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After years of controversy, DC's McMillan development is moving forward (UPDATE: No it's not)

On Wednesday, DC mayor Muriel Bowser broke ground at the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, home to one of DC's most well-known development battles. The project will transform the neighborhood east of Howard University, adding 655 new housing units, a park, commercial space, and expanded offices for the nearby Children's Hospital.

Update: As of this afternoon, DC's Court of Appeals has halted the McMillan redevelopment despite rulings from the Zoning Commission and Historic Preservation Review Board saying it could move forward.

The McMillan groundbreaking. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Located at the southwest corner of North Capital Street and Michigan Avenue, McMillan was built at the turn of the century to purify the Washington Aqueduct. Water percolated through four feet of sand in 25 underground vaults to filter out undesirables. The iconic silos were used to store replacement sand above ground.

The site was obsolete by the late 20th century and declared surplus in 1986. It has sat vacant since then, fenced off and waiting for a new purpose.

McMillan's silos.

The groundbreaking comes after years of heated debate about what to do with the decommissioned site. The group leading the charge, called Friends of McMillan Park have been vocal in their opposition to the project because it it would mean removing many of the underground sand vaults.

Friends of McMillan have been working in the courts since 2014 to stall the project. They've also run a very vocal yard-sign campaign.

You've probably seen one of these in DC. The sand filtration site has never actually been a park, though. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

However, others point out that the site has been fenced off and publicly inaccessible since World War II, so the demolition is not actually a huge public loss. In fact, the restoration of sand vaults #28 and the creation of a walking museum are a net win for the site.

In the architectural rendering from Vision McMillan Partners below, you can see how the project will appear when looking southeast.

Image from Vision McMillan Partners.

The two buildings to the right will be office space for Children's Hospital (located across the street). Housing units and commercial space are in the middle, and a park is at the far left. The sand silos are prominently featured down the two parallel courts.

There's still a bit of sand left over in the silos.

Many of the historic elements of the old water facility will be retained. The site's landscape architecture plan will incorporate all 20 of the iconic sand silos, four of the regulator houses and 12 stationary sand washers.

12 stationary sand washers will be saved.

The redevelopment will also save sand vault #14 in its entirety, but planners haven't settled on what to use it for. The underground vaults stretch for acres underneath the grassy fields of McMillan Park, and look like the cross between a parking garage and an old catacomb. They've excited urban explorers for years and they've been a big part of the case not to develop at McMillan, but they don't have a logical (or realistic) use, apart from sand filtration.

According to Joaquin McPeek of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, "We have not established a use for Cell 14 at this time. It is under DC Water control for a few more years until the First Street Tunnel Project is complete. We will then go through a community engagement and entitlement process to establish its use."

The other vaults have to go because their century-old concrete walls don't have rebar reinforcing bars and could collapse.

Construction is set to begin in the summer of 2017. Vision McMillan Partners has some cool architectural images of how the finished project will look on their website.

Crossposted from Architect of the Capital.


A developer has agreed to build shorter and less dense than the law allows, but neighbors are still fighting it

An apartment building is slated to go up at the site of an old grocery store near American University. Some residents oppose the new housing and only want a grocery store to return there, but apartments are likely coming to the site no matter what. It's the grocery store that the opposition could kill.

This could turn into a grocery store with apartments on the bottom... or it could just turn into apartments. Image from Google Maps.

The old Superfresh site at the corner of Yuma and 48th Streets NW off of Massachusetts Avenue has been vacant since Fresh and Greens, another grocery store, closed in 2011. But that's set to change thanks to a proposed building from Valor Development.

The proposed development, called the Ladybird, would bring a grocery store and 230 units to the area, including 200 rentals and 30 condos, with 10 percent of these units set aside as affordable through DC's inclusionary zoning program. It also includes a public park that would connect the site with other stores in the area, making it easier for residents to walk from place to place.

Image from Google Maps.

According to the developer, these units would be aimed at attracting current residents in the area looking to downsize. The development would also connect the Spring Valley Shopping Center and rest of the neighborhood with a pedestrian avenue between the two buildings.

Instead of just apartments, the developer wants to build a grocery store too

The Superfresh parcel is zoned to allow "moderate-density mixed-used development" in a low- or moderate-density residential area like the one surrounding the site. That means that if it wanted to, the developer could build the proposed 230 residential units, just without commercial space (i.e. the grocery store), without any special approval.

Valor does want to build a grocery store, though, so it's proposing a deal: while the new building could have up to almost 32,000 square feet on a penthouse level, the current proposal only uses 14,000 square feet. And the proposed design includes almost 15,000 square feet of public space, which isn't required at all.

That deal, however, means the developer must submit their proposal for review by the Zoning Commission. This is because the grocery store causes the development to deviate from the standards allowed as a matter of right. The process here is different from a Planned Unit Development because Valor is not proposing to change the building's density (with the grocery store, it will be shorter and have fewer residents), but rather to change the building's use.

The diagram below compares what can go up on the Superfresh as a matter of right with the development that has been submitted to the Zoning Commission for voluntary design review. Note that "FAR" means floor area ratio.

Photo from of Valor Development.

It looks like the developer wants to give neighbors what they want, but neighbors are still opposed

Some residents, however, oppose the proposed development. A group led by Citizens for Responsible Development argues that even though the zoning says a moderate-density apartment building can go up, that shouldn't be allowed because the Future Land Use Map included in the DC Comprehensive Plan says the parcel should be "low-density commercial." They also argue the additional apartment units would strain schools and bring unwanted traffic into the area. Some are concerned that the development will lower property values in the area.

Residents have joined together to oppose the 230-unit development proposed for the old superfresh site (pictured in background). Photo by the author.

But the zoning map, not the Comprehensive Plan's Future Land Use Map, determines what can be built where. And as the DC zoning map illustrates, the question to ask about the Superfresh site is not whether there will be apartments, but whether those apartments will be built on top of a grocery store. If residents succeed in shooting down the developer's latest proposal during the design review, they may find themselves with an apartment building but no grocery store.

"There seems little doubt that housing will be built at the site one way or another," said ANC 3E Chair Jonathan Bender. "To the degree neighbors mobilize to negotiate about issues such as traffic management and public space design, they can potentially make the neighborhood a safer, more livable, and perhaps even more fun place. I, and I believe all of my ANC colleagues, will work hard to see that the developer does all that is reasonable to accommodate neighborhood consensus on such issues."

The apartments—both market price and those made affordable thanks to inclusionary zoningand grocery store would bring much-needed amenities to the area. The neighborhood surrounding the Superfresh site is largely made up of single-family homes, and Ward 3 has lagged behind the other parts of the city when it comes to building affordable housing. The closest full-service grocery store, meanwhile, is the Whole Foods in Tenleytown.


Should a "historic gas station" keep new housing units from going up in Dupont?

A new building with housing and ground-level retail was set to go up just west of Dupont Circle, but the project has stalled because some DC officials say it would harm a historic gas station building. There's often tension between wanting to preserve historic buildings and needing to build more housing for a region that will continue to grow. We asked our contributors what they think should happen in this situation.

The Embassy Gulf Service Station. Image from Google Maps.

Marx Realty & Improvement Company recently proposed potential designs for a nine-story, 34-unit residential building with ground floor retail at 22nd and P Streets NW.That address is also home to the Embassy Gulf Service Station—today a Sunoco—that was built in 1936.

The building was designated a historic landmark in 1993 because it's a particularly good example of the neo-classical design used by many urban gas stations during the 1930s to make the car-oriented buildings more palatable to planners and zoning officials of their day.

In all three of Marx's design options, the plan was to slightly move the gas station building so there was more room for the new one, and to adapt it for retail use. In some of the plans, there was to be a connection on the ground level between the old and new buildings.

Marx submitted these options to DC's Historic Preservation Review Board the staff that advises the Historic Preservation Review Board, an agency that decides whether new building proposals fit with the historic landmark. Technically, the HPRB is only an advisory board, but if it says no to a design, it's rare that the DC government issues a permit to build.

The HPRB Historic Preservation Office said in its report that none of the designs would work because of the "disparity in height" between the single-story station building and the nine-story proposal:

This is the principle the HPRB staff operated on: Any adjacent new construction should be substantially lower in height than is proposed so as to not loom over the landmark.

Here's the HPRB staff's ruling: The disparity in height between the nine-story new construction and the one-story landmark is stark, discordant and incompatible, and would result in the gas station being left in shadow. While the open lot site to the south is under separate ownership and apparently not available for development, its presence adds to what is an unsatisfying urbanistic solution in which the weight of the new tower is pushed uncomfortably close to the landmark while a large open parking lot would remain on the other side.

It's somewhat confusing to hear that a nine-story building would provide an "unsatisfying urbanistic solution" when many nearby buildings, including a ten-story apartment building directly across the street, are around that height.

We asked our contributors to weigh in on the decision and the broader competing interests of preserving historic structures while allowing DC to grow for the future.

Several contributors, like Tony Camilli, disagree with the HPRB's ruling:

DC already has more than 18% of its property designated as historic vs. 4.7% in Boston, 3.6% in New York, and 2.2% in Philadelphia. Yet these other cities are over a century older than DC. This particular gas station is prime real estate in an area with many other transportation options and was built long before Metrorail and bike lanes came about.

Modern cities have to change over time to remain relevant (see Detroit and other rust-belt cities for examples of failures to adapt). DC has gotten very expensive and needs more housing, so 1-story gas stations located in densely-populated areas with many transportation options should not be saved even if the architecture and use are historic. Document the station and archive its existence yes, but don't hold DC hostage to the change it needs to be a 21st century city.

Dan Malouff simply tweeted the following:

David Alpert sees a double standard when it comes to building designs and building heights, and argues that DC needs to take advantage of limited infill housing opportunities:

I support having historic preservation. I think we have many wonderful buildings which add architectural and historic diversity to the city and are worth keeping.

But the preservation office says new buildings should be "of their time" in terms of architecture (look contemporary, not like replicas of old buildings) even if that means a super modern building is next to an old one, the thought being that such a move would just emphasize the historic. Okay, but then they say that new buildings should not be very different in size.

Why should a building be faux-historic in height but not design? Why shouldn't the new building be "of its time" in size? Wouldn't having a tall building next to a short one emphasize the historic height?

I think preserving valuable buildings is a great thing to do, but when we're talking about new construction on vacant land I think HP can be too restrictive about "compatibility."

Dan Reed raises the point that "preservation" is often about one group's definition of history, but not another's:
This makes me think about the fate of Phase 1 (before it Apex and Badlands), the gay club a few blocks away, which is being converted back to its "historic" appearance as a carriage house.

These preservationists don't just want to save the gas station, they want it its surroundings to look like it did when it was built, nevermind how the context has changed since then. As a queer person, I personally think the "recent" history of Phase 1/Apex/Badlands overrules the 1900s history that none of us were there for and can apply any meaningful context to. But we often privilege the "built" history over the cultural history because the built stuff feels more tangible.

Jacqueline Drayer says that on the other hand, historic gas stations are extremely unique:
Very, very few gas stations in the US are protected (for good reason) - but they represent an integral part of 20th century US history. This one has both an unusual style and speaks to the lost practice of actually creating inspired station architecture. It is perfectly reasonable to maintain the spatial qualities of the still functioning gas station.
Steven Yates agrees, and wondered if a shorter building would work:
I'm OK with the gas station being historic. It is in fact fairly old (dating back to 1936) and a style we don't see anymore (and not bad looking either). But to say a tall building is incompatible with it really ignores the context of the surrounding neighborhood (like across the street). And at what height does it no longer tower over? It's only a one story building so would three stories still be too high?
What do you think? Should a building go up as long as the gas station isn't harmed? Is moving the gas station to face another way ok? Should the gas station stay around at all?

Correction: This post initially said that the developer submitted its proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board. It actually submitted it to the Historic Preservation Office. HPRB did not hear the case.


Is new housing, most of it for low-income residents, worth giving up an acre of park space?

DC has plans to turn half of a park on Georgia Avenue into an apartment complex that will largely be affordable housing, much of which will replace a nearby public housing project that's in disrepair. Many residents support the plan, but some are opposed, with reasons ranging from not wanting to lose any park space to wanting the building to be shorter.

The proposed redevelopment of the Bruce Monroe site. Images from Park View Community unless otherwise noted.

Right now Bruce Monroe is a 2.5-acre park in DC's Park View Pleasant Plains neighborhood, on Georgia Avenue between Irving Street and Columbia Road. The site was a school until it was torn down in 2009. In 2010, the city proposed making it into a parking lot, but neighbors disliked that idea, so officials constructed a temporary park while they thought about what to do long-term.

Here are the proposals on the table

DC wants to turn half of the land at Bruce Monroe into new housing and keep the other half a park. The redevelopment would have a 189-unit apartment building, a 76-unit senior apartment building, and 8 townhomes (a total of 273 new units). 108 of these units would be reserved for households earning up to 60 percent of area median income (that's about $66,000/yr for a family of four). Another 94 units would be reserved for residents below 30% of AMI. So almost three quarters of the units would be set aside for moderate and low-income households.

The Bruce Monroe development; building A would be apartments; building B would be senior apartments.

To do all of this, DC's Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and its chosen developer, Park View Community Partners, are applying to build higher than the current zoning permits, through a process called a Planned Unit Development (PUD).

Building at Bruce Monroe means deteriorating units nearby

Aside from adding new units to the neighborhood, a big element of the Bruce Monroe development is that it would replace units at Park Morton, a public housing project a little under half a mile up Georgia Avenue, on Morton Street. To be clear, Bruce Monroe and Park Morton are part of the same project; if one gets blocked, the whole thing falls apart.

The Park Morton (top) and Bruce Monroe sites, with proposed redevelopments.

Right now, Park Morton is itself up for redevelopment as part of the New Communities Initiative, which started in 2005 under Mayor Williams. A central tenet of NCI says that when the city redevelops public housing, it needs to build replacement units before demolishing the old ones (a concept known as "build first"). That's the purpose of the units reserved for families at 30% of AMI and below at Bruce Monroe: to replace public housing units at Park Morton, and prevent displacing low-income residents.

New Communities has struggled to live up to this ideal: another NCI site, Temple Courts, was demolished in 2008, its residents scattered (there was no "building first"), and today it's a parking lot. The city is trying to do better at Park Morton, and Bruce Monroe is part of that plan.

Park Morton, meanwhile, would be redeveloped to have 183 units, with apartments and rowhouses mixed around a central park. 53 units would be replacement public housing and 40 units would be set aside for families under 60 percent of AMI.

Rendering of the proposed Park Morton redevelopment.

Together, the developments at Park Morton and Bruce Monroe would mean 302 units of affordable housing, a 1-acre park at Bruce Monroe, and another quarter-acre park at Park Morton. The south half of the Bruce Monroe site would remain a park, which would include a playground, community space and garden, a basketball court, and a dog park. And 4,545 square feet (about a tenth of an acre) of the community space wouldn't be eliminated, but incorporated into the buildings' footprint.

Some neighbors don't want to trade park space for affordable housing

Many neighbors support the Bruce Monroe development, especially given three fourths of the project is set aside for affordability. But others are "packing community meetings and flooding neighborhood email lists with their objections" because they don't want to give up half of the park.

Many opponents argue that the city should find another site. But as GGWash contributor and ANC 1A commissioner Kent Boese testified in November, no property owners along Georgia Avenue would sell their land for this "build first" element of the Park Morton redevelopment project when the District first tried between 2011 and 2014.

Boese was personally involved in the search for a suitable spot, and after four years he (and others, including DMPED), concluded that the city-owned site at Bruce Monroe made the most sense.

Many folks do want to see the project completed: ANCs 1A and 1B have voted on six separate occasions in support. And Park Morton residents might like new apartments; their current units were built in 1960.

Image from Google Maps.

Other residents are concerned that the buildings would be too tall (the proposal would make the two apartment buildings 60 and 90 feet tall). But the PUD allows more units, and more market rate units, which subsidizes the affordable units; a taller building means more affordable housing.

You'll have a chance to tell the zoning commission about your opinion on the proposal at 6:30 pm on December 5th and 8th. The meetings are at One Judiciary Square, 441 4th Street NW.


If racial inequities didn't exist, DC would look like this...

Across DC, black and Hispanic residents see a lot less socio-economic success than white residents, and many argue that's because the playing field is not level when it comes to opportunities for success. The charts below show what DC would look like if minorities got a fair shake, according to a recent study.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

There are big racial disparities in DC

Generally speaking, DC's biggest pockets of black residents are in the east, Hispanic residents are in the north, and white residents are in the west. But according to DC's Urban Institute, white homeowners have more freedom to choose where to live: between 2010-2014, they could afford 67 percent of all homes sold in the District and all homes in Ward 8. Black and Hispanic homebuyers, on the other hand, could only afford 9.2 percent and 29 percent of homes sold, respectively. s

Affordable rentals are also hard to come by for minorities, who the report says spend 30 percent or more of their monthly income on rent—an amount that experts say make a houshold "rent-burdened," and that the report refers to as "cost burdened." East of the Anacostia River, black residents can afford 67 percent of the rentals, but west of Rock Creek Park, only 7 percent of the rentals are affordable.

All images from Urban Institute.

There's a reason things are this way

While the study acknowledges that in recent years, the recession hit minority groups harder than it hit whites, it's rooted in the acknowledgement that the above racial disparities are rooted in trends that have existed for much longer.

Minority groups have been traditionally barred from upward socioeconomic mobility by private actions and public policies for generations. Historically, it has been difficult for blacks to get mortgages, they were limited in who they could buy from, and they faced strict zoning restrictions. They were also prevented from getting better paying jobs, and when the federal government cut funding, poor black communities were usually affected most.

Over time, this has prevented minority communities from sharing in socioeconomic progress as a whole. This has meant a steeper barrier over time—one that the Urban Institute study calls inequitable.

Here's how those inequities play out in terms of wages, and what DC would look like without them:

With housing and childcare in the District being very expensive, many DC families struggle to earn a living wage, but minority families face steep challenges covering costs.

According the Urban Institute, "the living wage for a parent to support a two children should be $38.01/ hour, or $79,000/ year," but a majority of minority families are below that threshold, around $75,000/ year. Only 44 percent of whites are below this threshold.

"East of the Anacostia, four out of five black residents working full time earned less than this living wage," the report says, and 70% of black and Hispanic families working full time make below the living wage. However, with the many service industry jobs that minorities occupy, bridging this gap is difficult.

If DC were more equitable, poverty levels would look like this:

Despite economic growth since the 2008 recession, communities of color have not yet recovered, and are in fact worse off than before the crash. In 2014, there were a recorded 18,000 more unemployed African Americans than in 2007, with a quarter of the black population now living below the poverty line.

On average, the poverty level for black residents is at 26 percent, with Ward 8 being the worst at 30 percent; white poverty in DC, on the other hand, stands at 7.4 percent. The report also shows that white child poverty is virtually zero, while the poverty rate for black children is 38 percent and 22 percent for Hispanic children. If things were more equitable, the report says, "no child would be poor."

Here's what the employment picture would look like:

In DC, black unemployment is 5.5 times that of whites at 19.5 percent, which is above the national average of 16.1 percent. In a city where minority employment reflected white employment, "2,200 more Hispanic residents and 24,000 more black residents would be employed."

The fact that many of DC's fastest growing job sectors require some post secondary education has severe consequences for unemployment, too.

Minority communities also face steep inequities in education, which have far ranging effects on choice of housing, wages, employment, and even general health. Most whites ages 25 and u, have a high school diploma or GED and some level of college education, whereas 31 percent of Hispanics and only 17 percent of blacks don't have a high school diploma or GED.

Further, only half of black and Hispanic communities have some level of education beyond high school. If the education gap didn't exist, according to the study, 50,000 black and Hispanic residents would have at least a GED, and almost 98,000 black residents would have some post secondary education.

Changing all of this would raise the quality of living for everyone

A more racially fair society, the study says, would have substantial economic benefits for everyone. When people earn more they invest and spend more, which would benefit local businesses and education. In fact, they estimate that "DC's economy would have been 65 billion dollars larger in 2012", if many of these inequality gaps were closed.

However, the limit of this data analysis is in showing what, exactly, equality looks like. Citizens and policymakers need to understand how and why this inequality persists today and pursue policy agendas that would actually close these gaps.

What agendas do you think policy makers should pursue to close the racial inequality gap?

Note: Some readers have reported that when viewing this post expanded on the home page, the embedded tool doesn't work. It should work if you are viewing the post on its own page; click here to go there.

Correction: This post previously committed a word, saying "31 percent of Hispanics and only 17 percent of blacks have a high school diploma or GED" when those figures are for the percentage of each population that does not have a diploma or GED.


More on why buying your first home in the DC region is so hard

For first-time homebuyers, saving up for a down payment or taking on another loan to buy a house can be all but impossible. But those aren't the only big challenges to buying a house. Here's how competing against buyers who can afford not to use a mortgage, risk having to pay for unexpected repairs after making a deal, or simply offer more than the highest amount you're willing to pay can mean more barriers for first-time homebuyers.

Photo by are you my rik? on Flickr.

Recently, the Washington Post reported that home prices around DC reached their highest levels in ten years thanks in part to low inventory, which means more bidders for fewer houses. And the low end of the market—the part within reach for many first-time buyers—is the most competitive.

Before my wife and I bought in East Silver Spring last March, I felt like we'd never be able to save enough for our first house. Saving for a down payment--budgeting every penny, turning down dinners out with friends, and moving further away from work and public transportation for cheaper rent--was daunting. Where we once thought that saving enough money was the only major hurdle to owning our own home, we soon discovered that the down payment was only the beginning.

You don't have to save 20 percent, but you do have to compete against those who have more cash on hand

A number of mortgage options exist for people like us who have good credit and a decent income, but who see a 20 percent down payment as an impossibility due to high rent and a lot of student loans.

Starting our search in Hyattsville, we knew we would be up against people making all-cash offersin other words, waiving their "mortgage contingency" and telling a seller they could pay the purchase price without getting a loan from a bank.

Photo by Violette79 on Flickr.

All-cash offers are appealing to the seller for three reasons. First, the seller doesn't have to worry about the buyer getting turned down for a mortgage. Second, the seller doesn't have to worry about the house appraising for less than the amount of the offer, which would cause the bank to reject the sale price. Third, with no loan for a bank to underwrite, buyers can close more quickly.

Though recent data show the proportion of all-cash offers has decreased in Prince George's County, in 2015 they still made up a quarter of all offers, give or take, in Prince George's, Montgomery County, and DC.

To minimize the advantages of an all-cash offer relative to what we'd be able to offer, my wife and I got preapproved for a loan with a community bank. Preapproval reduced the risk that our financing would fall through. We chose a community bank (instead of a credit union or a larger bank, like Wells Fargo) because it did its underwriting in-house. With fewer players involved, we would be able to close in far less time than would take other financed buyers.

Having gotten pre-approval, we found a real estate agent and began touring houses. After seeing ten houses or so, found one we were ready to make an offer on.

Escalation clauses advantage buyers who have more money for a down payment or who have been preapproved for a higher mortgage

An escalation clause is a section you can add to your offer that says your bid will automatically go up (to an amount you decide, of course) if someone else bids more. These can seem helpful for first time home buyers, as they allow you to make your offer competitive while ensuring that you bid the least amount possible to win.

In our first offer, we set an escalation amount--$1,000 over the next highest offer--and a ceiling price. Our ceiling was limited by our preapproval and how much money we had on hand to cover the larger down payment.

Ultimately, we lost to a more attractive bid. We felt like we had done everything we could, but that somehow, the next offer we wrote would have to be even more competitive.

Photo by Vicki on Flickr.

Removing the inspection contingency is a risky strategy for a buyer who can't afford unexpected repairs after closing

Typically, offers include an inspection contingency to make sure that the house is sound and that big ticket items, like the roof, don't have to be replaced immediately. After a home inspector writes her report and before closing, the buyer and seller can negotiate the cost and responsibility for repairing any issues.

The inspection contingency protects the buyer and allows her to walk away if the seller won't address critical fixes. Like the mortgage contingency, some people waive the home inspection to make their bids more competitive.

Neither my wife nor I wanted to forgo an inspection because we knew it would take time to rebuild our savings after closing and we wouldn't be able to afford a large repair right away. With our budget, we were looking at older houses that would likely need something fixed. Someone planning to flip a house wouldn't have these concerns.

We ended up waiving the inspection contingency after all, but only because the sellers let us inspect the house before we put in an offer. If it had revealed major issues, we wouldn't even have written one, instead eating the cost of the inspection. Luckily for us, the house didn't need any major repairs, and we were able to write a winning offer.

Even if different mortgage options make it easier to save for a down payment, the risks others are willing to write into their offers makes it hard for first-time buyers to be competitive.

In some cases, competing homebuyers may be more able to waive the mortgage contingency or the inspection contingency and shoulder the risk of coming up with the full cost of the house or major repairs. In a bidding war, people with more money up front may be able to escalate their bid to a higher price. Each of these may be more appealing to a seller than a traditional offer that is dependent on a mortgage or a home inspection.

I looked for data on how often homebuyers use escalation clauses and waive inspection contingencies, but couldn't find any. Have you used them, or lost out to to them? Share in the comments below.


DC will probably never be too dense. These comments explain why, in a nutshell.

Some people think "density" means "a city that's packed to the gills." But a couple of our commenters recently pointed out that our region has more than ample space, and adding more housing isn't just necessary—it's beneficial.

This is 16th Street NW. Does it look to you like DC is out of space, with people packed in so tight they can't function? Yeah, me either. Image from Google Maps.

On election day, we re-ran a post from April Fools Day that satirized both the presidential election and the classic argument that neighborhoods are becoming too full and thus shouldn't get more residents or housing.

In his Onion-esque post, David Alpert wrote about how low-density the property at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is, and how essentially building pop-ups onto the White House would mean making room for lots of new residents, from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

One commenter, Rick, got the point and disagreed with it:

Why do some people want to populate DC as densely as humanly possible? To be honest, I liked it better 15 years ago when there were a couple hundred thousand fewer people living here.
It's worth saying that the viewpoint expressed here is not irrational, nor does it make the person saying it a bad person. A lot of people like DC because it's not as dense as some of the country's other big cities, and they're allowed to feel that way. The issue is that it's not accurate to say that adding more dense housing, which the region does need to do, would mean that living here would become completely untenable.

One reply to the above comment, from a commenter named alurin, made this point—essentially, that "There is no such thing as a city that has run out of room"—quite well:

I don't think anyone wants DC to be "as dense as humanly possible". Wikipedia lists DC's current population density as 11,011 people per square mile. That puts us outside of the top 100 densest cities in the US, much less the world. If we doubled the population of the district, density would rise to 22K/sq mile, approximately equivalent to Somerville, MA, a very pleasant city where I lived for several years.

The densest city in the world is Manila, Philippines, with a density of 107k/sq mile. We would have to squeeze about 6.5 million people into the district to reach that benchmark. So let's cut out the hyperbole.

Many people want the city to get somewhat denser because a lot of people want to live here. The bigger the gap between housing supply (proportional to density) and demand to live here, the more excruciatingly expensive it will get to live here.

Two other responses that popped up made additional good points beyond that fact that "density" doesn't mean "make this place the most dense it can possibly be." Making room for more people is simply part of the equation if you want to thrive economically. And when you do that, you reap social and cultural benefits.

One came from Republic:

People don't cease to exist just because we want them to. The whole country's population is growing and needs to be housed. Opposing density doesn't make sense unless we somehow stop population growth.
And one came from Dan:
There is demand for housing within the District. Pick your favorite "DC is great" reason--walkable, transit-oriented, culturally rich, etc. If those moving in are bigger contributors to the tax base than they are users of city services (single, healthy, childless, productive), then why not welcome them with open arms?
I don't believe anyone wants to make DC "as dense as humanly possible."
DC already has a wide variety of neighborhoods that accommodate a variety of people at different densities, none of which are unbearably overcrowded. Adding more people won't change that.


Why affordable housing doesnít stay affordable forever

We often hear that DC is losing affordable housing. In most cases, that means existing dwellings hitting a point where rents go up or building owners sell at market rates. Here's how "expiration dates" for affordable housing work.

Photo by Carol Highsmith.

There's a limit on how long affordable housing remains affordable

Programs like DC's Housing Production Trust Fund, DC's largest housing program, require the housing it helps pay for to remain affordable for a set number of years. Broadly speaking, that means the building can only be rented to people below a certain income level, and rent can't go above a certain level. This amount could be 30 percent of the tenant's income, meaning a tenant's rent can rise or fall if they lose or gain income.

Affordable units like this use federal rental subsidies that pay the difference between what the tenant pays on any given month and an agreed-upon amount. That, or the maximum rent could be based on the most someone at a certain income level could afford (independent of whether the actual tenant is at or below that income level). Housing built using federal low-income housing tax credits usually works this way.

But after time passes, owners are free to convert their buildings to market-rate housing. Among housing programs in the District, affordability terms can be short as 30 years for rental housing and five years for homeownership housing.

When entire buildings of low-cost housing are lost because the affordability restrictions expired, low-income residents are displaced from their homes and communities, and it is expensive and often impossible for the city to rebuild the lost housing—especially in high-demand neighborhoods with access to transit and jobs.

Affordability requirements don't have to be limited

Affordability requirements have traditionally been set to expire for a few reasons. One is that affordable rents and replacement reserves (funds set aside to pay for the building's future needs) aren't always enough to pay for repairs as buildings wear out and need to be fixed. Hiking rents after a few decades can pay for re-investments like new plumbing, windows, roofs and boilers.

The other is that some affordable housing projects count on profits from higher rents in the future to fill out the return on investment (though this isn't all that common given that most affordable housing developers aren't for-profit).

But what if affordable housing built with public dollars had no expiration date? A decade ago, housing officials from Boston decided all projects receiving public subsidy had to agree to stay affordable permanently. After seeing the city's past housing investments evaporate as affordability terms expired, Boston's Neighborhood Development Department (Boston's version of DC's Department of Housing and Community Development) did the following to help make permanent affordability more financially feasible:

  • It put more dollars into affordable housing up-front to ensure buildings could stay in good condition long-term. That meant funding a larger reserve, so that over the years, building owners could replace failing boilers, roofs, windows, plumbing, and more without needing to raise rents.
  • It structured deals with affordable housing developers so that getting a return on investment didn't mean eventually hiking rents.
  • It created plans to step in if buildings ran into trouble. Even with the best up-front planning, it's possible some properties will need to assistance with financing down the line, and Boston assured developers it'd be ready with solutions if developers encountered unforeseen problems.
Could DC follow Boston's lead?

The District has adopted permanent affordability for some of its housing programs—affordable housing built on land sold by the District, and housing produced by inclusionary zoning, remain affordable as long as the building stands—but not for all of its housing programs.

For example, housing preserved or built using funds from the Housing Production Trust Fund are affordable for only 40 years, not permanently.

That are some people in DC's affordable housing world who think the District would get better bang for its buck by adopting a permanent affordability requirement like Boston's.The District is investing record amounts in affordable housing, yet that housing may not be there for future generations of DC residents if we let it expire.


To make room for future workers, Montgomery County needs to build 4,200 new housing units per year

More and more jobs are coming to Montgomery County, and the workers taking them need places to live. The county's planning office recently created a few graphics showing that while Montgomery is building enough housing units, they aren't necessarily lining up with what workers will be able to afford.

Photo by Dan Reed on Flickr.

In 2013, George Mason University released a study forecasting the region's anticipated housing needs.

The study said that between 2012 and 2032, Montgomery would add 129,619 jobs and that to accommodate that growth, it will need to add 83,829 new housing units. In a recent presentation on growth trends, planners at the Montgomery County Planning Board Chair's office highlighted a few key takeaways about the intersection between the county's coming job growth and its housing market.

All slides are from a presentation from Montgomery County's planning department.

Factoring what's been built between 2012 and now, that means the county needs to incorporate about 4,200 units per year moving forward. Meeting this figure wouldn't mean a crazy building spree. It just means that as Montgomery County grows, it needs to expect to build reasonable amounts of new housing to meet that growth.

It's not just about adding any housing. It's about adding the right mix of housing types.

All of the jobs expected to come to Montgomery don't pay the same, which means it makes sense to think that new housing built in Montgomery County shouldn't cater to only one income bracket.

Here's a list of the types of jobs likely to come to Montgomery:

Unfortunately, the Montgomery planners point out that when you look at the needs indicated by GMU study's job projections and compare them to housing currently on the market in the county, there are some big gaps.

It's likely that there just won't be that many workers looking to buy at the high end of the housing market, but that there will be quite a few wanting to buy at the low end. If the housing supply continues to look the way it does now, a lot of market rate housing will not be affordable to the incoming workforce:

Of course, not everyone is going to buy a house. But the picture is similarly bleak for renters:

For those making the minimum wage, even affording a studio (with "affording" meaning paying 30% or less of your income) would require making more than two and half times what you do. But if you look above those making the least and examine the average wages of those who rent, we see even they are nearly 27% short of earning what they need to afford a one-bedroom on their own.

Clearly the current housing opportunities do not match the needs of the incoming workforce.

The county is starting to build more, which will need to continue

The latest building permit data for the county shows that supply is starting to catch back up with demand. The graph below shows past permit data (blue) matched with what the George Mason study forecasted future need to be (4,200 units a year, in green):

While the 20-year average (3,510 units) is lower than what is needed, that doesn't tell the full story. In many years, Montgomery exceeded the needed 4,200 units, and last year it was only a few units short; the big dip was because of the 2008 recession.

That's a good sign for anyone hoping the county will keep pace with the demands of a growing region and workforce.

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