Greater Greater Washington


Affordable housing clashes with the suburban mindset in Wheaton/Kensington

The interaction of supply and demand is one of the most fundamental relationships governing prices in any kind of market. Housing prices in Montgomery County, and the Washington region as a whole, remain unaffordable for many middle-income workers.

Blueridge Ave. townhouses in Wheaton. Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

One major reason is the simple fact that the supply of housing has not kept up with job creation and housing demand during the past two decades. That is a long time. That's a lot of unmet latent demand.

Adding more housing units will satisfy some of this latent demand, making housing less scarce, and pushing prices towards affordability.

In November, the Montgomery County Planning Board voted against approving 36 new townhouses adjacent to the Westfield Wheaton mall, a 10 minute walk from the Metro. The Planning Board sided with the neighboring Kensington Heights Citizens' Association, which vehemently fought the proposal.

They argued that it was "'incompatible' with the neighborhood." The association's president, Donna Savage, told the Gazette that "the opposition comes as much out of principle as out of concerns about traffic increases and neighborhood preservation."

What 'principle' is that? Savage was talking about the 1990 Wheaton Sector Plan, which calls for low density commercial development at this spot. However, the current Sector Plan is about to expire, and Wheaton has become more urban in 18 years.

Plus, other areas at the edge of Wheaton's CBD have similar townhouses. Is this fight really about the "principle" of sticking to obsolete zoning rules for Wheaton for just another year or two until we get a new plan? I doubt it. According to the Gazette article:

The citizens group also submitted a proposal to the county in September 2007 to have the property considered for the Legacy Open Space Program, but that request was denied.
I think this last quote says all that needs to be said about "principles." The Citizens' Association wants no new development in an urban place. No increase in housing supply. No incremental drop in housing costs.

I'm sure the Citizens' Association isn't deliberately trying to keep housing expensive. But that's an unintended consequence of imposing outdated suburban sensibilities on a community (Wheaton) that is increasingly vibrant, transit-rich, walkable, and urban.

Mehring was asking for RT-10 zoning, or 10 units per acre. The RT-10 zone requires Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDUs), which are reserved for qualified buyers at below-market prices. If the developer is forced to develop fewer units under the RT-6 zone (6 units per acre), as proposed by the Kensington Heights Citizens' Association, Wheaton will get zero MPDUs.

Besides adding needed market priced units and MPDUs to the county's housing stock, this project would indeed fit with the 1990 Sector Plan. Elsewhere in Wheaton, the plan places townhouses as a transition between the commercial CBD and the areas of single-family houses.

There are already townhouses on Grandview Avenue, across from the firehouse at the edge of the CBD just north of the Metro Station. There's another townhouse community on University Boulevard east of Georgia Avenue, between the Metro and the Wheaton Woods neighborhood of single-family houses. Finally, there's a large townhouse community currently under construction on the old Good Council High School site, north of the Metro on Georgia Avenue.

This site, an open 3-acre lot on University Boulevard, is a transit-rich area. Both the L7 Metrobus and the 34 RideOn routes serve University, with the 34 running all day long, seven days a week, between Wheaton and Friendship Heights via the Medical Center and Bethesda Metro stations.

Most importantly, the project site is approximately a ten minute walk from the Wheaton Metro. It is hard to find another empty site in our region that enjoys such great transit. Letting such an opportunity go to waste violates the Smart Growth policies of Montgomery County and the State of Maryland.

The proposal would have created 36 townhouses of residents who could have conveniently walked to local businesses in Wheaton, supporting Wheaton's ongoing revitalization with their hard-earned dollars. Each trip on foot would have meant less air pollution, less global warming, less dependence on foreign oil, and less traffic on the roads.

As time goes on, and gasoline prices resume their stratospheric climb, running errands without using the car will become increasingly attractive. Being free of rising gasoline prices, and all associated automotive costs, would have made the housing even more affordable.

Housing values in transit-oriented parts of the region, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, have retained their value, despite the popping of the real estate bubble, which led to the overall sluggish housing sector. Thanks to the walkable urban form of Wheaton and its current revitalizing trajectory, these new townhouses would have enjoyed similarly stable values, like those in Silver Spring, Bethesda, Arlington along the Orange Line, Logan Circle, Dupont, and elsewhere.

The developer has resubmitted a new proposal for 27 townhouses. Despite the lower profits of 27 townhouses instead of 36, they still have a business to run and would rather earn less profit than none at all or wait years for a new Sector Plan that may well allow 36. They don't believe they can even break even with just the 18 units allowed under the current RT-6 zoning.

Affordable housing, transit access, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and vibrant walkable communities, are not going appear by magic. Instead, we'll get there through small decision after small decision adding up to something much larger. The Planning Board should take an important step toward these goals by approving the proposal (or, better yet, the original one) and getting more housing, including affordable housing, for Wheaton.

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Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master's in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place's form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. 


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as much as i believe that affordable housing, transit access, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and vibrant walkable communities are desirable things, i also have sympathy for those who bought in the neighborhood specifically because of its suburban character, and don't want to see higher density housing. while it's hard to stop (or even see, sometimes) incremental change, a sudden increase of 36 new housing units is understandably raising red flags - particularly if townhouse communities are sprouting up all over the area as described.

by jenny on Dec 1, 2008 9:17 am • linkreport

If the people bought into Wheaton in the last 20 years or so, they should have at least an idea that metro stops gather more density. I think even townhouses seems a little light, but we won't go down that trail. Maybe the county ought to make a big public education push to make people aware of the smart growth policies they are inching towards so people won't be blindsided. The more townhouses and apartments go up around transit the more farm land we will save for when it becomes economically viable to grow food next to your population centers. Do I hear growth boundries?

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2008 9:28 am • linkreport

>sympathy for those who bought in the neighborhood specifically because of its suburban character, and don't want to see higher density housing

I have no such sympathy.

1) We're talking about downtown Wheaton here, not a quiet out-of-the-way cul-de-sac. Anyone who expects downtown Wheaton to have a quiet suburban character needs to have their head examined. It hasn't been that way since Wheaton Plaza opened 48 years ago.

2) Retaining quiet suburban neighborhoods as quiet suburban neighborhoods is one of the things targeted smart growth is all about. By increasing density in a place like downtown Wheaton, we can preserve the neighborhoods that are actually quiet. Unless you propose we preserve ALL existing neighborhoods, which is a recipe for endless sprawl, there have to be density receiving areas. If places like downtown Wheaton aren't appropriate, then where are? What's the alternative? If these folks offered one maybe we could take their position more seriously.

3) From a regional perspective, any place that's a 10-minute walk to a Metro station is too valuable to be given over to NIMBY interests. That's called jealous hording.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 9:37 am • linkreport

"I'm sure the Citizens' Association isn't deliberately trying to keep housing expensive."

I'm more skeptical. A lot of NIMBYism is rooted in restricting housing supply so that property owners may drive up the value of their holdings.

by Omari on Dec 1, 2008 10:28 am • linkreport

How many affordable units would have been required with the RT-10 zoning, and what would the maximum income for those units be?

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 10:43 am • linkreport

Here is a link to the county's website. It has a very thorough and technical description of the MPDU program:

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2008 10:49 am • linkreport

Cavan, I have no issues with your posting in general ... except for this statement with which you start it off with:

"One major reason is the simple fact that the supply of housing has not kept up with job creation and housing demand during the past two decades."

Where is this 'simple fact' coming from?

With all the major construction we've experienced over the last 20 years (and more) both within the beltway and as far out as West Virginia, I'd have a hard time buying this 'simple fact'. If anything, as can be evidenced by plummeting house prices out in exurbia and dropping condo prices everywhere, it's more likely that we overbuilt in the area.

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 10:58 am • linkreport

I think many people in this area are concerned about the ever increasing number of Hispanic people living near and or/ congregating near the Weaton metro station. My mother-in-law doesn't feel safe parking and taking metro after dark, and I wonder if others in the Weaton area are fighting this development for similar reasons.

by Tom A. on Dec 1, 2008 11:00 am • linkreport

Lance, the simple fact comes from census counts, census estimates, and MWCOG projections.

The numbers are solid.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 11:11 am • linkreport

BeyondDC, are you saying that census counts and estimates and the MWCOG projections say are population has expanded faster than our housing stock has? Are you saying then that the run up in prices everywhere in the metro area was justified? I'm not disagreeing with you ... or even looking to disagree with you ... Just surprised since I've heard so much about a "bubble" that I guess I was starting to believe some of its claim that housing prices were not justified based on demand. But you are saying they are? So, you think the major drop in places like Prince William County is temporary?

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 11:24 am • linkreport

Lance, my reply to your question is that there was never as much demand for housing in those fringe places in the first place. More was built than what was demanded... in those fringe locations. You know the rest about cheap money and flipping and funny loans. Remember, real estate is all about location. There is a fantastic amount of demand, just within a boundary that allows for a commuting time of approx. one hour, regardless of transportation mode.

I noted this in my post: "Housing values in transit-oriented parts of the region, such as Bethesda and Silver Spring, have retained their value, despite the popping of the real estate bubble, which led to the overall sluggish housing sector"

Prices have actually risen in Bethesda and Silver Spring (the only two I know off the top of my head) by 2-5%, depending on the exact location since the bubble began to show signs of popping in mid 2007. Houses in the exurbs have dropped by roughly 40%.

There was massive overbuilding in the fringe where there was never so much demand to begin with. In the meantime, fewer units were built in transit oriented places than the demand in those locations.

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2008 11:34 am • linkreport

Omari, I have to disagree with you. While I have been known to disagree with neighborhood associations when they oppose development around Metro stations, I don't think their motive is holding up property values. One of the most controversial projects in the history of Montgomery County is the building in Chevy Chase that contains Tiffany's, Barney's, and Jimmy Choo. No one has ever suggested that when Tiffany's moves in, it lowers real estate values.

Nor can I buy Tom's suggestion that this issue is about crime. New townhouses in a neighborhood will not bring crime, they will repel it - and I think most people, even people who in other cases might be wrongly concerned about crime, understand that.

by Ben Ross on Dec 1, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport


Okay ... I think we're in general agreement. Actually, DC house prices are up too.

But as you mention, places outside that 1 hr commute time from DC are falling ... and there is more housing stock out there than demanded. If I follow you then, you're saying "yeah, I know I could buy something nice out there, but I want to be in here! ... and people looking to preserve THEIR way of life are standing in the way of my getting more built here so that I can live here TOO!"

Yeah, you've got a dilema on your hands. The question is, do you have a right to impose change on others so that you can "join in" too? That's a tough one. What you're proposing is essentially to change a place to a point where it won't be recognizable ... so that it can handle more people. But, will these people still want to come to this place once it's been changed? After all, there are already plenty of these townhouses going unsold in places like Prince William County ... Yeah, I know ... but it's further than an hour away ...

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 12:01 pm • linkreport

So, is your hypothesis that neighborhood groups opposed this project because it would include 4 affordable townhouses, and not because it would transform the physical character of their neighborhood.

Also, I am puzzled by your assumption that housing prices have not fallen in the areas stated. Are you basing this on the often quoted median house prices, which are basically meaningless, or have you tracked house sales based on size, location, condition, and found that there has been a decline. I certainly have heard the opposite from people I know who have actually been looking to purchase houses, and have compared prices over time for similar houses in neighborhoods near transit.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 12:13 pm • linkreport

"I'm sure the Citizens' Association isn't deliberately trying to keep housing expensive"

I've always thought the whole point of Neighborhood Associations was keeping property values expensive. I don't imagine they want to see their own property become more affordable.

(I don't know the case of Tiffanys in Chevy Chase, but I assume the neighborhood association perceived any commercial development in the vicinity as a threat to property values)

This is the whole problem with organizing land use based on fragmented and exclusionary organizations.

by Daniel Nairn on Dec 1, 2008 12:40 pm • linkreport

Daniel, You're assuming everything comes down to dollars and cents for everyone. Yes, that is the case for some (at least some of the time), but not all the time for everyone. For example, creating a historic district near a downtown area means giving up the opportunity to sell one's property for the building of high rises (or mid rises in the case of downtown DC). Yet, people do this willingly because for the most part they'd rather retain their neighborhood 'as is' then 'maximize profit' on their piece of property. Long term, their property may indeed rise to reflect the value inherent to being in a lowrise neighborhood close to downtown, but usually not to the extreme that it would if the neighborhood weren't historic and the land could be sold to build higher. Bottom line is that "keeping up property values" isn't alway formost in most people's minds. Keeping a neighborhood and a way of life "as is" can oftentimes outrate the potential of maximizing "profit". I suspect that was the case with Tiffanys' ... and most probably with the Wheaton Mall case.

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 1:19 pm • linkreport

"I'm sure the Citizens' Association isn't deliberately trying to keep housing expensive."

I think they are trying to keep housing expensive, but in a fairly primitive way. They're afraid of anything that might affect property values, if it's not completely obvious that prices will go up, then they're against it. It's the kind of conservatism you get from people who have most of their net worth tied up in an immovable box.

by anonymouse on Dec 1, 2008 1:22 pm • linkreport

Anonymouse, I don't agree with you. I think that for most people their net worth is tied up in themselves ... not in their homes. Their home and the way of life it makes possible for them is what is important to them ... not how much they can sell it for. It sounds like maybe you are looking to buy a house ... and henced focused on 'price'?

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 2:01 pm • linkreport

Lance, the supply and demand problem is an overall one. There are somewhere between about 100,000 and 200,000 too few homes in the region as a whole to account for all the jobs here.

The bubble is a product of too many homes within a certain demographic (as opposed to overall), and a product of too many people paying more than they could afford because more than they could afford is all that was available.

In effect, prices have gone down because though there is lots of demand for homes, there isn't as much demand for homes that are really expensive. Everybody needs a place to live, but only so many people can afford to pay half a million dollars.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 2:23 pm • linkreport

Lance, "net worth" means, approximately, "the sum of the monetary values of all the stuff you own". A house costs a whole lot of money, and often makes up a significant part of that. That, by the way, was very much the intention of suburban housing and land use policy. But what you get is people worrying about property values all the time, because they have this huge, illiquid asset, which makes up such a huge percentage of their net worth. It's only reasonable that they want to protect their investment, but I think it's worth thinking whether we really want people to invest most of their money in immovable houses rather than more liquid assets.

And by the way, no, I'm not looking to buy a house. I would much rather have cash than a large box with a lot of taxes and a lot of worries. Oh, speaking of which, there's an argument why people might not want home values going up: when they do, so do taxes.

by anonymouse on Dec 1, 2008 3:12 pm • linkreport

Anonymouse: Have you considered the possibility that people who live in a stable neighborhood and plan on staying in that house in that neighbhorhood are interested in maintaining the quality of life, and the impact on quality of life is more important than the impact on the value of an asset that they do not plan on selling?

Based on Cavan's description, the site was originally intended for neighborhood-serving retail (low-density commercial development) and not 36 townhouses. These residents might have anticipated having neighborhood-serving retail within walking distance of their homes.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 3:27 pm • linkreport

"but I think it's worth thinking whether we really want people to invest most of their money in immovable houses rather than more liquid assets."

Personally, I don't think we should think about it. People need to make up their own minds on what is right for them given their own contraints and resources.

You don't really think there's a conspiracy out there forcing people to bind themselves into a mortgaged house, do you? I mean look at yourself. You haven't. And people always have the choice to move elsewhere if they are looking for more real estate for their money ... We're lucky in respect to places like NYC or other international cities where our prices would be viewed as downright inexpensive, but it's also possible to find much cheaper ... as close by as other parts of Virginia ...

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 3:33 pm • linkreport

BeyondDC, You make an interesting argument ... with which I don't disagree ... But which I think stops an instant too short. i.e., Yes, "Everybody needs a place to live, but only so many people can afford to pay half a million dollars." And when that happens, other actions start to happen. For example, builders start building further out thinking they can get that half a million dollars out there too ... And for a time they do ... But then, as we are witnessing, they don't anymore because not everyone has that kind of money. And then the prices on this new construction starts to fall and becomes affordable to those who don't have the half a million to put into a house.

But that is where you don't seem to want to look further. You don't want to live out there ... But you also don't want to live in here for what the under a million dollars will buy you in here. (Yes, there really are condos and even houses available within the beltway for far less than half a million). And, if I'm hearing you right, you want to see that change by seeing more building happen right where you want to be ... even if that means those already living where you want to be must lose the lifestyle they bought into ... and want to retain.

You see the problem ... don't you? You can only get what you want (for the price you want it at) by forcing changes on others? How do you justify that?

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 3:53 pm • linkreport

I don't see it as forcing changes on others. I see it as doing something where the whole community is better off.

Kind of like when someone builds a road. Or a sewer line. Or a school.

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2008 4:07 pm • linkreport

Cavan, But if the whole community felt they were going to be better off by letting the changes occur, then why would they be opposing them in the first place?

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 4:13 pm • linkreport

I think you already answered that question: "Keeping a neighborhood and a way of life "as is" can oftentimes outrate the potential..."

I have learned to never underestimate the lengths that super-local civic associations will go to prevent any and all change just to "preserve" life "as is." As you mentioned above, it's not about dollars and cents, or their own rationial best interest. It certainly isn't about the best interests of the county, region, state, and nation.

by Cavan on Dec 1, 2008 4:32 pm • linkreport

"it's not about dollars and cents, or their own rationial best interest."

But it IS about their own rational best interest. Why would you think you (or anyone else for that matter) are in a better position to determine their own rational best interest ... than they are themselves?

Incidentally, I'm sure it was unintentional, but you truncated my quote ... unintentionally changing the meaning ever so slightly ... but surely:

"Keeping a neighborhood and a way of life "as is" can oftentimes outrate the potential of maximizing "profit"."

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 4:39 pm • linkreport

Cavan: They invested in a community, in part, based on the Sector Plan, and according to what you wrote, the plan was to have low-density commercial there, not 36 townhouses. Some might have even been looking forward to the more walkable neighborhood that the low-density commercial development would engender.

Now you want to change the rules to reflect your own preferences, and you call into question the motivation of those who played by the rules, not "no changes" but anticipating changes according to the zoning and the Sector Plan. Sounds like the Planning Board understands the value of predictability, and knows that it is essential if they want citizens to invest in their communities.

You also seem to equate rational self-interest with maximization of net worth, but are ignoring all the factors that make a community attractive to its residents. Those qualities have value too.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 4:51 pm • linkreport

JW: They invested in a community based on a Sector Plan that's expiring in two years anyway. Most likely the new Sector Plan would allow this kind of development, but the developer simply can't afford to wait a few years until a better plan is in place, and the Citizens' Association is trying to lock in a 20-year-old vision for the area.

by David Alpert on Dec 1, 2008 4:55 pm • linkreport

I'm curious why you think their (the civic association) opinion is so important. How does buying a plot of land 5, 10, 20? years ago give them the right to dictate what happens to someone elses plot of land a few blocks away. If they thought the neighborhood would stay exactly the same over the years they should be sent back to school. Neighborhoods change over time.

I mean I can understand some communiity imput if they plan on a huge change- but townhouses- seriously?

If it is more about property vaules my response to the homeowners is this- why do I have a duty to maintain YOUR property value.

by lauren on Dec 1, 2008 4:55 pm • linkreport

>You don't want to live out there ... But you also don't want to live in here for what the under a million dollars will buy you in here.

You're half right. I don't want to live out there, because living out there eats up too many resources, requires a massive hidden subsidy, causes congestion, hurts the environment, and probably causes social harm.

But you're wrong that I don't want to live in a place that costs less than half a million. I really, really want to. The problem is there are very few affordable homes being built, and part of the reason for that is that when folks go NIMBY and force a developer to build fewer units, the developer pays for it by building bigger, more expensive ones.

The 27 townhouses being built in Wheaton will cost more per unit than the 34 originally proposed, and much more than the 500 apartments that could also be put on that land if they were allowed.

Developers have to make a profit. If you restrict the number of units they can sell, the only way for them to do so is to raise the price of the units.

What we need is to adopt region-wide form-based codes, and then eliminate density restrictions. Adopt a form that you want the neighborhood to look like ("townhouses" or "high-rises" or whatever) and then allow any and all developments that meet that form.

This peddling with numbers doesn't do any good. Forcing a developer to build 7 fewer townhouses doesn't have a single positive affect.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 5:03 pm • linkreport

BTW, just so we're clear, when we force a developer to build fewer expensive homes rather than more affordable ones, we are contributing to the housing problem on two fronts.

1) Fewer units overall.

2) More units in the one demographic where we have a surplus.

It is bad policy. I resent it professionally as a planner who wants the best for our region, and personally as a would-be buyer who can't find what I want.

I'd love to live in something like THIS, but nobody builds them that small anymore because in order to make a profit after all the density restrictions, developers have got to build THESE.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 5:11 pm • linkreport

BeyondDC lists lots of reasons why people want to live closer to the city and, while I agree with them, I think thats poor reasoning. Someone who disagrees with you can rattle off there own list that has just as much meaning to them- cities have more crime, crappy public schools, less fresh air, no woodland creatures, and on and on.

The only evidence I need is prices. If more people didn't want to live in or near the city then prices wouldn't be rising. Build more and (as supply increases) prices will come down and more of the people who want to live in the city will be able to afford it. Maybe then we won't have to impose all sorts of rent control regulations in order to have some affordable housing.

by lauren on Dec 1, 2008 5:20 pm • linkreport

BeyondDC, But you could find that "under a half million dollar" place within the beltway simply by looking in another area ... I can remember when this Wheaton area was far from desirable and people buying single family homes there were taking a chance ... a REAL chance. Their risk taking paid off ... and they deserve to hold on to what they bought based on the plans that were around 20 years ago.

You can do the same. For example, there is a plan in place now for the H Street NE corridor in DC. You could easily buy there now for under a half million and find yourself in a great position 15 years from now ... just like these folks have done. I.e., it can be a win win situation. It's not a zero sum game out there. You don't need to "take" from someone else in order to do better for yourself. Yes, you will have to put up with a neighborhood in transition for a while ... but that is what these folks in Wheaton did ... and did it on the "promise" of the government that they could count on what development would be allowed to occur there and what wouldn't ... Just like is happening on H St NE right now ...

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 5:24 pm • linkreport

"The problem is there are very few affordable homes being built."

Perhaps the problem is that you seem to be only considering new construction and didn't consider the many affordable existing houses and condominiums, or perhaps you have limited the neighborhoods you are considering.

There are many affordable neighborhoods inside the Beltway, particularly if you consider existing housing, or if you rent while you establish yourself in your career and save up for to buy a house or condominium. Most of us did not expect to be able to buy a house in a major metropolitan area just five years after graduating college, but assumed that was something that we would be able to do after saving and working for a longer period of time, or after having first invested in a small condominium in a converted building rather than expecting to buy a large, luxury condominium in a new building in a fashionable neighborhood.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 5:24 pm • linkreport

>you could find that "under a half million dollar" place within the beltway simply by looking in another area

Not if I want to live within walking distance of a Metro station, and want a commute less than an hour.

In other words, not unless I want to make congestion much worse for the entire region.

And I am not alone.

>Perhaps the problem is that you seem to be only considering new construction

This is a good point, and it is well taken that part of the natural evolution of cities is that new construction is expensive and old stuff in cheap.

The problem is that only holds up if there is no overall growth. If the region is growing quickly, then the demand for inexpensive housing quickly surpasses the supply of historic housing. Especially if, as in Washington, so much of the historic stock is very highly desirable and itself expensive.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 5:38 pm • linkreport

BTW, the District is in OK shape since it has a huge stock of historic homes that come in many shapes and sizes.

But what if you work in Tysons Corner, Gaithersburg, or Woodbridge? Living in the District isn't a realistic option for millions of people in this region. It's a good thing, too, or every rowhouse in the city would have to be replaced by a skyscraper.

by BeyondDC on Dec 1, 2008 5:48 pm • linkreport

Beyond: Did you try entering your search criteria on a real estate search site? I did a quick search for rowhouses in DC less than $500,000, and came up with quite a few hits. Some at the low end, under $150,000 require work; some are a healthy walk from Metro; and some are near bus lines, rather than Metro, but there are quite a few possibilities, not in the already gentrified areas, but areas that might be in transition for a while. That is what is involved in investing in a sommunity.

Of course, if you work in Fairfax, you might want to check northern Virginia, rather than DC, and I suspect you will find many opportunities, probably not in Clarendon, but in neighborhoods that are in transition, especially if you are young and can walk 10 to 15 minutes to the Metro or bus.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 6:12 pm • linkreport

Anonymouse has a point that an excessive investment in a home will lead people to these protective measures. Lance, I agree that people have a right to invest where they please, but do we need heavy-handed federal policies, specifically tax deductions on mortgages, coaxing a huge proportion of the household income into the house itself.

I also agree that not everything comes down to the bottom line - not everyone fights undesirable people and uses coming into their neighborhood. But among the most vocal NIMBYs the financial motivation is often lingering underneath, even if they've convinced myself they are upholding the character, scale, and class of the neighborhood.

by Daniel Nairn on Dec 1, 2008 6:16 pm • linkreport

Beyond, Following Lance's suggestion, there is a listing at 1229 I Street NE for a three-bedroom, two-story brick Victorian townhouse, that looks just like your picture "THIS" built in 1900, with central air conditioning and a 1089 square foot lot. The asking price is $250,000. You can find the property using the multiple listing service number: MLS ID #DC6905179, or just search

Perhaps abstract theories about whether there is affordable housing available within the Beltway don't give the correct answer.

by JW on Dec 1, 2008 6:23 pm • linkreport

BeyondDC, I happened to follow your 'name link' over to your blog ... I understand why you would think what you would think ... (i.e., that there isn't enough affordable housing because various factors encourage builders to build big vs. small). Let's assume you are correct (and honestly, I could argue that you are not with the proliferation over the last 20 years of condos and townhouses) in the assumption that only 'larger more luxurious' homes get built ... Do you really think this means that some people end up getting priced out? I.e., that instead of there being say 100,000 small/cheap homes and 100,000 large/luxurious homes, there will only be 100,000 large/luxourious homes built ... or as you have implied above 200,000 large/luxurious homes and no small/cheap ones? (With 100,000 of these going unsold ...)

There was a time when plumbing in homes was optional. Only the wealthy had indoor plumbing then ... the rest of the people used outhouses. Then in the interests of public sanitation, indoor plumbing became mandatory in all new construction. That considerably upped the price of a new home ... initially. Would that have put some people outside the price range of affording a house because they now had to pay for indoor plumbing as part of the package? Maybe. Probably. But only in the short term. As this became a standard feature, the additional cost of having indoor plumbing as part of the package became unnoticeable as this "luxurious feature" became standard fare.

And this is exactly what happens with houses as they get "pushed" toward larger/more luxurious by the factors you state (assuming they do ... which again, I would argue the origination of condos and suburban townhouses a generation argue against your assumption). But as there are more and more of them, the real price for a given level of luxury drops because it becomes more common ... more 'standard'.

That house you're pointing out as the house you'd like to have ... Do you realize that when it was built it would have housed a number of unrelated people? The concept of "single family home" is a fairly modern concept. And when the Realtors apply that label to a house like the one you linked to, they are applying modern uses to a house built at a time when that wasn't the rule. There's a very good reason why our rowhouses where built with lots of doors and hallways. 120 years ago, with the exception of the kitchen which would have been in the back half of the basement level, rooms didn't have a dedicated purpose. While a family might be using the front and back rooms of the main level, it might have rented out the front and back rooms of the upstairs level or perhaps the front room in the basement level. There might be a family in one room, or an individual. Boarders were the rule rather than the exception. One thing that is for certain is that even that small house you point to would most likely have had more than one family unit in it.

Do you think the fact that basic zoning laws ... which have made this sharing of a house by unrelated individuals much less prevalent ... have resulted in families and individuals being priced out and made homeless? I guess you might since you think the factors you site for pushing larger/more luxurious homes on us have done so.

I don't think so though. I think that on the contrary, because what was luxurious became 'standard', even the poorest among us live far far better today than the average person did 120 years ago.

by Lance on Dec 1, 2008 8:23 pm • linkreport

And this luxurious lifestyle - the new "standard" - you speak of is entirely underwritten by cheap oil, lanes and lanes of pavement courtesy of the federal government, and multiple cars in every garage. You know the whole litany against sprawl.

Do you think this strategy of providing nice, big places for families to live will last very much longer?

The trouble is when the bigness of suburbia clashes with the land use efficiency of an urban lifestyle. And I think that's what is going on here.

by Daniel Nairn on Dec 1, 2008 10:25 pm • linkreport

Just trying to digest the first paragraph of that entry. (There are other factors determining price, afterall)

Find myself in sympathy with the first post (Jenny) but knowing that it will trigger the dreaded NIMBY gun, and there it is at 9 o'clock (9:37 a.m. to be specific)...


by Jazzy on Dec 1, 2008 11:11 pm • linkreport

That's right Daniel ... Let's all just hunker down and live as frugally as possible ... and in the end, we will all be better off! NOT!

the Paradox of thrift:

by Lance on Dec 2, 2008 8:40 am • linkreport

>Do you think the fact that basic zoning laws ... which have made this sharing of a house by unrelated individuals much less prevalent ... have resulted in families and individuals being priced out and made homeless?

No, but it absolutely results in:

- People moving much further out unnecessarily.

- People moving to very dense but totally unwalkable garden apartment communities (you should see how many of these are in Fairfax/Montgomery).

- People who have bought homes they can't afford going into debt and/or foreclosure.

>Of course, if you work in Fairfax, you might want to check northern Virginia, rather than DC, and I suspect you will find many opportunities

Very limited in walkable neighborhoods, which are themselves very limited in Northern Virginia.

Which, of course, is the whole problem.

And which, of course, is not being solved by limiting density (or in the case of the aforementioned garden apartments, allowing density but requiring suburban design).

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2008 10:06 am • linkreport

>... Do you realize that when it was built it would have housed a number of unrelated people?

BTW, this is part of the problem too. We have laws now that forbid more than 3 or 4 unrelated people from living together. We have laws that forbid granny flats, garage aparements, and other accessory dwellings. We have laws that forbid shopowners from living atop their shops.

In the past, all those things were affordable housing. Now they are all illegal.

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2008 10:10 am • linkreport

"We have laws now that forbid more than 3 or 4 unrelated people from living together."

DC zoning regulations define a family to include "not more than six (6) persons who are not so related," i.e., not by blood, marriage or adoption.

You also assert that there are limited walkable opportunities in northern Virginia, but it doesn't seem as though you really have looked very carefully, or you have a very limited view of what is walkable. Keep in mind that the "smart growth" advocates claim that a family can easily maintain car-free lifestyle if they are within a half-mile of a bus line, apparently, relying on walking to and from that bus line for commuting, grocery shopping and to take their children to soccer practice and music lessons.

by JW on Dec 2, 2008 10:59 am • linkreport

"apparently, relying on walking to and from that bus line for commuting, grocery shopping and to take their children to soccer practice and music lessons."

I think those same smart growth advocates would not expect most of our daily needs to rely on that bus line. Instead, we would also live within a half mile of the park for soccer practice, and the grocery store for shopping, while maybe taking the bus for music lessons. So called smart growth only works when the right mix of uses and the right modes of transit are available, not one or the other. This is the issue with many "walkable" suburban/suburbia neighborhoods. You can walk, but if there is no where to walk to, does it matter?

by Chris on Dec 2, 2008 11:12 am • linkreport

I find no coincidence that the two viewpoints correlate directly to generation.

At the end of the day, this is a value judgement. You can throw all the numbers you want, but it's just a matter of values.

The more I do this, the more it becomes clear to me that we're in the beginning of the beginning of a huge shift in American values.

The policy lags behind the values. It always does. In this case, I'm just concerned that it will be too late. I'm referring to my previous post about asphalt prices and oil production drops.

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 11:16 am • linkreport

JW, I think it's important that you understand that walkability is not being able to walk somewhere. It's having a variety of life functions within walking distance. The only way this can happen is on a human scale street grid with mixed uses.

Suburban here is defined as being built for the car. Putting a sidewalk on a 8 lane arterial does not make it walkable. A place is not walkable if there is nowhere to walk to because it is all too far apart.

By that definition, BeyondDC is completely correct that walkable places are extremely rare in Northern Virginia. Currently, his only choices are Orange Line Arlington, Crystal City, and Old Town Alexandria. That's it for him. The latter two aren't very practical since he has to get to Fairfax City to work. Now, he's not the only one. The high prices in North Arlington are the result of hundreds of thousands more people in his situation who want to live in a walkable place. The only solution is to build more. That means a walkable grid and mixed uses. All things that he rightly pointed out have been banned since the 1950's and take years of hearings and special exceptions to get built.

And when such an opportunity presents itself like here in Wheaton where there is already a walkable grid built on the human scale with some mixing of uses, the neighbors in the car-dependent single family houses go cry to the county planning board that they can't have any more people.

This is called stealing from your children. We seem to have perfected that art in the last 40 or so years.

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 11:26 am • linkreport

"So called smart growth only works when the right mix of uses and the right modes of transit are available, not one or the other."

And there's nothing wrong with wanting that. Actually, I think that is where we eventually end up as places mature. However, while they are still growing, they must go through phases ... (perhaps the same phases they go through in reverse when they are dying?) ... And a personal vehicle such as an automobile is a valuable tool which helps expedite the growing phases.

What I'm trying to say is I don't believe you can suddenly plop down another Manhattan (or even downtown DC) in the middle of the countryside. Like most things, it needs to build itself in stages. It's amazing to think of the growth the US experienced in the last 50 yrs. In that time it's population increased by at least 50%. Could whole "smart cities" have been planned and built fast enough in that time to accomodate that growth? In theory, yes. In practice, not a chance. Instead, the automobile and the road networks constructed to permit its use allowed people to build the skeletons of our future cities themselves without some strong central planning as would have been required had we attempted to build 50% more city centers. Now those skeletons are in place, and as we are witnessing in places such as Bethesda, Rockville, and yes, even Tysons, those skeleton are taking on the flesh to eventually make them places where "the right mix of uses and the right modes of transit are available, not one or the other."

by Lance on Dec 2, 2008 11:28 am • linkreport

But Wheaton is not the countryside! Wheaton is a part of that skeleton you mentioned! It has a Metro station on the busiest line in the system! It's had a mall for 50 years! It's been a town since the 19th century. It was laid down for walkability and mixed uses and retained that fundamental form throughout the suburbanization period of the last century.

You just said that walkable places are good and are a "natural progression". Yet, you constantly advocate against practical on the ground policies that make them feasible.

I'm really confused.

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 11:35 am • linkreport

I have to disagree that a suburban form is a phase of growth.

It never existed before 1946. Once it's done, it's really hard to get it back to the human scale. It's not a phase. The only reason why the automobile became the dominant form of transportation in our nation is because of extremely large federal government fiscal policy.

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 11:38 am • linkreport


Look back at my first post in this thread. I said I agreed with you in general. What I disagree with is your notion of being able to "mandate" that change. It'll happen ... And it'll happen without having to force anything on anyone. Look at the amazing growth Bethesda has experienced ... And look at the townhouses and other construction other Wheaton. Why force your will on those homeowners not willing to give up their single-family neighborhood? So what if it ends up being the only single-family house neighborhood left around Wheaton Center. Don't we have similar small house neighborhood left in DC near downtown ... like the one in which your dream house is?

by Lance on Dec 2, 2008 11:41 am • linkreport

Lance: I disagree that homeowners in an area deserve an absolute veto over changes in their area. Before the last century, property owners had no say in what other people built on other property. If they had, the owners of the country estates on NYC's Upper West Side would have insisted the city "preserve the character" of that area and not develop it into 20-story apartment buildings.

You say it's impossible to plunk down a new Manhattan in the middle of nowhere. That's true. But Manhattan only came about because as the city grew, people had little ability to stop that growth or force it way out into Queens and New Jersey.

I agree some balance is appropriate, and it's great that we now have zoning tools and preservaiton laws to ensure a mix of housing types and maintain old buildings instead of wholesale razing like New York in the early 1900s. But it's got to be a balance. Just because some people bought in a place doesn't give them the exclusive right to decide what happens in that area. They can only make that decision for their own property, and have some limited influence on the wider area.

And what neighborhood are you talking about near downtown? Until you get to the Palisades, I don't think there's a single area that's as low density as Kensington Heights. Burleith and Kalorama are denser.

by David Alpert on Dec 2, 2008 11:57 am • linkreport

David, Our neighborhood is extremely low density given its proximity to "downtown".

"Just because some people bought in a place doesn't give them the exclusive right to decide what happens in that area.

That's a value judgement. We can debate as to how far their "influence" runs, but I believe that as a neighborhood they have the right to self-determination ... particularly in the case where they are "playing by the rules" and those seeking the change aren't.

by Lance on Dec 2, 2008 12:52 pm • linkreport

But it's not in their neighborhood!

The developer had planned to build a huge buffer of trees between the new townhouses and the existing single-family houses.

To me, the thinking sure looks like "I've got mine and you're not getting yours."

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 1:01 pm • linkreport

Cavan: Does a "huge buffer of trees" and 36 new townhouses really replace the neighborhood-serving retail that was part of the Sector Plan? The neighbors, who were "playing by the rules" and assumed others would do the same were anticipating a walkable neighborhood with neighborhood-serving retail.

by JW on Dec 2, 2008 1:45 pm • linkreport

JW: DC's zoning regs are not the only ones we're talking about.

Lance: You're talking about not wanting to support mandated change. Fine. But aren't laws that require low density and suburban design mandating that things stay the same? How is that better? Why force the will of a few landowners with unrealistic expectations over the will of those who would live in Wheaton if they could? Your position seems to cherry pick.

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2008 3:31 pm • linkreport

> The neighbors, who were "playing by the rules" and assumed others would do the same were anticipating a walkable neighborhood with neighborhood-serving retail.

Interesting point.

So, do you think the neighbors would drop their opposition if the developer instead proposed an apartment building with neighborhood-serving retail on the ground floor?

by BeyondDC on Dec 2, 2008 3:32 pm • linkreport

"So, do you think the neighbors would drop their opposition if the developer instead proposed an apartment building with neighborhood-serving retail on the ground floor?"

That doesn't sound like "playing by the rules" which is low-density commercial, or up to 18 townhouses.

And, if you read more of the details, you would understand some of the other issues involved, such as the limited vehicular access to the site. But then again, making assumptions about the reasons for opposition to a developer's project, relying on the developer's characterization of the opposition or name-calling is easier than actually finding out the facts.

by JW on Dec 2, 2008 3:41 pm • linkreport

JW, that was the original proposal. The developer was actually negotiated down to 36 townhouses. They believed that 36 townhouses was too few for an parcel that is so close to the Metro. They had agreed to it (of course not in writing) but then the Civic Association went and complained to the county anyway.

I refer you to this quote in my post: "The citizens group also submitted a proposal to the county in September 2007 to have the property considered for the Legacy Open Space Program, but that request was denied."

They wanted nothing. They want nothing to change. That is the story here. It's not some objection based off of wanting more retail or something positive. It's purely negative. It's purely selfish.

An earlier comment said, "If it quacks like a duck..."

Please don't try to spin this by saying, "The neighbors, who were 'playing by the rules' and assumed others would do the same were anticipating a walkable neighborhood with neighborhood-serving retail." They weren't. They want nothing. They're of the mindset that they want walkable, multicultural, vibrant, commercial Wheaton to just go away and leave them alone in their little suburban hamlet of Kensington. I didn't mention the undercurrent of the Wheaton/Kensington divide but they're really different places with really different super-local politics. Socioeconomically and culturally, Kensington is more closely related to Chevy Chase. Wheaton is more closely related to Silver Spring. You can imagine where that would go. Kensington wants to be as far away from Wheaton as they can. It's just their mindset. It's most acute for those who live in on the Kensington side of the border.

It's a much more toned down and local version of the trolls in the WaPo comment section for yesterday's awful east-west Purple Line article who call Prince George's County a cesspool and assorted awful bigotted/troll things.

by Cavan on Dec 2, 2008 3:54 pm • linkreport

"for an parcel that is so close to the Metro"

Did you realize that this is about 8/10 of a mile from the Metro, with Google indicating that the time to walk to Metro would be over 15 minutes.

by JW on Dec 2, 2008 4:02 pm • linkreport

JW, take a look at lauren's comments. S/he gets to the crux of it.

by Bianchi on Dec 2, 2008 5:01 pm • linkreport

CW, if you need to follow the sector plan to "play by the rules," wasn't the neighborhood breaking the rules when they submitted a request to have the area made open space? The sector plan does not designate it as open space.

The people who complain that developers are breaking the rule when they want to build something denser than what's specified in plans don't seem to think it's wrong at all to build something less dense than what's specified in the plans.

by tt on Dec 2, 2008 5:10 pm • linkreport

As a resident of the neighborhood and a former resident of Dupont Circle, Woodley Park, Fort Greene and Hell's Kitchen, (although not a member of the civic association), I would like to second and amplify most of JW's points. Thirty-six townhomes would most emphatically not give the neighborhood the more urban feel that mixed-use retail would. Mehring (the developer) also wants to build an additional 5 single family homes in another currently vacant lot.

Higher residential density does not make a neighborhood more walkable or more urban. Mixed-use zoning does. And the mall itself is a huge obstacle to the goal of a walkable neighborhood. University Blvd and the mall parking lot are both highly unpleasant to walk at any time of day, and downright scary in their emptiness after dark.

I believe in public transportation. I take the 34 to work in Bethesda every day, and I agree that Kensington Heights needs something to make it more walkable and more desirable, but this is definitely not it.

If you followed the development in Silver Spring over the twenty years that it took to finally produce the right project that would turn the neighborhood, you would realize that waiting for the right thing beats accepting development for development's sake. The right project will raise property values for everyone. The wrong one will ruin the neighborhood for years and years to come. This is the wrong project.

by Aaron on Dec 4, 2008 1:31 pm • linkreport

Cutting through all the wonky policy crap here:

Much of Wheaton is becoming a third-world slum and middle-class people of many ethnic backgrounds have been moving out as fast as they can (it ain't just white flight anymore).

Ditto with lots of other pockets of Silver Spring.

It's loud, crowded, chaotic, and miserable and there is little/no code enforcement to speak of because that would be "racist."

I lived in Langley Park in the 1990s (U of Md. commuter) and Wheaton feels a lot like what Langley Park did then: a cesspool of crime, overcrowding, and chaos.

I hear Aspen Hill's no picnic either, these days.

by Wheaton resident on Jan 8, 2009 1:21 pm • linkreport

I know Donna Savage and the KHCA. I supported them in their opposition to the Costco gas station. However I;m disappointed that they are against these townhouses. I want them. Kensington H IS WALKABLE. I all the time see ppl walk
( & take carts when the shouldnt!) throught the mall, take the path by Stephen Knolls and get to their homes. I also see many walk through the grassy field between Littleford Lane/McComas Ave to get to their homes.

The planned development is @ the back of Giant @ the intersection of Univ blvd/Valley View Ave, this is the END of the KH community. So why demand a retail center there?

by lilkunta on Mar 15, 2012 11:52 pm • linkreport

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