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Posts about Housing

Development


DC's 43,766 acres: 25% "roads," 2% high-rises

The District of Columbia spans over 68 square miles. About half its land area goes to buildings, 20% is open space, and over a quarter is "road infrastructure." Among residential land, half is single family detached houses while high-rise apartments occupy less than 2% of DC's total.


Land use in DC, 2006. Graph using data from the Comprehensive Plan.

I created the above chart using data in DC's Comprehensive Plan. That plan divides land into more categories, but for simplicity, I grouped many of them.

It's important to note that "roads" includes a lot of land that's not paved roads. That's because in many neighborhoods, the official public right-of-way includes much or all of people's front yards; the actual property line is at the building or between it and the sidewalk. This "roadway" space covers yards, sidewalks, tree boxes, some grassy areas, and more. Still, it's a big percentage.

The "jobs" category combines any sort of land use relating to where people work (commercial, industrial, public facilities, federal facilities, and institutional land). The "housing" category groups together of all of the housing categories.

The chart below breaks down the housing category:


Breakdown of DC's residential land, 2006.

Out of the almost 30% of DC's land which was used for housing in 2006, nearly half of that was occupied by single family detached homes—about 5,000 acres. The other half was split between rowhouses and low-rise apartments. Only about 4% of land dedicated to housing was occupied by high-rise apartments (so about 1.6% of the total).

This data is from 2006. I would expect some things have changed in ten years, but not everything. The large amount of "permanent open space"—much of it federal parkland—is not going anywhere.

How do these land use patterns affect our growing city? What changes should we expect, or should we advocate for?

History


In 1979, was your neighborhood "sound" or "distressed"?

DC looked very different in 1979. A map of neighborhood housing conditions shows just how much. In many DC neighborhoods that are now in high demand, the housing stock was in danger 35 years ago.


Image from the DC Public Library, Special Collections. Click for larger version.

This map is from a report by the Department of Housing and Community Development in June 1979, during Marion Barry's first mayoral term, entitled "Housing Problems, Conditions & Trends in the District of Columbia."

The report sounded the alarm for "Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River." Those areas already had, or were in danger of developing, "deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership."

Here is the explanatory text and key for the map:

This map clarifies neighborhoods according to the categories shown in the legend. They are based on the following factors which are illustrated in subsequent maps: ownership patterns, yearly income of residents, real estate sales and prices, welfare assistance and the condition of housing.

Sound [Yellow]: Residents in these neighborhoods have high enough incomes to maintain their properties without public assistance. Northwest areas west of Rock Creek Park are classified as sound neighborhoods together with Capitol Hill. The only sound neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are located south of Fort Dupont Park.

Distressed [Blue]: Residents require considerable assistance because of low incomes and poor housing conditions. Many of these areas also contain a concentration of public housing in need of significant improvement. Distressed neighborhoods west of the river include Ivy City and portions of the Southwest. East of the Anacostia River, the poorest housing conditions are found in Deanwood, Burrville, Northeast Boundary, Greenway, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands and Douglass.

Stable / Declining [Green]: Neighborhoods are in stable condition, with households of moderate income and high ownership, requiring little or no public assistance; or, are beginning to show deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership. West of the River, neighborhoods in this category are south Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Transitional (early or advanced) [Red]: Neighborhoods in the early stages of transition are characterized by a surge in reinvestment and rehabilitation; whereas, neighborhoods in the most advanced stages are those experiencing extensive displacement of low and moderate income families by higher income households. Change began in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and spread east into Shaw and north along 14th Street, as well as into LeDroit Park and Eckington. The change which began in Capitol Hill spread further east into Lincoln Park, south to the Southeast, and north to the Stanton Park. No radical changes are occurring east of the River, though real estate activity is becoming significant but at a lower level of intensity.

This map further serves to highlight the different characteristics between areas east and west of the Anacostia River. West of the River and west of Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods are in basically sound and stable condition. The most concentrated real estate activity is found in and around the central city. Displacement is, therefore, the major problem west of the River; whereas the main concern east of the Anacostia River is the declining condition of the housing stock. Also, the majority of distressed and declining neighborhoods are found east of the River.

It's also interesting to look at the neighborhood names. NoMA didn't exist; it was "NE 1," adjacent to "NW 1" across North Capitol Street. What we now call U Street is "Westminster." And "Stanton Park" extended all the way across H Street. East of the River, neighborhood names such as "Good Hope," "Buena Vista," and "Douglass" have fallen out of currency.

The Green and Yellow Metrorail lines had not yet opened, the Red Line didn't go beyond Dupont Circle, and the Blue Line stopped at Stadium-Armory.

What else do you notice? How was your neighborhood categorized in 1979? Would it be categorized differently today?

This post first ran in 2014. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Development


In praise of the stacked townhouse

A cross between apartments and townhouses, the "stacked townhouse" is becoming a popular house type among DC-area homebuilders and buyers. While they're great for urban neighborhoods, a quirk in zoning means they're most common in far-flung suburbs.


This townhouse in Arlington is actually two houses (note the two house numbers). All photos by the author unless noted.

Also called a two-over-two or maisonette, the stacked townhouse is basically a rowhouse divided into two two-story units, one over the other. Both units have doors on the street, usually in a little alcove, making it look like it's one big house. The garages are tucked in back, on an alley.

This house type is what some architects call the "missing middle," not quite a house, not quite an apartment, but a good alternative housing choice in places where the only options are a detached house or a high-rise.

Historically, lots of cities have rowhouses divided into multiple apartments: Boston's triple-deckers, Chicago's two- and three-flats, Montreal's plexes. In those cases, each building generally has a single owner who rents out the other unit. They don't seem to have been common in DC.


Two-flats in Chicago. Photo by Samuel A. Love on Flickr.

Today's stacked townhouses are either sold individually as condos, or rented out as apartments in a larger complex. They've become popular in the DC area within the past 20 years for a couple of reasons.

Builders like stacked townhouses because they take up the same amount of space as one townhouse, which saves on land and infrastructure costs. Unlike traditional apartment or condo buildings, these homes don't have lots of common hallways and lobbies that can be expensive to build and maintain.

Stacked townhouses are also great because they provide the same amount of space and privacy as a townhouse at a lower price, which might enable buyers to live closer in than they could otherwise afford. For instance, a stacked townhouse at Greenbelt Station in Prince George's County is currently selling for about $330,000, while a similarly-sized townhouse in the same development is selling for $70,000 more.

Neighbors might like this house type because they look like big houses, allowing them to blend in with other residential buildings, including apartments, conventional townhomes, or even single-family homes.


"Stacked townhouses" in Greenbelt. All photos by the author.

Well, most of the time. These stacked townhomes at Greenbelt Station in Greenbelt have plain, flat exteriors which only emphasize their size, making them look bigger than they really are. But this is an aesthetic choice, and can be avoided.


Stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg. Photo by the author.

These stacked townhouses at Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg use different materials, colors, and bumpouts to break up what would otherwise be a big, four-story wall. It helps make the building feel smaller than it really is, while the individual doors for each unit add a bit of human scale.

You'll find that stacked townhouses are pretty common in further-out suburban communities, from Frederick or Chantilly or Loudoun or Prince William counties. Whatever benefits stacked townhouses provide go away when they're in a car-bound place where residents have to drive everywhere.

This happens because zoning in most communities outside the District (even close-in ones like Arlington) considers them apartments, meaning they can only get built in areas zoned for apartments. Where land values are really high, developers are more likely to just build a high-rise apartment building instead.


Arlington Square, an apartment complex in Arlington with stacked townhomes.

New townhouses in closer-in, transit-accessible places like Arlington or Silver Spring can easily cost over $800,000. If stacked townhouses were allowed in townhouse zones, builders would be able to provide a more affordable alternative that still blends in with existing neighborhoods.


Stacked townhouses at Jackson Place in Brookland. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

That's basically how zoning works in the District. Areas zoned for rowhouses usually allow apartments too (with some exceptions). As a result, you can find stacked townhouses at Jackson Place, a new development in Brookland, and at another project under construction on Georgia Avenue in Takoma. Both locations are zoned for rowhouses.

We need big apartment buildings, and we need single-family houses. But we also need meaningful alternative for any household that doesn't want an apartment or a detached house, especially in inside-the-Beltway, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Stacked townhouses could be one of them, if they were simply easier to build.

Development


33 pages after calling for a growing and inclusive city, DC's Comprehensive Plan muddies that vision

Greater Greater Washington readers are reading the DC Comprehensive Plan together. Each week we discuss a section online. We'll post a summary of each chapter and our participants' thoughts about the changes we want to see in the upcoming amendment process.

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan began with a strong and encouraging vision: building a growing and inclusive city. Just one chapter later, it lists a set of contradictory guiding principles that waffle between preserving the status quo and promoting inclusive growth. Oops.


Image by Debbie Ohi on Flickr.

A great vision gives great promise

DC's 2005 Comprehensive Plan accurately forecast DC's growth up to 2010, though the city has grown much faster than predicted since then.

The plan did not, however, fully anticipate the spiraling housing costs that are putting housing in DC out of reach for so many people. But it issued a strong guiding vision to grow inclusively. It's a vision statement worth repeating:

Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices—choices about where they live, how and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school.

Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices—regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age.

This vision was right for 2005, and it is definitely right for 2016, as we watch rents rise at twice the national average and many outside of the wealthier income brackets are feeling pressured to move out. Figuring out how to capture the benefits of this growth without excluding many is the challenge we'd hope this document would take on.

Don't judge a book by its cover; a vision gets lost

After making a lot of predictions about the future, the plan starts to get into principles for guiding DC's growth. It starts out well:

1. Change in the District of Columbia is both inevitable and desirable. The key is to
manage change in ways that protect the positive aspects of life in the city and reduce negatives such as poverty, crime, and homelessness.
But then, the plan seems to say that not everyone has to help make room for new neighbors or any other kind of change.
6. Redevelopment and infill opportunities along corridors and near transit stations will be an important component of reinvigorating and enhancing our neighborhoods. Development on such sites must not compromise the integrity of stable neighborhoods and must be designed to respect the broader community context.
Of course it's important to respect the neighborhoods and neighbors as they currently exist, but this statement is simply not bold enough to let the city be and remain inclusive.

The plan seems to acknowledge that every neighborhood has to be a part of the solution:

12. Each neighborhood is an integral part of a diverse larger community that contributes to the District's identity. Growing an inclusive city means that all neighborhoods should share in the overall social responsibilities of the community, including housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, and accommodating the disabled.
But, then, not:
8. The residential character of neighborhoods must be protected, maintained and improved. Many District neighborhoods possess social, economic, historic, and physical qualities that make them unique and desirable places in which to live. These qualities can lead to development and redevelopment pressures that threaten the very qualities that make the neighborhoods attractive. These pressures must be controlled through zoning and other means to ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced.
Corey Holman noticed that many of these statements use "near antonyms," like "Maintaining and enhancing the mix of housing types" (Principle #3) or "ensure that neighborhood character is preserved and enhanced" (Principle #8). He wrote, "How can something be maintained or preserved while also being enhanced? It's that wishy-washy language that allows people to see what they want in this document, instead of laying out a clear vision.

"It's saying, 'we need growth in commercial corridors—but "stable" (which seems like code for "affluent single-family homeowner") neighborhoods should not be touched,'" said David Alpert. Or, "Growth should be inclusive, but don't worry, people in exclusive areas—we don't mean YOU have to be inclusive."

Corey Holman added, "To me, this is an example of 'I got mine, move the development elsewhere' that certainly shouldn't be considered a guiding principle of growth in the city."


DC's need to accommodate new residents applies to Chevy Chase, too. Photo by Dan Reed.

A timid Comp Plan is not going to work

The vision of an inclusive, growing DC is maybe even more needed today than in 2005. The status quo of today is not acceptable for many people who are being priced out of living in safe neighborhoods. We can't fix that with a bunch of weak or confusing "guiding principles" that just qualify and carve out broad exceptions to its compelling vision.

No, we shouldn't just build on every scrap of land available. No, we shouldn't just build 12 stories on top of every low-rise building. Green space matters. A diversity of housing types and neighborhoods matters.

But our city's Comprehensive Plan needs to provide solutions, not a list of non-committal statements that read in conflicting ways. It should push for the inclusive growth we need in no uncertain terms. And while each neighborhood should be a part of the discussion and have some voice in shaping how it grows, no neighborhood should get an unqualified opt out from growing and being inclusive.

Interested in helping us find ways to make this plan stronger? Join our online "book club" by filling out the form below. We cleared 110 members last week. Jump on in!



Development


Help us map out DC's vacant buildings

DC doesn't have an accurate count of how many vacant buildings it has, which means lots of missed opportunities for more tax revenue or new housing. We've created a map of the vacants the city knows about. Tell us about the ones that are missing, and we'll send the full list to the DC Council before it votes on a law to fix the counting problem.


Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

We've written about problems with DC's system of accounting for vacant buildings and enforcing the regulations aimed at them a couple times over the past few months. It's a mess of loopholes where owners can skirt detection and penalties by doing things like applying for work permits but not doing any actual work for years.

In a place like DC, where space for new housing is at such a premium, this is infuriating.

DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs publishes lists every year showing which properties it has officially designated vacant and blighted (which means a building is a threat to health and safety). When a building goes on the list, its owner has to pay higher tax rates of 5% for vacant buildings and 10% for blighted.

While the agency's count is far from complete (which is a significant part of the problem), we thought we'd start by mapping out what it has provided:

Map by Thad Kerosky (@thadk).

Remember, these are not "For Lease" buildings, vacant lots, or buildings under construction. These are buildings that 1) have no occupants, and 2) have an owner who is not actively pursuing construction or new tenants.

DCRA most often investigates a building after receiving a report from a neighbor or agency, though many people will tell you they have filed reports repeatedly with little reaction from the agency.

Get out your red pens... we can correct this!

On Thursday, July 14th, the DC Council's Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs is having a hearing on a series of bills that would fix many of the problems with DCRA's current system. Greater Greater Washington would love to submit testimony in support of that legislation, but we need your help.

If you know of or suspect a vacant building nearby, use the search function above to see if DCRA has already classified it as such. If it hasn't, fill out the form below and help us collect further evidence that this system needs fixing.



Retail


Take a closer look at these houses. They used to be stores.

For generations, DC had a healthy mix of stores and homes in every neighborhood. Only a fraction of that diversity is still there today because 60 years ago, the city's zoning laws changed to outlaw new retail from going up in residential areas. Some corner stores are still there, but most have turned into homes. In the photos below, check out former storefronts that are now somebody's living room window.


The entrance and windows in the front 9th and Q Street NW don't look like what's on most houses. That's because it used to be a restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Neeley.

In 1958, DC's Zoning Commission designated a number of residential areas as R-4 or R-5 zones, meaning they were for row houses or apartment buildings, respectively. New retail space isn't permitted to open inside either type of zone.

The retail that was already there was grandfathered into the new law, meaning it's been allowed to stay (though if a store closes and remains vacant for three years, the location can no longer be commercial).

On the map below, which looks at the area north of East Capitol Street and south of H Street NE, the Zoning Commission's change limited new commercial buildings to the places in yellow:


Base image from Google Maps.

Below are a few examples of Capitol Hill buildings that used to house retail. We focused on that area because it's where we live, but as the photo above indicates, you can find buildings just like them all over the District.

1201 F Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Located at the intersection of 12th Street, F Street, and Maryland Avenue, this corner building once housed a grocery store owned by William G. Pond (you can read about that in Boyd's Directory of DC). The former bay window of the store is now the entrance to a home and the former store entrance facing the intersection is now a small window. The concrete steps leading to the original entrance are still visible on the right side of this photo.

711 E Street NE


Photo by the authors.

In 1910, Edward T. Noll built this one-story retail building and its twin at 713 E Street NE. The buildings have large, protruding bay windows and decorative overhangs, but are now both homes.

627 3rd Street NE


Photo by the authors.

Abutting an alley, this building has housed several grocery stores throughout its existence, including stores owned by Herman W. Menkin in 1909 (Boyd's Directory of DC, 1909), Myer and Rae Band from 1933 to 1969, and Cynthia Sewell as recently as 2011. The first-floor windows used to flank the entrance, with a sign overhead, but the entrance for the home is now on the right side of the building.

1000 Constitution Avenue NE


Photo by the author.

The corner of this building used to have an entrance facing the intersection, which has since been replaced by bricks. A door leading to what was once the entrance for the upstairs apartment is visible on the right side of the photo. In the early 1900's, Leon Skop ran a grocery store from this space.

The five buildings described above are among the many red pins in this incomplete map of former retail locations in or near the Capitol Hill Historic District. Photos and descriptions for each of these pins are available at our blog, DCFormerRetail.tumblr.com.


Red pins are homes that once included retail spaces. The pins are clustered in the Northwest corner of the map because the authors have not yet systematically catalogued former stores east of 14th Street NE and south of East Capitol Street. Base image from Google Maps.

In some places, corner stores are coming back!

After a laborious eight-year process, DC's Zoning Commission adopted a new zoning code that will take effect on September 6, 2016. For the first time since 1958, the code will permit new corner grocery stores by right.

Also, limited types of other corner stores will be allowed under a variance in seven of 34 types of residential zones. The areas zoned R-4 on Capitol Hill are included in this change.

Despite the well-documented benefits of street fronting stores—they provide an opportunity to meet neighbors, increase the number of eyes on the street, and create a pleasant place to complete your daily errands by foot—some DC residents opposed the 2016 zoning change out of fear that "corner stores would alter residential neighborhoods by bringing in a commercial use."

But the historical record demonstrates that commercial uses along today's residential streets would not be unusual in this part of the city. Indeed, without retail, the Capitol Hill Historic District is less true to its name than many residents might realize.

Development


This map shows what all of DC's houses are made of

Did you know the vast majority of DC's houses are made of brick? That might not surprise you if you've walked around the city much, but this map confirms it, and shows how common other types of building materials are.


You can click this map for a larger, interactive map of all the houses in DC. Map by Kate Rabinowitz via DMPED.

Kate Rabinowitz of DataLensDC created the interactive map, which shows what materials make up the facades on DC's houses, based on data from the city.

DC has been around for a while, so it makes sense that a lot of our buildings are made of old-school materials like brick. While new construction generally uses cheaper materials, brick was the material of choice for decades, especially in residential areas closer to the core of the city. For a long time, it was the cheapest, most fireproof construction material available, which was especially important in DC at one point.

Looking throughout the entirety of DC, some areas in the northeast and southeast quadrants have a lot of aluminum and vinyl, which are characteristic of newer construction. There are also a fair number of homes in the northwest quadrant that use wood or stucco. But for the most part, we live in a brick city.

Do you notice anything else in the map? Can you offer any more insight as to why we've used the materials we have?

Development


If you support more housing in cities, watch this video

Have you ever argued why it's important to build enough housing in Greater Washington and other cities to meet demand, open up access to jobs, prevent displacement, or protect the environment? If so, you must watch this amazing keynote address from Seattle's Sara Maxana at the recent YIMBY conference in Boulder, Colorado.

Maxana dissects the best ways to talk about these issues—and the ways not to talk about them. She articulates the importance of more housing better than almost anyone. And don't miss the entertaining caricature of the unproductive approach near the start.

I'll dissect some of the key parts of the video in upcoming posts, but in the meantime, it's worth watching the whole 41-minute keynote. I learned a lot watching it last month at the conference, and organizers just got the video online so you can too. Check it out.

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