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Montgomery a prime example of "how housing matters"

It's not often that 2 members of the Presidential Cabinet sit down for a morning chat before a crowd of several hundred spectators. Last week, however, at the National Building Museum's "How Housing Matters" Conference, Secretary Shaun Donovan of HUD and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Health and Human Services did just that.

Photo by evmaiden on Flickr.

The keynote conversation, centered around the impact of the built environment on individuals' well-being and development, set the tone for a productive day of interdisciplinary discussion and debate. Throughout the event, leading experts from around the nation discussed the significance of housing and its role in education, economic development and public health.

The Washington area's own Montgomery County came up as a headliner during the panel on housing and education.

The Maryland county served as the setting for a recent study by Heather Schwartz, of the Rand Corporation, and based on Heather's findings, it may be a model for other areas in search of a new and effective strategy for raising educational standards.

In her study, Heather sought to uncover the impact of economically integrative housing on academic success among elementary-aged students. In short, she was able to track the progress of a cohort of highly disadvantaged elementary students whose families, previously tenants of traditional public housing, had been randomly assigned to low-poverty areas affiliated with low-poverty elementary schools.

Over a period of five to seven years, she was able to track significant improvements in math and reading scores among the transplanted population. Furthermore, not only did the students placed in low-poverty schools outperform their moderate-poverty peer group, but they had also played catch-up to their peers. By the end of elementary school, the resettled population had narrowed the achievement gap with their non-poor peers by one-half for math and one-third for reading.

While it may come as no surprise that placing kids into more stable environments and sending them to wealthier schools has an effect on their academic performance, the rate and consistency of academic improvement among kids in the study is nothing short of impressive.

Given the success and simplicity of the approach, it is astounding how uncommon it is for US cities or counties to implement such a strategy.

I had a chance to sit down with Heather following her presentation, and one of the first things that I asked her was, "Why Montgomery County?"

As it turns out, the DC suburb is currently the single largest community to feature a policy of inclusionary zoning, without which Heather's study could not have been possible.

Inclusionary zoning amounts to a set of laws that require developers to set aside housing for lower income families. In Montgomery's case, the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program means that approximately 15% of homes built are to be sold or rented at below-market value. More often than not, the right of first refusal to purchase the home falls to the Housing Authority. Nestled within otherwise affluent communities, these dwellings provide stable, high-quality housing and unrestricted access to community resources for families that would otherwise find themselves in poor public housing developments.

Although, as Heather pointed out, inclusionary zoning has been around since the early 1970's and many studies have indicated the model is highly successful, relatively few communities have embraced it in the same way as Montgomery County.

While there are likely many reasons that this is the case, one concern that may arise is whether integrating schools to include variable poverty levels may actually decrease the performance of students hailing from low-poverty homes. Heather's finding's indicate that no such trend exists, and that the effects of mixing up an elementary school population through inclusionary zoning yields only positive effects for the economically disadvantaged students.

Of course, inclusionary zoning policies are not limited to Montgomery County. Heather is following up on her original research with a new study that will examine 11 cities and over 15,000 addresses.

For the time being, effective and enforced inclusionary zoning is predominantly a highly local movement that lacks widespread popularity. With research initiatives like Heather's and forums like the "How Housing Matters" conference, coupled with growing, bipartisan alarm regarding the state of education and child welfare in the US, perhaps we'll see more interest and more implementation of inclusionary zoning in the future.


Sustainability and equity should be part of development

Making American cities sustainable is about much more than just greener buildings. Programs such as economic development initiatives can contribute to sustainability and need to incorporate equity for residents, said speakers on a recent panel at the National Building Museum.

Photo by Mastery of Maps on Flickr.

The Penn Institute for Urban Research, along with the Urban Institute, Next American City, and the National Building Museum sponsored Tuesday's panel discussion on "Urban Sustainability Initiatives: Challenges and Opportunities."

Speakers included Dr. Raphael Bostic, Assistant Secre­tary for Policy Development and Research at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; Rolf Pendall of the Urban Institute; Anita Hairston of PolicyLink; Dr. Catherine Ross from Georgia Tech's College of Archi­tecture; Paul Brophy of the Brookings Institution; and Eugenie Birch of the Penn Institute.

Instead of the typical focus of many sustainability panels on how designing, renovating or refitting greener buildings can bring jobs, panelists instead talked about how economic development itself can contribute to sustainability.

In older industrial cities, policymakers will have to find ways to make those cities more attractive to both attract and retain people. Without public policy actions, most people would otherwise settle in high-growth areas, putting additional strain on already-scarce resources such as water and land.

Neighborhoods in these cities (and elsewhere) also need to become attractive to bring in knowledge workers and help the low-income population. Besides the ethical value of helping low-income people, a large low-income population in a city increases negative perceptions of a region and hurts its global economic competitiveness.

To achieve this, all levels of government will have to think creatively about sustainability planning, given scarce financial resources. Communities will have to find ways to incentivize private actors, both for-profit and nonprofit, and link their self-interests and the interests of the whole community.

While places are important, making sustainable places is really about people, and allowing people to do what they need to in a place. Dr. Bostic gave an example of how local government employees find themselves priced out of living in the Southern California community where they worked. He argued that the people will ultimately be what allow a place to succeed.

The other speakers also referenced the importance of the people to the place. Dr. Ross contended that sustainability should be resident-driven, neighborhood-focused, and empowerment-oriented. Ms. Hairston said that demographic changes will produce big economic disparities in the country's metropolitan regions. Referencing his work in local government, Mr. Brophy argued that increasing regulation of federal funds (to decrease corruption, among other reasons) has made it difficult to attract creative people to work on those programs.

Mr. Pendall said policymakers need to recognize that there are different policy impacts and priorities for different populations. With regard to environmental concerns, the focus should be on the effect of larger housing lot sizes and vehicle miles traveled rather than only on increasing density and access to public transportation. Larger lot sizes result in more spread-out housing and other land use patterns, while many low-income families depend on private automobiles to travel to jobs, schools, or other opportunities outside their communities or inaccessible by public transportation.

Speakers referenced several HUD and nonprofit programs they felt were making a difference in communities, including Strong Cities, Strong Communities. But they also listed other challenges confronting urban regions, especially in light of the acceleration of processes and globalization. These problems include managing vacant urban land for rational use and dealing with the large number of single-family suburban homes that will be coming into the housing market in the near future as baby boomers move to different homes in retirement.

Economic development can provide a powerful tool for helping communities grow within their means. And the developments and other assets communities create today will likely be with them far into the future.


Support the CaBi CANstruction and feed the hungry

In this morning's Breakfast Links, we pointed out a sculpture of a Capital Bikeshare bike made out of cans. Builder Jorge Mayor wrote to us with more information about the project and how it helps the needy.

I was part of the team that built the Capital Bikeshare bike out of Amy's soup cans. We made a timelapse video and posted it on Youtube:

CANstruction benefits the Capital Area Food Bank (all food used is donated to the food bank). People can either go to the Building Museum and donate canned foods by voting for their favorite structure (one can = one vote), or they can go online and make a donation where $1 = one vote. It's a great event for a great cause, and we'd love for your readers to get involved.

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