Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Housing

Development


Fairfax City is starting to lay down a strong foundation for smarter growth

The City of Fairfax has long struggled to establish a clear vision for future development. Despite a strong master plan for Fairfax Boulevard, the town hasn't established strong guidelines for revitalizing its central commercial corridor. While nearby areas such as Merrifield and Fair Lakes have flourished, Fairfax City's commercial tax base has been stagnant.


Photo by the author.

But the tide has started to turn. Since a new mayor was elected in 2012, Fairfax City has approved 250 new apartment units near its downtown and has started to rewrite its zoning code. Two major redevelopment projects on Fairfax Boulevard are in the queue. The city has also made pedestrian and bicycle projects a higher priority.

Supporters of smarter growth in Fairfax City should be encouragedand press for more. With elections for mayor and all six city council seats scheduled for May, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has released a progress report on the performance of the current mayor and council. They have gotten some important things done, including:

Expanding housing near downtown: Last June the city council approved a pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Layton Hall apartments. This will bring more residents near downtown and better connect downtown businesses with the apartments and nearby neighborhoods. The project also prompted difficult decisions about housing affordability, which the city is grappling with.

Zoning overhaul: The city has commissioned Duncan & Associates to review and thoroughly update its zoning code. In March the consultants released their initial report, including strong recommendations for enabling mixed-use development.

The redevelopment of Fairfax Circle Plaza is moving through the city's land use review process. The proposal would add 400 apartment units and new retail to the eastern end of Fairfax Boulevard near Vienna, and improve pedestrian and bicycle access between the property and nearby neighborhoods, trails and the Vienna Metro station.


Image from the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan.

The mayor and council have been laying the foundations, but the heaviest lifting still lies ahead. The city has a lot of catching up to do after allowing the Fairfax Boulevard Master Plan to lie idle while nearby communities, such as Merrifield, built on their foundations of solid planning to spur revitalization. The retail and office markets are extremely competitive. How will the City attract and guide quality redevelopment?

A big part of the answer lies overhauling the city's zoning code. Excessive one-size-fits-all parking standards and the lack of any mixed-use categories are among the vexing elements of the current ordinance. The city will also need to focus on the redevelopment of Northfax at the intersection of 123 and Fairfax Boulevard. Both the zoning rewrite and Northfax are extremely complex processes that will require a lot of political will to see to a successful finish.

The next month is a good time to influence the conversation about future development in Fairfax City. Along with our progress report, Fairfax City Citizens for Smarter Growth has sent a questionnaire to the mayoral and council candidates to gauge their support for smart growth priorities.

Mayor Silverthorne and City Council members are signaling a new receptiveness to compact, walkable, mixed-use development. City voters who want more walkable communities and vibrant public spaces can send their own signal by attending upcoming candidate forums, going to the polls and making informed choices on May 6.

Politics


Where will DC's next 200,000 residents go? The mayoral candidates weigh in

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 first of 2 posts on discussions about housing with candidates for mayor. See all of the posts here.


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

"We've been a city of 800,000 before, and we're going to be a city of 800,000 again," said Muriel Bowser. "Keep in mind, the city's population at one time was 800,000 people," said Jack Evans. "The city used to have 800,000 people, but we have only 640,000 today," said Andy Shallal.

When talking about growth and development, multiple candidates for mayor brought up this number. In many cases, they were citing it as evidence that there must be plenty of room in the city to add 200,000 new people. How can there notthere used to be!

But the city looked very different in 1950. Families were much larger. A lot of row houses had become boarding houses during World War II. Homeowners lived in one room and rented the rest out to unrelated people. Americans got married younger and had children younger. In short, our existing houses that have one or two empty nesters or a young couple with one child today might have held 5 or even 8 people 60 years ago.

What would our candidates for mayor do about it? Mayor Gray talked about "air rights." Evans and Bowser both pointed to less developed areas of the city; Evans highlighted Shaw, where we were speaking, as a corridor ripe for new housing and retail. He talked about his experience pushing for the Whole Foods, then Fresh Fields, to come into Logan Circle; during the first meeting, Fresh Fields representatives wouldn't even step out of the car, while today that is "the largest-grossing Whole Foods in the chain on a per-square-foot basis."

Bowser referred to her efforts building support for development at places like Walter Reed. She would like to see DC more proactively plan for the housing we need, through citywide and small area plans. She promised to make sure that the Comprehensive Plan, which is up for revision again soon, finds room in the city to grow back to 800,000. That's important, because according to the Office of Planning, even building everything to the limits in the Comp Plan won't be enough for our housing needs after 10-20 years.

Where exactly the housing might go, Bowser was less clear. She also proudly defended her efforts to remove a floor from a proposed building at the Takoma Metro, saying that there needs to be a participatory process to make sure residents are comfortable with a new development. But, I asked, doesn't that mean that every project will get a little smaller, lose a floor, and so on, I asked? Will that prevent us from building enough housing in the aggregate?

She wasn't concerned. "There are going to be some very smart people to make sure [the new residents] will have a place to live." And later, "The thing I know where there is a lot of demand is that the units will be created. In markets where people are looking for housing, and it's profitable for them to create housing, they will."

Tommy Wells criticized most of the thinking on this issue as being very "linear" and "two-dimensional," saying that as our needs change, many people will use space differently. More younger residents are willing to move into smaller spaces because instead of needing to own or rent all the space they'll use, people are "using the collective of shared space that they all pay for together," such as common rooms in buildings and public places like parks in the city.

Meanwhile, he said, offices are also using less space as fewer employees have their own offices, employees spend more time working at home, and people use common areas. Therefore, he said that people at one of the downtown business improvement districts think that some office space can become housing.

Andy Shallal is worried about the trend toward building smaller units. "I think those types of developments [are] overdone throughout the city," he said. "They're temporary housing, because when people get married, have a child, they can't really live in those small spaces. I'm just worried about this rush to build these small units, cookie cutter units, is going to make the city less desirable for families that want to live in larger homes."

Wells has an idea to deal with that:

I've been working with another architecture firm and a major developer to do what I call "flex buildings." With a flex building you can build small apartments, but as your life changes you can aggregate, so if you have a small child or your life changes in another way, you can add above or below or to the side, instead of bldg a fixed infrastructure with 3-bedrooms, 2-bedrooms and 1-bedrooms. That's an old way of thinking. The future of cities like ours is an adaptable way of thinking, not a linear use of space.

Another way to add flexibility is to let people rent out their basements or garages, as has been proposed in the DC Zoning Update. Shallal said, "I think we have to have some flexibility in those types of zoning laws. ... These homes are empty nesters now with one or two people living in a 3-4 story townhouse. For those people who are becoming elderly, maybe they want to have a little income and stay in their home. ... I think it's a great way to keep people who have lived here a long time to be able to stay in the home they've lived in ... rather than building another high-rise of apartments that are overpriced and end up requiring lots of parking."

Bowser isn't on board. She opposes the Accessory Dwelling Unit recommendation in the DC zoning update, though she tried to couch her opposition as minor and generally praised the zoning update. "I think that having our zoning codes not be reviewed in a comprehensive way for 50 years ... I think that they spent a lot of time on a lot of different issues. I think at the end of the day I have only 4 areas I wanted them to ... that's pretty remarkable for a 5 yr process. I think they have looked at all of the concerns."

What she didn't say is that the "only 4 areas" of concern are essentially the major policy recommendations of the zoning update, such as accessory apartments, corner stores, and parking.

Bowser also reiterated her opposition to any changes in the height limit.

I think the Congress should focus on things that we've asked for, and we've asked for budget autonomy. I think Congress should focus on how we unhinge our city from the federal government's budget. We're not a federal agency, we're a city. We collect our own taxes and we should be able to spend our own revenues. ...

You've got to wonder why they are focusing on something that nobody in the city has saideven including the development community, the government, the councilmembers saidthat we need or want and the things we do need and have asked for have been totally ignored. You've got to wonder about the motive, don't you?

Mayor Gray, meanwhile, defended his administration's efforts to change the federal Height Act.

What I think wasn't entirely clear was that we weren't proposing a particular change or a specific change in the height limits. What we were proposing was that the District have more control over setting the height limits, which would still give the people of the city a chance, through the Comprehensive Plan, through zoning, through legislation, a chance to be able to address, specifically, proposed height changes.

It was not that we would go out on Rhode Island Avenue and say we were going to have buildings that would be 37 fett tall. It was to say, just like we say with budget autonomy, shouldn't we have greater control over our city, especially areas outside the L'Enfant city? So we've sort of stopped at this stage, and we're working now to try to make sure people are clear about what it that we were proposing. But it wasn't that Building X was not going to become 14 stories higher than what it was.

In fact, Gray became the most energetic and animated just after we'd turned off the cameras, when perhaps he was more relaxed. He told stories about how he'd contacted DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson when Mendelson introduced his resolution against the height limit. It's a home rule issue, not about the heights, he'd tried to convince Mendelson, an argument which didn't go anywhere to Gray's evident frustration.

Tomorrow, we'll look at what the candidates said about public land and subsidized housing. Meanwhile, you can watch the entire exchange on housing with each candidate.

Evans:

Wells:

Gray:

Bowser:

Shallal:

Politics


Hear the candidates: Ward 1 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 1 on the DC Council. See all of the discussions here.


Images from the candidate websites.

The District is adding 1,100 people a month right now, and a GMU Center for Regional Analysis report estimates DC needs 41,000 to 105,000 new housing units over 20 years. Where will this housing go? Or will supply fall far short of demand?

I asked the candidates in DC's April 1 primary this question, and the answers from Ward 1 councilmember Jim Graham an his challenger, Brianne Nadeau, illustrated a clear difference in how we think about growth.

To start with, Graham and Nadeau both support building multi-family buildings along the ward's main corridors, such as 14th and U Streets where there has already been a lot of development, especially near Metro stations.

Graham said,

I'm an advocate for developing the core. The areas around our subway stations, areas with excellent bus transportation, should be areas where all of this is developed, because what we found is ... people are coming without cars and contributing to the fact that ward 1 has the fewest number of car owners per capita of any ward in the city.

Nadeau:

We've watched key populations, such as our Latino population, be pushed out of the ward and over the border into other wards or even other jurisdictions because of rising costs. One of the things we have to do is increase density where it's appropriate. We want to maintain the distinct character of our historic neighborhoods, but what we can do is increase density around transit hubs.

Both also spoke up in favor of affordable housing programs, including providing more money to DC's Housing Production Trust Fund. Nadeau cited how the Home Purchase Assistance Program actually helped her afford a down payment on her own home 5 years ago. "Without that down payment assistance, I would still be renting," she said, "and what it's given me is long-term stability."

What income level should affordable housing programs serve?

Nadeau said she wants to ensure that enough affordable housing goes to people making below 60% of Area Median Income (AMI), and that there are enough units of appropriate sizes for families as well as singles. Graham was even firmer about the 60% threshold:

When we reach 60% of AMI, which I think is almost $100,000, everybody would like to have some kind of housing subsidy, but I can't bring myself to believe that they are as much in need as other income levels, particularly those who are at $60,000 or less. To give somebody a housing subsidy at $100,000 a year of income is puzzling. It's more than puzzling, it's unacceptable to me. I think that's too high of an income to merit a rental subsidy.
(Note: I believe Graham is confused about the AMI levels here. According to DHCD, the 2013 60% AMI level for a 3-person household is $57,960 and for 4 people is $64,540. 100% of AMI for a 4-person household is $107,300.)

Nadeau disagrees with Graham's bright line. "We talk a lot about people below 60% AMI because we recognize that there's a great, great need there. But once you get to 61% we can't be forgetting about those people either."

Many affordable housing advocates indeed push to ensure that our affordable housing programs benefit those significant below median income, especially 60% of AMI and even some at lower levels like 30% and 50%, but housing is a challenge even for people above the median income. What about those who have higher incomes and might not qualify for, or perhaps deserve, explicit government subsidies?

Increase the supply of housing? Where?

Even though there are some significant parcels of land, like McMillan, Saint Elizabeths, and Hill East where new growth can go, the Office of Planning estimates that in 10-20 years DC will hit a ceiling of how much housing can be built under current zoning and the Comprehensive Plan.

I asked Graham, "What do we do for people making 60% of AMI or more so they have the opportunity to live in neighborhoods in Ward 1?"

"They may not have that opportunity," Graham replied, though he did cite the Inclusionary Zoning program which creates some units at 80% AMI. Other than that, he pointed to neighborhoods like Brookland which is seeing significant new development to accommodate new residents.

If each ward grows comparably, that would be 5,000 or more units for Ward 1 and every other ward. Should Ward 1 find room for that much housing? Nadeau said, "I don't know what the percentage [of new housing between wards] would be, because we are the most densely populated ward so we need to control for that," but she suggested a planning process or and housing audit to identify needs for affordable and market-rate units, and "providing enough housing so we're bringing the market down."

To the same question, Graham said, "The answer to that question is we may not find those 5,000 units in Ward 1. ... I don't know whether Ward 1, with its current boundarieswe have so little vacant land left because we have wisely developed all of the major parcels."

Graham talked about how Anacostia is on the cusp of becoming a neighborhood many people want to move to, and how prior to 1965 it had large numbers of white residents as well as some long-time black residents. But, I asked, people in and around Anacostia are nervous about "overdevelopment" and "changing the character of the neighborhood" just as people are in Ward 1.

"I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face," said Graham. "If we wreck the historic character of the neighborhoods, we're just becoming a neighborhood that's closer to downtown jobs. That's not a neighborhood I want to move into. If we wreck all of that for the sake of more people, we make a poor bargain indeed."

See the whole discussion about housing:

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. Thanks to Martin Moulton for organizing the space and recording and editing the videos.

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


This McMansion is actually four townhouses

Some people who live in single-family homes resist anything other than single-family homes being built around them. But as our region grows, there will be a growing demand for townhomes and apartments. What if we just built them in disguise?


The "Great House" near Tysons Corner. Photos by the author.

Great Houses and "mansion apartments"

With its sweeping lanes and European-inspired houses, the Carrington neighborhood near Tysons Corner looks like any recently-built luxury home development. But there's something strange about the two houses at the end of the cul-de-sac. They look just like all of the others, except for one difference: each house has four mailboxes.

This is the Great House, a four-unit townhouse designed to look like a large, single-family home. Like DC and Montgomery County, Fairfax requires developers to build affordable units in new developments, but they often stick out like a sore thumb. When Carrington was being built in 2001, the county worked with builder Edgemoore Homes to help subsidized, $120,000 townhomes blend in with homes several times as expensive.

Each Great House is comparable in size to its neighbors and uses the same materials. But instead of one, 5,000 square-foot house, you have four, 1,200-square foot townhouses. Only one of the doors faces the street. A driveway runs around the back, where each townhouse has a two-car garage.

This isn't a new idea, nor one limited to subsidized housing. The "mansion apartment building" has been a recurring concept in housing design for decades.

Many of these buildings were built in the DC area around World War II, a period when there was a lot of demand for affordably-priced housing and very little supply. You can find them in a wide variety of places, from Chevy Chase to Damascus.

The ultimate compromise

The Great House could be a particularly useful housing type as the region grows. A recent study from George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis estimates that the DC area will need 548,000 new homes over the next 20 years. About half of those units will need to go in the District, Montgomery, and Fairfax counties. And 60% of them will need to be townhouses or apartments.


A recently-built "mansion apartment" in Denver's Stapleton neighborhood.

Many of those homes can go in redeveloping commercial areas, like White Flint or Tysons Corner. But those areas won't be able to satisfy all of the demand and, besides, some people may not want a high-rise apartment. The Great House or "mansion apartment" offers a useful alternative.

It also allows people who don't make six-figure incomes to live closer to transit or the region's job centers, meaning they're not driving on our congested roads. It opens up some of the region's most sought-after neighborhoods and the amenities they offer, like top-ranked schools. And it reduces the pressure to develop natural and agricultural land on the region's fringe.

Those things don't really matter to neighbors who spend lots of time and effort to "maintain the integrity" of their single-family neighborhoods. But seeding their neighborhood with a few Great Houses that provide housing diversity while blending in could be a compelling alternative to building traditional apartments or townhouses there instead. Of course, they aren't possible under most zoning laws, which only allow single-family homes in "single-family neighborhoods."

This housing type is also uniquely suited for large families. When my mother's family emigrated here from Guyana in the 1970s, her father (my grandfather) wanted a place that could fit his nine children, some of whom were grown and starting their own families.

Grandfather passed up a big house on 16th Street NW for this mansion apartment building in Petworth, which had four apartments, each with their own entrances and kitchens, perfect for his adult children. Today, it's still in our family, though we rent some of the units out to other people.

This type of housing is a sort of compromise between those who desperately need more housing options and those who don't want those housing options in their backyard. It's not the only solution to our housing needs, but it's definitely an important part of the toolbox.

Development


See where building construction is happening in DC

DC is growing by 1100 people every month, and to accommodate them, the city will need more buildings. A new map shows where new construction in the city is taking place.

The Map Attacks blog made this heat map of every active building permit in DC using the District's GIS data. Red areas have the most building permits, followed by orange, yellow, and green areas. The map includes all kinds of permits, from high-rise apartment towers to kitchen renovations.

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of construction occurring in downtown DC, though there's also a significant amount of building taking place near U Street. H Street and Columbia Heights are no slouch, as well as Fort Totten, where a new Walmart is under construction.

It's interesting that those areas all seem to be busier than NoMa or Navy Yard, where entire neighborhoods have risen in the past few years. And it's notable that the bulk of new construction is occurring east of Rock Creek Park.

That's a good thing after decades of disinvestment, but it also illustrates how resistance to new development west of the park has pushed demand further east. Meanwhile, areas east of the Anacostia River still aren't seeing much of the city's new construction.

What do you see in the map?

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.

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