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Public Spaces


This DC park is pretty much the definition of desolate. How can the National Park Service change that?

Though it's only a few blocks south and west from the epicenter of new restaurants and high rise apartments in neighboring Navy Yard, Buzzard Point has largely gone undeveloped. That's going to change soon, including at Buzzard Point Park, where the National Park Service (NPS) is asking the public for its ideas on how to best use the space.


Buzzard Point today. This is the Pepco station, but there isn't much more going on at the park. Photo by David Meni.

Buzzard Point is the area south of Q Street SW, east of Fort McNair, and west of South Capitol Street. Though it had a few residents in DC's early history, it was almost always a dumping ground for things that needed to be out of the way—like disposing of dead horses in the 19th century. A Pepco power plant went up there in 1933 (and was in use until 2012), and in 1940, the area had a population of only 34 people.

Buzzard Point right now is still staggeringly empty. There's the shutdown plant, the Coast Guard's abandoned headquarters, and a Pepco substation. While demolition is underway to make room for the new 20,000 seat DC United Stadium, it's currently just empty lots and piles of dirt.


Image from Google Maps.

Coming soon: A new Buzzard Point

Along with the DC United Stadium, there's a master plan for Buzzard Point Park that includes tons of mixed use development, a new Frederick Douglass Bridge, and a new plaza at the end of a redesigned South Capitol Street.

One key to all these plans is a makeover for for Buzzard Point Park, where just south of the powerplant, the green space nestled against the edge of the Anacostia doesn't have much to offer the community. There was a marina there for 50 years, but it closed last December (on some of Google Maps' images, it's still there because they're from 2009). The docks are gone, with only a parking lot, a small office building, and showers remaining.

Through October, the National Park Service is conducting a visual preference survey to find out how the public wants to use the space. NPS hopes to emphasize the space's unique presence in the city, redeveloping the bankside park into a community resource that respects the ecology of the area.

The survey consists of nearly 50 images that show ways to build a park, and participants are asked to rank each. There's also space for saying what you like or don't like about particular designs.

These are some of the options on the survey:


All images of park possibilities are from the National Park Service.

Rotating food trucks, a DC staple, could be an option.


Bleacher-style seating, like that near the Memorial Bridge, would emphasize views of the Anacostia, which look across to the Bolling Air Force Base training center.


River recreation at the site is another option. As it stands, the Anacostia isn't safe for swimming. But this could certainly draw in visitors when that changes.


At some point, the Anacostia Branch Trail is due to cut through the park. A pedestrian/bike overpass could be an effective way of using vertical space to make a more inclusive park.

A playground seems an obvious choice for any new park—there aren't any in Buzzard Point yet.

The old marina served about 60 boats, and perhaps the new park could serve boats as well.


A skating rink, like a handful of others in the list, are reminiscent of amenities that have popped up in Navy Yard over the past few years. Nearby neighborhoods are almost sure to be inspirations.

A ferry that took people across the river, to Anacostia Park, could be an option.

Politics


What do you want to ask the candidates for your neighborhood council?

In a year where we have a lot of questions we'd like to ask politicians on the national stage, we should also take time to focus closer to home. DC voters will elect hundreds of Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in November, and we want to make sure you get a chance to ask them about what matters to you.


Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners (ANCs) are unique, hyper-local elected officials (they represent about 2,000 voters each) that can make significant impacts on the development and landscape of your neighborhood. These positions are non-partisan, meaning there is no primary and the November 8th general election is the only chance you get a chance to vote for these candidates.

Many residents in DC don't even know these officials exist. I remember the first time I voted in DC; on my way to the voting site I was stopped by a nice man with a firm handshake who asked me where I lived. When I told him, he said "Great! You live in my district, and you should vote for me for your ANC commissioner!" Sure enough, his name was on my ballot, and I'll admit it: His handshake won my vote.

Now that I know a little more about how important these leaders can be, I don't recommend the handshake-vetting process. But because of the relative low-profile of these elections, finding out more about the candidates before election day can be a challenge.

We'd like to try and fix that

Greater Greater Washington is in the process of creating a questionnaire that we will send to ANC candidates across the city. After collecting and organizing candidate responses, we will publish our opinions and each candidate's words on the site in a way that you can easily find the information you need to make informed choices about your local ANC race.

We'd like your help in crafting questions for this questionnaire. Please fill out the form below with questions you would like ANC candidates to answer publicly. We'll sort through your suggestions to help us finalize the questionnaire we distribute in September.

Because these elections are so local, we're looking for questions relevant specifically to your neighborhood or ANC, or they could apply over a wider range like much of your ward, or even the whole city.

What do you wish you had answers to?

Why doesn't this area have more grocery stores? A dog park? What should be done about that terrible intersection? Here's your chance to ask the people who might represent you on these issues.

Not sure which ANC or district you're in? Find out with this tool!

Development


DC's affordable housing fund isn't doing enough for low-income residents, an audit says

The District's Housing Production Trust Fund is a program run by the city to fund and build affordable housing, which helps some of DC's poorest families live in one of the country's most expensive housing markets. A recent audit, however, says that too little money is going to the lowest-income residents.


Photo by Kamesg on Flickr.

Every year, the District Department of Housing and Community Development puts all of the trust fund's money into a big pot, along with other federal and local funds earmarked for affordable housing. Then it puts out requests for proposals (RFP) to build housing using the money that detail exactly how it must be spent. Non-profit and for-profit groups alike apply for and get money from the fund.

According to DCHD, almost a billion dollars has gone into the fund since 2001, leading to the construction or renovation of almost 10,000 units dedicated to housing families whose incomes can be far below average.

The city's Office of the District of Columbia Auditor recently took a look at how HPTF money has been used since it was created, and how DCHD has accounted for that spending. The report says that while a lot of money has been spent to build or renovate housing units, far less money than what is required has gone toward housing for people who can afford the least.

Far more money was supposed to go toward housing for people who earn the least

By law, at least 80% of the fund has to be spent on helping finance construction for housing that's for households earning less than half of the Area Median Income (AMI). AMI is a tool used nationwide to decide how much a family needs to make to meet requirements for subsidized housing in a given area. The AMI for a family of four in Washington in 2016 is $108,200 a year.

Within that 80% requirement, half of money spent has to go towards housing for households making less than 30% AMI (i.e. a family in Washington that only makes 30% of $108,200 in a year, or around $32,000 for a family of four) while the other half focuses on households between 31 and 50% AMI.

But in 2014 and 2015, the fund simply hasn't spent all that much on that subcategory of housing. In 2014, only 32% of the fund actually went to housing households earning 50% AMI. 2015 was a bit better at 49%, but still far below the 80% requirement.


Table from the DC Auditor.

DHCD is working to fix the problem

According the audit, DCHD has a lot of work to do to catch up and meet its goals. The report recommends that DCHD and the advisory board make up for lost time by focusing only on housing families that earn less than 50% AMI for the foreseeable future.

"DHCD should consider compensating for the loss of investment in units for households earning 0-50 percent AMI during FY 2014 and FY 2015 by focusing all available funds on those two income categories for the near future," write the auditors.

In a section of the reports for comments from DCHD, the agency says that it has already started on a plan to get things back on track, and to ensure that the right amount of money goes toward those groups: "Beginning in fiscal year 2015, [DHCD] began issuing targeted requests for proposals utilizing the Housing Production Trust Fund with a requirement that the agency will only fund new construction projects targeting households with incomes of 50% of area median income and below."

To make sure the lowest-income families keep getting the funding they need, DCHD and the Production Fund will have to keep better track of their spending and reporting to the city's oversight agencies. The audit also revealed that several key reports that are due quarterly are simply missing, and that a lot of the fund's activities were classified under a general "other" category. That makes it hard for city auditors to suss out what money goes where.

The Housing Production Trust Fund is an important tool for the city to keep some of its housing affordable for individuals and families struggling with high housing costs in Washington. And after nearly being cut away to nothing in 2012, the fund saw a big infusion of nearly $100 million dollars during last year's budget process.

But all the money in the world doesn't matter if it doesn't get to the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. So now its up to the city's workers and elected officials to work together to fulfill the Housing Production Trust Fund's promise.

Development


Can anyone build affordable housing without public money?

The US has less affordable housing than it needs, and that's because of a fundamental problem: the cost of building and operating affordable units adds up to more than what those units bring in in rent. The Urban Institute launched a tool that illustrates this problem first-hand.

The tool, which uses housing data from the Denver area, summarizes the affordable housing problem while explaining the associated layers and technical terms in an intuitive, easy-to-understand manner. At the bottom right, you see a theoretical development whose cost changes based on the variables you, the theoretical developer, are facing.

The unsustainable math behind developing affordable housing

There are many costs that go into building affordable housing units. In developer speak, these costs are referred to as "uses." Uses include the cost of purchasing the land itself, the cost of construction, and future operating expenses (such as hiring and paying building staff), among other things.

How do developers cover these costs? The uses are funded through various sources such as debt (taking out a loan) and tax credits. However, there are limiting factors when it comes to both of these.

When developers go to take out a loan, the amount they get and the interest they pay is determined based on projections for how much revenue a building's rent will generate. But it can be tough to predict whether or not a building could wind up being vacant, or for how long. Obviously, if nobody is paying rent on a building a loan helped build, the lender is not going to be happy.

Tax credits can also help developers. There are variables involved in determining the amount of tax credit a builder is eligible for, such as the cost of land and rent prices. Even if a developer is eligible to receive tax credits, there's no guarantee they'll actually receive them because the funds are limited at the national, state, and local level.

Closing the gap

To close the gap between the cost of developing affordable housing and the revenue it generates, why don't developers just apply for bigger loans, increase the amount of units in a building (generating higher rental revenue as a result), or charge more for rent?

As described above, lenders determine the loan amount based on projected revenue, and for affordable housing, that revenue is low by its very nature. Building more unites would also means needing to make sure more unites are filled, and charging more for rent defeats the entire purpose of affordable housing to begin with.

The bottom line is that subsidies are the only way to close the gap between cost and revenue; they're the only way to build enough affordable housing. Such subsidies can come in varying forms, such as vouchers, more tax credits, and grants.

Emily Badger at the Washington Post sums it up pretty well:

To the extent that government should step in when the private market can't, affordable housing is a prime example. The larger problem, though, is that we hardly devote the kind of public resources to this market failure that it demands.
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