Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Affordable Housing

History


DC tried fixing its housing shortage by building tiny houses... in the 1880s

Last fall, DC Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed building 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income residents and millennials, but the idea drew wide criticism as being "gimmicky" and potentially discriminatory. What many don't know is that Orange's initiative wasn't the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.


Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

In Washington's earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.

Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington's alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and "insanitary" spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.

That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC's alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington's poor and profits for the city's real estate speculators, the paper reported.

Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. "Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits," James Ring told Congress in 1944. When he was speaking, Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington's remaining alley dwellings.

What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: "There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks."

Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington's alleys, what he called "a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots."

In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.


1880s house in Naylor Court, just east of 10th Street NW. Photo by the author.

Washington's first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. "Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable," the paper reported in April 1892. "Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it."

Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.


Row of houses built in the 1880s, Snow's Court in Foggy Bottom. Photo by the author.

Orange's tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange's proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—"Orangevilles," a columnist called thema more apt comparison would be to housing that was widespread in Washington nearly a century before the Great Depression.

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Development


Worldwide links: Bernie knows housing

A program for making housing more affordable is among Bernie Sanders' proudest achievements; 16 different graphics point to one conclusion: Toyko is mind-blowingly big; A Texas town got creative with a shut-down Walmart. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Michael Vadon on Flickr.

Bernie's housing model: When he was the mayor of Burlington, Bernie Sanders set up the land trust the city still uses today. The government owns the land but the residents own the house, which supporters say lets people build wealth faster than renting. (Slate)

Tokyo is gigantic: The greater Tokyo area dwarfs other big cities from New York and Los Angeles to Sydney and London. Tokyo isn't that much smaller than all of Great Britain, and its subway maps might make your head spin. (Buzzfeed)

Walmart transformed: After a local Walmart shut down, a Texas town turned the building into a farmers market, indoor winter shopping center, and the largest single floor library in the country. (Daily Kos)

A fight for BRT in Indianapolis...: In Indianapolis, proponents of a BRT project say the 35-mile line will garner 11,000 daily rides and provide new connections to jobs. Opponents are worried about lost parking space and more congestion on side streets. (Indianapolis Star)

...and a goodbye to BRT in Dehli: Dehli is doing away with its BRT line because residents blame it for congestion on the road it runs along. Officials say BRT was a good idea that they implemented poorly, and that they are planning to bring it back with a new design. (India Today)

Mimicking Minneapolis: Minneapolis freezes over in winter, but it's still a top spot for cycling. Former Mayor RT Rybak told leaders in (relatively) nearby Des Moines that "expressway trails" that connect bike lanes, as well as inexpensive tools like paint and flex-posts, are keys to building a bike-friendly city. (Des Moines Register)

Angry but effective: Some call Lansing, Michigan mayor Virg Bernaro the "angriest mayor in America." But he's very popular, and he has succeeded at both attracting new development and improving parks and trails. (City Pulse)

Quote of the Week:

"We don't force [developers] to build the right number of bedrooms for people! We just force them to build the right number of bedrooms for cars" - Nelson\Nygaard's Jeff Tumlin speaking with Mother Jones on how self driving cars will affect parking.

We're signing off for the day. Stay warm and safe, and please please post snow pictures in our Flickr pool or email them to snow@ggwash.org!

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Development


DC has a program to help first-timers buy a house, and it may start giving more aid

DC has a program for helping people buy houses, but the money it awards doesn't line up with how much houses in the city actually cost. The program might start awarding more money soon.


Photo by C.E. Kent on Flickr.

Programs to support first-time home buyers help spur economic security and neighborhood stability across the US. In Washington, the Home Purchase Assistance Program has been the key tool for the District to support first-time homebuyers.

On January 7th, the DC Council held a hearing to consider raising the maximum amount applicants can receive, from $50,000 to $80,000.


The proposed increase in loan amount would increase HPAP buyers' purchase power and give them access to more homes on the market. The figures below are based on 38% front end ratio (the proportion of monthy income that would go to the full cost of the mortgage) and a 5.5% interest rate, so maximum purchase prices could be higher. Tables from the Housing Advocacy Team.

HPAP helps people jump one of home buying's biggest hurdles

When someone buys a house, they take out a regular mortgage loan from a traditional bank for the bulk of the home price. HPAP augments that money by providing what's known as a "second trust loan." HPAP money can also go toward a down payment, and the program offers an additional $4,000 to help with closing costs.

The actual amount that the borrower is eligible for is based on their income, with lower income households eligible for more assistance. Those receiving the highest loan amounts make 50% of the area median income or less. Participating owners receive both pre- and post-homebuyer education, and they pay back the second trust loan with zero interest starting in the fifth year of their mortgage.

Saving for a down payment is often the greatest barrier to owning a home. Many people already pay high monthly costs in rent and could afford the monthly cost of a mortgage and upkeep, but cannot also save tens of thousands of dollars towards a downpayment. In fact, according to the real estate website Trulia, it is 27% cheaper to buy in DC than it is to rent. Having a significant downpayment also lowers interest rates and monthly mortgage costs for the length of the loan.

A greater award amount would help buyers in a tougher market

Over the last decade, the maximum amount of money that HPAP awards a buyer has fluctuated greatly. That variation hasn't been based on housing prices, but rather DC's budget and spending pressures.

In 2008, the award amount was capped at $70,000. But when the recession hit, federal and local resources shrank, and the award amount dipped to $40,000 per purchase. While that rose to $50,000 in 2014, that jump paled in comparison to the rapid increase in the cost of buying a home here.

With HPAP's limits being what they currently are, most low-to-moderate income buyers could only afford homes under $300,000. According to Zillow, the median home price in DC right now is $502,600, and on average, between 2012 and 2014 there was 4.7 percent reduction in the number of condos and homes affordable to most HPAP borrowers.

MANNA, a nonprofit that has helped DC residents purchase homes for decades, crunched some of the numbers and put them into to charts:


As purchase prices have increased, the number of houses at prices affordable to HPAP buyers has dropped.

Should the DC Council increase HPAP's maximum award amount, houses in the $300,000-$400,000 range would be available to a lot more prospective buyers.

Thursday's hearing demonstrated wide interest in changing the award amount. Housing and Community Development Committee Chair Anita Bonds chaired the hearing and was joined by Councilmembers Nadeau and Silverman. All of the public testimony supported the increase, and Polly Donaldson, the Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which manages the program, expressed interest in increasing the award amount.

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Development


DC's inclusionary zoning could start serving poorer households

No one policy or program will fix the District's affordable housing crunch. But later this month, one program that creates new affordable housing is poised to get a facelift to better serve low-income households.


Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

On January 28, the DC Zoning Commission will look at tweaking inclusionary zoning, one of the main policy tools the District uses to generate new affordable housing units.

When new condos or apartments are built in DC, inclusionary zoning requires 8-10% of them to rented or sold more affordably, and only to people making under a certain income (today, 50-80% of area median income). In return, developers can build a few extra market rate units in order to offset the difference in overall cost.

Inclusionary zoning creates these new affordable units without subsidies from the Housing Production Trust Fund or other scarce public resources. That's in contrast to most other programs, like direct investment in new housing, affordable housing preservation, or voucher programs.

DC adopted its inclusionary zoning policy in 2006 and finalized regulations in 2009. The first units arrived on the market in 2011. Now more than 1,200 permanently affordable inclusionary zoning units are on the market or in the pipeline.

Inclusionary zoning targets low, not very-low income households. That's good.

Inclusionary zoning tends to best serve below-market, but not extremely below-market households. In other words, it helps people for whom housing is too expensive, but not way too expensive.

That's because the price gap between what very-low-income households (30% AMI) can afford and market rates is simply too great for zoning tools alone to bridge. But low-income households (50-80% AMI) also need help from affordable housing programs, and inclusionary zoning helps these households without spending down scarce affordable housing subsidies.

Ideally, DC would create as much affordable housing as possible through inclusionary zoning and other off-budget policies like trading public land for affordable housing, because they do not have a direct financial cost to the city.

That would free up as much affordable housing subsidy as possible for very low and extremely low income families, who by far face the greatest housing challenges.

Except today, prices are a little too high to help these target households

Today, DC's inclusionary zoning only requires that developments in high rise zones provide affordable units to serve households earning 80% area median income (AMI).

That's a little too expensive. While the 80% AMI price is below-market in some DC neighborhoods, it is close to or above market rate in others. Moreover, 80% AMI (calculated for the region, and almost $70,000 annually for a two person household) is above DC's Median Household Income ($64,267).

Today, 8 out of 10 DC inclusionary zoning units are produced at 80% AMI. Compared to successful programs in other cities, thats's too high. An Urban Institute report noted that other with similar programs set affordability levels for rental housing between 55 and 70% AMI.

The report indicated that DC should consider following San Francisco's ownership income targeting of 70% AMI. 70% AMI is also the standard for similar inclusionary zoning in Montgomery County.

After a long wait, the DC Zoning Commission may lower the affordability requirement

In early 2015, the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, Jews United for Justice, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, People's Consulting, Somerset Development, City First Homes, and PolicyLink formally petitioned the Zoning Commission for changes to the inclusionary zoning regulations.

Since the Zoning Commission relies on staff and analytical support of the Office of Planning, it has waited for OP to fulfill its request for recommendations on potential revisions. Now, almost a year later, the Zoning Commission will consider these proposed changes (Zoning Case # 04-33G) and counter-proposals from OP.

The main changes the Zoning Commission will consider are:

  • Increasing amount of affordable units in inclusionary zoning projects from 8-10% (now) to 12%
  • Similarly increasing the density bonus from 20% to 22%
  • Changing the AMI requirements to 60% AMI for rental units and 80% for ownership unit
  • Making it easier for the Mayor or DC Housing Authority to buy inclusionary zoning units to lease to low- and very-low income households.
You can read the exact proposed changes and text amendments in this Zoning Commission Notice of Public Hearing.

Proponents of the proposed changes to inclusionary zoning are organizing supporters to attend the Zoning Commission hearing and speak in favor of the changes. The hearing is January 28 at 6:30pm, at 441 4th St NW, Suite 220-south.

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Development


A new Florida Ave development is getting more affordable units than originally planned

Plans for the much-discussed development at 965 Florida Avenue NW now include 129 affordable residential units, almost 18% more than earlier plans. The additional housing may alleviate some concerns over whether the DC government made the best deal for the site.


Rendering of 965 Florida Avenue. Image by MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group.

The planned 10-story mixed-use building includes 428 apartments, with 30% set aside for the District's inclusionary housing program, leaving 299 to be rented at market rates. The affordable component includes 32 units for households that make up to 30% of area median income (AMI) and 97 for households making up to 50% of AMI.

DC will auction off the affordable units to households through its inclusionary zoning lottery. Households must register for the lottery by providing documents proving that their size and combined income meet the AMI requirements.

AMI for a household of four in the Washington DC metropolitan area was $107,300 in 2013, according to the DC Department of Housing and Community Development. Using this number, a household making up to $32,190 would qualify for 30% of AMI units and one making up to $53,650 would qualify for 50% of AMI units.

The previous proposal for 965 Florida included 107 affordable units out of 352 planned in the new building.

More units but still just 30%

While there will be more affordable units, the developers, MRP Realty and Ellis Development Group, are also building more apartments overall. That means the percentage of below-market units at 965 Florida isn't going up.

The 30% number follows a bill by Ward 5 councilmember Kenyan McDuffie requiring that 20% to 30% of residential units built as a result of public land deals are included in the District's affordable housing program.

Questions have been raised over whether the District made a poor deal when it agreed to sell the 965 Florida site for just $400,000 and a 30% affordable unit commitment from the developers when the plot was reportedly worth $27.6 million if sold outright.

Some argue that DC could have created more affordable dwelling units by selling the plot and using the proceeds to build below-market units elsewhere in the city.

Others point to the fact that the project guarantees that affordable housing will be built in one of the city's most popular, transit-oriented neighborhoods rather than just on its fringes.

The debate has died down somewhat since the DC Council approved the deal in September.

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Development


Not building enough housing is morally equivalent to tearing down people's homes

According to the California housing champion who's suing communities that don't allow enough new development, not building needed density is morally equivalent to tearing down people's houses.


Photo by .Martin. on Flickr.

Sonja Trauss, founder of the SF Bay Area Renters' Federation sums up the housing problem affecting nearly every growing American city today:

"Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don't have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they're morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that's too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."
Trauss hits the key points: The population is growing, and people have to live somewhere. If we refuse to allow them a place to live, that's just like tearing down someone's home.

Someone else is displaced

Trauss' last sentence is particularly important. It explains how the victims of inadequate housing often are not even part of the discussion. She says "Or maybe [home buyers] outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced."

Here's how that works: One common argument among anti-development activists is that new development only benefits the wealthy people who can afford new homes. That's wrong. It's never the wealthy who are squeezed out by a lack of housing. Affluent people have options; they simply spend their money on the next best thing. Whenever there's not enough of anything to meet demand, it's the bottom of the market that ultimately loses out.

Stopping or reducing the density of any individual development doesn't stop displacement or gentrification. It merely moves it, forcing some other person to live with its consequences.

Every time anti-development activists in Dupont or Georgetown or Capitol Hill reduce the density of a construction project, they take away a less-affluent person's home East of the River, or in Maryland, or somewhere else. The wealthy person who would have lived in Capitol Hill instead moves to Kingman Park, the middle class person who would have lived in that Kingman Park home instead moves to Carver Langston, and the long-time renter in Carver Langston gets screwed.

As long as the population is growing, the only ultimate region-wide solution is to enact laws that allow enough development to accommodate demand.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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Development


In some places, living near Metro has become more affordable

Washington-area neighborhoods in walking distance of Metro are wealthier and whiter than their surroundings, according to a new Census Bureau study. But for many places outside the District, living near Metro has become more affordable.


How earnings of workers who live near Metro and elsewhere have shifted. Click the image for definitions. Tables from the Census Bureau.

Working at the Census Bureau, Brian McKenzie can see data that privacy rules keep from other researchers. His new research paper is chock-full of interesting data.

McKenzie was able to compare surveys taken in 2006-08 and 2011-13, and compare DC residents to those who live in the five-county area of Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Using the individual addresses of people who have jobs and answered Census surveys, he separated those who live on street blocks within a half-mile of Metro stations from those who live elsewhere.

This isn't a perfect way of identifying who can walk to the train, but it's far superior to what other researchers have been able to do.

Among McKenzie's key findings is that more people are living near Metro, and more of them are riding the transit system. In five years the number of workers in walking distance of a station rose 23%. The working population living farther from Metro increased just 5% region-wide, and dropped slightly in the District. Over 15% of the region's 1.8 million workers, including a majority of the 321,000 who live in DC, now have a short walk from home to Metro.

The data also show the increasing use of non-auto transportation, cycling even more than transit. This trend is strongest among DC residents who live near Metro. Although this population is growing rapidly, the number of drivers among them hardly changed, so that the percentage who drive to work alone plummeted from 30% to 25%.

Transit use in this group increased from 57,000 to 72,000, and the number of bicycle commuters soared from 3300 to 7900. Trends among other demographics are similar in direction, but slower.


Trends in travel mode to work.

The most widely noted finding of this study is the increasing affluence and whiteness near Metro. This, however, is essentially a DC phenomenon. In the surrounding counties, the income spread between walk-to-Metro housing and elsewhere is, if anything, shrinking.

All ethnic groups grew in absolute numbers near non-DC Metro stations; the share of both whites and blacks declined as Asians and Hispanics moved in faster. And where the percentage of these counties' residents with income over $100,000 was 2.1% higher near Metro than elsewhere in 2006-08, the difference fell to 1.7% five years later. Most other income groups show a consistent pattern of shifts.

Because these changes fall within the margin of error, it's not clear whether the difference between incomes near Metro and farther from it is really closing, but the gap is not growing wider as it is in the District.

New apartments and inclusionary zoning have helped with affordability

Why hasn't Metro-accessible housing in the outer counties become less affordable? Most of the credit undoubtedly goes to the smart growth zoning that has opened up stations in Montgomery and Arlington Counties to new apartment construction. Builders there are required to include a percentage of more affordable units in new construction. And while newly built market-rate apartments in Bethesda or Clarendon aren't cheap, they are (with the occasional exception) less expensive than the single-family houses nearby.

The District, meanwhile, lagged behind in enacting inclusionary zoning and then stalled on implementing it. And it has allowed little new construction near Metro in the upscale neighborhoods west of Rock Creek.

Demographic and cultural change may be the motive force behind shifting living patterns, but public policy makes a big difference in how things play out.

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Development


High costs are a big reason people move away from cities. But sometimes, they just want to live somewhere else.

A lot of writing about housing in DC says minorities, immigrants, and low-income people are being pushed out of the city due to high housing costs. That's true for many. But even if the District were more affordable, some may not choose to live there. And that'd be okay.


A street festival in Long Branch. As suburban communities become immigrant hubs, more people move there by choice. All images by the author.

People decide where to live based on a variety of reasons, like housing costs, where they work, the type and style of housing they want, or schools. Another factor is cultural or ethnic ties: people may choose to locate near family or friends, faith communities, or shops and hangouts that serve their community.

This trend isn't new in the DC area. Long before the District's economic boom, the area's minority and immigrant communities had established roots throughout the region: Blacks in Prince George's County; Central Americans in Langley Park; Ethiopians in Silver Spring, Vietnamese in Seven Corners, and so on.


Like many DC-area immigrant communities, Ethiopians have moved out of the District.

As these communities developed a critical mass, immigrants to the region bypassed the District altogether. Some minority and immigrant groups have even moved farther away from the District: for instance, the Korean community in Annandale is shifting to Centreville, 15 miles west.

That may have something to do with lower housing costs. But it also may have to do with the desire to live in a suburban place. I've seen this firsthand as a first-generation American from a Guyanese immigrant family. Many members of my mother's generation, who emigrated to and grew up in Columbia Heights and Petworth during DC's worst days, left even as the city improved.

Our family isn't wealthy; my relatives are cab drivers, mechanics, and shop owners. But they didn't leave because DC was too expensive. It was that my relatives wanted to live in communities like Hyattsville and Fairfax, where they could get a house with a yard and a car while remaining close to the neighborhoods they already had social ties to.

However, that doesn't mean that non-white communities have no interest in urbanism. As a professor at the University of Maryland ten years ago, Dr. Shenglin Chang found that Latino and Asian immigrants to the United States wanted to live in suburban communities like what they saw in American popular culture, but with walkable, compact places where they could be close to family and friends. That's a big opportunity for communities like Rockville, which has a large Chinese population and is building a town center around its Metro station.

It's great that people in the District and other close-in communities are thinking about rising housing costs. Making it more affordable to live closer-in, near transit, jobs, and shopping, means stronger neighborhoods, less traffic congestion, and less environmental damage. It also means that more kinds of people can live in the District. But it's not a guarantee that the District will become more diverse.

After all, the District contains about 10% of a region with nearly 6 million people. People have lots of choices on where to live, and many of them are taking advantage.

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