Greater Greater Washington

Posts in category Smart Growth

Learn important concepts in designing buildings from an HBO series

HBO's miniseries Show Me a Hero depicts a fight over affordable housing in Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. It raises many important issues about race relations and the reality of politics. It also teaches us something about architecture and how the design of buildings affects crime.


Public housing in New Orleans. Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

Episodes 3 and 4 aired Sunday night. In one scene, Oscar Newman, the architect of the new housing, argues vehemently that it's important to build townhouses, each with its own entrance to the street, instead of two-unit buildings with common stairs. This is because, he says, people will defend and keep up their own private space, while a common space will more easily fall into disrepair and provide a haven for drug dealing.

He calls this "defensible space," a term the real Oscar Newman coined and used as the title of his most famous book.

Newman also argues that to avoid the same problems that plague the city's existing housing projects, it's also important to spread the housing out to several smaller sites rather than a few big ones. This will mean public housing near more voters' homes, but it avoids concentrating poverty in one place, which often leads to crime.

In the scene, Judge Sand and NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman are initially dismissive of Newman's concerns. They think that just getting the housing established is enough of a victory. They don't want to do anything to increase the cost, which could add new obstacles. But Newman prevails.


Peter Riegert as Oscar Newman. Image from HBO.

How "defensible space" works

A front porch that leads directly from the sidewalk to a home is "defensible" in that people know that it is "their" porch. A shared hallway or courtyard doesn't breed that same feeling of ownership and people are less likely to confront a problem in that space.

Writer David Simon illustrates defensible space is throughout the series. One of the earliest scenes in the first episode shows Carmen, a public housing resident, taking her kids to their apartment up the stairs instead of the elevator despite having an arm full of groceries because drug dealers had taken over the communal elevator.

Mary Dorman, a strident opponent of the housing integration plan, says that she works very hard to take care of her home and her street and that is why she opposes the new housing. She is then left awkwardly scrambling after a news reporter asks here why she doesn't think that any new residents won't do the same.

Meanwhile, Nick Wasicsko stands on the porch of a house he wants to buy. He revels in a view of Manhattan that is about to be "his" view that he feels he has worked hard for. The show is saying that even if the problems can seem obvious, the causes and their solutions often are not.


Co-op housing in Shaw, DC. Photo by Marie In Shaw on Flickr.

It matters if buildings face the street

Those of us who learned a lot about planning from Jane Jacobs are familiar with the concept of "eyes on the street," where people actually coming and going from the street itself make a place safer. This wasn't always a well-known concept, and Newman was instrumental here as well.

In the show, Newman argues that buildings which directly access the street, rather than facing parking lots or courtyards, will give people ownership of all of the space from the building to the street and eliminate any space for drug dealing.

This very issue affected low-income housing across the nation, including in Sursum Corda, a public housing cooperative where most units faced inward instead of out to the street. The shared space became a haven for crime and prompted efforts to redevelop the complex.

Other public housing has been built to blend in with the fabric of the neighborhood, with front doors that face the street and personal spaces for residents to care for. Capitol Crossing in Navy Yard and the mix of public housing near the Southwest Waterfront are good examples of better ways to provide inclusive housing.

Defensible Space isn't the solution to every crime, but is an important tool for many planners and architects looking to create valuable and cherished places.

The final two episodes air this Sunday on HBO.

The lion's share of DC's new housing is only going in one part of the city

Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.

Capitol Riverfront cranes
New high-rises under construction in the Capitol Riverfront. Photo by the author.

Besides forecasting how much growth the city would need to accommodate, the comp plan also identified where new residents would go. The plan included estimates of how many new households would settle across its 10 planning districts (policy 215.20), the conclusion being that every part of the city would gain new households and thus need to add new units.

The allocations ranged from a 6.8% increase in households in the "Rock Creek West" area, west of the park and above Georgetown, to a 116% increase along the Anacostia waterfront.


Graphic by Peter Dovak.

One part of town is building far more than its share

The comp plan identified a then-emerging trend towards living in the central city, and assumed that a substantial share of the District's future population growth would occur in and around downtown. Its policy 304 states that "approximately 30 percent of the District of Columbia's future housing growth and 70 percent of its job growth will occur within the urban core of the city and adjacent close-in areas along the Anacostia River."

But in the decade since, DC has been too successful at steering development toward downtown.

Instead of 30% of DC's housing growth, the "Central Washington" and adjacent "Lower Anacostia Waterfront/Near Southwest" planning districts are seeing the lion's share of both new housing and new jobs. According to counts provided by economic development officials and local business improvement districts, two-thirds of the building permits issued for new housing in the entire District have been for this central area.

The waterfront planning area, which includes the Capitol Riverfront (Navy Yard) and Southwest Waterfront, along with Poplar Point on the east side of the Anacostia River, was assigned the highest housing-growth target in the comp plan. It would receive 9,400 additional households by 2025, or 1/6 of the entire city's housing growth—a goal it's on track to substantially exceed. As of 2016, the waterfront area will have already met 73% of its 2005-2025 housing goal, compared to 46% for the entire District.

The Capitol Riverfront area alone accounted for nearly half of the new housing permitted in DC last year. There, 4,874 units were built or under construction as of last year, and another 1,249 units broke ground in just the first few months of 2015. Another 1,407 units will be under construction in Southwest Waterfront at the end of this year, and nearly 2,000 additional units have already been planned.


DC's two central planning districts. Image by the author.

Many thousands more units will be built before 2025; a total of 11,978 units have been proposed so far just in Capitol Riverfront. Plans have yet to emerge for large sites like Greenleaf Gardens, Buzzard Point, and Poplar Point.

Meanwhile, the Central Washington planning area—which encompasses the swath from the Capitol to the Kennedy Center, between Massachusetts Avenue and I-395—has almost met its 8,400-unit goal. Just two of its neighborhoods, Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa, have added 7,300 units in the past decade. Together with 674 units at CityCenterDC, that means the area has built 95% of its projected new units, in half the time.

As with the waterfront, there's more to come: redevelopments at Northwest One like Sursum Corda, residential conversions of existing office buildings, the Southwest EcoDistrict and nearby sites like the Portals, and a few more infill parcels

Central city housing growth has a lot of advantages, as the comp plan points out: "Absorbing the demand for higher density units within these areas is an effective way to meet housing demands, create mixed-use areas, and conserve single-family residential neighborhoods throughout the city."

Yet this one strategy was always meant to be one way to meet housing demands, not the only strategy. The District's other policies to "conserve single-family residential neighborhoods" are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections.

New road designs make Tysons more inviting for people on bike and foot

A street in Tysons just underwent some big changes, swapping driving lanes for bike lanes. The new design will make it easier to get around the area by bike and on foot.


Greensboro Drive's lane designs, before and after. Image from Fairfax County.

The stretch of Greensboro Drive from Spring Hill Road to Pinnacle Drive went on a road diet that cut its four lanes down to two. A center turn lane also went in, along with bike lanes in both directions.

The changes are the first of Fairfax's Proposed Street Design Update, which VDOT rolled out last March. Similar changes are coming to Tyco Road and Westbranch Drive.


The new Greensboro Drive. Photo by the author.

Greensboro road feeds an employment hub that's home to companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Cvent, and SAIC.

The new turn lane should lessen traffic backups since cars used to get stuck behind people waiting to turn left off of Greensboro. And the bike lanes should also make it easier to reach the new Silver Line Metro stations. Already, I've seen an increase of people walking to and from both the Greensboro and Spring Hill stations.


Greensboro Drive prior to the changes. Base image from Google Maps.

For the time being, Greensboro Drive between Pinnacle and International Drive, closer to the Tysons Galleria mall, is still four lanes wide. But it's good to see the beginnings of a thoughtful, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design emerging in Fairfax County's redevelopment of Tysons.


One of Greensboro Drive's new bike lanes. Photo by the author.

Opposition to housing in HBO's "Show Me a Hero" sounds eerily familiar

In the second episode of the miniseries Show Me a Hero, which premiered on HBO last Sunday, angry crowds—all white—protest at a Yonkers, NY city council meeting discussing a plan to put a measly 200 low-income households in the more affluent parts of the city. Many people watching surely believe that they wouldn't be throwing diapers at the council if they had been in Yonkers in 1987. I'm not so sure.


Yonkers residents protesting public and affordable housing at a city council meeting. Images from HBO unless otherwise noted.

DC may be close to half white and half black, but many neighborhoods are far from diverse, racially or in income level. West of Rock Creek Park and east of the Anacostia River are worlds apart, as much as Show Me a Hero's depictions of Yonkers east and west of the Saw Mill River Parkway.

DC hasn't taken very serious steps to change this reality in the last decade, but even those to move 1% of the way have been met with more than 1% of the anger and opposition we can see in Show Me a Hero.

In the series (and in real-life history) a federal judge found that Yonkers had violated civil rights laws and the Constitution by concentrating all of the low-income housing into a small area of the city. The judge ordered Yonkers to build 200 units of public housing and 800 of affordable housing in sites elsewhere. The council (all white) fought against the ruling to the bitter end.


Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko is faced with a council where no member wants new public housing in his district.

The first two episodes of the miniseries, by The Wire creator David Simon, show council resistance as the judge progressively threatens officials with contempt charges and fines. They also depict the intensity of public opposition to the idea of anyone who makes less money than they do living in their neighborhoods. "It's not a black and white issue," one says, unpersuasively to much of the series' 2015 audience.

Meanwhile, in DC in the 2010s, what affordable housing gets built mostly goes east of the Anacostia into the District's two poorest wards. Residents there keep pointing out the unfairness of adding even more subsidized housing in areas with high unemployment and relatively few retail or transportation options, but it continues. The Gray Administration even approved a proposal to build on public land in the Mount Vernon Triangle but locate required affordable housing units in Anacostia.


The concentrations of white (left) and black (right) residents in Yonkers in 1980. The darker the green, the higher the percentage. Image from Social Explorer via Uncovering Yonkers.

In DC's richest ward, new housing inevitably means a fight

There hasn't been any push to build affordable housing west of Rock Creek, but there have been a few efforts to build some higher-income housing that wasn't the detached single houses on large lots that predominate. Apartments on the site of the old Wisconsin Avenue Giant, the development now called Cathedral Commons, drew battles and lawsuits for well over a decade.

The DC Zoning Update proposed allowing homeowners with basements or carriage houses to rent them out instead of prohibiting the practice outright, as is the law today. That plan is still slowly grinding its way through the approval process after getting watered down significantly amid endless delays over more than seven years now.

And a 2003-2004 plan to allow denser development along Wisconsin Avenue near the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights Metro stations provoked a massive backlash. At the tail end, opponents attacked Ellen McCarthy, the planning director at the time, and successfully pushed for her ouster.

None of these efforts would have created much if any exclusively low-income housing. Some people, like Councilmember Vincent Orange, therefore argue wrongly that opposing new housing has no impact on low-income residents at all. But if it's so controversial to allow more market-rate housing in an already expensive area, where units might just go to some young singles and couples or retirees, imagine the firestorm if the same housing would have actual poor people. You don't have to imagine it; you can watch Show Me a Hero.

The specter of different people raises alarm

In the show's second episode, Mary Dorman (Catherine Keener) hears on the news about the increasing chance of some low-income housing coming to her neighborhood and says, about the people who would live in low-income units, "they don't live the way we do. They don't want what we want."

In the 21st century and outside the crispness of a scripted television show, people don't quite say that, but some messages on the Chevy Chase listserv about the carriage house proposals came close. One person wrote, "I'm especially concerned about [these units], and sympathized with the parent who expressed concern for his young childrens' safety if no controls were instituted on who could occupy such units."

And these would have been units where an existing Chevy Chase homeowner hand-selected the person to rent to, not ones awarded through a housing lottery. What would this writer and the others who expressed similar sentiments done if the plan had actually been to desegregate the Chevy Chase neighborhood?


Carmen Febles (Ilfenesh Hadera) is a single mother and public housing resident struggling to afford life in Yonkers.

This year, the US Supreme Court upheld a strong interpretation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act in a Texas case that has a lot of similarities to the Yonkers one, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development issued stricter rules to push cities to do more against housing segregation.

With the memorable and viral phrase "Liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets," Kriston Capps argued in Citylab that many liberals' professed views won't stand up to the reality of actually getting affordable housing near them. Capps notes how a Republican county executive was elected in Westchester County (which includes Yonkers) after his Democratic predecessor approved new affordable housing across the county.

Lisa Belkin, author of the book on which the miniseries is based, wrote in the New York Times that "[s]upporters of desegregation won the Yonkers battle—but the high cost of victory lost them the war. Few in this country had the will to risk another divisive, ugly municipal bruising any time soon."

Many officials in DC and elsewhere might look at the miniseries, the real-life experiences in Westchester and DC and everywhere else, and conclude that residential segregation is something best ignored. That's certainly what the councilmembers in Show Me a Hero wanted to do. But as David Simon illustrates with cuts between the council hearings and scenes of the real lives of the affected low-income people, the human cost of inaction is very high.

A NoMa cooperative hopes to redevelop mixed-income housing more successfully than DC's past attempts

A 1968 experiment in cooperative low-income housing near DC's NoMa neighborhood will soon be the site of a large redevelopment project. The owners plan to add new apartments and retail while preserving places to live for current residents of the community.


Images from the zoning filing.

Sursum Corda (Latin for "lift up your hearts") lies along First Street NW between L and M streets. It was built by religious organizations using a federal Housing and Urban Development loan to provide homeownership opportunities for low-income residents. A series of townhouses surrounded a U-shaped road.

This inward focus, the designers hoped, would create a sense of community, but as urban disinvestment set in and crime rates rose amid the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the layout attracted drugs and gangs. A high-profile shooting in 2004 in the nearby Temple Courts apartments jump-started discussions about redeveloping the complex.


Sursum Corda in 2014. Photo by David on Flickr.

The current buildings contain 199 housing units; when complete, both phases of the proposed new project will have 1,142 units. There will still be 199 units set aside for lower-income residents, 143 of whom are current residents.

What's in the project

The 6.7-acre project will happen in two phases, the first on the L Street side and then a second phase to the north. The land is about 25 feet lower on the south side, and the buildings will also be shorter to match the existing church and smaller apartment buildings on that side.

The new buildings will include ground-floor retail on M Street and some small spaces that might become retail on L. The project will also renovate public park at the corner of First and L. The zoning filings do not yet specify how many bedrooms there will be in the various units.

Pierce Street to the west of this block will extend through the new project dividing the complex east-west, and a pedestrian walkway in the middle will run north-south. First Place, which is currently one leg of the U-shaped interior road, will extend all the way to L, while the other two legs of the U will disappear.

The architecture (such as we can see so far from the very rough early renderings) is modern, with a variety of angles, but otherwise adapts the fairly traditional style of U-shaped or donut-shaped apartment buildings surrounding courtyards.

Plans call for 848 parking spaces, 341 in the first phase and 507 in the second, which is probably an unnecessary amount of parking for apartments so close to downtown and the Metro. The zoning only requires 286 spaces. The proposal includes 453 bicycle parking spaces versus the required 382.

You can see all of the zoning filings by going here and searching for case 15-20.

DC's track record for redeveloping low-income housing is spotty

This project will be the latest in a string of redevelopments of public housing. The US approach to low-income housing in much of the mid-twentieth century was through large-scale "projects" that concentrated low-income residents in complexes, usually not mixed-use, often fenced in a way that cut the complex off from the general public space of the city. Local housing authorities often also did not maintain this housing very well, and with decades having passed, a lot of it is in bad shape.

Lower-density complexes like Sursum Corda now represent an opportunity, as the market could support many more units of housing in the same space. Therefore, at least in theory, one could redevelop the site to replace decaying housing with new housing. New market-rate housing could fund the project but still keep all of the low-income units and let current residents move back.

In practice, sometimes it hasn't gone so well. At Temple Courts, a DC Housing Authority project on North Capitol between K and L streets NW, the city tore down the old apartments, displacing current residents, but then ran into mismanagement-related delays and federal obstacles that left the site a parking lot instead of the new apartments that were promised.

Many residents did eventually get new apartments in the nearby 2 M Street NE apartment building, but groundwater problems delayed 2 M's construction. Elsewhere, most residents have never been able to return, or had to move far away long enough that returning didn't make sense.


View looking south at the large parking lot which replaced Temple Courts Apartments. Sursum Corda is in the foreground.

This is far from the only case where the reality hasn't lived up to promises. Will Sursum Corda, just one block north of Temple Courts, be different?

There's reason for hope. Sursum Corda is a cooperative, not publicly-owned housing rental housing which the city then purchased, like Temple Courts. The owners at Sursum Corda negotiated with the developer, Winn Development Company. The co-op association and Winn are co-proposers of the plan before the zoning board. We don't know all the details of the co-op's negotiations, but they should have been able to ensure a good plan for what residents will do during construction.

The co-op model seems to be a good one for situations like this. It gives owners some control over what happens. At the same time, since the association can decide to pursue redevelopment with a 2/3 majority, it also makes change possible, unlike in a condominium. At the Frontiers condos at 14th and S, any redevelopment required unanimous consent from every owner, a few of whom turned down $681,000-810,000 per house to hold out for an even bigger jackpot and ended up with no project at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, Temple Courts residents unsuccessfully fought Fenty administration plans to displace them before construction was ready to begin. Residents of Barry Farm, near the Anacostia Metro, are now worried about a similar fate as talks progress for redeveloping their community.

What's next?

This is a "first stage Planned Unit Development," which means DC's Zoning Commission will review it and hold public hearings. A further second stage will get into more details on the buildings' architecture, like the materials they will use.

The site is currently zoned R-4, which is the zoning for 2- and 3-story townhouses. The cooperative is asking for it to be rezoned to C-3-C, a high-density commercial zone.

Area residents and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners will also have an opportunity to discuss what amenities the developer should provide; a PUD allows flexibility in zoning in exchange for some amenities; redeveloping the park is one of those in this proposal. Other common amenities for similar projects include Capital Bikeshare stations.

Correction: The initial version of this post incorrectly stated that Temple Courts was a DC Housing Authority property. For most of its existence it was a privately-owned complex under a contract with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The District government provided funding to DCHA affiliate Temple Courts Redevelopment to purchase the complex when the owner, Bush Companies, wanted to convert it to market-rate housing. DCHA and subsidiaries then carried out the actual work of demolition and relocation.

What is affordable housing? Is it different from housing affordability? Should we care?

Read the comments on almost any of our posts that talk about "affordable housing" and you're likely to get a headache trying to figure out what different people mean by those two little words.


Confused people from Shutterstock.

We asked our contributors what policies and problems come to mind when they think of "affordable housing." We also asked about policies they support or don't support, and why.

They had a LOT to say.

Tracy Loh says that we're not the only ones baffled by this:

This topic came up on my neighborhood listserv recently, and several people on the listserv conflated "affordable housing" with "government-subsidized non-market housing."
To me, there is a circle called "affordable housing," which is housing that can be rented or mortgaged for 30% of the median household income in an area, and contained within that circle is a smaller circle, "subsidized housing," which governments may choose to do for a variety of reasons. But the "affordable housing" circle is much, much bigger than just the "subsidized housing" circle, and includes a huge variety of policies, issues, and people that are not within the "subsidized housing" circle.
Brian McEntree agrees that the term is rhetorically problematic:
Sometimes I wonder how much better discussions around the topic would go if instead of using 'affordable housing,' urbanists talked about 'housing affordability.' I think that way it's clearer that we're talking about the price of housing in a given area and not idea of any particular kind of affordable housing (government subsidized, etc.)
Canaan Merchant also sees a dichotomy between government policies and the market prices most people face, but explained it differently:
I think it's important to note case: Affordable Housing and affordable housing. The former are specific programs that help people live somewhere they wouldn't be able to on their own. The region has come a long way and has a long way to go with its Affordable Housing.

But then there is simply the prices any person may need to pay and whether they can afford them.

The great part is that the two concepts can go hand in hand, and by and large that's what many local governments are doing. There doesn't need to be a disconnect in what people are talking about because we can move on multiple fronts. No one solution is going to work anyway.

Ben Ross chimed in too, not only to agree on the problems with semantics, but to point to why it's important to get it all straight when we're communicating:
We need to emphasize housing affordability as a need for all income levels below the very top. Thinking of affordable housing as something that must be targeted to just the poor is an enormous mistake, both for planning and politics.

From the planning perspective, we want cities to be places for all income levels, not just the very rich and very poor.

Politically, affordable housing as something just for the poor just won't be built. No one will accept it in their own neighborhood. Housing (and urbanism!) will only be politically successful if it's for the majority. You can see this in the political success of social security and the political unpopularity of welfare.

Brent Bolin put a point on Ben's perspective, with a real-world example:
How this is discussed really matters. Section 8 is not inclusionary zoning is not workforce housing is not affordable housing. For too many people, anything not market rate = Section 8 AKA "poor people moving to my neighborhood and my property values going down."

A few years ago Mount Rainier issued a request for proposals to redevelop the city-owned property at the corner of Eastern and Rhode Island Avenues. An extremely reputable non-profit developer proposed a LEED Gold residential building that would have used a variety of tax credit strategies and targeted something like 70-80% of the AMI. In other words, housing for teachers, non-profit workers, young professionals...the kind of people needed in every community but who are struggling to get into ownership in the DC metro area. The developer kept calling it workforce housing (despite my warning them not to) and a lot of supposedly progressive people went BANANAS. The city does have over a thousand units of post-war apartment units, but despite popular perception those are not really a "low income" population anymore either.

For the last 40ish years, Mount Rainier has been a diverse, working class, socially progressive, and artistic community (i.e.: mostly people who aren't rich). We are a tiny piece of the larger DC metro area real estate market, but we are starting to feel the pressure and the population mix of our recent history is starting to change. People in town are talking about "housing affordability" and who is getting priced out, but misunderstanding of this issue makes it very difficult to tackle. (Not that our tiny town could make much of a dent given the broader market, but still.)

Finally, Elina Braave summed up just how much more our contributors had to say on this:
I think what I'm hearing echoing throughout these comments is that there are a a few key challenges to developing affordable housing across the spectrum of incomes (moderate, low, extremely low), including
the negative stigma/public perception of affordable housing and the high cost of construction/land. I think another issue not-mentioned overtly is the shrinking pot of resources at the federal level (for the programs that support the lowest income renters in particular).
Clearly, as Greater Greater Washington takes on more affordable housing issues in the coming months, we've got plenty to talk about.

What does "affordable housing" mean to you, and what are your opinions on it? Can we all agree that "affordable housing" encompasses both "government-subsidized non-market housing," and "housing affordability" in the wider market? Sound off in the comments!

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