT are already making moves that could exploit new ‘utility’ regulations.
L. GORDON CROVITZ
Feb. 22, 2015 5:32 p.m. ET
Critics of President Obama’s “net neutrality” plan call it ObamaCare for the Internet.
That’s unfair to ObamaCare.
Both ObamaCare and “Obamanet” submit huge industries to complex regulations. Their supporters say the new rules had to be passed before anyone could read them. But at least ObamaCare claimed it would solve long-standing problems. Obamanet promises to fix an Internet that isn’t broken.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The permissionless Internet, which allows anyone to introduce a website, app or device without government review, ends this week. On Thursday the three Democrats among the five commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission will vote to regulate the Internet under rules written for monopoly utilities.
No one, including the bullied FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, thought the agency would go this far. The big politicization came when President Obama in November demanded that the supposedly independent FCC apply the agency’s most extreme regulation to the Internet. A recent page-one Wall Street Journal story headlined “Net Neutrality: How White House Thwarted FCC Chief” documented “an unusual, secretive effort inside the White House . . . acting as a parallel version of the FCC itself.”
Congress is demanding details of this interference. In the early 1980s, a congressional investigation blasted President Reagan for telling his FCC chairman his view of regulations about television reruns. “I believe it is imperative for the integrity of all regulatory processes that the president unequivocally declare that he will express no view in the matter and that he will do nothing to intervene in the work of the FCC,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat.
Mr. Obama’s role raises legal as well as political questions. Those harmed by the new rules could argue in court that political pressure made the agency’s actions “arbitrary and capricious.”
The more than 300 pages of new regulations are secret, but Mr. Wheeler says they will subject the Internet to the key provisions of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, under which the FCC oversaw Ma Bell.
Title II authorizes the commission to decide what “charges” and “practices” are “just and reasonable”—an enormous amount of discretion. Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has found 290 federal appeals court opinions on this section and more than 1,700 FCC administrative interpretations.
Defenders of the Obama plan claim that there will be regulatory “forbearance,” though not from the just-and-reasonable test. They also promise not to regulate prices, a pledge that Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has called “flat-out false.” He added: “The only limit on the FCC’s discretion to regulate rates is its own determination of whether rates are ‘just and reasonable,’ which isn’t much of a restriction at all.”
The Supreme Court has ruled that if the FCC applies Title II to the Internet, all uses of telecommunications will have to pass the “just and reasonable” test. Bureaucrats can review the fairness of Google ’s search results, Facebook ’s news feeds and news sites’ links to one another and to advertisers. BlackBerry is already lobbying the FCC to force Apple and Netflix to offer apps for BlackBerry’s unpopular phones. Bureaucrats will oversee peering, content-delivery networks and other parts of the interconnected network that enables everything from Netflix and YouTube to security drones and online surgery.
Supporters of Obamanet describe it as a counter to the broadband duopoly of cable and telecom companies. In reality, it gives duopolists another tool to block competition. Utility regulations let dominant companies complain that innovations from upstarts fail the “just and reasonable” test—as truly disruptive innovations often do.
AT&T has decades of experience leveraging FCC regulations to stop competition. Last week AT&T announced a high-speed broadband plan that charges an extra $29 a month to people who don’t want to be tracked for online advertising. New competitor Google Fiber can offer low-cost broadband only because it also earns revenues from online advertising. In other words, AT&T has already built a case against Google Fiber that Google’s cross-subsidization from advertising is not “just and reasonable.”
Utility regulation was designed to maintain the status quo, and it succeeds. This is why the railroads, Ma Bell and the local water monopoly were never known for innovation. The Internet was different because its technologies, business models and creativity were permissionless.
This week Mr. Obama’s bureaucrats will give him the regulated Internet he demands. Unless Congress or the courts block Obamanet, it will be the end of the Internet as we know it.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Tiny houses are fast becoming a national craze as housing costs in cities continue to rise and young urbanites scramble for a place to live on the cheap.
Urban developer Eve Picker has cast her eye towards Pittsburgh as a home for the next, great tiny house villa, and so far, the zoning board has been less than welcoming. ViaCBS Pittsburgh:
Picker would like to accommodate them by building a tiny house village of a dozen adjacent homes in Garfield. So far, she’s hit a roadblock of getting zoning approval and buying city-owned land.
The mayor says he means to pave the way by streamlining the approval process and establishing a land bank.
“So that projects like small houses won’t get the red tape of city government, but will get the red carpet treatment of city government,” Peduto said.
Reason TV's Todd Krainin covered the tiny house phenomenon in this video, which also explores what it's like to live in a city with no zoning laws at all:
Originally posted Aug. 7, 2014. Original write-up below:
Demand for housing in Washington, D.C., is going through the roof. Over a thousand people move to the nation's capital every month, driving up the cost of housing, and turning the city into a construction zone. Tower cranes rising high above the city streets have become so common, they're just part of the background.
But as fast as the cranes can rise, demand for housing has shot up even faster, making DC among the most expensive cities in the United States. With average home prices at$453 per square foot, it's every bit as expensive as New York City. And the struggles of one homebuilder shows just why the city's shortage looks to continue for a long time.
"I got driven down the tiny house road because of affordability, simplicity, sustainability, and then mobility," says Jay Austin, who designed a custom 140-square-foot house in Washington, D.C. Despite the miniscule size, his "Matchbox" house is stylish, well-built, and it includes all the necessities (if not the luxuries) of life: a bathroom, a shower, a modest kitchen, office space, and a bedroom loft. There's even a hot tub outside.
Clever design elements make the most of minimalism. The Matchbox's high ceilings, skylight, and wide windows make the small space feel modern, uncluttered, and open.
At a cost that ranges from $10,000 to $50,000, tiny homes like the Matchbox could help to ease the shortage of affordable housing in the capital city. Heating and cooling costs are negligible. Rainwater catchment systems help to make the homes self-sustaining. They're an attractive option to the very sort of residents who the city attracts in abundance: single, young professionals without a lot of stuff, who aren't ready to take on a large mortgage.
But tiny houses come with one enormous catch: they're illegal, in violation of several codes in Washington D.C.'s Zoning Ordinance. Among the many requirements in the 34 chapters and 600 pages of code are mandates defining minimum lot size, room sizes, alleyway widths, and "accessory dwelling units" that prevent tiny houses from being anything more than a part-time residence.
That's why Austin and his tiny house-dwelling neighbors at Boneyard Studios don't actually live in their own homes much of the time. To skirt some of the zoning regulations, they've added wheels to their homes, which reclassifies them as trailers – and subjects them to regulation by the Department of Motor Vehicles. But current law still requires them to either move their homes from time to time, or keep permanent residences elsewhere.
The DC Office of Zoning, the Zoning Commission, the Zoning Administrator, the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and the Office of Planning all declined to comment on the laws that prevent citizens from living in tiny houses. But their website offers a clue:
Outdated terms like telegraph office and tenement house still reside in our regulations. Concepts like parking standards and antenna regulations are based on 1950s technology, and new concepts like sustainable development had not even been envisioned.
Complex as it is, the Zoning Ordinance of the District of Columbia was approved in 1958. That's over five decades of cultural change and building innovations, like tiny houses, that the code wasn't designed to address.
Exemptions and alterations to the code are possible—many are granted every year—but they don't come cheaply. Lisa Sturtevant of the National Housing Conferenceestimates that typical approvals add up to $50,000 to the cost of a new single-family unit. That's why large, wealthy developers enjoy greater flexibility to build in the city, but tiny house dwellers… not so much.
Fortunately, a comprehensive rewrite of the zoning code has been in the works for much of the last decade. Efforts to allow more affordable housing are underway, although many of these solutions favor large developers. Future plans still forbid tiny houses. Austin estimates that, given the current glacial pace of change among the city's many zoning committees, tiny houses are "many years, if not decades out" from being allowed in the city.
For now, Jay Austin is allowed to build the home of his dreams – he just can't live there. The Matchbox has become a part-time residence and a full-time showpiece. The community of tiny houses at Boneyard Studios are periodically displayed to the public in the hopes of changing a zoning authority that hasn't updated a zoning code in 56 years.
Runs about 10:30