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Development


How housing vouchers work, explained

Millions of Americans struggle to pay their rent each month. With rents rising and incomes stagnating, paying rent is the largest monthly expenditure for many families.


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Across the country, over 20 million households—more than four out of 10 renters—are rent-burdened, meaning they pay at least 30 percent of their income on rent. The share of rent-burdened households is even higher among low-income renters.

The government helps some of these low-income households pay their rent by providing vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher Program, also known as Section 8.

The Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program is the largest federal program to subsidize low-income renters.

Across the country, nearly 2.2 million households receive housing vouchers to subsidize their rent. In DC, the voucher program provides assistance to 13,000 families.

There are two types of housing vouchers. Project-based vouchers are tied to a specific apartment and used by the family living there. When that family moves, the voucher stays with the unit, rather than moving with the family. Tenant-based vouchers, on the other hand, are given to a specific family. The family keeps the voucher when they move.

Because they are much more common, this explainer focuses on tenant-based vouchers in the District.


Photo by Tax Credits on Flickr.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program works by limiting the amount of their income that low-income families pay toward rent.

Voucher holders pay 30 percent of their income toward rent for an apartment on the private market. The federal government pays the rest of the rent directly to the landlord.

To be eligible to use a voucher, families typically must earn less than 50 percent of the median income in the place where they live (officially called Area Median Income, or AMI). In the Washington region, that's about $50,000 for a family of four. However, most voucher holders in the region earn less than 30 percent AMI, or about $30,000.

After securing a voucher, families are required to find an apartment—or "lease up"—within sixty days. While they search for housing like anyone else in the city, their rent must fall within the Fair Market Rent (FMR) guidelines established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In the District, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,623. Households using a voucher can rent any apartment at (or below) that threshold.

While voucher holders are permitted to search for apartments throughout the region, in practice, they are much more likely to find affordable housing in just a handful of neighborhoods. Few apartments in wealthy neighborhoods, like Georgetown, are inexpensive enough to meet HUD guidelines, while most apartments in low-income neighborhoods, like Deanwood, rent for below the market average.

While families mostly search for housing in the region, their vouchers are portable. If a family moves from Washington, DC to Mississippi, for example, they can take their voucher with them. Critically, housing vouchers do not expire. Households can continue to use their voucher as long as they remain eligible for the program and abide by program rules.

Local public housing authorities (PHAs) distribute housing vouchers through lotteries.

In DC, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) runs the city's voucher program. There are other public housing authorities in the region, including the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of Prince George's County, which also administer housing vouchers.


Photo by Bill Dickinson on Flickr.

With guidance from HUD, PHAs often prioritize certain types of households in distributing vouchers. For example, a PHA can give priority to homeless households, families living in extreme poverty, or those displaced by substandard housing conditions. In DC, the housing authority gives preference to homeless families above other households needing assistance.

To distribute the limited supply of vouchers, PHAs create waitlists for eligible families. This can be an open waitlist, where families join at any time, or a closed waitlist, where the housing authority opens the waitlist for limit periods of time. At the moment, the voucher waitlist in DC is closed.

Although new vouchers are rarely allocated by Congress, vouchers do become available when existing families leave the program. PHAs use the waitlist to select new voucher holders, either by holding a voucher lottery or simply selecting the next applicant on the list.

Housing voucher programs were created in the 1970s with the dual goals of de-concentrating poverty and empowering families to pick their own neighborhood.

Until the 1970s, nearly all federal housing assistance was provided through public housing developments. However, policymakers realized that these developments concentrated poor families in certain neighborhoods. They also contributed to racial segregation in cities.

The first voucher programs were proposed in 1970 and formalized through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The Act amended Section 8 of the National Housing Act of 1937 to create the voucher program. As a result, the program became known as Section 8 vouchers. In 1998, Congress passed the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act, which formally changed the program name to the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Housing Choice vouchers and Section 8 vouchers refer to the same program, but Housing Choice vouchers are the preferred (and correct) terminology.

By giving households an opportunity to pick their own apartment, rather than living in public housing, policymakers expect vouchers to lead people to improved housing units in better neighborhoods. Voucher holders can move away from communities of concentrated poverty and live in high-quality housing.


Photo by anaxila on Flickr.

There is substantial evidence that when low-income families move into mixed-income neighborhoods, they do benefit. For example, people are often healthier and safer in these high opportunity neighborhoods. Children attend better schools and more regularly interact with middle-class neighbors.

However, critics argue that the benefits of the voucher program are overstated. Voucher holders typically cannot move to wealthy neighborhoods because the rents are too high. Many landlords refuse to accept housing vouchers. And even when they do move into a high-opportunity neighborhood, low-income households often find it difficult to stay there.

Perhaps most importantly, critics of the voucher programs note that housing assistance is not an entitlement. Unlike other government assistance programs, like Medicaid or TANF, most eligible households do not receive a voucher. In fact, only one-quarter of households who are eligible for a voucher actually receive one.

Transit


At the King Street Metro, parking is out and a pedestrian plaza is in

At Alexandria's King Street—Old Town Metro station, there's a whole lot of space dedicated to cars and buses and not much for people on foot. But the station's parking lot will soon become a pedestrian plaza with wider sidewalks and more parking for bikes.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

Today, when you come out of the Metro at King Street, you walk into a parking lot with 30 spaces and six bus bays. Contributor Gray Kimbrough noted that that's a lot of space devoted to cars, but also that the station is tough for walking around:

The station has Old Town in its name, but it's not at all obvious how to walk out of the station in the direction of Old Town. And all of the roads around the station seem to share the problem of missing or inconveniently placed crosswalks.
Joanne Pierce added:
The parking lot is not proportional. There is not enough parking to make it worthwhile for commuters but because it's a popular drop off/pick up spot (which Metro apparently never intended to be the case) there are more moving vehicles during rush hour, creating congestion and lots of pedestrians have to avoid the cars and the buses. There are no stop signs for the cars, either.

There are two station exits but one is much more heavily used. If I recall correctly, there isn't a tourist-friendly map outside of the other exit, nor are there signs telling tourists where they should go from the other exit. This means more tourists are using the main gates and then cross the parking lot to reach King Street or cross the bus lane to get on the King Street bus trolley that shuttles riders directly to the waterfront.

I myself will add that when you're coming up King Street, it is not immediately evident how to access the station entrance. I often find going to the north entrance, which is not immediately obvious to pedestrians, is often easier.

A plan to replace the parking lot with a pedestrian plaza and to add four new bus bays to the existing six could be the first step toward the station becoming more walkable, and it gained approval last week.

The reconfigured plaza will make it easier to get to the station by walking as well as accommodate WMATA's plans to increase bus service in the area. WMATA has also said there will be more bike parking, but there aren't yet any details beyond that.


Planned layout of the new bus and pedestrian plaza in front of the King St station. Image from the city of Alexandria.

The project will cost $11.7 million, and has been planned since at least 2012.

A public hearing is planned for the fall with final approval expected by the end of the year, WMATA board documents show.


The current King St station plaza includes 30 parking spaces and six bus bays. Photo from WMATA.

More improvements are coming to the King Street station

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE) is also working on improved access to the King Street station. Design is more than halfway done on a new pedestrian tunnel linking Alexandria Union Station and the adjacent Metro station, a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority project update from July shows.


The planned pedestrian tunnel from Alexandria Union Station to the King St Metro station. Image from VRE.

The authority awarded VRE a $1.3 million grant for the tunnel in 2014, however, the agency has yet to identify funding for the balance of the roughly $11.3 million project.

The tunnel is currently scheduled to open by the end of 2017.

Transit


Virginia's commuter rail service may become more of a transit system

The Virginia Railway Express (VRE), a commuter rail system with a large coverage area but somewhat infrequent service, is considering both running trains more frequently and adding new stations, but funding constraints may force a choice between the two. More trains, more often would make VRE more like a transit system, with regular service throughout the day rather than just at rush hour.


A VRE train at the Woodbridge station. Image from VRE.

VRE's Fredericksburg Line, which uses CSX railroad tracks, carries commuters north from Spotsylvania County on a route parallel to I-95. The Manassas Line, which uses Norfolk Southern tracks, brings commuters to Union Station from Broad Run, which ends next to the Manassas airport, and is an alternative to commuting on I-66.

The VRE Gainesville-Haymarket Extension Project began in July 2015, with a proposal to build 11 miles of track and three new rail stations to extend the commuter rail service west to Haymarket. Environmental analysis and preliminary design are supposed to be completed in 2017, with service starting in 2022.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

VRE is planning to add more trains to carry additional passengers during rush hours, as well as offer service in the middle of the day. VRE plans to add three new trains to the Manassas Line at rush hour, raising the total from eight to 11 (a total of 22 trips/day). A 10-car train can carry up to 1,000 people.

Running trains more frequently could mean more service

VRE is also considering adding service in the middle of the day from Manassas to Alexandria, starting the conversion of VRE from a commuter rail system to a transit system. The proposed Off Peak Shuttle would add seven additional trains each way between morning/evening rush hours. There would be a headway (gap between trains) of approximately an hour, bringing the total number of daily trips to 36.


Image from VRE.

Off-peak shuttle trains would terminate at Alexandria, where passengers could catch Metro to get into DC. The new service would add customers to Metro's Blue and Yellow lines outside of rush hours.

Outside of rush hours, VRE trains would not go further than Alexandria due to existing congestion on the CSX Railroad; the stretch of tracks between Manassas and Alexandria is a dead-end stub for Norfolk Southern, meaning the tracks don't see as much traffic as the CSX ones.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

Building more tracks could also mean serving different locations

VRE has packed its proposal to expand service with plans to build new track and stations. The Fredericksburg Line was recently extended south to Spotsylvania County, and since 2002 VRE has been looking at extending its Manassas Line building an extension 11 miles west to Haymarket, near where I-66 crosses through Bull Run Mountain.

Among all of the options its considering, VRE's preference is to build the extension with three new stations at Innovation, Gainesville, and Haymarket. The existing Broad Run station would be closed and a new railyard would be constructed west of Haymarket, perhaps in Fauquier County.


Map of the proposed extension and station locations. Image from VRE.

The extension to Haymarket would cost $468 million. When Virginia's Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) prioritized projects for the 2017-2022 Six-Year Improvement Program on June 13, 2016, the benefit/cost ratio was not high enough to justify funding.

The CTB uses what's called the "Smart Scale" analytical process (previously known as the "HB2" process) to prioritize transportation projects, and VRE staff called their proposal the "best project not to get funded this cycle."

Funding for the proposed expansion will be problematic. VRE claims it does not intend to rely upon local funding for construction, but 50% of current operations costs are subsidized by local jurisdictions.

VRE anticipates Federal/state grants would fund one-time capital costs for building track and buying new locomotives and railcars. The counties/cities in Northern Virginia would have to find the revenue in local budgets to fund the extra $4-5 million in annual operating costs not covered by customer fares.

Another option: Expanding by adding a station at Godwin Road

At the start of the analysis required to obtain federal funding, VRE identified expanding via Godwin Road as alternative to the three new stations. That would mean replacing the existing Broad Run Station with a new end-of-line station 1.5 miles to the northeast at Godwin Road, creating space for railyard expansion.

The Godwin Road option would also mean VRE could run more trains at rush hour and during the day, as the Broad Run railyard could support the extra service.


Map made using ArcGIS Online.

The proposed extension to Haymarket, compared to the Godwin Road alternative, would cost $250-350 million more for construction and $9 million more annually for operations. I believe, however, that it would remove only 100 more cars/day from I-66 in 2025 and only 300 cars/day in 2040. The project's justification in the Smart Scale process was based on claims for increased economic development, since congestion relief on I-66 would be so minimal.


Chart from VRE.

Funding for passenger rail is limited, and it is obvious that funding better maintenance for Metro will be a higher priority that any VRE expansion. Asking federal, state, and local officials to spend $500 million more by the year 2040 than the Godwin Road alternative, just to reduce 300 cars/day on I-66, will be difficult when so many rail projects are seeking funding.

For more details, see the Prince William Conservation Alliance blog.

Architecture


Visit DC's wonderful public gardens on transit

Our region is lucky to have over 100 public gardens, most of which are free or very cheap! Visiting a public gardens can refreshing your mental, spiritual, and physical being. Here's a rundown of the very best, all of which you can get to by taking Metro or the bus.


The Smithsonian Castle garden. All photos by DC Gardens on Flickr.

Smithsonian Gardens

The easiest to access are the Smithsonian Gardens. Yes, there is green space on the National Mall and it is not all lawn! The Smithsonian Gardens are made up of 12 distinct spaces—from a recreation of a World War II vegetable and flower garden at the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History to the contemporary, sunken Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

All are free to all visitors, and many host educational programming and docents give regular tours. One of the most informative tours is hosted by Horticulturist Janet Draper at the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden every Tuesday at 2 pm throughout October.

Getting There: Take Metro to the Smithsonian station or any of the surrounding metro stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator, 70 Metrobus lines, and 30 Metrobus lines.

The US Botanic Garden

Also on the National Mall and easily accessible is the US Botanic Garden. Along with the adjoining National Garden, Bartholdi Park, and Capitol Grounds, it has administered through the Architect of the Capitol and is not part of the Smithsonian as is commonly assumed.


The US Botanic Garden.

The Botanic Garden is one of the few tourist sites open on both Christmas and New Year's Day. Over the past few years, it's become more and more crowded on those dates as the secret has spread, so go early and be prepared to stand in line to view the annual holiday garden railroad display.

Getting There: Take Metro to the L'Enfant station or any of the surrounding stops near the Mall. You can also take the Circulator and 30 Metrobus lines, which stop in back of the Botanic Garden. Often I take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and walk across the Mall rather than switch trains.

Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery

If you want to avoid crowds, try the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland. The Monastery grounds are free and open to all. They are known for their fantastic bulb displays timed around Easter, but come back in late May/early June for stunning roses and later in the summer for tropical gardens that include a few palm trees.


Brookland's Franciscan Monastery.

Getting There: I usually take the Metro to Brookland and walk up the steep hill along Quincy Street to get to it, but there are a few buses that get you closer (the H6 and the 80).

The National Arboretum

Not far from the Monastery is the National Arboretum. The Arboretum was closed three days a week due to the recent sequester and budget cutbacks, but thanks to fundraising by the Friends of the National Arboretum, the grounds are now back open every day of the year except December 25.


The National Arboretum.

The Arboretum is under the US Department of Agriculture and its mission has been more one of research than of public outreach and education, but with a new director just named that has given local gardeners hope of great things to come. The grounds are large and it would take several visits to see it all. Plan to visit often and in all seasons to see how the gardens change throughout the year.

Getting there: There used to be a Metrobus that served this garden, but that service was infrequent and then was cut entirely a few years ago. Now, the best way to go is to take the B2 bus and walk in from the R Street entrance. (A bus route from the NoMa-Gallaudet U Metro station would be a dream...)

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Just across the Anacostia from the Arboretum are the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. If you go on a weekday, you pretty much have the whole place to yourself.


The Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

This is the true hidden oasis of the city—a former waterlily nursery now a national park. It is also a wildlife haven. Both photographers and birders frequent the gardens in the early mornings, leaving before the heat of the day. They are missing out though as the hundreds of waterlilies and lotus open up in the direct sun and are best viewed in mid-day during July-August.

Getting there: You can actually get there by canoe easier than by transit, but I usually take the Metro to Deanwood and walk over.

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral

The Bishop's Close at the National Cathedral is accessible and open to all. The secluded, walled garden is on the south-facing side of the Cathedral and is downhill from it as well, giving it a great perspective on the building.


The Bishop's Close.

The garden itself is sunny and bright to support the roses and English-style perennial borders, but there are some shady quiet spots for contemplation, quiet reading, and reflection.

Getting there: Take one of the many 30 buses that go up and down Wisconsin and get off when you see the looming spires.

Outside of DC

Farther afield, both Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria are free and run by their local county parks systems. Both take an effort to access by a combination of Metro and local bus systems, but are worth it for an afternoon outside of the city. Better access by transit would increase the usefulness and value of both of these gardens to their surrounding communities.

Getting there: Go to Brookside by taking the Red Line to Glenmont and walking one mile along Glen Allen Road. To get to Green Spring, take the Yellow or Blue Line to King Street and then transfer to the 29N bus towards Vienna. Get off at Little River Turnpike and Green Spring Road.

A new local nonprofit, DC Gardens, sprung up last spring to bring the profile of local public gardens in the DC region to the attention of both out-of-town tourists as well as to those who live here and only think of DC garden tourism as a once a year trip to see the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms in bloom. On the site, you can view many of our public gardens month-by-month and learn what events, festivals, and activities are going at each.

A version of this post first ran in May 2015. With the summer weather back and in full effect, we thought it an opportune time to spread the word again!

Arts


David Alpert will take over AMC's The Walking Dead

This article was posted as an April Fool's joke.

AMC Networks has announced that it has hired David Alpert, founder and president of Greater Greater Washington, to be the new Executive Producer of its hit show The Walking Dead. In other news, The Walking Dead Executive Producer David Alpert will take over as President of Greater Greater Washington.

"We're really excited about this new direction for both our organizations," said Alpert. Alpert said, "This is an opportunity for both organizations to explore new directions."

The AMC show will be rebranded as The Walkable Dead and will focus on telling stories of the ways road design can keep people from facing serious injury or death. Jeff Speck will become the series' new head writer.

"I'm certain that audiences all around the nation will be just as riveted by the intricacies of sidewalk widths, traffic calming, and on which side of parked cars to put bike lanes as they are by stories of a world overrun by zombies," said Alpert.

For his part, Alpert plans to steer Greater Greater Washington toward more first-person narrative stories. An upcoming series of posts, tentatively called a "season," will depict a ragtag band of desperate survivors in Alexandria, Virginia who find their world, and neighborhood, completely destroyed by a pair of painted bike lanes on King Street.

An upcoming episode, previewed for the press, shows a suburban office worker having to wait a full 30 seconds to get out of his driveway as a few cyclists pass by. Having to back up very slowly and repeatedly look both ways epitomizes the difficult struggle to survive in a world suddenly filled with these two-wheeled menaces, who seem single-mindedly intent on getting to their destinations with their brains intact.

Alpert, who graduated from Harvard, said his past experience producing the TV show, which purportedly takes place in Alexandria, perfectly prepares him for the role of managing a blog and advocacy organization. He said, "I get it: density good, neighbor opposition bad, transit/biking/walking good, cars bad ... How hard can this be?"

Alpert, meanwhile, said he's confident that his degree from Harvard will prepare him for keeping The Walkable Dead one of the top shows on TV. He has been to Atlanta (where the series is filmed) a couple of times. "Most of Metro Atlanta already looks like a barren post-apocalyptic wasteland," added Alpert.

An additional revelation was promulgated by Alpert: In anticipation of the substitution, the phraseology that will be utilized in the production of Greater Greater Washington will entirely be composed of passive voice and nominalizations.

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