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Posts about Affordable Housing

Housing


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.

Development


Planned Unit Developments are a big part of building in DC. Here's an explanation of what those are.

When it comes to development, there's often tension between what's practical or ideal and what the zoning rules at a given site allow. One tool available to builders in DC is called a Planned Unit Development. PUDs allow flexibility in the rules, and since they're happening all over the city, it's worth understanding what they are and how they work.


The space on the left, which is on E Street SE, between 13th and 14th Streets, used to be zoned "light industrial." Thanks to a PUD, residential units (rendered on the right) are going in. Images from Google Maps and Insight Property, respectively.

What is a Planned Unit Development?

Many residential or mixed use construction projects, whether carried out by a homeowner or a developer, meet the letter of DC's current zoning laws. In these cases, the city deems the plans "by right" and goes on to issue a construction permit. But other times, zoning rules allow for flexibility in their interpretation, and "zoning relief" can be granted.

For projects where a homeowner or developer wants to do something a bit different, like building closer to the edge of the lot than what's prescribed, additional review and approval are required, typically by DC's Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA). However, the BZA process is for relatively minor zoning relief, such as exceeding lot coverage or reduced parking requirements.

A third type of project, a PUD, gives developers more significant zoning relief. This can come by way of allowing a building to be taller or denser than what the zoning code says is allowed, or building a residential or commercial building in space that's zoned for industrial.

PUDs are managed by DC's Zoning Commission, which is in charge of changes to the zoning regulations or zoning map. The commission can grant zoning relief if it believes the proposed project—and, in particular, the way it deviates from what's allowed by right—will allow for something better for the surrounding neighborhood or city.

Because a PUD can provide substantial zoning relief, developers are expected to provide benefits to the community in return. The PUD process also provides the community an opportunity to engage with and influence the project in a substantial way. So while a PUD often means a developer can build higher or denser buildings, it also means the community can get things like streetscape improvements, community resources, or additional affordable housing.

Below is a map of all of the developments in DC that currently have approval to move forward, or whose approval is pending, and that used a PUD. There are 221 of the former and 28 of the latter.


Colors represent the proposed zoning through the PUD process. Map by Mao Hu, using the leaflet package for R. Data from DC Open Data.

What do PUD cases mean for the community?

Any case that requires zoning relief provides an opportunity for neighbors to weigh in on the planned project, through the ANC or the BZA. Because a PUD is typically a larger project with larger impacts on the community, PUDs typically involve a longer and more detailed community engagement process.

Another important feature of PUDs is that they require developers to provide a benefits and amenities package to the community in exchange for the request zoning relief. This means community participation in the PUD process is critical.

What is a benefits and amenities package?

When a developer asks for exceptions to zoning rules through a PUD, those exceptions clearly have some value; that means the developer has to "pay" for them. That payment usually comes in the form of a suite of benefits and amenities to the community, which should be roughly equal to the value of the zoning relief.

Benefits and amenities packages vary by project, and there are relatively few restrictions or even guidelines on what a package can include. The "benefits" component accrues to the community, while the "amenities" are typically more relevant for the residents of the development. An example of a benefit might be improvements to a local dog park or streetscape upgrades. Another might be a transportation "hub" in the development that provides information to residents on local transportation options.

Here are some typical categories of benefits and amenities:

  • Architecture and landscaping
  • Efficient and economical land utilization
  • Safe vehicular and pedestrian access; transportation management measures
  • Historic preservation projects
  • Employment and training opportunities
  • Affordable housing
  • Social services or facilities
  • Environmental benefits
In general, District agencies involved in PUD cases prefer public benefits that are physical investments, like playground equipment or bicycle racks, rather than "soft" investments, such as monetary contributions to a nonprofit organization. The rationale is that physical investments are relatively guaranteed to provide benefits to the community for the long term while soft investments may not always provide the intended stream of benefits (for example, the nonprofit could close).

PUD benefits don't have to be right on the development site, but they must be within a quarter mile or within the boundaries of the ANC in which the PUD sits.

Cross-posted from Nick Burger 6B06.

Housing


The Housing Production Trust Fund, explained

The Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) is a pot of money used to build affordable housing in DC. Since 2001, money from the fund has helped to produce or preserve nearly 10,000 units of affordable housing. Unlike other programs, which rely on federal funds to increase the supply of affordable housing, the HPTF is funded entirely with money raised within the District.


Photo by Ryan McKnight on Flickr.

The HPTF is designed to focus on affordable housing for low- and extremely low-income residents. Typically, the fund provides "gap financing," bridging the gap between sources developers use to build affordable housing—including federal tax credits and subsidies—and the actual costs of building it.

In this explainer, I focus on the details of how the HPTF finances affordable housing development and some of the key challenges that it faces.

The Housing Production Trust Fund is a dedicated source of money used to finance the production and preservation of affordable housing

Many cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Philadelphia, have similar types of funds. Each city has different rules for actually providing the Fund with money and distributing that money.

In DC, the HPTF is controlled by the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). DHCD issues a notice of funding availability (NOFA) and developers apply to use the money to build.

This process means that the HPTF is a way to leverage both private and federal funds to create affordable housing. Developers may use private financing, federal low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) and money from the HPTF to build affordable housing. For every dollar invested in affordable housing from the HPTF, another $2.50 is invested from other sources.

There are many examples of affordable housing in DC that was produced using HPTF money, as detailed in this recent report from the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. The developers that built Overlook at Oxon Run in Ward 8 used HPTF funding to cover about a third of the project's total cost. The building includes more than 300 units of affordable housing, many of which are specifically designed for seniors.

Using money from the HPTF, developers are able to build units that they can rent to families with lower incomes. Also, developers may use this money to construct units that they otherwise would not build given market constraints, including larger units oriented toward families.

The Housing Production Trust Fund receives funding from two sources

The main source of funding for the HPTF is the deed transfer and recordation tax, which is what property owners pay the city whenever they sell a building or piece of land.

In 2003, the DC Council designated 15 percent of revenue from these taxes to fund the HPTF.

However, this dedicated funding source fluctuates wildly based on the housing market. When people are buying and selling frequently, the HPTF sees a boost in funding; when the market slows, there are fewer property transactions to fund the HPTF.

The city can add additional revenue to the HPTF from the city's general fund, which is the pot of money used to pay for most other city agencies. In recent years, as Mayor Bowser promised to raise the HPTF to $100 million, the city added additional revenue from the general fund to reach these funding goals.

Last year, less than half of the funds for the HPTF came from dedicated taxes.

The Housing Production Trust Fund must be used to finance housing for low- and extremely low-income families.

The rules of the HPTF stipulate that at least 40 percent of funds must be targeted to assist households below 30 percent of the AMI. In DC, this means housing for families of four earning up to $32,760.

An additional 40 percent are targeted at households earning between 31 and 50 percent of the AMI. In DC, this means housing for families of four earning up to $54,600. The remaining funds can assist in the production of housing units for families earning up to 80 percent of the AMI.

However, a recent audit of the HPTF reveals that DHCD has failed to finance the required units for extremely low-income households in recent years.

A recent report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that 9,900 units have been produced using the HPTF since 2001.

Nearly half of these units—4,708—were produced in Wards 7 and 8, the areas east of the Anacostia River that historically have seen less investment.

Units produced with funds from the HPTF must remain affordable for a period of time. Ownership units typically must remain affordable for 15 years. Rental units must remain affordable for 40 years.

Despite helping to finance thousands of units of affordable housing, the HPTF faces continued challenges

Critics regularly contend that the HPTF needs a more dedicated source of funding to make it less reliant on the political priorities of each mayoral administration. Money from DC's General Fund is up for grabs every year, so appropriations from it are highly political.

Rather than a share of the deed transfers and recordation taxes, researchers at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute suggest a set dollar amount from these taxes.

This dedicated funding would decrease the reliance on political leaders to fund the HPTF each year. Although the Bowser administration has committed to funding the HPTF up to $100 million, proponents of the HPTF are concerned that the fund may be less of a priority for future administrations.

Additionally, critics have expressed concerns about the ability the HPTF to meet its affordability goals. Since there are few programs used to create deep affordability (for households earning less than 30 percent of the AMI), the HPTF is an extremely important tool.

Finally, observers are always looking to ways that the HPTF can better leverage its funds to increase affordable housing production.

Despite these concerns, the HPTF remains the largest—and most important—tool of the District government to protect, preserve and maintain affordable housing.

Housing


Public housing, explained

Public housing has long been a tool for governments to create and preserve affordable shelter, but many public housing complexes today are under threat.


Barry Farm, a public housing complex in DC. Photo by Matailong Du/Street Sense on Flickr.

After decades of neglect, many public housing developments have fallen into disrepair. Others have been demolished and replaced with market-rate housing units, especially as surrounding communities experience gentrification.

Once the most important tool for housing low-income families, public housing now makes up a shrinking share of the affordable housing options in the DC region and nation. Today, about 7,300 families in the District live in 40 public housing developments managed by the DC Housing Authority (DCHA).

In this explainer, I examine the challenges facing the current stock of public housing in the District.

Public housing developments were the United States' earliest form of affordable housing

In 1937, Congress passed the National Housing Act, which authorized the construction of public housing. The program was viewed as a way to jumpstart a slow economy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Initially, many public housing developments housed moderate-income families. However, demographic shifts resulted in changes to the composition of public housing. As poorer families moved to the city, where much of public housing was, and middle-class ones fled to the suburbs, public housing developments came to house an increasingly poorer set of households.

By the 1970s, the federal government halted the construction of new public housing developments

At this point, many existing developments had fallen into disrepair because they were poorly maintained.

Critically, policymakers realized that public housing concentrated poverty in certain neighborhoods by creating dense buildings comprised exclusively of low-income families. It contributed to racial segregation and limited opportunities for households to move to better communities.

Over the next couple decades, many public housing developments would continue to provide affordable housing, despite their deteriorating conditions. Others would be torn down and replaced with mixed-income housing developments.

During this period, housing vouchers would replace public housing as the primary tool for housing low-income Americans.

About 1.2 million households live in public housing in the US. Here are the numbers for our region:

As noted above, only 7,300 families in the District live in public housing developments. There is a long wait-list of families waiting to get into public housing.

Some of these are low-rise complexes spread over multiples buildings, like the Barry Farm development in Ward 8. Others are single, high-rise buildings, like Claridge Tower in Ward 2.

While the DC Housing Authority manages the public housing stock in the District, much of the funding to maintain and repair these buildings comes from the federal government. In the region, housing authorities in Fairfax, Alexandria and Montgomery County also manage a substantial number of public housing units.

Public housing provides stability for many families that would face the highest risk of housing instability or eviction on the private market

Like households with housing vouchers, housing costs are kept affordable for public housing residents by limiting the rent to thirty percent of their income.

According to a recent report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the average income for a family of four living in public housing in the District is $16,050. (The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,850.)

Ninety percent of households in public housing have an income below $32,100 annually, which is 30 percent of the AMI.

Households living in public housing are disproportionately headed by the elderly and people with disabilities. In fact, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that fully one-third of households in public housing are headed by a senior citizen.

About twenty-two percent of households in public housing are headed by an adult with a disability.

Public housing developments across the country are struggling with maintenance and upkeep

In the District, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) estimates that there are more than $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance costs, including repairs to buildings.

These concerns are shared in other cities, as well. In New York City, the public housing authority estimates more than $16 billion in deferred maintenance costs.

Critics argue that this neglect of public housing has resulted in buildings being uninhabitable. They refer to this deterioration as demolition by neglect.

Plans to redevelop public housing developments have been controversial

In 1996, Congress authorized the HOPE VI program to redevelop severely distressed public housing developments. Through HOPE VI, private developers redeveloped public housing sites, usually creating a mix of affordable and market-rate units.

In the District, one of the public housing developments to go through HOPE VI was Arthur Capper Carrollsburg. The low-rise public housing development underwent a massive redevelopment, creating a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Critics contend that the project, which took nearly a decade to complete, resulted in widespread displacement of existing public housing residents.

Although the HOPE VI program has now ended, researchers are actively trying to understand the consequences of redeveloping public housing developments into mixed-income neighborhoods through the program.

In the District, the New Communities Initiative similarly aims to redevelop public housing developments. The program is slated to redevelop more than 1,000 public housing units in three large developments across the city—Barry Farm in Ward 8, Lincoln Heights in Ward 7 and Park Morton in Ward 1.

The program aims for one-to-one replacement of affordable housing units. This means that residents of public housing would have the opportunity to stay in their communities following the redevelopment.

However, the New Communities program has struggled amid concerns about the disruption of community ties and the displacement of existing residents during the redevelopment process.

Housing


Can we develop communities for the people who already live in them?

Income inequality, gentrification, and neighborhoods changing in a short period of time—put them all together and the question is "who is left behind?" How can change happen in a city without displacing people?


Photo by Tony Hisgett on Flickr.

On October 3rd, HBO aired Class Divide, a documentary that provided a look into gentrification's effects on one neighborhood in New York City. The film examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend the Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.

Last week, we attended a sneak peak that was followed by a panel discussion on how the larger issues in the film are also affecting the DC region. The participants were Class Divide director Marc Levin, 11th Street Bridge Park project director Scott Kratz, and Oramenta F. Newsome, the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Hyisheem Shabazz Calier, who participated in the documentary, also spoke about his experiences living in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project and experiences since leaving to attend college and pursue entrepreneurship. The panel was moderated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell.

After the first half hour of the documentary played, the panelists discussed gentrification, income and racial inequality, and the unintended consequences that come when planning large public projects like the Manhattan's High Line.

We (Joanne and Andrew) attended the event and later watched the full documentary. We discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Andrew Ausel (AA): I thought the documentary was a good segue into a discussion on DC. Particularly because what New York is experiencing is kind of like mega-gentrification. And while what DC is experiencing is challenging, it's nothing near the extent to which West Chelsea residents are experiencing it.

Joanne Pierce (JP): You make a good point, that New York City shows us this mega-gentrification but DC could easily be a mega-gentrifier in its own way if we're not watching out for it. Oramenta made a great point about that, which is that developers are "finding" neighborhoods and finding these beautiful pre-World War II buildings they want to turn into luxury condos. These neighborhoods have been here for such a long time, and yet developers come in and seem to just swallow them whole with their shiny new buildings or luxury things.

AA: Absolutely. Neighborhoods with rich cultural and architectural features are attractive to developers and the residents treat them almost like ornaments that add to their property values. Exhibit A… the High Line in Manhattan.


The High Line in Manhattan. Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr.

AA: An equivalent DC example would be Capitol Hill, Union Station, or any of the numerous historical landmarks that have been flipped. Look at the NoMa area as an example: the neighborhood runs just adjacent to the Uline Arena, which is set to become the fifth flagship REI. But look just north of Florida Ave., opposite of the Red Line to NoMa, and development isn't really happening there, primarily because it is outside of the Business Improvement District. I think more work needs to be done to bridge that gap.


Uline Arena. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: One of the things I liked was how the High Line was used in this documentary. It was one of the three central structures, along with the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects and the Avenues school. Have you been to the High Line before?

AA: I have not, have you?

JP: I have, and I loved it. It's overwhelming in scale and sensory input.


The brick building in the middle of the frame is the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects and the building at the right of the frame is Avenues: The World School. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

JP: Scott brought up unintended consequences. I hadn't considered the High Line to be one of those, because it's so beautiful and it's brought so much joy to what was a desolate, unwanted piece of transit history. But we see in the documentary that it also created this real estate boom and I don't think I considered that the High Line had negative consequences because I had no idea there were housing projects nearby. So that brings up questions of privilege and how we can be really unaware of the circumstances that lead to social and income inequality, and how our desire for nice things and amenities has possibly made people complicit in gentrification, even when we don't live in the areas being gentrified.

AA: It really is a new development, and something that I think we have to start assuming will happen as we try and address urban blight. In generations prior, I don't think the desire for urban living was there, so we never asked "what happens when we fix this place up?" Now, as we fix it up, there is a demand and a market and its being filled by people who aren't from the community.

I think the real gap in understanding then comes from the "invading" ignorance to what was there before. The residents who purchase these $15 million condos don't necessarily appreciate all the different culture that was there before. Oramenta made a good point when she said that we do live in a free market, and those are the rules of the game.

JP: She said, "we have to remember that in our society, the [income] bar keeps moving."

AA: But what [Marc Levin] does such a good job of in his documentary is observing the issue from the perspective of the kids. Kids who don't necessarily want to be viewed as the rich white kids but want to be looked at as humans.

JP: What is wealth today may not be wealth ten years from now and what's striking about that idea is that people at the bottom won't necessarily get wealthier just because these areas like NoMa are becoming popular and revitalized. Looking through the eyes of the kids and without explicitly stating it, he showed that children aren't different from each other in their fears and uncertainties just because of their socioeconomic status.

AA: And he reflected on that during the panel when he said that this generation is truly unique in that they recognize the forces of free trade and the globalization of the economy and they are figuring out, where do they fit in? They are much more reflective and aware and you see this in the film.

JP: Even though the documentary doesn't really go into globalization, it's a huge concern.

AA: We have to answer anew, how exactly do we develop communities for the people in the community? Scott Kratz was particularly helpful in coming up with strategies for that.

JP: He was, and I appreciated how focused he was on the collaborative side of the 11th Street Bridge project. He was very clear that he wanted to understand, first of all, did residents even want something like that? It's a question that I don't think gets brought up enough.


The 11th Street Bridge. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

AA: Right. It was a much more communicative version of community organizing that represented bottom-up development instead of a planning commission or a developing company telling the people how the plan would look. It was truly encouraging and part of me honestly felt weird feeling optimistic when thinking about this issue. It was almost like I wanted them to dive more into the problem of gentrification so I could understand the issue, while what Scott really did was reject the challenges of community unity and figured out how to make it work. It really sounded like the community was the approval body for a lot of the design. And it made me realize something very important for any effort like this. It made me realize that communities have to have a unified vision and sort of be very homogenous.

JP: I looked up some information on the 11th Street Bridge project and the website says there are 76,000 residents within a two mile radius of the bridge. The kind of collaboration required to get as many of those voices heard seems stunning. I think the documentary brought up an interesting point about homogeneity by class, and not race: that the residents of the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects aren't excluded because of race, but because of class.

AA: It's definitely a good point and may make for a good lesson learned from the film, that communities are only as equipped to fight the forces of development as they are unified and empowered to fight it.

JP: What do you think about Ornamenta's point about race, that it's always present but in many cases what neighborhoods want to preserve is history and that is sometimes African-American history. Her example was Anacostia, which she says has only been an African-American community for two or three generations.


Anacostia. Photo by Axel Drainville on Flickr.

AA: I think that's true. To observe the inverse, Alexandria, which is a predominately white city, does a lot to preserve its history and highlight the positive aspects of their colonial culture. You don't see a whole lot of African-American festivals in Alexandria and that's for a reason. So much of human history is tied up in race, likely because so much of human identity is tied up in race. Which raises the question, is the only force that prevents equitable development economic?

JP: Alexandria has a lot of African-American history and there should be more opportunities to emphasize it. But we also have to talk about which Alexandria we are referring to. Old Town, the West suburbs (Seminary Hill), or Fairfax County and the immediate Route 1 corridor, which is probably more Hispanic and African-American.

AA: Very true. But that is arguably a more recent development. I think the important point here is that Americans in general feel a sense of community that is strongest with those who look most like them. That is true in DC, Alexandria, and NYC, among others. We need to be actively figuring out ways to compensate for this and foster communities of understanding and, really, pluralism.

JP: I read that immigrant communities aren't actually that mobile. They find an area they like and tend to stick to it. I think it can be trickier than that. Maybe on a more general scale, people do want to be homogeneous but there are some aspects of racial identity that may make that difficult. Anecdotally, I think younger Asian-Americans, for example, yo-yo between wanting to hang out with an Asian community and conversely don't think that's the most important or relevant. It does help if your "community" is all over the Northern Virginia and DC area, though. East Asian-Americans do have that.

AA: True. I think the documentary was revealing in the way the high-rise condo community treated the minorities who lived in their building. [One of the documentary participants] reflected that he often gets looks like he doesn't live there. But the interesting thing is that often times the white kids who lived on the top floors of these places didn't want to fall into that stigma. They wanted to understand. The challenge becomes how do we fight stigmas then.

JP: This is a pretty old question. We've had cultural and racial stigmas for a very long time. Gentrification seems to exacerbate that, in that you sometimes see the developers coming in and they're all well-educated, relatively wealthy people. They are proposing a dream that in some cases, means pushing other people out. As Scott said, it's "cultural displacement." The stigma behind that can be race or socioeconomic status, and what Scott and other community-focused organizers seem to focus on is bolstering the voices of people who would be marginalized or ignored by the planning community. Using their well-educated, relatively wealthy status for good and not evil, I suppose.

AA: It is a very old question, but the truth is that communities don't do the hard work to answer it and find ways to live together effectively in the face of the prospect of gentrification. There is a blind allegiance to the ideology that promotes quick development. But you are right in that the 11th Street Bridge Park team took the time to lead that discussion and really bolstered the voices of those that would have been washed out.

JP: I think Oramenta spoke about that as well. She said that there's a difference between diversity you see on The Mall and diversity in her neighborhood, whether it's due to income or race. She said there are people who can go home to a comfortable place, and she wants to create more opportunities to see others and be like, "I could live there." To me, that seems to also focus on preserving a neighborhood but also encouraging growth in a more organic way. Leading new people in by showing them what the neighborhood already has to offer, and how it's going to be progressive about its growth, but not doing it through only having shiny luxury goods and condos.

AA: I also thought that a big issue that was presented by the panel was the idea of renter empowerment. What were your thoughts on the strategies presented like community land trusts and homebuyers clubs?

JP: They mentioned TOPA, which is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. It allows renters to have first opportunity to buy their rental properties before a landlord can sell the building. I think TOPA is great but it also requires extensive education and understanding of DC housing processes and that's one area where the homebuyers clubs can really step in. They can provide that education. A lot of times, what shuts people out of the process, whether it's democracy or planning their neighborhood, is that it's overwhelming.

AA: Sure, and the challenges can seem larger and influenced by so many more things than one community can prevent. I think dispelling that narrative and empowering low-income residents to protect their homes through effective policies is an important lesson I took from the panel. Luckily for D.C. it sounds like they have a lot of good laws in place to protect the tenant

JP: We've seen through examples like the Wah Luck House [in Chinatown] that sometimes these fights take many years. I hope in the future that it won't be so hard.

AA: I'm hopeful. The panel actually really helped with that!

JP: It presents a good blueprint for that kind of collaboration to take place. It'll be interesting to see how the 11th Street Bridge project moves forward.

AA: Indeed. I think it's in a very preliminary stage which may mean I should temper my excitement just a little. Regardless, it sounds like they're doing everything right.

Housing


Some Silver Spring residents want a park instead of affordable housing

Montgomery County wants to turn the former Silver Spring library into affordable housing. Now neighbors are circulating a petition to make it a park instead, even though there's already a park next door.


The former Silver Spring Library. Photo from Google Street View.

Even before the Silver Spring Library moved to a new building last summer, Montgomery County has been trying to figure out what to do with its 1950's-era building and parking lot on Colesville Road.

In the past, Parks Department officials said they want to make it a recreation center. But that may not be necessary if the county goes with a proposal to build a bigger recreation center and aquatic center in a new apartment building a few blocks away.

This summer, county officials floated the idea of replacing the old library with affordable apartments for seniors and a childcare center. But some neighbors insist that the library become a recreation center and park, and are circulating a petition claiming that downtown Silver Spring has "no open space," that Silver Spring has enough housing, and that a park is the "green" solution.


Aerial of the former library site. Image from Google Maps altered by the author.

This isn't the first time some residents have raised these arguments, particularly when there's a proposal to build new homes. But Montgomery County has the right idea in using the old library for affordable housing.

You'd be surprised how much open space Silver Spring has

Would you believe me if I told you downtown Silver Spring had 38 acres of open space, or more than seven Dupont Circles? That's what the Montgomery County Planning Department found in a 2008 study of downtown green space.


Current and proposed "public use spaces" in downtown Silver Spring. Map from the Planning Department.

That number includes public parks, like the 14-acre Jesup Blair Park. But it also includes the open spaces Montgomery County requires developers to include in their projects, which has resulted in dozens of pocket parks and plazas, and even playgrounds around downtown.

Some of them are great, while others poorly designed and underused. But even the bad parks represent an opportunity to reclaim open space in downtown.

As a result of that 2008 study, county planners have encouraged developers to provide bigger parks, and now Silver Spring is poised to get them. A new, one-acre park will soon open at the Blairs as a placeholder for an even bigger set of parks. The Studio Plaza redevelopment off of Georgia Avenue will have a 13,000 square foot park.

There are also several public parks right next to downtown that are getting renovated or expanded, including Ellsworth Park and Woodside Park, or Fenton Street Park. Meanwhile, major regional parks like Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park are two miles of downtown, giving urban dwellers easy access to nature.

Silver Spring still needs more new housing

Thousands of new homes have been built around downtown Silver Spring in recent years, and thousands more will come soon. That includes some buildings dedicated to affordable housing, including The Bonifant, which just opened this year.

But housing prices are already out of reach for many people and continue to rise. New two-bedroom apartments in Silver Spring can rent for upwards of $3,000 per month, while in the surrounding neighborhoods, some homes have quadrupled in value over the past 20 years.

Silver Spring has become an increasingly desirable area over the past 20 years. Even as new homes get built, they don't meet the demand from people who want to live here, so prices continue to go up. As a recent study from George Washington University notes, Silver Spring has remained diverse in spite of revitalization. That's partly because we do build new housing here, preventing the area from becoming even more unaffordable.

Building in downtown is the "green" solution

Today, the old Silver Spring Library is surrounded by a driveway and parking lots. Building here, on an already paved-over site, makes much more sense than paving over farms or forests. And building new homes here, in the middle of downtown Silver Spring, means that more people will be able to walk to shops and jobs and transit instead of driving long distances. Turning this site exclusively into green space means that existing green space somewhere else gets paved over.


New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Silver Spring prides itself on its progressive politics and embrace of diversity. But fighting all new development is not progressive and ultimately makes our community less diverse. As President Obama said last week, communities that fight new housing become more expensive, less equal, and lose tremendous amounts of economic productivity.

That's not to say that the old library should become housing with no open space. The site is shaped like an "L," meaning that county officials could decide that part of it becomes housing and the rest becomes an extension of Ellsworth Park. That could meet some neighbors' concerns about open space, while meeting the very real demand for affordable housing.

If you agree, we have a petition of our own that we'll send to the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett, asking them to support housing on the former library site.

Housing


The Obama administration says zoning is at the heart of some huge economic problems

The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.


Houses in DC. Photo by nevermindtheend.

The White House's Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor's note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to "laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing."

It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:

"When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods."
Here's what we can do about the problem

The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:

1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.

Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.

Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.

Luckily, a lot of cities are catching onto the logic here, including DC, and also New York City.

2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn't have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.

Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it's now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.

3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.

The White House's toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.

This matters in our region. A lot.

No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:

"The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions."
The White House's report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn't getting used.

This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It's worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.

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