Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Affordable Housing

Transit


Behold how the Purple Line corridor is changing

When built, the Purple Line could dramatically improve transit commutes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. To explore that and other changes the line will bring, researchers created a series of maps including this one of the "commute shed" of each Purple Line station, or how far you can get on transit before and after it's built.


All images from the Purple Line Corridor Coalition.

Two weeks ago, the Purple Line Corridor Coalition organized a workshop called "Beyond the Tracks: Community Development in the Purple Line Corridor" to bring different stakeholders together and talk about ways to prepare for changes along the future light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton, which awaits federal funding and could open in 2020.

The coalition is a product of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, which hosted the workshop. Members of the group include nonprofit organizations, developers, and local governments in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. At the workshop, they looked at examples from cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which recently built light-rail lines.

The 16-mile corridor contains some of the region's richest and poorest communities, in addition to major job centers and Maryland's flagship state university. When it opens in 2020, the Purple Line will help create the walkable, urban places people increasingly want. However, rising property values could potentially displace small businesses and low-income households. To illustrate and explore these issues, the Center for Smart Growth produced a series of awesome maps.

Like the DC area as a whole, the Purple Line corridor is divided from west to east, with more jobs and affluence on the west side, and more low-income households on the east side. Many of the estimated 70,000 people who will ride the Purple Line each day in 2040 will come from communities in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's county to jobs in Bethesda and Silver Spring.

But today, getting between those areas can be difficult and time-consuming, whether by bus or by car. It's no surprise that many commuters along the eastern end of the Purple Line have one-way commutes over an hour.

These maps, and the map above, show the "commute shed" of three Purple Line stations, or how far you can get on transit in an hour. In all three cases, the Purple Line opens up huge swaths of Montgomery, Prince George's and DC to each community. While the Purple Line only travels through a small portion of our region, it adds another link to our existing Metro and bus network, meaning its benefits will go way beyond the neighborhoods it directly serves.

But better access comes with a price, namely rising property values. The revitalization of downtown Silver Spring has resulted in higher home prices in surrounding neighborhoods because of the increased demand to live there. But Silver Spring and Takoma Park still have substantial pockets of poverty, meaning that low-income residents may not be able to afford to stay in the area once the Purple Line opens.

There are two ways to ensure that neighborhoods near the Purple Line remain affordable for both current and future residents. One is to protect the existing supply of subsidized apartments. Many complexes near the Purple Line have price restrictions for low-income households, but they will expire before it's scheduled to open in 2020.

The other is to build more new housing near the Purple Line. New homes are usually expensive, but increasing the supply of housing to meet demand can result in lower or at least stabilized prices. We're starting to see this in downtown Silver Spring, where thousands of apartments have been built in recent years. But Montgomery officials reduced the number of new homes allowed in Chevy Chase Lake and Long Branch due to concerns about changing the character of each neighborhood.

There are a lot of great and interesting communities along the Purple Line. But many of them are dramatically different places than they were even 10 years ago. They'll be different in 10 more years, whether or not the Purple Line is built. We can't preserve these places in stone, but we should try to ensure that the people who enjoy and contribute to these places can stick around in the future.

Politics


DC's mayoral candidates voice ideas for affordable housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here is the second of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the interviews here.


Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

Mayor Gray has pledged to spend $100 million a year on affordable housing, and recently also agreed to devote half the city's surplus to affordable housing once the rainy day fund gets paid down. What does that money get for DC residents, and is it enough?

Gray touted 47 affordable housing projects that are underway, all across the city, which he said can "buy down" the cost of housing, particularly rental housing. Will those 47 projects make a real dent in our housing problem? He said,

I think it's a significant dent in the housing need in the city, but I think hopefully we'll set a tone in terms of the culture, to say that we've got to have economically diverse housing in the city. The commitment in the housing plan I put together is that we would either create or preserve 10,000 units by 2020.

We already have reached the point where over 2,000 units have been created or are under construction, and the pace is picking up. 10,000 is not going to solve the problem. It is a huge down payment, a huge investment.
I think, too, as opportunities become available in the city with additional resources, I want to continue to invest in housing.

Tommy Wells argued that the government has not made it enough of a priority, especially in public land deals from the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

We have large tracts of land, from the McMillan Reservoir to Walter Reed to Reservation 13 to Poplar Point. If we start with the idea that our city needs affordable housing, then instead of looking at which developer can make money on this and then add on affordable housingaffordable housing on those tracts and those developments have been the secondary priority.

Wells specifically mentioned that DC has not built independent living facilities for seniors. He also suggested DC find more "creative" ways to use buildings, like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library downtown.

We have real estate on top of MLK Library. The Mies [van der Rohe] bldg was built for 5 stories. The structure is there. That is one of the most desirable places to live in the country. It's also one of the most expensive. If we thought of that as being the possibility of affordable housing for seniors, the place whereI can't think of a better place to live as a senior. You're on top of a library, you have services, medical services, the Y nearby...
He also accused the government of not being "smart" enough with its investments to ensure there is affordable housing in areas that will soon become more desirable. "We need to be land banking today on every route we're planning for the streetcar," he said. "We know the land value is going to go up. We need to be land banking along the streetcar lines so that we don't come back and say, 'Oh gosh, now this is so expensive, we need more cash out of the Housing Production Trust Fund in order to have less housing than we would have had if we had been smart to begin with."

Both Wells and Bowser talked about the problems of preserving affordable housing as well as creating more, and said that even DC's current investment will only do so much. Bowser said,

$100 million will get us little. If we do it for 10 years we'll get 10,000 new units. Our waiting list for public housing closed at 70,000 people. That already demonstrates a gap. We could spend a billion dollars and still have 10,000 people who are still in need of an affordable unit. An affordable housing strategy can't just be about creating units. It has to be about preserving and investing in the units we have.
Bowser also pointed the finger at the Gray administration, which she said has slowed development projects on public land to a "trickle."
When I first got on the council, we were approving city-initiated projects every month. Now it's a trickle of projects that come out of the Deputy Mayor's office. It's a trickle coming out of DHCD. And there's just not enough urgency around the creation of [affordable housing] units, and we need to get more.

More than that, we see projects getting canceled and rolled back. I can't tell you the concern over the Deputy Mayor's office canceling the Park Morton project, or Lincoln Heights. So I can tell you there's interest in developing housing in DC.

Do we have to incentivize it in some parts of the city, yes. Do we have to have some government involvement, absolutely. But I haven't seen at this point anybody saying that I don't want to build anything in DC.

Jack Evans claimed credit for the Housing Production Trust Fund existing in the first place. "Everyone you talk to is going to take credit for that, but the bottom line is, it was a piece of legislation that had been in existence that Mayor Williams, myself, and Councilmember Fenty decided to put in place and fund."

Evans also talked about his efforts to extend rent control, and to provide tax breaks for homeowners.

I championed the tax cap that started out at 25%, went down to 10%, and I'm looking to see if we can even lower it further so that people in the city, all across the city, who own homes won't find themselves in the situation where their property taxes are driving them out. And on the senior level, again I have a bill that moved out of my committee, that if you're a senior citizen and you earn less than 60,000, are 75 years old and lived in your house for 15 years, you don't have to pay property taxes at all. ...

Last night I was over at Thomas house, a senior building, and many of the residents there were talking to me about how they have homes and how helpful this will to be for them to stay in their home instead of going into a retirement home.

Evans mentioned that residents of east of the river neighborhoods say they don't want all the affordable housing over there, but spread throughout the city. He said he wants to put that housing everywhere. When I asked how some would go in Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, he said it should happen when there is new construction involving public land, but didn't specify further where that public land might be.

Bowser also brought up this concern from east of the river. She cited Inclusionary Zoning as a way to get affordable housing elsewhere, and seemed confident that initial "kinks" could be worked out.

Andy Shallal would go further and increase the amount of housing DC requires under inclusionary zoning. IZ "asks something from developers that receive so much. We need to ask for much more, much higher percentages." Similarly for public property, he said, "We have to be mindful of how we use that public property, and not just give it away willy nilly, to make this city a pawnshop for developers."

Watch the complete housing discussions with the candidates:

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Politics


Hear the candidates: Ward 6 on housing

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over a few weeks. Here are the discussions about housing with candidates for Ward 6 on the DC Council. See all of the articles here.


Images from the candidate websites.

It's not that easy to find specific policy issues where Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson disagree. Both candidates vying to succeed Tommy Wells talk about affordable housing, jobs, seniors, and education.

Indeed, in their freeform statements about affordable housing, both cited the need to ensure housing for families as well as singles and roommates. Compare the candidates' initial statements on affordable housing:

The biggest difference between Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson is in their political paths. Allen worked as Wells' chief of staff and knows city policy backward and forward. Thompson also has a long record in public service, but at the federal level working for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; he has not been very active in local politics or policy in the recent past.

Thompson has been a quick study and has compelling values for the ward, though ones not very different from Allen's. Thompson said the ward needs "new leadership," but when pressed, did not articulate much in the way of specific objections to Tommy Wells' tenure, while Allen is running on the record he and Wells built.

When I asked each candidate about how DC would add the 41,000-105,000 new housing units it needs in the next 20 years, both cited Hill East as a place with substantial development opportunities. While continuing to emphasize the need for family housing, Allen also said we need to add housing by using existing buildings in "smarter or more flexible ways," like accessory dwellings:

We're a community full of alleys. We have a lot of homes that have carriage houses or they have alley access properties. To be able to allow those to be legal residences is important. It's important because it allows for that housing to be created.

It's also important becauseI'll bring it back to affordability. If you have a property that has a carriage house, you're looking at rising costs in the city. Being able to have that be part of your rent is actually a great part of making your home help you in terms of achieving affordability.

In a subsequent email, Thompson said he also supports this proposal. He wrote, "With the growing rate of the population in our city, we need to provide more housing and this is a way to do that. Additionally, allowing homeowners to collect income on their property increases the affordability of owning their home, especially seniors on fixed incomes."

When I asked him about housing supply during the interview, Thompson also talked about being "smart," using the same word as Allen, but also said "we've got to make sure we don't overbuild," and that "there are developments on the table in Ward 6 that have split neighborhoods because residents didn't feel like they had the input."

Was Thompson talking about the Hine school development, the mixed-use project at Eastern Market Metro? Among other things, yes, and he had this to say:

Clearly something didn't go right. A lot of folks are outraged. I've talked to folks throughout Ward 6 and that part of Capitol Hill often, and folks feel likesome feel like it's too large. I think it's too large. I think under the current proposal we've got right now it's important we go back and look at this again.

Even talking about the affordable housing units that are offered, they're not like the market rate units. So we're creating housing for 2 different classes of people and making sure people clearly know that's what we did. That's not right.

We're talking about building something that's much larger than anything else in the surrounding neighborhoods. So I think, again, we should have proper community input; input that actually is meaningful and is adhered to before we sign off on projects. It's important. Lots of folks would like to see that project done, including myself, but not under the current proposal.

On this, Allen does not agree. I asked him over email for his view, and he wrote:

This is a project that will create a vibrant mix of housing, retail, office, market space, and important affordable housing in the heart of Capitol Hill and on top of a Metro station. Fitting the character and context of the community is crucial and I believe the Advisory Neighborhood Commission did an outstanding job of managing the complex array of issues and interests put before them.

In regard to affordable housing, a much needed mix of affordability will be created in both the north and the south buildings, including dedicated affordable housing for seniors to help ensure our city prioritizes successful aging-in-place within our neighborhoods.

The project has been the focus of countless community meetings, living room conversations, and many hundreds of hours of public work by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, neighbors, the project's Community Advisory Committee throughout the decision-making and zoning process.

To get the best sense of Thompson and Allen unfiltered, watch the whole 10-15 minute housing exchange I had with each. In upcoming days, we'll look at the two candidates' views on education and transportation.

We conducted the interviews at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw library and the Gibson Plaza apartments, a mixed-income market rate and affordable housing building also in the Shaw neighborhood. Both locations are now in Ward 6 following the 2012 redistricting (but we talked to the Ward 1 candidates there, too). Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.

Development


Does public assistance affect private spending?

Yesterday, we looked at how our expenditures vary by income, and an important question came up: Do the income figures include government assistance programs? The answer is mostly yes.


Image by the author.

The chart above shows the percentage of total income by source for consumer units at different income levels. Income includes benefits from programs such as Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Unemployment Insurance. It excludes benefits that are paid directly to a service provider, such as Medicaid or Housing Choice Vouchers, but those amounts are also excluded on the expenditures.

The major source of income that is not accounted for here, or in yesterday's graphs, is refundable income tax credits. That mechanism helps close the gap between after tax income and expenditures slightly for lower income households, but there is still, on average, a significant shortfall that must come from a nongovernmental source.

Development


See how housing and transportation costs hold the poor back

Everyone's spending habits are basically the same. But rising housing and transportation costs hit low-income households hardest.


Consumer spending by income. All images by the author.

Data from the Bureau for Labor Statistics show that people of all income levels tend to spend similar percentages of their budgets on each expenditure category, with some exceptions. For example, as income rises, Consumer Units (defined as families living together, financially independent individuals, or groups of unrelated individuals who budget jointly) dedicate an increasing percentage of their budget to personal insurance and pensions.

Consumers at the lower end of the income spectrum spend a disproportionately higher percentage of their budget on housing costs. But on most other measures, including transportation, health care, and entertainment, the percentages across income levels are fairly equivalent, as shown in the graph above.

But these percentages represent share of total expenditures, and not all Consumer Units are operating with a balanced budget. A comparison of income and expenditures shows that lower-income families and individuals tend to spend more than they earn while higher-income units are able to stash some of their earnings away. The graphs below attempt to illustrate this:


Low-income households spend more than they earn.

When you change the denominator in the first graph from Total Expenditures to Annual Income, a more accurate depiction of our spending habits is revealed. Consumers earning between $5,000 and $30,000 per year spend 62% of their income on Housing, 24% on Transportation and 23% on Food. That's 109% of their income gone just on these three basic necessities.


Low-income households are burdened by high housing and transportation costs.

This modified version of the first graphic presented gives a fuller representation of household finances at different income levels in the US. It paints a pretty bleak picture for low-income families and individuals.

A version of this post originally ran at R. U. Seriousing Me?


Politics


College Park's mayor takes Smart Growth to school

Andrew Fellows came to College Park from Silver Spring in 1991 as a grad student at the University of Maryland and never left. Now mayor and newly elected to a third term, Fellows wants to draw staff and faculty back to this college town, all while making it more environmentally sustainable.


Andy Fellows, mayor of College Park. Photo by the author.

It's Thursday morning at the Starbucks in College Park, perhaps the main thoroughfare for college students in this 30,000-person city. Fellows walks in quickly. If you're not looking up at the time, you'll miss him. A hand shoots out.

"Morning, Mayor," says a man from a lounge chair.

"Hey, how are ya doin?" says Fellows.

In November, Fellows was reelected in the city's first contested election in 24 years. Fellows, whose day job is regional director at Clean Water Action, agreed to meet me for one of the first interviews since then.

What are the executive powers of mayors of small municipalities like College Park?

Mayor Fellows: Almost none...the city council sets policy. I have a vote on council matters, but only if it's a tie. Then we have a city manager who is full-time: basically who runs the city, and implements the policy that we settle.

It's not really my authority, but it's my ability to meet with leaders. When I was sworn in, I said that I wanted to improve the relationship with the University of Maryland and also with Prince George's County. So I spend a chunk of time meeting with people and talking with people about ways we could work together and improve relationships. I'm a little bit of an ambassador for College Park.

Could you tell me a little about your work [at Clean Water Action]?

Mayor Fellows: Clean Water Action is a national organization. We have about a million members around the country. I coordinate our program in Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. Our mission is both to make democracy work and get people involved in the decision-making process on environmental issues, and also to implement the Clean Water Act, which is to make the water of the United States more fishable and to make sure there's safe and affordable drinking water. It's partly political because we do endorsements and we do election work, and it's also education and outreach.

It seems College Park is a bit of a hotbed for non-profit environmental work. Did that activity and organizing attract you to the city in the first place?

Mayor Fellows: It's part of being a college town where those types of groups tend to be here. In a sense it did attract me. But then again I didn't really work in environmental work at first. I worked at Citizen Action, which did do environmental work but they worked with other issues as well.

I've attempted to make it a point not to bring my Clean Water agenda to being the mayor at College Park, but it overlaps in the sense that I'm a green mayor. I'm an environmentally-minded mayor. So I want to encourage as much sustainability as possible.

What are some of the challenges that are unique to College Park instead of other nearby municipalities?

Mayor Fellows: I think the unique opportunity we have, and in some ways the challenge, is being home to the flagship campus to the state of Maryland. Because of that we have a lot of count-down issues. Sometimes it's the tension of people who are renting and living short-term and maybe have a different lifestyle than their neighbors: partying and noise. That's a lot of what the Quality of Life Workgroup does, is address some of those issues.

But also with planning, transportation, and economic development issues. The university has a lot of power and the city doesn't have final authority on land use; the county does. So, our focus is on coordinating our efforts with the university and the county to make sure that we're working together.

What are you proud of having accomplished?

Mayor Fellows: Well a lot of the university faculty don't live here in town, and so one of the things that we recognize for the university to be more sustainable is having them living closer to the university so that they can bike or walk to work.

The reason they don't is education. The public schools of Prince George's County don't have a good reputation, so education has always been a top priority of mine. But the city of College Park didn't run education. We do now that we are helping to run a new charter school called College Park Academy, that just opened this fall...It's in a former Catholic school called St. Mark's. We will be creating a full-time location for the College Park Academy, but we're still in the process of doing that.

To me that's a really concrete accomplishment of getting the university, the city, and the county to work together to improve public education opportunities for kids.

Where does affordable housing rank on the list of the city's priorities?

Mayor Fellows: It's pretty high, but affordable housing is one of those issues that's mostly related to students. Of course, that's not true in a lot of parts of Prince George's County. I think for us in College Park, we've got a pretty good amount of diversity of income and affordable housing.

We imposed rent control and rent stabilization to address what we felt were students being ripped off by landlords who were charging really high rates. A lot of the parents of students can afford high rates. So the rents around here in the group houses were going up. So we did two things: one, we put rent stabilization in place, and then we went to war with the landlords, which took a while to get going.

What were some of the provisions of your rent control?

Mayor Fellows: You could only raise the rent a certain percentage of the value of the property.

Are student advocacy groups active on this front?

Mayor Fellows: The Student Government Organization and the Graduate Student Government have somewhat engaged in housing issues. Their big issue is getting more housing. Because, the market says, in theory, that if you have enough housing, the prices will come down because of supply and demand.

Where does smart growth fit into all of this?

Mayor Fellows: Smart growth for me is the more we can build around transit areas, areas with transportation infrastructure, so that people aren't as dependent on cars. And for us it's working. We're actually decreasing the amount of vehicle trips on Route 1 because of the fact that students living so close to campus don't have to drive to campus, which reduces cars on the road.

Okay, let's switch gears. What's the strangest thing a constituent has ever said to you?

Mayor Fellows: Well, the first thing that comes to my mindů I'm not really sure if it's strange, but it's strange to me. We put up speed cameras a few years ago, and sure enough people got caught speeding. But I was amazed that people would call me up, the mayor, and complain about being caught for speeding. Basically, their attitude was, "How dare you put up a speed camera ad how dare you fine me for breaking the law." It was so weird to me.

What are some of your personal challenges that you've faced since becoming mayor?

Mayor Fellows: My personal challenge is probably time. I end up working 60 or 70 hours a week. And it's work I love doing. So it's figuring out, "how do I prioritize and get things done in a way that's effective, but doesn't drive me crazy?"

Also, being patient, which is somewhat of a strength of mine because I'm a pretty patient guy. But some things don't happen overnight or really quickly. The most sustainable things are the ones where people take a lot of community ownership or a lot of people involved in the project to get people going together. It's bottom up and not top down. And that also takes time.

A version of this post appeared on Jimmy's Writing Samples.

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