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Why affordable housing doesn’t stay affordable forever

We often hear that DC is losing affordable housing. In most cases, that means existing dwellings hitting a point where rents go up or building owners sell at market rates. Here's how "expiration dates" for affordable housing work.

Photo by Carol Highsmith.

There's a limit on how long affordable housing remains affordable

Programs like DC's Housing Production Trust Fund, DC's largest housing program, require the housing it helps pay for to remain affordable for a set number of years. Broadly speaking, that means the building can only be rented to people below a certain income level, and rent can't go above a certain level. This amount could be 30 percent of the tenant's income, meaning a tenant's rent can rise or fall if they lose or gain income.

Affordable units like this use federal rental subsidies that pay the difference between what the tenant pays on any given month and an agreed-upon amount. That, or the maximum rent could be based on the most someone at a certain income level could afford (independent of whether the actual tenant is at or below that income level). Housing built using federal low-income housing tax credits usually works this way.

But after time passes, owners are free to convert their buildings to market-rate housing. Among housing programs in the District, affordability terms can be short as 30 years for rental housing and five years for homeownership housing.

When entire buildings of low-cost housing are lost because the affordability restrictions expired, low-income residents are displaced from their homes and communities, and it is expensive and often impossible for the city to rebuild the lost housing—especially in high-demand neighborhoods with access to transit and jobs.

Affordability requirements don't have to be limited

Affordability requirements have traditionally been set to expire for a few reasons. One is that affordable rents and replacement reserves (funds set aside to pay for the building's future needs) aren't always enough to pay for repairs as buildings wear out and need to be fixed. Hiking rents after a few decades can pay for re-investments like new plumbing, windows, roofs and boilers.

The other is that some affordable housing projects count on profits from higher rents in the future to fill out the return on investment (though this isn't all that common given that most affordable housing developers aren't for-profit).

But what if affordable housing built with public dollars had no expiration date? A decade ago, housing officials from Boston decided all projects receiving public subsidy had to agree to stay affordable permanently. After seeing the city's past housing investments evaporate as affordability terms expired, Boston's Neighborhood Development Department (Boston's version of DC's Department of Housing and Community Development) did the following to help make permanent affordability more financially feasible:

  • It put more dollars into affordable housing up-front to ensure buildings could stay in good condition long-term. That meant funding a larger reserve, so that over the years, building owners could replace failing boilers, roofs, windows, plumbing, and more without needing to raise rents.
  • It structured deals with affordable housing developers so that getting a return on investment didn't mean eventually hiking rents.
  • It created plans to step in if buildings ran into trouble. Even with the best up-front planning, it's possible some properties will need to assistance with financing down the line, and Boston assured developers it'd be ready with solutions if developers encountered unforeseen problems.
Could DC follow Boston's lead?

The District has adopted permanent affordability for some of its housing programs—affordable housing built on land sold by the District, and housing produced by inclusionary zoning, remain affordable as long as the building stands—but not for all of its housing programs.

For example, housing preserved or built using funds from the Housing Production Trust Fund are affordable for only 40 years, not permanently.

That are some people in DC's affordable housing world who think the District would get better bang for its buck by adopting a permanent affordability requirement like Boston's.The District is investing record amounts in affordable housing, yet that housing may not be there for future generations of DC residents if we let it expire.


National links: Don't shame the transit riders

Uber took down some ads that shamed transit riders, Texas researchers are looking at how race, gender, and development intersect, and a new book explains that cities weren't always bastions for Democrats. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by Anthony Easton on Flickr.

Uber's advertising effect: Uber and Lyft often have run ads that belittle transit riders. Transit planner Jarrett Walker recently decided he'd had enough, calling Uber out for an anti-transit stance that he says promotes congestion and social stratification. Soon thereafter, an Uber executive saw to it that the ad came down. If ads like this keep running, Walker says, it signals a tacit agreement that we should starve cities of the transportation options they need and deserve. (Human Transit)

Race, gender, and the built environment: The University of Texas at Austin will launch a first-of-its-kind program to study the intersection of race, gender, city planning, and development. In this interview, Professors Anna Brand and Andrea Roberts discuss why they are keen to expand the definition of planning and preservation and how Austin is a great place to be thinking about these issues. (Metropolis Magazine)

How cities went blue: During the time of the US' founding, pretty much everyone in politics disliked cities, as they were seen as places of corruption and vice. But now, as cities are becoming more and more popular, cities have become a stronghold for Democrats. Read about the history of anti-urbanism and the move toward our current landscape in a review of Steven Conn's Americans Against the City. (Los Angeles Review of Books)

White House vs. parking: Last week's White House paper about why we need more housing and how cities can make it happen was the talk of the urbanism world. A major part was its push for less required parking, as parking drives up housing costs and stresses the transportation network. While the White House's toolkit has no teeth to enact reform, it is refreshing to see ideas like these from the top. (Wired)

Look Mom, no signals: The first Dutch-style unsignalized intersection in the United States just went in near the campus of Texas A&M University. The hope is that moving cyclists in front of car traffic at the intersections and painting the lanes green with solar luminescent paint will make vulnerable road users will be more visible, meaning drivers will be less likely to hit them. (Texas Transportation Institute)

Connecting Boston's 2 halves: Boston's commuter rail network is split in two: a north and a south half. Advocates have long been working to connect the two so the entire system functions more efficiently, but haven't had any luck. Now, there's a greater sense of urgency, as a plan to expand a key station would effectively kill hopes of a north-south rail link. Activists hope that building the connection will take precedent. (Boston Magazine)

A new ride hailing service in town

Since Uber and Lyft left Austin, new companies have filled the void. One of them is RideAustin, which is now one of the leading ride hailing providers in the city. Co-founder Andy Tryba sat down to talk about why they started the company, while Jerry, a driver for RideAustin, discussed the new city fingerprinting requirement. Check out what they had to say on Episode 7 of my show, Transit Trends:


Boston's "park & pedals" are park and rides for bikes

How do you get more commuters to bicycle into the city? Boston is trying "park & pedals," dedicated parking lots where suburban commuters can drive to the edge of the city, then bicycle the last couple of miles.

Photo by Park & Pedal.

Bicycling is often the fastest way to travel through dense cities. But most commuters from far-flung suburbs aren't willing to bike that far every day. Park & pedals split the difference, allowing suburban commuters to drive where it's easier to drive, then bike through the part of the city where it's easier to bike.

It's a fascinating idea, and an unusual twist on the last-mile problem of urban transportation.

The last mile

The hardest part about providing transportation from low-density suburban areas is the so-called "last mile." That's the gap between commuters' homes and a major highway or transit line, where there's not enough people going to the same place at the same time to provide convenient shuttles.

Park and ride lots around transit stations solve that problem by putting the onus on drivers to get to the station. That's not as efficient as having people live within walking or biking distance of the transit station, but it's better than making them drive the full distance into the city.

Transit agencies should never design their entire systems around park and ride users, but a few park and rides at strategic locations can be a good thing.

Why shouldn't the same idea work for bikes? A few parking lots near major bikeways like the Custis Trail and the Metropolitan Branch Trail might indeed prove useful. Particularly if they're located far from Metro stations, where it's not so crucial to reserve land for transit-oriented development.

Official vs unofficial

Boston has an official park & pedal network, with designated lots specifically for drive-to-bike commuters. It opened in 2015 and has been expanding this year.

Boston's park & pedal network map. Image from Park & Pedal and Google.

Naturally, an official network isn't strictly necessary for commuters to combine driving and biking. In the Washington region, people hoping to bike the last mile into the city can park at Metro stations, private lots, or even neighborhood streets.

But official parking lots do have some big advantages over doing it ad-hoc. They're easier to advertise, and they provide natural places for hubs of bike amenities. With park & pedals, planners could add wayfinding signs, maintenance kiosks, secure bike parking, lockers, even bikeshare stations and bus connections. Each one could become a Union Station-like bike station.

Worth the money?

Car parking is expensive and already abundant. With so many demands on transportation budgets and so little money generally available for bike improvements, spending money to subsidize car parking may be a questionable idea. Better to spend it on bike lanes, bikeshare stations, sidewalks, or transit.

But transportation budgets aren't all-or-nothing. There could be opportunities to partner with parks, churches, developers, and other property owners to designate park & pedals on the cheap, without the need for expensive construction.

Some of Boston's park & pedals are simply designated sections of on-street parking on public streets, and therefore a matter of policy more than construction. Nothing says DC could not do the same.

As Washington area planners do more to make bicycling easy, park & pedals may well be one more tool to add to the toolbox.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


Check out this silly subway song from the 1940s

In the late 1940s, a candidate for mayor in Boston thought fares on the city's subway were too expensive, and that the exit fare structure was too complicated. So he commissioned a couple of folk singers to write a song about a man who boards the subway but can't afford to get off.

In the song, subway fares go up after a man named Charlie starts riding. Charlie doesn't have an extra nickel for the exit fare, so he spends eternity riding aimlessly through Boston's transit system. His wife does manage to bring him a sandwich every day, though.

The song became such a well-known part of Boston folklore that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority named its smart fare card the "CharlieCard."

A few years ago, WMATA lowered the maximum negative balance allowed on SmarTrip cards to $1.50 with little notice. Hopefully there aren't any Charlies stuck on the Metro!

Public Spaces

What other college towns can teach us about College Park's challenges

Our contributors recently discussed why College Park, Maryland doesn't have the same "college town" feel as the places around similar flagship universities in states like Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, or California. But College Park isn't the only place struggling with these issues. What can we learn from other college towns around the nation?

Morgantown, WV. Photo by Bill Walsh on Flickr.

Geoff Hatchard posed the question:

[What] college towns aren't the commonly-cited ones that may be "somewhat great" and are improving that College Park can look to as inspiration? I'm thinking of places that have or are overcoming obstacles. The first that comes to mind is New Haven, CT. Are there other examples anyone can think of?
Ben Ross said, "Boston University might be an example. When I lived in Boston, that stretch of Commonwealth Avenue was dominated by auto dealerships. It's much more urban now."

Photo by Wendy Brolga on Flickr.

Tracey Johnstone has an example from not too far away:

Old Dominion U. in Norfolk had/has the same problems: It's a metropolitan area with better [or worse] places to go and Hampton Blvd. divides it 1/3-2/3rds. And, to be honest, men vastly outnumber women in the Norfolk area (whereas it's the opposite in the immediate DC area) so, the demographic skews younger and more male than most college towns. In other words, college girls aren't limited to dating college boys. As a lot of first-generation college students attend Old Dominion, the income/class jump from dating college students to sailors isn't that big. And the situation is muddied by all the folks attending Old Dominion while still serving and on the GI Bill after getting out.

All that contributed to no "college" ambiance.

Toronto has a few student-oriented places near the university like the Brunswick House, but on one side is the Ontario Parliament Building and on another Toronto's "Rodeo Drive" with Cartier, Louis Vuitton, etc. Not exactly college fare.

Joe Fox fleshed out the list:
Comparisons that come to mind (for me) to UMD—being near an urban area, but not having an urban campus like GWU or ODU, in a large market—are:
  • University of Miami
  • SMU in Dallas
  • University of Richmond
  • Manhattan College
  • Rutgers
  • Seton Hall
  • UC Berkeley
  • UCLA
  • UC-Irvine
  • Arizona State
  • George Mason U
Of the above, only Tempe and Westwood, to me, have that feel. The rest are similar, or less college-like, than College Park.

San José State. Photo by HarshLight on Flickr.

Geoffrey Hatchard said, "Add SJSU in San José to that list."

SJSU is compact, dense, has 30,000 students, but turns its back on all four sides to the city around it. Parking garages are located on a couple of the corners, and the only place where there has been an active move to make the school and the outside city mix is at the northwest corner where the MLK Library, shared by the school and the city's library system (serving as its HQ), sits.
Gray Kimbrough tried to break down the "college town" challenge into some specific factors, which we quoted in the first part as well. He went on to tie them into general trends nationwide:
UMD has a pretty perfect storm of:
  1. A nearby community that is relatively hostile to the university and its students, as others have already mentioned.
  2. A location near, but not really in, a fairly major city.
  3. A campus that is relatively suburban and spread out, in addition to having little interface with the surrounding community.
  4. Its large size, especially relative to its town.
  5. Its lack of a medical center, which can often provide a built-in need for communication between the university and the community (and all the positive results that flow from that).
Universities with prototypical college towns generally lack #2. The closest thing I can think of to an exception would be Princeton, which is NYC-accessible because of NJT, but not really that close. Also Ann Arbor isn't all that far from Detroit, but it's somehow in a different world.

Universities that have condition #2 but nonetheless have good relations with the community tend to lack or have resolved at least one of the other conditions. Northwestern has the advantage that Evanston is quite a bit larger than College Park, but it also has a much denser campus that isn't completely inward facing. Minnesota isn't exactly in downtown Minneapolis, but it has a dense campus that interfaces with a commercial strip on at least one side. And despite original reluctance, UMN's leaders have come around to the idea that transit has a huge role to play in tying the campus to the broader community. Berkeley might be the closest example here, but I haven't spent enough time there to comment on what they're doing right.

Transit mall at the University of Minnesota. Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.
Basically think of any large university that has a decent amount of activity near campus. All of these have at least one side of campus that blends relatively seamlessly with a prime commercial strip. UMD has a pretty effective buffer on its side of campus facing US 1, and basically no part of campus faces outward. NCSU is beyond what could be considered a relatively dense core in Raleigh, yet somehow its main campus is denser than UMD's.

Also, where a university lacks a great relationship with the surrounding community, a medical center can serve as an entry point to a discussion to improve that. I see some schools that have turned their backs on their towns, like Yale and Duke, starting to take advantage of this. UMD has a vet school, but I don't think this has the same effect as a really good hospital. Even GW and Georgetown have built-in positive interactions with DC because of their med schools and hospitals.

College Park can't do much about #2, #4, or #5, but they can work to change #3 in particular, and hopefully work on #1 in the process. There needs to be an acknowledgment that the layout of UMD's campus absolutely plays a factor here. As they build out the campus, perhaps they can work to both build more densely and build connections to the surrounding area.

Jonathan Krall brought it back to walkability and the urban form:
In my experience, most universities have adjacent commercial areas, so long as zoning allows it. The ones with college towns have human-scale street grids in or adjacent to the commercial zone. This is true of UC Boulder, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSB, all of which have large cities nearby. It is not true of UM College Park or UC San Diego. I do not know how those street grids came to be, but they make all the difference. What the college-town part of Boulder (just west of the school) has over College Park isn't better shops and restaurants. It's that people like to walk and bicycle in the college-town part of Boulder (and the rest of Boulder as well, but that's another story).

However, these college towns could be considered anemic (Boulder, UCSB) or over-commercialized (Berkeley, UCLA) compared to a small college town such as Ithaca, NY, home to Ithaca College and Cornell University. The big-city effect is real, but it is the walkable street grid that is essential.

Westwood, CA. Photo by Tony Hoffarth on Flickr.

Owen Chaput pointed out that what makes a good "college town" varies depending on whose eyes you are looking through:

When we ask what makes a good college town, whose perspective are we looking at it from? Undergraduates, graduate students, staff, unaffiliated residents, and random visitors all have very different needs and interests, and what suits one group very well might be uninteresting (or a nuisance) for another group. I suspect that a great college town comes in part from having all groups present on or nearby campus, and relatively dependent on the campus business district(s) to meet their needs.

For towns looking to improve, here are a few possible factors: for undergrads, the challenge is getting them off campus and spending money or living in the surrounding community. With grad students, the challenge is enough cheap housing, beer, and culture nearby the university so the grad students don't go live somewhere more interesting and affordable. Staff (professors, admin, support) and unaffiliated community residents need to be able to live close enough to the college business districts to patronize them year-round, but require diversified housing stock and separation from the weekend rowdiness.

Ithaca, NY is the best I've ever spent time in. Hard to find fault with it, except it is far from a major city and frigid for six months of the year. But it's an easier example since it doesn't fit the UM-College Park suburban-urban rubric, and I think it benefited from natural geography keeping things crowded in two directions. Emory is bad. Surrounded by very expensive, low-density suburban housing, but only three miles from Atlanta! Very little commercial zoning. Awful, awful traffic. It has a huge medical facility and the CDC right next door, but lacks any college town feel. The walkable street grid explanation fits for Emory.

What universities around the nation do you think have lessons for UMD and College Park?


Uber will give Boston planners useful data about where and when people ride

Planners in Boston, and eventually, regular residents will be able to analyze patterns of where and when people take Uber. The ride-hailing service has announced that it will give Boston data files listing all of the trips people have taken, with the locations anonymized to only show the ZIP code where they start and stop.

Photo by Kjetil Korslien on Flickr.

Cities already collect this kind of information from taxis, and it's available for services like Capital Bikeshare. But Uber doesn't provide it. In September, I suggested that as cities legalize such services and essentially deregulate the taxi market, they demand this kind of transparency in return.

However, Uber fought the idea. In New York, company representatives fiercely opposed efforts by the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission to collect the information. In DC, they more privately lobbied councilmembers not to require Uber to disclose this information, and enough didn't want to pick a fight with Uber that they didn't make it an issue.

Uber has had a run of bad press lately, and as it has grown, has encountered more criticism from the public. Emily Badger writes in Wonkblog that by making this concession, Uber may be hoping to win over some suspicious city officials and also set the terms of what data it will and won't share.

The data could be very valuable to planners, who will be able to understand where people are and want to go at various times of the day and week. This could help cities think about where transit service should go, where there is demand for new housing and retail, what happens during special events, and much more.

On the other hand, Uber is keeping secret much of the data that cities might need for consumer protection. While it's possible to compute the regular fare based on distance and time, which are part of the data set, it says nothing about surge prices or other special pricing.

Uber's data will also not reveal how long people have to wait for Ubers or whether in certain areas or certain times of day people can't get a car at all. This is something cities will want to know if, sometime in the future, Uber drivers are avoiding certain low-income or minority areas, for instance. Even if Uber itself doesn't do that, another ride-hailing company might. If Uber's data becomes an industry standard, regulators won't know that about the other company, either.

Finally, in Boston Uber is only giving the data to officials, not the public, but Badger says it will be subject to open records requests. If so, we can hope that Uber would start simply releasing the data file more publicly to save the step of making the request.

Uber representatives say the company will eventually start offering the data to other cities. Given all the facts, videos, maps, and graphs people have been able to generate from Capital Bikeshare data, we can look forward to learning fascinating things about how people travel once Uber provides the same for DC.


The biggest bikeshare station in each US city

Throughout 2014, DC and New York have jockeyed back and forth over which city's bikeshare system has the most stations in the United States. But who has the biggest stations?

New York’s 67-dock station. Photo from Google.

DC currently leads in the number of stations race, 335 to 324. But the number of stations only tells part of the story. New York's stations are vastly bigger than DC's, and by far the largest in the US.

New York's biggest station, which is outside of Penn Station, has a whopping 67 docks. It's almost 50% larger than the next city's largest station.

Here's the number of docks at the biggest station in America's main big-city bikeshare systems:

RankCityLargest stationDocks at largest station
1New YorkPenn Station67
2BostonSouth Station46
3WashingtonDupont Circle45
5MinneapolisCoffman Union and Lake/Knox32
6Miami Beach46th/Collins31
7tSan FranciscoMarket/10th and 2nd/Townsend27

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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