Greater Greater Washington

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I'm an employer, and I support DC's family leave bill

Employees who work in DC could soon be entitled to 16 weeks of paid time off for the birth of a child, to care for a sick family member, or recover from illness, under a bill introduced this week. As someone who runs a small nonprofit that will soon employ three people, I think this is a great idea. As someone who writes about the forces that affect where people choose to live, I also think it's a great idea.

This isn't easy. Working mom with infant photo from Shutterstock.

I want to give employees family and medical leave

Greater Greater Washington started out as an all-volunteer project, but as we've grown, we've developed into a nonprofit organization with full-time staff. We have one employee now, our staff editor, and thanks to a grant we received this summer, we're working to hire two more employees.

If one of them were to have a baby or get very sick, I'd want them to be able to take time off. Unfortunately, we just couldn't realistically afford to do that right now. Our grant just barely lets us hire all three of them, and we need to raise more money on our own as well. (If you want to help, you can contribute here!)

To lose our editor for up to four months would put massive strain on our ability to run the blog; to lose one of the two people we're hiring would make it very hard to achieve the goals we've set in our grant.

This is not how it should have to be. New mom working photo from Shutterstock.

People should spend time with their children

But being able to have time off for the birth of a child shouldn't be just a luxury (and certainly isn't luxurious). When our daughter was born, I took about two months off, and my wife, who works for the federal government, was able to use her vacation and sick leave and then take a small amount of unpaid leave to have four months to spend with her.

We're fortunate that her agency is flexible and that we could afford the short time without pay, because caring for our daughter was all-consuming. As any parent can tell you, it was exhausting and massively frustrating while also being enormously joyful.

Contrary to some portrayals, a new parent is not lounging around while the baby sleeps all the time. Many babies might sleep during the daytime, but they're up every few hours all night.

The chance to bond with a new life in this world isn't a life experience parents should skip, and the work of caring for this helpless person is not something they can easily delegate. Besides nobody else being able to handle nighttime feeding, it's not that easy to get into a daycare within a few months of birth in many parts of DC.

Sure, many people do without parental leave today, but people should not have to choose between covering basic living expenses and being there for a new child. Nor should they have to neglect an ailing family member.

This should happen. Fathers walking photo from Shutterstock.

How this bill works

The bill, written by at-large councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso and cosponsored by Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5), Charles Allen (Ward 6), and LaRuby May (Ward 8), would set up a fund where employers pay on a sliding scale up to 1% of an employee's salary.

When the employee needs to take leave, the fund would cover the first $1,000 a week of salary and half of the next $4,000. Basically, an employee making $52,000 a year would get 100% reimbursement while an employee making $156,000 would get 2/3 of his or her salary covered.

It would apply to non-federal DC employers and their employees, regardless of whether those employees live in the District. DC residents who work for the federal government or employers outside DC would be required to pay into the fund and be covered.

For Greater Greater Washington, this reduces a lot of our risk. Sure, having the employee out would be difficult, but at least we would not be using up as much as 1/6 of our grant money for it at the same time. If one of our staff were out for four months, it wouldn't be easy and maybe impossible to find a replacement, but it's a better alternative than either of the current choices: Offer leave and maybe lose a lot of grant money, or be a crummy boss.

Yes, it will cost us and we don't have a lot of budget to spare, but for that hypothetical $52,000-a-year employee (sorry, we're a nonprofit; again, you can help grow our budget), this "insurance" costs about $400-500 a year. That's doable.

I don't know what it's like to run a restaurant, or a dentist's office, or one of a thousand other kinds of small businesses. People who run those will surely speak up in the time to come. But for myself, I don't want to have to put our employees in the position of having to miss a child's infancy or care for a sick parent if they want to keep working here.

Without this bill, though, to be perfectly honest, I'd have little choice right now given our small organization and tight budget. That's why I hope it passes as soon as possible.

In real life, people juggling work and kids don't look this relaxed (or have professional makeup). Working mom photo from Shutterstock.

This bill is good for strengthening urban communities

From a broader urbanist standpoint, this bill is also smart policy. Proponents argue that there are other cases where the value will sway an employer's choice as well. They suggest that working for DC companies will be more appealing for workers who have many choices, making it easier to attract talent to the District.

However, this is just one of many factors that could attract or repel employers. I just don't think many employers choose to locate in DC because of the level of taxes. If just looking at pure costs, a suburban sprawl office park is going to beat out a walkable urban place almost every time, as it did for Northrop Grumman. Those office parks are cheaper, but less pleasant for employees, and they push a lot of costs onto the publicly-funded transportation network (and on employees directly).

Many employers are seeing things differently. They want to be in DC, or Arlington or Bethesda or Silver Spring, to attract workers who want to live in urban places and don't want a long slog in the car every day. They want employees to have appealing choices for lunch. They want to be in a place with some energy. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson wants to move the company's headquarters to a Metro station area for that reason, not to the cheapest office space he can find.

The same applies for costs beyond real estate. DC is not going to compete with other jurisdictions to be the lowest cost, but rather, the highest value. Meanwhile, a lot of low-wage work that doesn't need to be in DC already isn't; a telemarketing call center already isn't in DC, and isn't even in Virginia or Maryland, probably. A store or restaurant has to be where it is for the customers.

Certainly there are employers on the margins where this will make a difference. But we also just can't allow every issue to be a race to the bottom. Everyone deserves to be able to take some time for their health and for their families. A bill that reduces the cost to an employer when this happens is a good idea.

I have one request: Please, DC government, make the paperwork as easy as possible. Maybe it can be combined with the existing unemployment insurance forms or some other filing, so that we don't have to fill out any new forms? Thanks. And pass the bill.

An interactive map will make Montgomery more bike-friendly

Casey Anderson, the chair of Montgomery County's planning board, says he wants the best bike plan any place US city has ever seen. The county's interactive Cycling Concerns Bicycle Atlas is a tool for gathering the feedback it needs to make that happen.

Image from Montgomery County. Click for the interactive version.

The primary goal of the County Bike Plan is to move from a world where only 1% of the population feels comfortable riding (high stress roadways) to one where those who tolerate moderate (10%) or low stress (50%) also feel comfortable riding. Importantly, it also recognizes that there is a substantial minority that will never get on a bike.

Image from M-NCPPC.

This effort began with the Second Great MoCo Bike Summit, and has been part of a series of community meetings where Board Chairman Casey Anderson and planner David Anspacher led attendees through a discussion of common cycling issues and defined the four levels of stress.

Unlike a similar atlas unveiled in Fairfax County this spring, which asked cyclists to identify routes they'd like to see bike lanes on, Montgomery's map asks users to note problem areas within the county's existing network, such as poor or missing connections, unsafe sewer grates, and concerns with road conditions.

The map will remain up indefinitely. The county has already started using feedback from the atlas to address immediate concerns. The plan should be complete in 2017, and it will include recommendations about specific bike facilities to be built.

Hundreds of people have already used the map,, and the county is asking them to keep it up. Users can also rate and comment other users' feedback directly on the map.

There will be one more community meeting to discuss the Bike Plan on Tuesday, October 6, at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

NTSB recommends the federal government take over safety oversight of Metro

The National Transportation Safety Board has "urgently" recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration take over safety oversight for WMATA.

Photo by Cliff on Flickr.

FRA already regulates safety for intercity rail, including freight and passenger rail like Amtrak, and commuter rail systems like MARC and VRE. It doesn't oversee most urban transit systems, except the PATH train between New York and New Jersey.

Since WMATA spans DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the current oversight body is the Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), a team of officials from the three jurisdictions' departments of transportation who oversee safety.

The current system has failed

The TOC has often not been successful. After the Fort Totten crash, it turned out WMATA had refused to let them access the tracks. But the group could only write more and more exasperated letters to the same people at Metro and apparently had no way to escalate the issue outside the agency. Some higher-ups at the DOTs didn't even know that TOC members reported to their organizations.

There were efforts to beef up the TOC since 2009-2010, but the NTSB has concluded they have not been successful.

The FRA may have downsides as well

While there's a lot of reason to support this move, it's also important to have some caution as well. There are possible drawbacks to federal control of these systems.

The FRA, for its part, has come under criticism in the past for the way it regulates safety. On intercity railroads, for instance, FRA pushed for heavier trains which can survive crashes instead of trains that can stop more quickly to avoid crashes. This forced US rail vehicles to be heavier than European counterparts, making it more expensive to buy them. Problems with cracking in Acela trains a decade ago were blamed, at least in part, on the extra weight because of this rule.

PATH officials have blamed FRA regulations for high operational costs. For example, the FRA required PATH to run more tests, more often, including tests on things not strongly connected to safety such as air conditioning.

If the FRA does take over, it could ensure safety oversight is stronger, which is absolutely necessary. It's also possible it might raise costs, and the region must be vigilant to ensure that FRA never throws the baby out with the bathwater by hamstringing Metro in some way that degrades service.

Prince George's zombie subdivisions need to die

Prince George's County has a backlog of suburban-style subdivisions that were approved for construction years ago, but never built. Now, the county faces a choice: Let those projects live on and sap up demand, or cancel them so more urban developments can rise.

Photo by Seamoor on Flickr.

Ever since 2009, the Prince George's County Council has continually extended the approval periods for unbuilt development projects, mostly consisting of single-family residential subdivisions located outside of the Beltway and away from transit.

Originally, the council granted these extensions to provide temporary relief to distressed developers in the wake of the Great Recession. But the recession is over. And while housing prices continue to rebound in Prince George's, there is no current market demand for massive new single-family subdivisions outside of the Beltway.

Instead of extending them for two more years, through the end of 2017, it's time for the council to give up the ghost on these long-dead projects.

Zombie projects are clogging the county's pipeline

About 80% of the development projects approved but not yet constructed in Prince George's County are low-density single-family homes. Over 13,000 of them are planned for outside of the Beltway, away from transit. This chart from 2011 shows just how widely spread out these projects are:

Image from M-NCPPC.

But the county already has more single-family units than it knows what to do with, and developers seemingly haven't found it to be in their financial interest to pursue more of these projects for years.

Everyone but the council seems to realize these projects are effectively dead. It simply makes no sense to keep trying to bring these zombie projects back to life.

County planners have already concluded that such scattered sprawl development is unhelpful for the county because it makes it "difficult to establish a critical mass of high-density development around any existing Metro station, as envisioned by the General Plan."

Moreover, the county's continued lack of focus on high-quality mixed-use transit-oriented development puts it "at a continued disadvantage relative to its neighbors when it comes to attracting residents and employers who value the connectivity and amenities that other such communities provide."

When approving the current General Plan last year, the existing pipeline of approved-but-unbuilt projects outside of the Beltway led planners and the council to conclude that the county actually had "too many" Metro stations, even before taking into account the future Purple Line light rail stations, and that developing all of them would "undermine economic growth."

But if the council would instead allow these old projects to die a natural death, developers and planners could reorient their efforts to smarter projects. Even if the market later shows there's still demand for single family homes, starting over would give officials a chance to design them with more walkable streets.

Ideally, the county could direct some much-needed attention towards its gateway neighborhoods and Metro stations near DC.

The council's Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development (PZED) Committee will consider the latest extension bills, CB-80-2015 and CB-81-2015, on Wednesday, September 30, at 1:30 pm in Room 2027 of the County Administration Building. If the committee votes to favorably recommend the bill, the full council will then consider it at a later date.

Residents can attend the PZED meeting in person, or submit written comments. Use this link to address comments to PZED Chair Andrea Harrison, with copies to committee director Jackie Brown and committee administrative aide Barbara Stone.

A version of this post appeared on Prince George's Urbanist.

The controversy over affordable housing on Florida Avenue, explained

A new development in Shaw will bring a Whole Foods and 352 apartments, 107 price below market rate. But there's controversy over whether the DC government should have sold the site for its full value of $27 million, for $5 million, or $400,000.

There are two fundamental questions. First, is it worth paying to locate subsidized affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods, where the opportunity cost is higher? Second, did the Bowser administration negotiate a bad deal for what it got?

Housing deal image from Shutterstock.

What's this deal?

This building will sit on publicly-owned land at 965 Florida Avenue, where 9th, T W Street, Sherman Avenue, and Florida Avenue come together. In 2013, after a bidding process, DC's Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) chose MRP Realty to develop the site.

There's been a long-running debate in DC about whether, when selling a piece of public land, the city should strive to get as much cash as possible, or include more below-market housing. The DC Council passed a bill later that year, by Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, to require 20-30% of units in public land deals be affordable to people making 30-50% of the Area Median Income.

The city then renegotiated the 965 Florida arrangement to comply with this rule. Last week, the council approved the deal. The next step is for the developers to file a Planned Unit Development with the Zoning Commission with more details about the proposed building.

Concept rendering of 965 Florida. Image from MRP Realty.

What did it cost?

Aaron Davis reported on the project in the Washington Post. According to documents he obtained, the property would be worth about $27.6 million if sold outright.

An appraiser concluded that with the below-market housing requirement, the property is still worth $5.9 million. In the deal, MRP is paying the District $400,000.

The eye-catching but confusing headline, "How D.C. turned $27 million into $400,000," caused some people to confuse the two issues. One is whether it is worth about $20 million to get an affordability limit on 107 units. The other is whether the Bowser Administration blew the other $5 million.

Should "deeply affordable" housing be part of such deals?

Some people don't agree with the McDuffie bill in the first place. There are those who think affordable housing shouldn't be part of a deal at all. Others argue that it would be better to take the cash in the hot U Street/Shaw area and use it for affordable housing somewhere cheaper.

The latter argument is actually the flip side of an issue Martin Austermuhle just reported on for WAMU: DC's housing authority is selling off townhouses in now-hot markets like Columbia Heights for top dollar and using the money in its budget elsewhere. There was also a public land deal in the Mount Vernon Triangle (before the McDuffie bill passed) to put all required affordable housing in Anacostia instead.

On the one hand, you can buy more housing for the same money in a cheap area. On the other hand, residents in those areas already feel that lower-income housing is already too concentrated in their areas. Research has demonstrated that lower-income children who grow up in higher-income areas succeed more in life, so there's some definite value in using resources to create mixed-income communities.

The recent HBO series Show Me a Hero depicted the political fight that ensued when a court required Yonkers, NY to put some public housing in fancier neighborhoods. The Housing Authority sales or the MVT land deal are perpetuating concentration, while 965 Florida deal is the direct result of efforts to spread housing around.

Money floating away image from Shutterstock.

Did the Bowser administration get a bad deal?

Even with the required below-market housing, the appraiser estimated DC should get $5.9 million instead of $400,000. In a committee report on the land deal, DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said that DMPED's "record is disappointing" when it comes to being "a shrewd negotiator on behalf of the city."

Mendelson notes that DMPED blocked the council from getting another appraisal, hasn't ensured that the affordable housing would even last in perpetuity (which reportedly the developer was willing to accept), and didn't arrange for DC to get more money if the developer can build a larger building than in the initial bid (which, Mendelson's report says, the developer was also willing to accept).

This reflects many of the concerns people have raised about a Wizards/Mystics facility at St. Elizabeth's. It actually doesn't seem like such a bad idea to put a sports complex here if that's the best way to jump-start development in the area. DC was already going to spend money on St. Elizabeth's, and the rest of the money will come from the sports and convention authority, which only will use its money for things that promote sports and conventions.

The bigger question, and one the Post editorial board focused on, is whether the deal really adds up. A wealthy sports team owner is getting something of value, though so is the city, and the debate mainly centers on how much value each party gains.

Was St. Elizabeth's really stalled without this deal? Will it bring the promised benefits? Maybe so. And even if we're unsure, maybe Congress Heights deserves a gamble.

And it's easy to nitpick any deal. Sometimes in a business transaction, you have to give a little more than you want to make it work. Certainly when any homeowner does a renovation, for instance, some things cost a little more than planned. If every homeowner had a city full of people looking over his or her shoulder at every choice of tiles or lighting, it'd be easy to find flaws.

However, in those cases, and when a corporation negotiates a deal, it's not public money. It's easier for an economic development official, with the best of intentions, to give away a little more taxpayer funding when it's the way to ensure a deal goes through. Maybe that's worthwhile, since when it comes to a land development deal, there's also a big cost to adding years more delay while the site is fallow and generating no tax revenue.

One other factor is what would happen with the extra money. Sometimes there are really worthwhile ways to spend it. But sometimes the alternative is a pile of other pork-barrel projects or tax cuts that won't stimulate economic growth. For all the criticism, some deserved and some not, of the price tag of the DC Streetcar, cutting it hasn't led to an equivalent pile of money ready for a different transportation project that critics liked better.

There's a balance, and residents understandably would like to have confidence that the city is negotiating a good deal while also needing to have a little patience that every deal can't be perfect.

These 5 recent events are why more people are talking about affordable housing

The challenge of creating housing that's affordable is nothing new, as Wonkblog urban policy reporter Emily Badger wrote last week. But it's at the front of public discourse for the first time in recent memory. Five key recent events, Badger says, are the reason why.

Photo by Tim Evanson on Flickr.

Badger's thoughts kicked off a forum on housing affordability and social mobility at the National Building Museum, where she moderated a panel of three leading experts on the subject. The forum was organized by the American Planning Association as part of its Policy and Advocacy Conference, which has drawn together city planners from all over the country who are eager to discuss solutions to today's housing problems.

Here's Badger's list of what has recently brought the conversation to the forefront:

1. Ferguson. The unrest following the August 2014 police killing of Michael Brown has people thinking not only about police/community relations, but also about how we design communities. More people are willing to consider, for example, the consequences of poor children not having access to education and opportunity.

Photo by Arash Azizzada on Flickr.

2. Baltimore. The events in Ferguson alone could have come and gone, but as Badger put it, protests following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore showed us that "Ferguson was not unique to Ferguson." The public conversation about a divided, unequal America hasn't so consistently been front page news since the Civil Rights era.

3. Proof that where we live affects our lives. At the beginning of 2014, a team of Harvard researchers launched the Equality of Opportunity Project, which found that the environments children grow up in influence the success they have over the rest of their lives. Having used tax records to look at each county in the country, the project provided "data to wrap your arms around for talking about the idea that place matters," says Badger.

4. A shot in the arm for the Fair Housing Act, Part 1.... In June, the Supreme Court upheld the disparate impact provision of the Fair Housing Act, which says a policy can be found to be discriminatory regardless of whether that was the intent. Disparate impact allows prosecutors to go after forms of discrimination that are harder to detect, like barring people from living somewhere based on socioeconomic class.

Photo by Jeff Kubina on Flickr.

5. ...and Part 2: Affirmatively Furthering. In July, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that any community receiving federal housing funding must spend it in a way that actively works to dismantle segregation. The agency also unveiled a stronger commitment to enforcement.

After the forum wrapped, Badger said another item could probably join her list: the airing of HBO's Show Me a Hero, a show about a fierce battle over public housing in Yonkers, New York that took place in the late 80s and, in many ways, really hasn't ended. We ran a post outlining how DC has had (and is still having) fights similar to those depicted in the show and another on the lessons in urban design that the show highlights, and readers had plenty to say about both.

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