Greater Greater Washington

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Worldwide links: California's crisis cause

According to California's governor, his state's housing problem isn't that it's not spending enough on affordable housing, but rather that it's way too hard to get a building permit. China is building lots of subway systems, and Jane Jacobs may not have paid enough attention to infrastructure. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Travis Wise on Flickr.

It's the permits: California Governor Jerry Brown wants to reduce how long it can take to build new housing in his state. He says there's already plenty of money going toward affordable housing, and that the real focus should be on making local permitting processes less lengthy. (Los Angeles Times)

Smaller metros get more metros: China has been on an subway building frenzy. 26 cities have systems, while 39 others have projects approved. The Chinese Government also recently changed the rules to allow cities with more than 1.5 million people to build new systems. The old minimum was 3 million. (Reuters)

Disadvantaged cities: Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf says that state regulations across the country are hostile toward cities. With his state's budget discussions approaching, Wolf said the state has too often left cities to fund themselves, giving residents raw deals on things like school funding and utility rates. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Missing infrastructure: Jane Jacobs has taught us a lot about how to build great places, where walking around is easy. But she may have also had a a blind spot, as she often neglected to talk about systems and infrastructure, like transit and water pipes, that stitch neighborhoods together. (Common Edge)

Transit mapping tech: A few years ago, Tiffany Chu and some friends put together a program that would allow transit planners to map out routes and immediately see the impact of those decisions based on data. Today, Remix is the toast of planners everywhere who want an easier way to get more people to ride the bus. (Curbed)

The disappearing dive: Dive bars are disappearing at a rapid pace. At the same time, it's increasingly common to see bars that claim to be dives, but are actually washed out versions of the real thing. Many blame the gentrification while others say it's just pure economics, as $2 bottles won't pay the rent. (Eater)

Transit Trends

In this episode of Transit Trends, my co-host and I sat down with Iain Macbeth of Transport for London to discuss how the information from a connected car can improve transportation systems worldwide.

Development


DC has way more vacant properties than it thinks

Editor's note: While this post has two authors, it's written from David Sheon's perspective.

The official count of vacant and blighted properties in DC is about 1,200, but in reality, there are likely many more. The reasons for the discrepancy? A number of loopholes in the system for counting these properties, and not enough staff to close them.


This vacant house might look like it's under construction, but it hasn't been touched in years. All photos by the authors.

When I first became an ANC Commissioner, I knocked on every door in my district and asked my constituents what they wanted to see different. Then, I tallied their concerns to see what issues rose to the top. The results surprised me: Issues related to vacant and blighted (which basically means it's a threat to health and safety) houses ranked second on people's list of concerns, after traffic safety.

After being elected, I compiled a list of vacant properties in my neighborhood. In my 12-block district, I found seven clearly vacant homes. In many cases, these houses were literally falling apart, full of garbage (a broken down pick-up truck from a long-abandoned construction project on one) and overgrown weeds. Neighbors confirmed the properties didn't seem to be in probate (when a property is tied up in court because the owner passed away and it isn't clear who now owns it) but had been vacant for years.

These properties aren't only eyesores; they're a threat to public safety. On many, unsecured doors and windows attract crime, but without actual residents in the houses, there fewer eyes on the street. They also deter investment.

Unfortunately, DC's system for identifying these properties, assessing penalties, and putting properties back into productive use is fundamentally broken.

It's hard to get a property officially registered as vacant or blighted

The road to remediating vacant and blighted properties starts with DC's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). There, the Vacant and Blighted Enforcement (VBE) Unit is tasked with inspecting vacant and blighted properties and then assessing an appropriate tax rate. The idea is to raise taxes on buildings that aren't being put to use as a way to encourage the owners to sell or fix their properties.

For vacant properties, the tax rate is five percent. For vacant and blighted properties, the tax rate is an even higher 10 percent. But this is where things get really tricky, as there are a number of loopholes that prevent these taxes from being assessed.

For example, once a property is identified as vacant, a property owner can get a permit to do work on the house. The property then becomes exempt from the vacant property tax even if no work has been done. For instance, long time neighbors of one vacant property told me they had never even heard a hammer in the vacant house, even though a work permit kept the vacant building tax from applying.

Another loophole involves putting the property up for sale at a price that is several times the fair market value. The "for sale" status will also earn the property owner an exemption. At one property near my house, which was falling apart, the owner listed it for sale with a price as though renovations had been made. In the condition it was in, the price should have been about $300K however he was listing it at nearly $900K. Clearly no one was going to buy it, but this way he avoided vacant building tax.

Owners can also set up anonymous Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs), often named for the property's address, that don't actually tie back to a person. That can make it impossible to go after individual owners to recover taxes owed or penalties assessed to the LLC. One example of this are the properties owned by Insun Hofgard, who WAMU's Martin Austermuhle reported on last year. Most of her properties, including those that remain unfinished and now blight Kennedy Street, are registered under individual LLCs.

Finally, vacant lots are also exempt.

Even when the VBE does identify properties as being vacant, the law requires the unit to reinspect the property every six months and reclassify it as either vacant or vacant and blighted. The VBE is not sufficiently staffed or resourced to handle this task, and properties routinely fall off DCRA's list, even when what got them on it in the first place hasn't changed.

Why would a property owner want to keep a property vacant as long as possible? As long as DC property values are going up, the longer the owner waits, the more profitable it will be.

In our experience, the system is broken

Since 2013, my neighbor and co-author, David Gottfried, has worked to identify vacant and blighted properties and to ask DCRA to classify them as such.

Every six months, David has followed up with DCRA to ask about keeping properties on the list and applying the appropriate penalties. Despite his efforts, the properties on his own list, which were clearly vacant and often unquestionably blighted, just slipped through the cracks. On my end, only three of the seven vacant properties that I identified in my neighborhood were on the city's list.

Simply put, it's very difficult to get a property classified as vacant, or keep it that way. Even when neighbors keep very close watch and follow up diligently with city agencies, DCRA is too often failing to adequately identify vacant properties and penalize their owners. Our experiences lead us to believe that the actual number of vacant and blighted properties is much higher than the 1,200 properties on DCRA's list, and could be as high as 5,000.


Another vacant property. Here, renovations are now underway—it'd be nice if that were the story more often.

Let's give DCRA what it needs to close the loopholes

This is an important issue for the health, safety, and well-being of our communities. It is also an issue of basic fairness. Negligent property owners who degrade our communities and jeopardize our security should face stiff penalties for their actions.

We need to adequately staff and resource the VBE, remove the burden from community members and DCRA to classify and re-classify properties, and place the onus squarely on the property owners by making them show the city that a property is no longer vacant before a property is removed from the list. We also need to pierce the corporate veil afforded negligent homeowners who use LLCs, so that DCRA and relevant agencies can appropriately penalize negligent homeowners.

Some of these fixes are hard and will take time, but with others, a small change in the law could go a long way. A little bit of political will and leadership could go a long way towards making our communities safer, more attractive, and more pleasant places to live.

We'll discuss pending legislation around vacant and blighted properties in an upcoming post.

Government


In its attempts to provide affordable housing, DC has struggled to set clear goals

In 2006 and 2012, DC set clear numbers for how many affordable housing units either needed to be built or needed to be preserved by a specific date. In both cases, there wasn't enough data to actually track progress, and the goals fell by the wayside. Today, there still isn't a plan for providing affordable housing for everyone who needs it.

Advocates and District officials often find themselves jumping from crisis to crisis. At Museum Square, for instance, residents are scrambling to prevent landlord Bush Companies from evicting half of Chinatown's remaining ethnically Chinese population, after tenants (and many District officials) were notified of Bush's plans via demolition notices.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute wrote in a 2015 paper, "While there have been some very important successes, the lack of a coordinated, proactive policy for [affordable housing] preservation has led to many missed opportunities, resulting in the loss of whole communities to sale [and] large rent increases."

Meanwhile, too many DC residents don't understand how big the problem of affordable housing is. They hear about crises like Museum Square, but are left to cobble the bigger picture together through disparate facts like "there are over 70,000 families on DC's affordable housing waitlist," or "there are effectively zero market rate units left in DC that are affordable for low-income workers."

Here is an overview of the District's past targets, and some ideas for new ones.

There have been attempts to set clear goals and stick to them

Two-dozen representatives from District agencies, local housing nonprofits, and research organizations helped author a 2006 report that then-mayor Anthony Williams commissioned. At the time, developers were starting to pour money into new projects west of the Anacostia River; DC's housing problem in Wards 1-4 was less that development dollars were scarce, and increasingly that the new projects were raising rents, making it hard for low-income families to stay.

District leaders and the authors of the 2006 report were beginning to realize this, and they set these goals:

  • Produce 55,000 new units by 2020.
  • 19,000 of those units should be affordable (7,600 below 30% of AMI; 5,700 between 30-60% of AMI, and another 5,700 between 60-80% of AMI).
  • In addition, preserve 30,000 currently affordable units.
  • Adopt a local rent supplement program and reach 14,600 households.

Of course, goals don't matter if nobody takes them seriously.

In 2007, Mayor Fenty appointed Leslie Steen as "housing czar" to implement the 2006 plan. She was supposed to cut through red tape and coordinate the many District authorities that touch on affordable housing, including DCHD, DCHFA, DCRA, DMPED, and DCHA. But she ended up being marginalized within the administration, and ultimately resigned in frustration.

In 2007 and 2011, Alice Rivlin wrote two follow-up reports; she praised the District's progress on some fronts, and basically threw up her hands on others; in 2011, nobody had the data to track progress towards the 2006 targets.

Another report was released in 2012 under the auspices of the Grey administration, and laid out these goals:

  • Preserve 8,000 existing affordable units.
  • Produce and preserve 10,000 net new affordable units by 2020 (I couldn't find a detailed AMI breakdown for these 10,000 units).
  • Support development of 3,000 market rate units by 2020.

Grey made a public commitment to reach the "10 by 20" goal, but since 2012 talk of these goals has faded. The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development has worked hard to get the District to commit to an investment goal: $100 million a year in the Housing Production Trust Fund. But Mayor Bowser has yet to adopt specific goals for the number of affordable units she wants to preserve and produce.


Mayor Bowser announcing affordable housing initiatives in January of last year. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Setting numerical goals might be worth another look

If we establish another set of city-wide goals, they must be clear, and we must be able to track progress towards them. Such goals could accomplish at least two things:

  • Helping focus our collective efforts. Once we've agreed on a set of targets, we can get creative with solutions. Maybe it's up-zoning some parts of Ward 3; maybe it's strengthened Inclusionary Zoning, maybe it's more preservation and accessory dwelling units. (If we set respectable goals, it'll probably require some combination of all of the above).
  • Having a clear, public goals can help District residents hold their government to account. We could ask, "Why are we missing our targets?" We cannot ask that question now.

Here's an example of a measurable goal, just as food for thought: "The District should have no net loss of affordable units, relative to our current stock and distribution of affordability."

So if we have 40,000 units affordable to people who make below 40% of Area Median Income, we should still have that many in 2030. That's a clear goal, which the public could use to hold their representatives accountable.

An equally clear, less conservative goal might be, "The District should ensure that 30% of its total rental units are affordable to people making below 40% of AMI."

Today we're closer to having the data to track progress towards city-wide goals. The Urban Institute, in conjunction with the DC Preservation Network, has compiled currently available records (you can find a report from December here). The city's trying to improve its own data collection.

Clear goals and stringent data collection have helped the District come close to ending veteran homelessness. As Kristy Greenwalt, head of DC's Interagency Council on Homelessness, told the City Paper, "In the past, there was no systematic approach. We're in a very different place now, so we can actually track what's happening and why."

Goal setting alone can't build or preserve housing, and planning isn't execution. But without precise goals, it's hard to know if we're falling down or making progress—ensuring that new people can move to DC, existing residents can stay, and low-income people can live close to good jobs, schools, and public amenities. A comprehensive, strategic solution to our housing crisis begins with knowing what it would mean to win.

Development


When housing mixes rich and poor, it's not instant harmony

To make cities inclusive for everyone, individual neighborhoods need to welcome people of many incomes. Unfortunately, that's not always an easy task. A recent panel discussed some obstacles to this important goal, such as how mixing rich and poor can create unexpected conflict.


Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

The promise of mixed income

Mixed-income development aims to combine housing for low-income people with market rate units for higher earners. Part of the idea is that the wealthier neighbors create a higher tax base for an area, and their purchasing power attracts more retail and other services. That means more stores, parks, and jobs for everyone, including low-income neighbors. It's an attractive idea, for sure.

Plus, recent studies by Raj Chetty and Eric Chyn show that low-income children who grow up in mixed-income neighborhoods make more money throughout life—16%, in Chyn's study—than those in entirely low-income areas. Keeping poverty concentrated is a recipe for more poverty, while mixed-income could show a way out.

There are many examples of mixed-income buildings across DC. One, the Jefferson at Marketplace development, is near where I live in Shaw. Not too long ago, the Kelsey Gardens complex sat on the same block, offering 54 units of Section 8 affordable housing to low-income residents.

When redevelopment planning began, Kelsey Gardens residents were able to use their collective rights under DC's Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) law to buy the building and negotiate to preserve their 54 units within the 281-unit final building.

A lot of people feel that this must be the model for how to ensure opportunity for everyone. A city can't just be diverse in its mix of people across the city if individual neighborhoods are highly segregated.


Photo by the author.

But... combining two extremes can lead to problems

There are challenges, however. Having people who can afford $4,000 rents living in the same hallway as some of the poorest residents can lead to clashes, panelists pointed out at the Urban Land Institute's recent Real Estate Trends conference.

For example, wealthy residents might call the police on teenage sons and daughters of low-income neighbors as they gather with friends. Adrianne Todman, executive director of the DC Housing Authority, said that she and her office too often have to deal with such conflicts, with both wealthy and low-income neighbors blaming and maneuvering against the other.

At one particular development Todman cited, it took years before the residents "finally accepted that no one was going anywhere," she said.

Derek Hyra, a professor at American University, said that this is evidence of "micro-segregation." He has researched how even seemingly diverse areas turn out to be entirely segregated on closer inspection, and have all of the conflicts that come with such segregation.

This also causes "political displacement," Hyra said, where within buildings, decision-making power about amenities and services is often unbalanced toward higher-income tenants. Neighborhood-wide, newcomers get elected onto Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and through their influence begin to shift the makeup of the neighborhood towards their own interests and incomes.

The panelists don't think the answer is to give up on mixed-income; rather, there are ways to make it work. Hyra said this kind of growth "must be done in a way that minimizes displacement and encourages meaningful social interactions among race and class." Vicki Davis, president of Urban Atlantic Development, added that developers need to think about how to "focus on integration and production in balance."

After a while, people do get to know their neighbors and build relationships. They overcome these obstacles, as Todman pointed out has happened in her agency's buildings. It's just that this takes time, and as Hyra mentioned, the building managers can take steps to help this process along.

One possible solution: The middle class

One suggestion from the panel was to incorporate middle-income residents into mixed-income buildings. Rather than simply force two dramatically different income groups together, the interests and needs of the middle would form a bridge between the two. Davis also mentioned how younger and middle income people often place higher value on diversity and are more interested in inclusive communities.

The problem is this mix is just not showing up—at least not yet. The obstacle, the panelists said, is economic. The profit on luxury units makes it worthwhile to build a large building on expensive land, while there are tax subsidies and other government programs pushing low-income units. But that leaves out middle-income households.

Some "affordable housing," such as that built under DC's Inclusionary Zoning law, is "workforce" housing, such as for people making 80% of the Area Median Income. This is good and needed, but as many activists point out, IZ units are only useful for the middle class and leave the lowest-income households out entirely.

In the end, because of the our current policies and economics, we get luxury + deeply affordable, or luxury + middle income. Rarely if ever do we see luxury + middle income + deeply affordable.

Cities and counties in our region and around the nation will continue to experiment with the best way to build truly mixed-income communities. The benefits are clear; making it work will take practice and creativity.

Development


Want to add a small apartment to your house in DC? That will soon be allowed.

It used to be that many homeowners in DC weren't allowed to build a small apartment, called an accessory dwelling unit (ADU), onto their property. Under DC's new zoning code, they will soon have the right to build some without seeking special permission.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

An ADU could be a basement or attic apartment, or an apartment over a garage or small cottage in the backyard. The important thing is that you can rent an ADU to a tenant. Allowing ADUs to go up more freely is one of the biggest changes of the new zoning code, which will take effect starting September 6.

In DC, households are shrinking from large families to singles or couples, while demand for housing is rising. Allowing homeowners to rent out parts of their property can help alleviate this demand, while providing income to offset the increasing cost of property.

Apartments have always been relatively easy for homeowners to add in higher-density row house zones—consider the classic DC "English Basement." Under the old zoning code they were allowed with a special exception, but now they are allowed by right in residential neighborhoods.

A big change under the new zoning code is making it easier to build new apartments in accessory buildings and inside houses. In the past, the lowest-density R-1 zones were the only place homeowners could build them, and even in those cases, they had to be occupied by a "domestic," meaning a family member or servant—a rather outdated stipulation.


Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Also, a apartment in an accessory building (a separate building on the property, like a garage) required a variance, meaning the owner would need to prove that they have a unique condition or situation that would make it a burden to comply with existing regulations. That was pretty much impossible, since accessory buildings were not allowed.

If the accessory building is already on the property, then homeowners can add an apartment by right. If the accessory building isn't there yet, the homeowner only needs a special exception, which neighbors can only stop by demonstrating that the building would be an undue burden on them.

These apartments are subject to conditions, such as those found in the building code that make sure there is enough living space and that the space is safe. The homeowner has to still live on the property, and there are a number of other conditions as well.

Under the new code, buildings can house a garage, artist studio, or storage area in addition to the apartment. They can't have a roof deck, perhaps because there's more of an argument that those are burdensome to neighbors. Apartments in accessory buildings also have to have dedicated access to the street.


Image from the City of Minneapolis.

How to make an ADU work on your property

Other things to consider with an ADU? First, keep in mind that only three people are allowed to live in the unit, with an additional three in the main home. Additionally, to rent out the property, homeowners need a Residential Rental Business License from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

There's also the question of how to actually build it. Few people have the experience or skills to construct an apartment or small building by themselves. With labor and materials, how much will it cost? How can you make sure that the rent you are charging will cover the cost of your financing and provide rental income?

Especially when building an accessory building, there are many that first time builders may not consider. Because even a small building requires a foundation, four exterior walls, and roof, they will be considerably more costly than an interior apartment.

Other costs include an architect's fees, as well as fees to tie into utilities. And, while its tempting to save 8-15% and not hire an architect, you don't want to skimp here; an architect's job is to make sure buildings are up to code and therefore legally rentable. With so many conditions in the new zoning code, you want to be certain you're meeting them.

Financial feasibility is also a major concern. Financing can come from banks either through loans, or refinancing the property, or it can come from friends and family. If a bank is making the loan, then the repayments may be higher, which may impact the rents that need to be charged. Its important to understand the rental demand in the neighborhood, and compare the prices being charged to the desired rent for your unit. Make sure the market can bear your rents.

If you are interested in learning how to use tools like financial modeling for rental properties, and in talking through financing options for small real estate projects like accessory units, consider attending the Small Developer Bootcamp in Silver Spring from Friday, May 13 to Saturday, May 14. This training designed to teach people how to build the kind of small real estate projects that make cities better and it is sponsored by the Incremental Development Alliance.

Correction: The initial version of this article suggested that the zoning changes were now in effect. They take effect September 6. Also, this article initially reflected an earlier proposal for the zoning update which would have allowed apartments in accessory buildings by right under some circumstances; the final version requires a special exception hearing.

Correction 2: My bad. I totally messed up this correction. I incorrectly thought that the DC Office of Planning had taken out the by right permission to build an accessory apartment in an external building. This is wrong. Well, it's right and wrong. OP did try to take that out, but this was one retreat that the Zoning Commission rejected and asked OP to reverse. I therefore incorrectly corrected this article. Emily Brown's original was more accurate, and has been restored (with a few minor edits).—David Alpert

Development


It's another delay for 200+ units of housing in Tenleytown

First, Georgetown Day School took 3 floors and 50 units of housing away from its proposed development in Tenleytown, following opposition from neighbors and the DC Office of Planning. Now, it has to delay the entire project because of a zoning technicality.


An earlier rendering of the project. Image from Georgetown Day School / Esocoff and Associates.

First, an exciting plan gets scaled down

The site on Wisconsin Avenue has been through many public battles over the years concerning denser, mixed use development, but this particular project originally looked to be one of the finer plans for the area.

Neighboring Georgetown Day School purchased the Safeway and adjacent parcel near 42nd Street and Wisconsin Avenue in 2013. It planned new school space, a pair of 9-story buildings with 270-290 units of housing (around 10% of those permanently affordable), and a host of other neighborhood amenities, including a bike share station, a beautiful set of pedestrian steps, and a small park.

Unfortunately, as soon as the plans were opened to public comment, a few neighbors began organizing against it. Last month, after the Office of Planning unexpectedly sided with opponents, GDS cut off one floor from one building and two from the other, removing 50 units of housing and a variety of amenities.


Aerial view of the project. Image from the PUD filing.

Now, another delay

This last week, another hiccup. The school decided to withdraw its application entirely and re-submit it. That's because, according to a letter released by the school, one of the opposing neighbors complained about an unspecified detail of the zoning regulations, and DC's Zoning Administrator (the official who interprets the zoning regulations and decides if projects comply with them) agreed with the objection.

Fortunately for GDS, this zoning provision (whatever it is) changed in DC's zoning update, which recently passed and will take effect in September. Therefore, rather than fight the Zoning Administrator's "informal" ruling, GDS will just withdraw and re-submit to be considered under the new rules.


Letter to the community from Georgetown Day School. Click to see the full letter.

Why this matters

While projects do need to conform to the zoning code, this also shows the great length project foes, particularly in some areas of DC such as this, will go to stop change. Remember, GDS's building would have been as tall as the one across the street, and now will be shorter. But that's apparently not enough for opponents.

GDS is fortunate that the zoning update is going into effect very soon, after more than eight years of delay getting finalized and approved. Otherwise, GDS would have had to fight the ruling, and the letter says, "While we may have prevailed at the Zoning Commission with our current PUD application, this informal ruling by the Zoning Administrator would have made us vulnerable to an appeal and cost us additional time and money."

We can imagine that the opposition will not sit idly by for the next round. This is a Tenleytown story, but it affects all of us in the city and region. With the current housing shortage, any loss of new housing, particularly so close to a Metro stop, is a loss we all feel.

If you are interested in staying informed and involved in this particular case, fill out the form below. We will continue to watch what happens here and look for ways for the larger community to make a difference.

Keep me informed

Let me know when I can help ensure new housing gets built near Tenleytown (and elsewhere in DC and the region!)

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Links


National Links: The housing market

Not everyone has recovered from the US housing market's collapse, you're most likely to try a new way of getting around when you move to a new place, and traffic studies usually mean faster roads, not necessarily better planning. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Winning the housing game: The US housing market has recovered from the recession, but not everyone is on solid ground. Housing prices have increased dramatically in cities, but not so much in sprawling and rural areas. Maps in this feature show the stark differences. (Washington Post)

Moving moves us: People are most open to considering new modes of transportation right after they move into a new place, according to research out of Cardiff University. (CityLab)

Traffic studies make things worse: Virtually no development goes up without a traffic study, but are traffic studies bad for cities? When the results are plans that focus on moving the most cars quickly, pedestrians and other modes usually get the short end of the stick. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

LA, it is a changin: Los Angeles has long been known as the domain of the car. But before it was, LA had a huge transit system that connected far off parts of a large region. Writer David Ulin believes things are shifting back, and the region will be a nicer place because of it. (New York Times)

No more surging: With autonomous vehicles around the corner, Uber considering ending surge pricing. It won't happen right away, but the company expects that at some point, as its systems get smarter, surge pricing won't be needed. (Minnesota Public Radio)

Walk this way: Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted moving sidewalks would be everywhere in our cities—by 2014, he said, New York would be covered with them. But the realities of wear and tear have slowed the technology down. (Inverse)

Quote of the Week

"We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists." Economist Jed Kolko on the demographics of America today versus 1950. (Five Thirty Eight)

History


Where DC used to bar black people from living

One of many pieces of America's shameful racial past was when racial covenants forbade people in certain areas from selling their houses to an African-American family. DC had these in several neighborhoods, particularly Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Petworth, Park View, and Bloomingdale.

According to Mapping Segregation in Washington DC, an interactive map created last year by a group called Prologue DC, covenants took two forms throughout the first half of the 20th century: restrictions in the property's deed, often set up by the developer when building a set of row houses, or an agreement that neighborhood activists would circulate as a petition around a neighborhood.


Lots with racial covenants in DC. All maps by Brian Kraft/JMT.

As the interactive map's text explains, covenants like these did more than just bar African-Americans. Covenants in some areas also prohibited Jews—"In DC this was more common west of Rock Creek Park," says the text.

These effectively kept black residents out of many neighborhoods through the early twentieth century, as this map of the area around Columbia Heights shows.


Lots with restrictions (purple) and the percentage of non-white residents (darker = more non-white), 1934.

Many covenants imposed other limits as well, like requiring "that only single-family houses be constructed or that buildings be a certain distance from the street. They also might prohibit use of the property as a school, factory, or saloon." As Ben Ross explains, covenant limits on building size and use is the forerunner of modern zoning.

Covenants fall and segregation takes new forms

Black homeowners and groups like the NAACP challenged these restrictions—often unsuccessfully—in lawsuits from the turn of the century until finally winning the seminal Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in 1948, and a corresponding case in DC, Hurd v. Hodge (which used a federal civil rights law instead of the Fourteenth Amendment since DC is not a state).

 
Percentage of black residents by Census tract, 1930 (left) and 1960 (right). Darker colors signify more black residents.

In the years after legal restrictions fell, the percentage of black residents in nearby neighborhoods increased—just what the covenants' creators and defenders, illegally and immorally, feared. Amid this shift, the end of legal school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and other civil rights advances, many white residents moved to the suburbs.

There, whether intentionally or not, communities wrote zoning rules and school district boundaries in ways that perpetuated de facto segregation.

How covenants from the past still hurt people today

While this legal tactic is long gone, its effects remain. Emily Badger wrote about a study of how young black people are far less likely than their white and Hispanic peers to get help from their parents to afford the down payment on a home. Each generation invests in real estate and gains wealth in doing so, which it then uses to help the next generation—except if, a few generations ago, residents and the government stopped your ancestors from getting some wealth in the first place.

Badger writes, "Historic disparities in the housing market are transmitted over time, from parent to child to grandchild. Earlier generations of blacks were excluded from homeownership by lending practices and government policies, and as a result those generations didn't accumulate the housing wealth that enabled them to pass money onto their children."

Or, as she put it pithily on Twitter:

Correction: The initial version of this post identified some covenants as being in Truxton Circle, but they were actually in Bloomingdale. Also, a sentence has been updated to emphasize that the disadvantages to black residents came from a combination of both the government and private citizens.

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