Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Affordable Housing

Architecture


Put affordable housing for seniors in the new MLK Library

The District of Columbia is about to start an ambitious project to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown. Affordable housing, primarily for seniors, should be a primary element of that vision.


Concept rendering of the library. Image from DC Public Libraries.

One key feature of the MLK Library renovation plan is that it will add up to three floors to the building, a historic landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe that is the downtown mainstay of the DC Public Library system. This provides a rare opportunity to consider how we can best use a public asset to benefit the downtown community and the District as a whole.

DC is confronting an affordable housing crisis that not only threatens the quality of life and stability of the people facing skyrocketing housing costs and diminished supply, but also undermines the diversity of our community. When seniors are priced out of the city, we lose the very people who created the fabric of our communities across generations. Protecting elder citizens' ability to remain in the District is an essential public value.

All public projects involving DC government-owned real estate should make new affordable housing a priority, but none more than the MLK Library. First, it is an ideal location for seniors to live. Residents there would have access to a hub of cultural activity below as well as a broad public transportation network in a vibrant downtown neighborhood. There is no affordable housing within ten blocks of the library site, and certainly no other opportunity for elder citizens on fixed incomes to live in that area.

Equally as important, the infusion of seniors into this community will bring their knowledge, experience, and the timeafforded by their retirementto the activities and culture of the library itself and the entire neighborhood. These residents will be able to participate formally as docents, tutors, and volunteers in the library and nearby historic and cultural sites. Informally, they will contribute as community members who have chosen their homes for proximity to programs, events, and the everyday amenities we all want and need: goods, services and transportation.

The architecture team of Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson, which won the competition to renovate the library, has stressed the need to "celebrate MLK's renowned Miesian architecture while embracing Washington, DC's contemporary culture and changing needs." Our seniors are central to our culture, and their housing is central to our changing needs.

By taking a creative and fresh look at the District's assets, we can meet our commercial, financial, and cultural goals while also achieving the diversity that creates interesting, lively, and diverse communities. Real estate accounts for about one third of the cost of housing development. By leveraging the city's unique real estate assetslike new floors atop the MLK Librarywe can replenish some of the affordable housing we are rapidly losing amid high demand and rising costs.

The library's renovation will cost up to $250 million, with the DC government contributing at least $100 million. We will never have a better chance to create affordable housing downtown at a cost our city can afford. Let's make sure we seize this opportunity to continue building a vibrant city for our long-term residents who have given our community so much, and who have so much more to offer.

Events


Events roundup: Movies and more

Take an evening to relax and enjoy a documentary (or two)! The Summer in the City film series kicks off tomorrow with an illuminating look at public housing in America in the 1950s and 60s. If movies aren't your thing, RSVP for a reception to honor 50 years of the Urban Mass Transit Act.


Photo by Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Flickr.

Pruitt-Igoe on the big screen: Watch the tale of the infamous St. Louis public housing development and the residents who share their experiences and challenges living in public housing in the 50s and 60s. This film is the first of five films the Housing for All campaign is showing this summer. It starts at 6 pm, Wednesday, July 2 at the Southwest Library at 900 Wesley Place SW.

After the jump: Transportation Tuesday at APTA, more movies, and a women's health and biking workshop...

Happy 50th, UMTA! The American Public Transportation Association will be hosting a presentation and discussion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. The act has played a pivotal role in the mass transit renaissance in the US in the last half-century.

The event is July 8th at 1666 K Street NW, 11th Floor. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5:00 pm, with the presentation and discussion to run from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm. Please RSVP to Cynthia Owens at cowens@apta.com or 202-496-4851.

The Legend of Disco Dan: This film follows infamous graffiti artist Cool "Disco" Dan as he discusses the changing city he once marked. The documentary highlights the culture of DC during the crack epidemic and the evolution of Go-Go. See the film at the MLK Library, 901 G Street NW, on Wednesday, June 9th at 6:00 pm.

Biking and Women's health: Ladies! Join WABA's Women & Bicycles initiative to talk biking and women's health in Georgetown. Women's Health Expert and Roll Model Laurie from Proteus Bicycles is hosting a skillshare on women's health and biking on Sunday, July 13 at 1:00 pm at the Georgetown Library, 3260 R St. NW.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at events@ggwash.org.

Development


Housing is a big part of inequality in Washington. We need more housing, and more affordable housing, to fix it

There's a lot of inequality in our region, including housing, where low-wage households living farther out spend more time and money traveling than wealthier ones closer in. A new report quantifies these problems and recommends reforming zoning to build more housing, as well as expanding subsidized housing.


Photo from the report.

The report, from The Commonwealth Insititute, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and Maryland Center on Economic Policy, looks at many ways the recent economic growth in our region has helped higher-income individuals and families more than others.

The gap between the low-wage and high-wage jobs is greater than the national average and getting worse. Jobs for people without college educations have gotten scarcer, while jobs for people with college educations (particularly with advanced degrees) has grown even faster than the number of people with those degrees. And black residents and young people have been hit hardest.

Meanwhile, it's become more expensive to live in most of our region.

The inner jurisdictions, except for Prince George's County, have the smallest share of families making $50,000-200,000, though DC and Alexandria still also have more lower-income households than elsewhere.


All graphs from the report.

Many households pay more than 30%, or even more than 50%, of their income toward housing. For renters, this effect is worst in outer jurisdictions like Stafford, Calvert, Charles, and Spotsylvania counties.

It's worse for renters than homeowners. It seems likely this is because many homeowners have owned for a number of years with fixed-rate mortgages, meaning their property values (and, often, tax burdens) have risen but their housing payments have not. Renters don't have that long-term stability, and are also more likely to have moved in more recently.

Overall, for both renters and owners, housing costs are lower farther from the core, but so are incomes. That means that the proportion of "housing burdened" households is about the same closer in and farther out. This makes a certain sense, since people will naturally gravitate toward areas where they can afford the housing.

However, that doesn't tell the whole story. If a lower-income household is paying a similar share of income to live in an outer jurisdiction, those residents also likely face longer commutes than a wealthier household in a central location. Low-wage workers are becoming more likely to commute 50 miles or more than high-wage ones.

The report says:

In Fauquier, Spotsylvania, Frederick, and Prince George's counties, the average housing and transportation costs exceed 45 percent of those counties' median incomes. That means the average housing and transportation costs in the county are considered unaffordable for the median household.

Three of these four localities are in the outer suburbs, where high transportation costs are responsible for the lack of affordability, despite median home values and rents generally being more affordable there than in the core and inner suburbs.

In Prince George's County, low median family incomes mean that even with relatively low housing and transportation costs, the median household income is insufficient to cover those average costs.

I would add that Prince George's has poor Metro accessibility compared to Montgomery and Fairfax, making commute times and costs higher. Also, with most jobs having shifted to the west side of the region, it's not quite as close to as many jobs as its distance from downtown DC might suggest.

The report notes that Prince George's had twice as many foreclosures in 2011 as the region generally; its rate is comparable to that in hard-hit outer Virginia counties and neighboring Charles County.

What's the solution? Besides increasing incomes, helping people build skills, and expanding access to health care, a big one is taking steps to make housing more affordable. The report says,

Increasing opportunities for affordable housing for working families through zoning reform (such as removing restrictions on building more apartments close to metro stops) and housing subsidies can help working families live close to their jobs and reduce stress on families and communities.
Many reports on inequality from social justice organizations in the past have not included zoning among the policy tools to deal with housing affordability. It's great to see TCI, DCFPI, and MDCEP agree that we need to do both: add more housing (and lots of it), and also explicitly ensure that some of that housing in all jurisdictions goes to people at many points along the economic spectrum.

Events


Events roundup: Streetcars, H Street, bridges, and dead ends

Celebrate the arrival of June by learning something new. Get involved in the DC streetcar planning process, learn about the intricacies of urban housing markets, explore the history of H Street, and more at events around the region.


Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

Streetcar planning: DDOT is holding its final round of open house meetings for its study of a future north-south DC streetcar. You can see DDOT's analysis of possible streetcar routes and weigh in. All three meetings last from 3:30-8:30 pm, with overview presentations at 4 and 7 pm. The full schedule is:

  • Central meeting: Monday, June 9, at the Banneker Rec Center, 2500 Georgia Ave NW.
  • South meeting: Tuesday, June 10, at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, 2nd floor community room, 1100 4th St SW.
  • North meeting: Thursday, June 12, at the Emery Rec Center, 2nd floor community room, 5701 Georgia Ave NW.

Affordable housing panel discussion: Affordable housing has been a popular topic in the news, especially in the Washington area. Possible solutions range from free markets to public housing, but what are the implications of these ideas?

On Thursday, June 5 from 6:30-8:30 pm, Matthew Yglesias from Vox.com, Matt Robinson of MRP Realty, Christopher Bledsoe of Stage 3 Properties, and Chad Ludeman from Post Green Homes/Hybrid Construction will talk about housing costs at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies (640 Massachusetts Ave NW). You can RSVP here.

H Street walking tour: There's still one more chance to attend one of the Coalition for Smarter Growth's spring walking tours! This Saturday, June 7, explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the DC Streetcar. The walking tour runs from 10-noon. RSVP soon to secure a spot! Update: the CSG tour is now sold out, and their waitlist is at capacity.

Meet the 11th Street Bridge Park designers: The field has narrowed to four teams competing to design a park on the piers of the old 11th Street Bridge across the Anacostia. They haven't actually done designs yet, but each of the four will talk about their approaches and early ideas on Tuesday, June 10, 6:30-8 at THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE.

Dead End book talk: On June 12, hear Greater Greater Washington contributor Ben Ross talk about his book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, at the Tenley-Friendship Library (4450 Wisconsin Ave NW) at 7 pm. A lively discussion on walking and biking in cities will ensue. Please RSVP here.

Do you know an event that should be on the Greater Greater Washington calendar? Send an email to events@ggwash.org with the details and a link to a page on the web which has more information.

Development


Fairfax Circle takes a step toward urbanism, but it's still an island for now

On Tuesday, Fairfax City approved the city's first major redevelopment project on Fairfax Boulevard. This will bring new residences, a grocery, and pedestrian-oriented spaces to an area that's strip malls and parking lots today. But since the city has no larger plan, the project isn't poised to connect well with future projects or bring all the amenities the city needs.


Fairfax Circle Plaza. Image from Combined Properties.

Seven years ago the city completedbut did not adoptthe Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan, which envisioned denser, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use redevelopment along the three main nodes of the city's main commercial corridor. Fairfax Circle is the eastern node, located within walking distance of the Vienna Metro station and in the midst of a rapidly urbanizing area.


Fairfax Circle. The development is at the top (north side). Image from Bing Maps.

More than 16,000 residents live within one mile of Fairfax Circle Plaza, and many more will be moving into the new apartments and condominiums at MetroWest.

Combined Properties will build two apartment buildings with 400 units, ground-floor retail, and a 54,000 square foot grocery store. In place of a sea of surface parking and a nondescript service drive, the project will provide a pedestrian-friendly frontage road with parallel parking and bulb-outs, a 10-foot path, and a landscaped buffer. The proposal also provides expanded sidewalks and buffers along Pickett Road and Lee Highway.

The project is far from perfect. Because Combined could not consolidate smaller properties on its sides, trucks and other service vehicles will use the main entrance and the pedestrian-friendly streetscape will stop before connecting to Fairfax Circle. The proposal lacks an adequate gathering space, and the amount of permeable, landscaped surface only marginally exceeds what's on the current site.

The lack of affordable housing is a major weakness. During the past year the city has incorporated affordable housing goals in its comprehensive plan, and the mayor has stated strong support for setting aside 5-10% of new development for affordable units.

Combined is providing some below-market units, but refused to provide truly affordable apartments. Instead, it calculated maximum monthly rental rates assuming residents spend 33% of their income on housing rather than the standard 25%, and did not exempt ancillary fees or utilities from the affordability calculations.

As a result, the rent for these apartments approaches that for market-rate units. While many of the councilmembers recognized Combined's proposal isn't adequate, none seriously pushed back from the dais.

Many of the project's shortcomings stem from the fact that Fairfax City still does not have a clear plan for Fairfax Boulevard. An adopted plan that sets forth clear guidelines for street connectivity, green infrastructure, affordable housing and other elements would make the process easier for applicants and more beneficial for the city.

As the city looks to tackle more complex projects elsewhere on the Boulevard, it will need better planning tools. Meanwhile, though, Fairfax Circle will at least take a significant step forward, even if it's a smaller step than it could be.

Development


Worried about DC gentrification? A new bill would speed it up and lose affordable housing

As housing prices rise, the few affordable units in booming neighborhoods become even more important. But a new bill in the DC Council would cut the period of time when such a unit has to remain affordable, removing affordable housing in some of DC's fastest-changing neighborhoods.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Right now, when the city subsidizes a new housing unit for sale, that unit has to remain affordable for at least 15 years. If an owner wants to sell the unit during that time period, he or she must sell it at a price that another similarly low-income buyer can afford. After 15 years, the owner can sell it for any price.

But a bill by Councilmember Anita Bonds would cut that affordability period to five years in neighborhoods classified as "distressed," where the poverty rate is 20% or more. That includes neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Bloomingdaleareas that were affordable 15 to 20 years ago but have quickly become out of reach for low-income households without subsidies.

The 15 year limit helps maintain a stock of low-cost units for current (and future) low-income home buyers, and helps keep affordable housing in neighborhoods whose prices might rapidly rise.

If the bill passes, within five years much of the affordable housing being bought now in these neighborhoods could be lost. The existing affordable units cost less to build than they would today, meaning it's very unlikely the city could replace the lost units without major additional public money.

There might be specific DC neighborhoods where the housing market is so slow that residents need incentives to buy even affordable units there, but that's not the case in these areas. A good bill would carefully weigh the market conditions and how much affordable housing would be lost. This bill doesn't do that.

The proposed law would also give the nonprofit developer who originally built the unit the first right to buy the unit back, but after 5 years it would be at market rate. In any of these rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, that means the nonprofit would spend much more money to get the unit than it earned by building it. It would need an extra subsidy (on top of the original subsidy) to make the unit affordable to the next low-income buyer.

In these still-tough budget times, what jurisdiction can afford to pour brand new subsidy into the same units every five years?

Other cities and counties don't do this

The proposed change is out of step with affordability best practices across the country, and also with jurisdictions in our own backyard. It positions DC, which has in the past been a leader both locally and nationally in affordable housing policy and funding, to have some of the most lax affordability restrictions in the region when it comes to homeownership.

Arlington imposes a 30-year affordability restriction on units developed with its Affordable Housing Investment Fund. Homeowners using the mortgage assistance program (MIPAP) have to share the proceeds of a sale to help the next low-income buyer afford the property.

Montgomery County, which notably started out with 5-year restrictions back in the 1970s, has increased its affordability period to 30 years on many of the properties in the Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) program. According to a National Housing Institute report, the county had lost two-thirds of the affordable units it had created by the time it enacted the 30-year requirement.

The proposed DC change also breaks rank with other progressive jurisdictions around the country like San Francisco and Seattle (King County) that have typically been DC's housing peers.

What about truly distressed neighborhoods?

There may be places where long-term restrictions truly inhibit homeownership. Potential residents might refuse to buy a unit in such a neighborhood if they can't sell it for a substantial profit in a short period of time. But to find them should require a much more detailed approach than looking at the poverty rate.

Plus, poverty data can be as much as five years old by the time we get it. A gentrifying neighborhood could take more than a decade to stop being defined as "distressed." Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and Bloomingdale above all began transitioning more than ten years ago. A better definition of distressed could look at current data about home values, sales price, and number of transactions.

Why have a restriction on resale at all?

Those pushing for this change argue that since a market-rate homebuyer can turn around and sell his or her house for more money when the market rises, so should anyone who purchases a subsidized unit.

If public subsidies were unlimited and the government could fund enough affordable housing for everyone, or there were enough naturally-occurring affordable housing to meet people's needs at any income level, then there wouldn't be a problem.

But in the real world where we have limited resources, it seems to make sense to say that if someone shares with you, you should share with the next person. In affordable homeownership terms, we call this concept "equity sharing."

Equity sharing models don't say that subsidized buyers walk away with no gain at all, but they don't get to walk away with everything either. Data and research from restricted homeownership models tell us that homeowners in these units tend to sell their homes at the same rate as other homeowners, within 5 to 7 years, and that about two-thirds of them are able to build enough wealth in the process to buy their next homes at market price with no deed restrictions. Brett Theodos explained this in more detail in a previous post.

A Center for Housing Policy report about affordable homeownership strategies says that well-designed programs can both protect limited public resources while also giving buyers the benefits of homeownership. Through them, the city can both help low-income buyers build wealth and keep the unit affordable for the foreseeable future.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth and City First Homes, an affordable housing nonprofit, have weighed in with a full set of recommendations to make this proposed bill less harmful. Meanwhle, the DC Affordable Housing Alliance has drafted a sign-on letter to encourage the council to support these changes; email me to sign on as an individual or an organization.

Besides Bonds, the bill's author, cosponsors include Muriel Bowser (ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (ward 5), and Marion Barry (ward 8). Councilmembers will hear from the public about this bill on May 29th at 10:00 am. Contact Judah Gluckman to sign up to speak or to submit written comments.

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