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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.

Events


Events roundup: Walk and hack around Washington

Enjoy the warm weather and learn about area history at events this month. Over the next two weeks, hear about how to plan great communities, help make Montgomery even greater, and hack on tools to help people understand DC laws.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Walking tours: The Coalition for Smarter Growth is leading three more Saturday walking tours over the next month: Twinbrook, on May 17; Pentagon City, on May 31; and H Street NE, on June 7. Come hear about the past and future of these changing neighborhoods while enjoying some spring sunshine.

After the jump: details about the walking tours, a hackathon, and talks about designing better communities.

On Saturday, June 7, visit the Twinbrook Metro station and see how a community is taking shape on an area that used to be an expanse of parking lots.

On Saturday, May 31, come hear about how recent development projects are transforming Pentagon City into a community that is more than a mall.

And finally on Saturday, June 7, explore H Street NE and learn about one of DC's most rapidly changing neighborhoods. Plus, get the scoop on the latest addition to the community: the DC Streetcar.

Each of the CSG walking tours runs from 10 am to noon. These events fill up quickly, so RSVP to secure a spot!

Hack on the DC Code: DC has become a pioneer in making its laws freely available to the public and open in computer-readable formats, thanks to strong support from the DC Council's General Counsel, David Zvenyach. The open data lets anyone write tools to browse and understand the laws of the District.

Coders started building such tools at a "hackathon" a year ago, and this Saturday, they're having another. From 10 am to 5 pm, people will talk about what the "DC Code Browser" can do better and start making it happen. The hackathon is at Mapbox Garage 1714 14th St NW.

Great spaces: What makes a great space? Listen to experts from the Urban Land Institute, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Arlington County Center for Urban Design and Research, and the Coalition for Smarter Growth talk about the benefits of "great spaces" at the 2014 State of Affordable Housing talk. It's Wednesday, May 14 from 4:30-7:30 pm at the Walter Reed Community Center (2909 16th St South) in Arlington. Go here to RSVP.

Urbanism book talk: Urbanism and transit are hot button issues, but should they be? Ben Ross, a Greater Greater Washington contributor and author of Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism will discuss why these ideas face opposition from suburban value systems in a book talk at the National Building Museum (401 F Street NW) on Monday, May 12, 12:30-1:30 pm. You can RSVP here.

Healthy community design summit: Live Healthy Fairfax is sponsoring the Healthy Community Design Summit, a forum where residents and professionals alike can discuss how economic, environmental, and public health play a role in good communities. Local businesses and industry professionals will present and then discuss topics like planning, urban design, architecture, and real estate. For more info and to RSVP, go here.

Zoning update open houses: The Montgomery County Planning Department's zoning update open houses conclude this week with two chances to ask questions and provide feedback on the proposed changes. Planning staff will be in attendance to discuss the updates. The schedule of remaining open houses is below:

  • May 5: UpCounty Regional Services Center, Germantown (6-8 pm)
  • May 6: B-CC Regional Services Center, Bethesda (6-8 pm)

Development


How can Virginia balance traffic flow with a sense of place on Route 1?

A study of Virginia's Route 1 finds that people want "to create destinations, ... not a throughway." They also want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, and really want transit, but they also want to see traffic flow faster. What's the best way to balance these?


Route 1 today. Image from the study.

If this major public investment can succeed in creating walkable, livable transit communities along the corridor, the state and localities need to find ways to keep vehicle speeds down and not force people to cross long distances. They can start by designing roads to create a sense of place instead of inhibit it.

In fact, building better places could also speed up traffic flow, by making it possible for more people to get to local shopping without driving, or by taking other roads in a street grid instead of all piling onto Route 1 itself.

How fast and wide should Route 1 be?

The study assumes that the speed limit would remain 45 mph and lanes would be 12 feet wide. A road built for speed will create a less comfortable environment at center median transit stations. It will increase the distances pedestrians have to cross. And it will reduce the sense of connectivity between transit-oriented neighborhoods on either side of the road. Perhaps the speed will impact transit ridership as well.

There's a history here. A few years back, VDOT proposed reducing posted speeds to 35 mph, but faced a huge public outcry and the local supervisors made VDOT drop the proposal.

Bicycles struggle to find a place

The study also looked at ways to accommodate bicycles. Options included on-road bike lanes or an on-road cycletrack (among others), but the 45-mph road and wide lanes essentially forced the study team to select an off-road, 10-foot shared-use path for both bikes and pedestrians. This will almost certainly spark concerns about the impact on pedestrian safety, on the efficiency of bike travel, and the risks to bicyclists and pedestrians crossing intersections.

1997 British study on the relationship between vehicle speed and pedestrian fatalities shows that higher speeds mean more pedestrian fatalities.


Graph via WashCycle.

State and local officials should authorize the consultants to study an alternative with a 35 mph posted speed, 11-foot lanes, and on-road cycle tracks, to evaluate if this approach will not only smooth out and maintain good traffic flow, but will improve safety for all users, while enhancing the walkable, transit-oriented centers that the community seeks.

Will housing remain affordable if transit improves?

Until recently, the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax and Prince William hasn't seen the same level of investment as other parts of the two counties. It hasn't moved beyond aging strip malls, an unsafe pedestrian environment, deteriorated streams, and plenty of traffic.

This is also an area with an important supply of affordable housing, and many are concerned that the promise of new transit investment will increase land values and eliminate existing market-rate affordable housing.

Given that Fairfax County's commercial revitalization corridors are also the location of most of the county's affordable housing, the county needs a proactive approach when planning major new transit investments in these corridors. That must preserve affordable housing in good condition and include new affordable units in new development projects.

Unfortunately, the county has severely cut back its housing trust fund, and its inclusionary zoning policies for affordable units don't apply to buildings over four stories. The study should consider how new transit will affect property values and the current supply of affordable units. The county needs to commit to a robust housing strategy for the Route 1 corridor like the one Arlington adopted for Columbia Pike.


Potential development at Beacon Hill with BRT or LRT.

Change is indeed coming to the Route 1 corridor. The demand to live closer to the core of the region and expansion at Fort Belvoir are already driving new investment, including the recently-completed Beacon of Groveton, the Penn Daw development, and upgraded strip shopping centers.

Long-time residents are hungry to see more change come sooner. Many at the meeting pressed to move the transit project forward as soon as possible. That's a challenge given the lead times required to plan, fund and build major new transportation projects. Fairfax and the state should make this transit corridor a top priority. They also must support investment in Metro's core capacity so that the rail system can handle the new riders.

The study team should complete the traffic analysis by the end of April; the economic, land use and funding analysis will follow by the end of May; and they will recommend an alternative by July. The next public meeting is in June. In the meantime, take their survey and make comments on this form.

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