Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Housing

Development


Could rooftop apartments transform suburban retail?

Suburban retail areas are redeveloping into mixed use neighborhoods all over the DC region. Usually redevelopment means mid-rises replace single-story retail, but could another model work? What if retail strips added rooftop apartments?


Concept rendering. All images by the author.

From more livable communities to less congested highways, mixed-use development has many benefits, and is in high demand. In places where market demand or zoning regulations prohibit larger scale mid-rises, maybe innovative design can help bring those benefits too.

Imagine a row of small apartments added to a big box store's roof. Let's explore how that might work, using the Safeway supermarket in Seven Corners as a test subject.


The Safeway, as it exists now.

Since the building is so wide, a narrow second story near the back would be completely invisible from the front. Thus, the building can accommodate apartments with minimal to no effect on the store's appearance.

What could fit?

The rear wall of this Safeway is long enough to fit 10 apartments, each 25 feet long, with a gap in the middle to provide access to stairs. The paved area behind the store is wide enough to accommodate stairs and a narrow parking lane for residents, with enough room left over for two vehicles to pass each other.

A terrace in front of the apartments acts as a walkway, providing access to each unit. Rows of windows high on the front wall bring sunlight in without compromising privacy or subjecting residents to views of the store's roof.

Inside, each unit is a 300 square foot efficiency style apartment.

These apartments may not be luxurious, but maybe that's OK. Given rising demand for mixed-use living, apartments like these could provide scarce affordable housing to tenants who want to walk to shopping areas. Perhaps retail workers at the very stores below might be able to live here.

Meanwhile, nearly invisible apartments atop strip malls might conceivably face less opposition from surrounding communities than large new buildings. Or maybe not; that's hard to predict. But new housing has to go somewhere, and it's better if we can fit more of it in existing communities. Maybe this is a way to do that.

Is this actually realistic?

There are clearly challenges to making an idea like this work.

First, the structural challenge. Since the roof wasn't designed to support a second story, the building would likely need structural reinforcement. That's unlikely to happen in a functioning supermarket that's open to customers. But it may be practical during renovations, for adaptive reuse, or in new buildings.

Second, the regulatory challenge. Many suburban retail strips are retail-only because that's what the zoning allows. Since it often takes years to go through the difficult process of getting zoning approval for mixed-use, it's often only worth developers' trouble for large projects.

Finally, the developer challenge. Developers often specialize in one type of project. Toll Brothers builds suburban houses, Abdo builds urban mixed-use mid-rises, Macerich specializes in shopping malls. It would likely take a special case for a suburban retail developer to take on apartments, or an apartment developer to build a big box.

But people used to cite similar challenges as impediments to New Urbanism, and it's booming. Where there's a will, there's a way.

And there could be a will. Demand for convenient mixed-use living keeps growing, while our cities keep getting more and more expensive. Something is going to have to give. This idea could provide affordable housing that's walkable to convenient destinations.

It just takes a little creativity. And, maybe, a small scale pilot project or two.

Development


Housing is a big part of inequality in Washington. We need more housing, and more affordable housing, to fix it

There's a lot of inequality in our region, including housing, where low-wage households living farther out spend more time and money traveling than wealthier ones closer in. A new report quantifies these problems and recommends reforming zoning to build more housing, as well as expanding subsidized housing.


Photo from the report.

The report, from The Commonwealth Insititute, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, and Maryland Center on Economic Policy, looks at many ways the recent economic growth in our region has helped higher-income individuals and families more than others.

The gap between the low-wage and high-wage jobs is greater than the national average and getting worse. Jobs for people without college educations have gotten scarcer, while jobs for people with college educations (particularly with advanced degrees) has grown even faster than the number of people with those degrees. And black residents and young people have been hit hardest.

Meanwhile, it's become more expensive to live in most of our region.

The inner jurisdictions, except for Prince George's County, have the smallest share of families making $50,000-200,000, though DC and Alexandria still also have more lower-income households than elsewhere.


All graphs from the report.

Many households pay more than 30%, or even more than 50%, of their income toward housing. For renters, this effect is worst in outer jurisdictions like Stafford, Calvert, Charles, and Spotsylvania counties.

It's worse for renters than homeowners. It seems likely this is because many homeowners have owned for a number of years with fixed-rate mortgages, meaning their property values (and, often, tax burdens) have risen but their housing payments have not. Renters don't have that long-term stability, and are also more likely to have moved in more recently.

Overall, for both renters and owners, housing costs are lower farther from the core, but so are incomes. That means that the proportion of "housing burdened" households is about the same closer in and farther out. This makes a certain sense, since people will naturally gravitate toward areas where they can afford the housing.

However, that doesn't tell the whole story. If a lower-income household is paying a similar share of income to live in an outer jurisdiction, those residents also likely face longer commutes than a wealthier household in a central location. Low-wage workers are becoming more likely to commute 50 miles or more than high-wage ones.

The report says:

In Fauquier, Spotsylvania, Frederick, and Prince George's counties, the average housing and transportation costs exceed 45 percent of those counties' median incomes. That means the average housing and transportation costs in the county are considered unaffordable for the median household.

Three of these four localities are in the outer suburbs, where high transportation costs are responsible for the lack of affordability, despite median home values and rents generally being more affordable there than in the core and inner suburbs.

In Prince George's County, low median family incomes mean that even with relatively low housing and transportation costs, the median household income is insufficient to cover those average costs.

I would add that Prince George's has poor Metro accessibility compared to Montgomery and Fairfax, making commute times and costs higher. Also, with most jobs having shifted to the west side of the region, it's not quite as close to as many jobs as its distance from downtown DC might suggest.

The report notes that Prince George's had twice as many foreclosures in 2011 as the region generally; its rate is comparable to that in hard-hit outer Virginia counties and neighboring Charles County.

What's the solution? Besides increasing incomes, helping people build skills, and expanding access to health care, a big one is taking steps to make housing more affordable. The report says,

Increasing opportunities for affordable housing for working families through zoning reform (such as removing restrictions on building more apartments close to metro stops) and housing subsidies can help working families live close to their jobs and reduce stress on families and communities.
Many reports on inequality from social justice organizations in the past have not included zoning among the policy tools to deal with housing affordability. It's great to see TCI, DCFPI, and MDCEP agree that we need to do both: add more housing (and lots of it), and also explicitly ensure that some of that housing in all jurisdictions goes to people at many points along the economic spectrum.

Development


The MIT solution to small-space living

One way to increase density in our cities is to make living units smaller. But this can present problems when you have to fit bathroom, kitchen, sleeping, and living areas in a small space. But a group at MIT has come up with an innovative solution:

The CityHome puts sleeping, bathing, cooking, and living facilities all in one cube that you use gestures to operate. The set up allows you to condense all these in one compact area, freeing up precious floor space in a small apartment.

Development


Single-family homes are the minority in Montgomery County

People often think of Montgomery County as a place where you go to buy a big house with a yard, and in many areas that's still the case. But most households live in townhomes or apartments, and that share will only increase in the future.


Montgomery's housing stock is getting more diverse. Photo by the author.

There are nearly 376,000 homes in Montgomery County according to the 2008-2012 American Community Survey. Less than half, or 48.5% are single-family detached homes. One out of three homes are apartments or condominiums, while another 18.2% are "single-family attached" homes such as twins and townhouses.

But different kinds of homes are clustered in different parts of the county. Single-family homes predominate on the more affluent west side and inside the Beltway. Townhouses are more common in newer neighborhoods far outside the Beltway, while apartments cluster along the Red Line and in farther-out areas.

Single-family homes spread out around the county

Not surprisingly, single-family homes predominate on Montgomery County's rural fringe, and in suburban areas. In several neighborhoods, particularly west of Rock Creek Park and in the far northern part of the county, single-family homes are the only type of housing, such as Parkwood in Kensington, Rollingwood in Chevy Chase, and the Town of Chevy Chase itself. 99.5% of all homes in Bethesda's Bradley Manor, recently named the nation's second-wealthiest neighborhood, are detached houses.


Areas with a concentration of single-family homes. All images by the author.

Single-family homes are also very common in older neighborhoods inside the Beltway, which were built early in the 20th century when the county first began suburbanizing. Today, they sit in close-in, highly coveted locations, very close to Metro stations and major job centers. Meanwhile, farther-out areas have a much more diverse mix of housing.

Townhouses are far beyond the Beltway

If you're looking for a townhouse, you may have to look far beyond the Beltway. The county's largest concentrations of attached homes are in parts of Germantown and Montgomery Village, where townhouses comprise over 70% of all homes. Other areas include Westlake, next to Montgomery Mall in Bethesda; Dalewood Drive, across from Wheaton High School, and Westfarm in White Oak.


Areas with a concentration of townhomes. All images by the author.

Why is this? The county's 1958 zoning code and subsequent 1964 General Plan established specific "urban" areas where townhomes and apartments would go. Meanwhile, older, close-in neighborhoods began fighting the construction of anything that weren't big, expensive single-family homes. So townhouses got built farther out, where land was cheap and the zoning allowed them.

Apartments hug the Red Line & sprawl outward

Multi-family homes in Montgomery County tend to fall into one of two camps. You'll find clusters of them around Red Line stations, especially in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and White Flint. These are usually high-rise and mid-rise buildings, and they're often more expensive. The rest are mainly cheaper garden apartments outside the Beltway in areas like Briggs Chaney, Aspen Hill, and parts of Gaithersburg.


Areas with a concentration of multi-family homes. All images by the author.

Notably, areas with the highest concentrations of apartments also have a lot of young people, a high rate of transit use, and a low rate of car ownership. But those living in apartment clusters farther out don't have the same access to shops, jobs, and transit as those in areas like Bethesda or Silver Spring. Creating more town centers in other parts of the county, like at White Oak, will allow those residents to have more access to economic opportunities.

Multi-family homes are the county's future

Single-family homes are still the most common housing type in Montgomery County, and more will continue to be built. But they'll make up a decreasing share of the county's housing stock. Between rising housing costs, increasing traffic, and a diversifying population that's also getting older, there's a growing demand for different housing choices.


Single-family homes like this one in Olney are still being built, but not as many as there were.

As of this April, there were 36,038 approved but unbuilt homes in the development pipeline, most of which will be built in town centers like Silver Spring or Bethesda or in Clarksburg, the county's one last greenfield area. Just 8,644, or 24% will be single-family detached homes or townhomes. And that doesn't include homes that are allowed under zoning but haven't been approved.

This is a big shift for Montgomery County. While the county has sought to concentrate growth near downtowns and transit lines since the 1960's, many residents and community leaders still think of it as an exclusively suburban place. But in the coming years, the definition between city and suburb will continue to blur.

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