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Posts about Housing


Scarred by urban renewal, Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood gets a second chance

Silver Spring's Lyttonsville neighborhood has a rich history, but urban renewal nearly destroyed it. With the Purple Line coming, this historically-black community could get a second chance, but not everybody looks forward to it.

Urban renewal nearly destroyed Lyttonsville in the 1970s. Photo by Alan Bowser.

Located west of the Red Line tracks from downtown Silver Spring, Lyttonsville is one of Montgomery County's oldest neighborhoods, founded in 1853 by freed slave Samuel Lytton. The area could soon be home to a Purple Line station if the light-rail line between Bethesda and New Carrollton opens as scheduled in 2022.

Over the past two years, Montgomery County planners crafted a vision for a small town center around the future Lyttonsville station, bringing affordable housing and retail options the community lacks. Some residents are deeply skeptical of what's called the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan, though it could restore the town center Lyttonsville lost long ago.

A rough history

During the early 20th century, a thriving main street developed along Brookville Road, including schools, churches, and a cemetery. As surrounding areas became suburban neighborhoods exclusively for white residents, the black Lyttonsville community lacked public services like running water and paved roads. For decades, its only connection to Silver Spring was a wooden, one-lane bridge that remains today.

In the 1970s, the county seized much of the area, destroying Lyttonsville's main street and replacing much of it with an industrial park, a Ride On bus lot, and storage for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Many of the older homes were replaced with large garden apartment complexes.

This wooden bridge was once the only way in and out of Lyttonsville. Photo by the author.

Today, Lyttonsville is a racially diverse community, and sought-after for its location between Silver Spring and Bethesda and being in the vaunted Bethesda-Chevy Chase school catchment. But one out of ten residents lives in poverty, compared to 6.9% of residents countywide. Lyttonsville is hard to access by any form of transportation, isolating its residents from nearby jobs.

Some residents claim the county's plan will continue a legacy of destructive planning decisions. They're worried about traffic and density, about getting redistricted out of the B-CC cluster, and that the area's affordable apartments could get replaced with luxury housing. Others are wary of the Purple Line after fighting off plans to locate a storage yard in the neighborhood.

Charlotte Coffield, who grew up in Lyttonsville during segregation and whose sister Gwendolyn fought to bring services to the area (the local community center is named for her), has emerged as one of the biggest critics. "All [Purple Line] stations do not need to be town centers," she wrote in a letter to the county planning board. "The proposed density would destroy the stable character and balance of our ethnically diverse neighborhood." Last week, the Lyttonsville Community Civic Association, where she is president, voted to accept no more than 400 new homes in the area.

New development in Lyttonsville

Bethesda-based developer EYA, which is currently building townhomes next to the future Chevy Chase Lake Purple Line station, has an alternate proposal for Lyttonsville that could address residents' concerns. The biggest land parcels in the area are owned by several different property owners, including multiple government agencies, each with their own plans. Some want to build lots of new homes, while WSSC has a large site that they intend to leave alone.

EYA's vision for Lyttonsville.

EYA has reached out to several landowners about coordinating, allowing development on a combined 33-acre site to happen together. First, they would partner with WSSC to build several hundred affordable apartments and townhomes on their property. Residents of existing apartments could move there first without getting displaced. Then, EYA would partner with the two non-profits who own the affordable apartments to redevelop them with market-rate townhomes. The county would restrict building heights to 70 feet.

Next to the Lyttonsville station itself, EYA envisions a plaza surrounded by market-rate apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space (about half the size of a Giant supermarket), and a small business incubator modeled on Baltimore's Open Works that would offer job training to local residents.

Public art would promote the area's history, while Rosemary Hills Park would get a small addition. Local streets where drivers speed today would get traffic calming and new pedestrian and bicycle connections.

The $500 million proposal addresses most of the neighbors' concerns. EYA seeks to build 1200 new homes on the land, compared to the nearly 1700 the county would allow there. (What Montgomery County wants to allow in Lyttonsville is still less dense than plans for other Purple Line stations, including Long Branch and Chevy Chase Lake.) One-third of the new homes would be set aside for low-income households, and every existing affordable apartment would be replaced.

Lyttonsville's future Purple Line station. Image from MTA.

"The county can leave a legacy for how you can build Smart Growth," says Evan Goldman, VP of Land Acquisition and Development at EYA, stressing that the private development could help pay for the public amenities neighbors want. "There's only so much [public benefits] this can afford," he adds. "If you reduce the units so you can't pay for the benefits, the public benefits won't come."

Can the proposal actually work?

Residents I've spoken to like EYA's proposal, but are skeptical if it can happen. This project could have a transformative effect on Lyttonsville, but only if all of these partners agree to it. Recent experience in Shady Grove suggests finding new locations for the Ride On bus lot or WSSC's facility may be difficult.

"If EYA can execute its plan, there are more upsides," says resident Abe Saffer, "but since they don't have any letters of intent or partnerships firmly in place, I remain nervous."

The Montgomery County Council will hold two public hearings on the Lyttonsville Sector Plan next week in Rockville. Here's where you can sign up. If the plan is approved, the county would then have to approve EYA's proposal, which could then start construction in 2020 and take 10 to 15 years to get built.


Zoning: The hidden trillion dollar tax

Zoning in cities like DC is starting to get expensive. Maybe trillions of dollars too expensive.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Economists Enrico Moretti and Chang-Tai Hsieh find that if we lowered restrictions that keep people from building new housing in just three cities (New York, San Jose, and San Francisco) to the level of the median American city, US GDP would have been 9.7% higher in 2009about $1.4 trillion, or $6,300 for every American worker.

The intuition is straightforward. These cities' strict zoning rules limit their housing supplies. That sends rents soaring and prevents people from moving in. But because these cities are hubs of finance, healthcare, and technology, they are unusually productive places to work and do business. When people have to live elsewhere, they miss out on all this.

As a result, displaced workers, who can't move to New York or San Jose, are less productive and therefore earn lower wages. The country misses out on their untapped potential--fewer discoveries are happening, fewer breakthroughs are being made--and we're all poorer as a result.

Just changing zoning practices in those three cities would lead to some massive shifts, according to the authors. One-third of workers would change cities (although they wouldn't necessarily move to those three metros). Even under a less drastic scenario, in which 20% of US workers were able to move, GDP would be 6.5% higher. Fewer people would live in places like Detroit, Phoenix, or Atlanta, but those who remained would earn higher wages. And, of course, the likely reduction in sprawl would help address local air pollution, global warming, and habitat loss.

Zoning rules have clear benefits, but it's a question of balance

Zoning and land-use regulations have benefits. Some ensure basic health and welfare; they keep toxic dumps away from your child's school, for example (though this works better if you're well-off). Others aspects of zoning provide more marginal benefits, and to say these laws safeguard your health would be a stretch, like rules that keep duplexes and other multi-family housing out of your neighborhood.

Large swaths of Wards 2, 3, 4 and 5 have these types of rules: they're zoned "R-1-A" or "R-1-B," which only permit suburban-style detached homes. As the "general provisions" section of the zoning regulations say, "The R-1 District is designed to protect quiet residential areas now developed with one-family detached dwellings."

This, of course, is not an accident: DC's zoning map also shows who has power in the city, and who does not. Parts of Georgetown, for example, have a unique zoning designation called "R-20"; it's basically R-1, but with stricter controls to "protect [Georgetown's] historic character… limit permitted ground coverage of new and expanded buildings… and retain the quiet residential character of these areas and control compatible nonresidential uses."

Meanwhile, equally-historic Barry Farm is zoned RA-1, which allows apartment buildings, like many other parts of Ward 8. And, of course, Barry Farm abuts a "light industry" zone, sits beside a partly abandoned mental hospital, and was carved in two by the Suitland Parkway. While Washington's elite can use zoning with extra care to keep Georgetown the way it is, the same system of rules hasn't exactly led to the same outcomes for Barry Farm.

Barry Farm. Image from Google Maps.

What to do?

Washington is better than San Jose, where the majority of neighborhoods are zoned for single-family homes, but our own suburban-style rules still have room for improvement.

This could be Atlanta, but it's actually Ward 4.

Addressing this problem doesn't necessarily require us to put skyscrapers in Bethesda or Friendship Heights, turn the Palisades into Tysons Corner, or Manhattanize Takoma. More human-scale, multi-family housing in these places, currently dominated by single-family detached homes, could be a massive boon to the middle class and poor.

If half of such houses in Chevy Chase rented out their garages, or became duplexes, I'd estimate that could mean 25% more families living near world-class transit, fantastic parks, good jobs, and good people.

As Mark Gimein wrote recently on the New Yorker Currency blog:

The cost of living in New York, San Francisco, and Washington is not just a local problem but a national one. That these cities have grown into centers of opportunity largely for those who already have it is not good for the cities, which need strivers to flourish. It would be a shame if the cities that so resiliently survived the anxieties of the atomic age were quietly suffocated by their own success.

If you're curious for more on Moretti and Hsieh's work, see this short description of their paper and this PBS interview with Moretti. For an in-depth discussion of zoning's effect on the economy (with less math), see this speech by Jason Furman, Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.


How can we know if DC is building enough housing?

DC could reach almost a million people in 30 years. What does that mean for the amount of housing DC needs? Or the amount you might pay to rent or buy a place to live? Current population forecasts still don't answer a few key questions that have to be answered to plan for the future.

Photo by E. Krall on Flickr.

DC planners are starting work to amend the city's Comprehensive Plan. Among other things, the Comp Plan sets basic policies for how much new housing can be built. And a recent court case blocked new housing because a map in the Comp Plan didn't show it. That means it's very important to get the plan right.

Everyone needs to live somewhere, so a very logical first step to understanding the city's needs is forecasting how many people want to live there. That's not quite so simple, however.

Forecasting is complex

Many variables go into population forecasts. Regional data analysts disagree about many of them. Still, they've had some success. When the current Comp Plan was first written, a decade ago, it estimated the city's population in 2010 and 2015. It got the 2010 population bang on the nosealmost exactly 600,000. But for 2015, it's wasn't so accurate; the Comp Plan guessed growth would continue to 630,000, but DC actually grew much more, to about 672,000.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) puts out annual growth estimates for all of the jurisdictions in the Washington region. Here's how the Comp Plan's growth estimates track with COG's past and most recent estimates and with reality.

Actual population data from US Census and American Community Survey estimates. Projections from DC Office of Planning, DC CFO, and Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The DC Chief Financial Officer also makes some forecasts. The last one tracks closely to COG's, but in 2013 the DC CFO thought growth was about to slow. It hasn't, at least not yet.

The current forecasts answer some questions, but not all

How does COG come up with its forecasts? It calls them "cooperative forecasts" because the first step is for each local jurisdiction to estimate its own growth. Then, COG planners tweak the numbers so the totals better match the overall regional jobs picture, trends about how many children people are having, and so forth.

Those individual jurisdictional estimates mostly come from looking at how much development is in the pipeline and how much room there is under current zoning. It makes some sense—someone is not going to move to DC unless they have a place to live. If 1,000 new housing units will be created and 90% of them will fill up in 2 years with an average of 1.5 people per unit (for example), that means 1,350 new residents.

That's a pretty good way to guess the population if you want to know what's most likely to happen under current policy. It helps with budgeting for the amount of trash pickup you'll need, say, or how many schools to build.

But if you use that number to set zoning policies, you'd be making a circular argument:

  • We think developers will build x housing units.
  • X housing units hold Y people.
  • Therefore, DC will grow by Y people.
  • We said DC will grow by Y people.
  • Y people fit in X units.
  • We're building X units.
  • Therefore, we're building enough units.

Photo by Tom Magliery on Flickr.

It doesn't work that way. Let's consider a hypothetical city that really doesn't want to grow much but has a booming job market. Call it Atherton.

Atherton has about 7,500 people and very little opportunity to add new housing under zoning. It's zoned for enough new development for 100 new people and that's it. If that policy continues, the new units for those 100 people will get built in the next five years, and then perhaps nothing for many years after that.

Atherton therefore estimates its population will be 7,600 in 2035. Is that right? Well, maybe. That doesn't mean that policy makes any sense if the surrounding area has demand for thousands of new jobs a year and prices in Atherton are going through the roof (as they are, because Atherton is real!)

DC isn't Atherton, and we shouldn't be—but needs more data to avoid it

DC is, of course, not trying to stop all growth, and its forecast predicts some substantial growth. But that forecast still primarily answers the question of what the population will be under current policies. It doesn't tell us a few key things we need to know:

  1. If we don't change current policies, will prices rise faster than people's incomes can keep up?
  2. If we did change policies, what would happen? Would more people move in?
  3. What policies should we pursue if we want both new residents and longtime ones to be able to live in DC, without too-fast price rises or displacement?
These are the questions that DC must explore for the Comprehensive Plan, because the Comp Plan is the ultimate font of the policies that create the pipeline that drives the population estimates.

There aren't official numbers on most of this yet, but I've talked to forecasters who are trying to figure it out. It's not easy. If more housing was getting built, some people would move to DC who otherwise would live in another county or region entirely. Some wouldn't be displaced who otherwise would be. On the other hand, some people might not like the changes and move out.

Will DC run out of room?

DC (and the whole Washington region) is highly desirable, and many people would like to live here but for high and rising housing prices. Others who have lived here for many years are finding themselves priced out through rising rents or taxes associated with swelling real estate appraisals.

There's a growing body of evidence that when cities don't build enough new housing to keep up with demand, that exacerbates the price rise. In DC, proposed new buildings constantly have floors and units slashed off or have strict limits on their size in the first place.

You don't have to believe that removing regulations will magically make housing suddenly affordable for all—I don't—to worry about all the people who can't live in the units that don't get built and the displacement it can cause elsewhere.

Beyond prices rising and displacement happening today, there's reason to worry it will get worse. DC does have a number of large undeveloped sites now, like Walter Reed, McMillan, St. Elizabeths, and Hill East, which can and hopefully will provide a large portion of DC's housing need for the next decade or so. But if demand to live in the city remains strong, these will fill with housing soon; what then?

An Office of Planning 2013 report warned that DC was approaching its maximum buildable limits. The city could run out of space for new housing between 2030 and 2040, the report said.

Graph from the DC Office of Planning's Height Master Plan report, 2013.

It would be helpful for OP to update this graph based on changes since then. The zoning update allowed people to rent out basements and garages ("accessory apartments") in some zones, which added some potential housing; at the same time, DC made zoning more restrictive in many row house areas and downzoned the Lanier Heights neighborhood, which might have moved the red dotted line down somewhat.

Where are the lines now? How has the city's growth tracked against the three scenarios in the above graph? Under various assumptions, how much time is left until the problem gets even worse than it is today?

DC needs an inclusive housing strategy

DC needs a Comprehensive Plan that ensures enough housing so that prices don't rise faster than they need to. Public policies must also ensure that new housing benefits a cross-section of income levels, from the very poor to the middle class and beyond, to prevent displacement and built a city welcoming to all—as Mayor Bowser likes to say, for those who have been here for five generations or five minutes.

To get the policies right requires good data. What do you see in the above analysis? Are there other data sets you think would be helpful? Are there other questions that an updated Comprehensive Plan should address?


A DC law lets tenants buy their buildings before anyone else can, but it also helps renters stay put

DC has a law that lets tenants buy their building if their landlord wants to sell it. Under the law, the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA), tenants can work out a deal directly with their landlord, or more commonly, they can refuse a contracted sale the landlord arranges with a third party and purchase the building instead for the same price. Although TOPA is a right to buy statute, the right to collectively decide what happens with their building gives tenants a very powerful seat at the table.

Tenants at the Garden Towers in Mount Pleasant used TOPA to keep their building rental. Image from Google Maps.

As I noted in an earlier post, when my landlord signed a contract in 2001 to sell my apartment complex to the National Cathedral, I wound up owning my unit because my fellow tenants and I asserted our TOPA rights. Per the TOPA statute, we formed a tenants' association, refused the initial sale, and purchased the building instead (for the same price) with the help of a developer. Although my tenants' association decided to convert our building to condominium, many tenants' associations choose to keep their buildings rental. In this post, I'll explain how TOPA has become a tool for tenants who want to keep renting.

The importance of renting

Right-to-buy programs are often touted as mechanisms to free low income people from dependency on unscrupulous landlords and/or government subsidies. When Margaret Thatcher privatized British public housing in 1980, for example, she declared that it would give tenants the "independence that comes with ownership."

Of course, owning a home isn't for everyone. Some people don't want to own a home. Others can't afford to. People who work minimum wage jobs usually don't make enough money to afford a mortgage, let alone save for a down payment, and few banks will lend to them anyway.

TOPA gives tenants bargaining power

TOPA helps tenants stay put as tenants (rather than as owners) by giving them bargaining power. To understand how bargaining works in the TOPA process it helps to start with a simple fact—most tenants' associations can't afford to buy their buildings on their own. They don't have bank accounts or established credit that would allow them to get a loan. Given these realities, the TOPA statute formally allows tenants' associations to assign or sell their right of first refusal to a third party who can help with financing. Tenants' associations can work with for- or non-profit developers. Low income tenants' associations and members are also eligible to receive financial assistance from the city.

To be sure, dependence on developers does have its downsides. For-profit developers, for example, usually insist on the right to offer tenants buyouts—a sum of money given to a tenant to relinquish rights to her unit. In buildings converting to condo, developers can then sell these units at market rates. In buildings remaining rental, they can require tenants to sign a voluntary agreement (VA), one of several petitions landlords can submit to the city for permission to increase rents above existing caps. Once a VA is executed, they can raise rents to market rate.

However, with open space for development at a minimum in DC, and property values at record highs, developers are also eager to work with tenants in order to get access to property in gentrifying neighborhoods. This means that tenants are in a position to bargain for things they want before agreeing to assign their right of first refusal to a developer.

Of importance here, tenants can require that developers agree to keep their properties as rental accommodations. They can also refuse to work with developers who demand that tenants sign a voluntary agreement as a condition of partnership.

The city does not collect data on TOPA outcomes, so we don't know which outcome is most common—converting to market rate condominium or co-op, converting to limited equity co-op, or remaining rental. However, TOPA experts usually agree that condo conversion was more common before 2008, when borrowing was easy and risk was someone else's problem.

After the recession, tenants had more trouble getting loans and developers had more difficulty finding eligible buyers. As a result, remaining rental often became the de facto choice of both tenants and third party financers after 2008.

Of course, tenants' and developers interests don't always overlap. In these cases TOPA means tenants don't have to be saddled with a given developer.
They can choose the developer that best meets their needs. And today, the need to stay put with affordable rents is more important than ever. Indeed, median rent in the city is now well over two thousand dollars a month ($2,415). The number of affordable apartments has also declined precipitously in the last decade. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute found, for example, that the number of "low cost" rental units in the city declined nearly 40% between 2002 and 2013. In this environment, tenants' ability to use a right-to-buy statute to keep their buildings rental (and with rent control intact) is no mean feat. It is, indeed, extraordinary.

TOPA rights are collective rights

A key part of the TOPA statute is the so called right of first refusal. It's what gives tenants leverage in a situation where they normally have none. The right is not an individual right, however. When an apartment building is contracted for sale, only a registered tenants' association—not an individual tenant or a small group of them—can refuse a sale. Registered tenants' associations are also required to demonstrate that they represent at least a majority of eligible residents. In a similar fashion, if a tenants' association wants to convert a rental property to condominium through TOPA, it may only do so with the consent, by vote, of a majority of tenants.

Making the right of first refusal a collective right is vital for ensuring that the interests of vulnerable tenants are considered during the process. In fact, it makes it more difficult for a small group of tenants to hijack the process for their own interests if those interests aren't in line with the wider tenant body.

A hypothetical scenario explains why. Let's say a landlord decides to sell a mid-rise apartment building near Fort Totten where the tenants fall into three, roughly equal-sized socioeconomic groups—low income residents with government housing vouchers, young professionals, and undocumented immigrant families. If an individual tenant or a small group of tenants could invoke the right first refusal, the young professionals could band together to buy the building, convert to condominium, and then kick out the tenants who couldn't or didn't want to buy their units.

Under TOPA's collective rules, however, a tenants' association would have a hard time operating on behalf of a small group of tenants. It couldn't form a tenants' association with only one-third of building residents, for example. Nor could it convert to condominium with a similar fraction of support.

In recent years dozens of tenants associations have used TOPA to keep their buildings rental, such as Garden Towers in Mount Pleasant Columbia Heights. I cover Garden Tower's experience and several others in my new book, The Politics of Staying Put.

Although TOPA allows tenants to stay put as renters, developers have continued to use VAs during TOPA cases to circumvent rent control protections. In my next post I'll make any argument for why we should eliminate VAs from TOPA process.


An old power plant in DC's Ward 7 is ripe for redevelopment. Let's not make it a trash and recycling plant.

Between the Anacostia River and I-295, a defunct power plant stretches along the north side of Benning Road. A plan for how to put the space to use just came out, and while some of the ideas could bring jobs to the community, others threaten to perpetuate a history of communities east of the Anacostia getting the short end of the stick.

Pepco's Benning Road site is desolate now, but it could turn into something great. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

The Benning Service Center is a 77 acre industrial campus located on the eastern bank of the Anacostia River. In 2015 Pepco demolished its 100-year-old oil fired plant on the site and after decades of community advocacy led by leaders such as George Gurley. Following the demolition Pepco began a DC Department of Energy and Environment supervised cleanup of PCBs and other contaminants in the soil and neighboring Anacostia River.

In the last decade the Kenilworth-Parkside community has seen the construction of 400+ homes, two schools, and significant reinvestment in the historic Mayfair Mansions Apartments. In the next decade the community is anticipating the construction of 1300 more homes, retail, an education campus and office space. Nearby Minnesota Avenue has seen the construction of Park 7 Apartments and the District Department of Employment Services building. To the south, River Terrace is increasingly drawing the attention of developers looking to capitalize on the extension of DC's streetcar.

Given the considerable investment going into the community, the Pepco site is looking increasingly anachronistic in its current state, but its proximity to Metro, the streetcar, and I-295 give it incredible potential. With the right changes, it could provide much-needed economic opportunities to Ward 7 residents and become the economic and social center that Ward 7 has long lacked.

The Pepco site and surrounding developments. Red highlights denote developments are completed or near completion. Blue highlighted areas denote proposed projects. The green line illustrates the route of the streetcar extension. Map by the author, using Google Maps.

In November 2015, DC's Office of Planning partnered with the Urban Land Institute to form a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) on the future of the Benning Service Center with the goal of improving transportation access at the site, creating new community amenities, and providing economic opportunities for Ward 7 residents.

ULI forms TAPs to assist cities to come up with unique ideas on difficult sites, and the Benning Road panel brought together experts in from the fields of urban planning, design, transportation, real estate development, as well as the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

ULI recently released the TAP's recommendations. The panel issued short, interim, and long term recommendations based on a tour of the site, discussions with community leaders, and an analysis of similar brownfields in other cities. Short term proposals were primarily those that could be implemented immediately without altering the site itself, and interim proposals focused on temporary land uses. The long term proposals spoke to permanent changes in land use.

The TAP looked focused on the 19 acre site once occupied by the coal and oil fired powerplant. The remaining 58 acres was not considered. Photo from the Benning Road Service Center.

Changes in the near future could include better walkways and more recreational activity

The panel's short term recommendations for the site are largely uncontroversial. They focus on adding connections to the Parkside neighborhood by extending Anacostia Avenue around the site and linking it to River Terrace. Other recommendations focused on making the site more friendly for neighbors by improving the surrounding streetscapes with broader sidewalks, tree plantings, and public art.

Public art like "The Lego Bridge" could soften highway and other transportation infrastructure like this WMATA viaduct. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Pedestrian infrastructure has long been neglected at the site. Despite these formidable barriers and high speed traffic, residents use this sidewalk everyday. Photo by the author.

The panel's Interim recommendations focus on engaging the community by partnering with an organization like Arcadia Mobile Market to bring a farmers market's to the neighborhood, as well as hosting events like BBQ battles.

The space would also be available for athletic events like Tough Mudders, paintball, and even an outdoor roller rink. Other uses focused on providing creative "maker" spaces for industrial arts and crafts.

The long-term recommendations focus on job creation

The TAP's long term recommendations were the most interesting and potentially controversial.

One thing the planners aimed to address were the community's concerns about the fact that there aren't many opportunities for blue collar employment in the area. The TAP made three suggestions for the site with that thought in mind:

  • First is an Industrial Business Incubator that would offer space to light manufacturing businesses.
  • The second, an "Eco Industrial Park," would feature recycling, composting, and bio fuel generation facilities.
  • The third proposal focuses on an energy research and design facility that would design and test new electrical generation and distribution technologies.

The first and third proposals would have a natural synergy with the District Department of Employment Services offices on Minnesota Avenue. Both facilities could form partnerships with community organizations and schools focusing on vocational training. A research and development facility could offer students in Ward 7's HD Woodson High School STEM program co-op and internship opportunities.

Both of these facilities could be a long term investment in the skills, creativity and talent of Ward 7's residents. They would create a one-of-a-kind destination for innovation unmatched in the District. They would create new businesses and opportunities that would have impacts far beyond the site.

Jobs are great, but this shouldn't become a trash-processing site

The second option, creating the Eco Industrial Park, has a lot less to offer for the community, and ignores a century of environmental racism inflicted by decisions to locate powerplants, dumps, garbage incinerators, highways and other undesirable infrastructure in Ward 7.

By its own admission, the TAP acknowledges that such a facility would face stiff resistance from the surrounding community. The proposed facility would be essentially be an expansion in the scope and scale of operations of the current Benning Trash Transfer station, which the surrounding community has rallied to oppose as recently as 2000.

The surrounding communities fought for positive change for decades and have gotten real traction with the numerous new developments in the area. Placing another trash handling facility prominently along its prime transportation corridor on riverfront property would be a step backwards for a community that has disproportionately borne the costs of facilities intended to benefit The District.

While the facility would potentially generate several hundred jobs, it is unlikely they would be the long term or high paying. In discussions TAP planners noted that growing automation would reduce the demand for low skilled labor over time undercutting any long term employment benefits that might be achieved by going with a low skilled, high employment option.

Does TAP make the most of a once in a lifetime opportunity?

The demolition of the Pepco plant is an opportunity to fix decades-old economic and transportation challenges. The report offers innovative and creative ideas to make the Benning Service Center a better neighbor, but is it an ambitious enough goal?

The TAP focused on only the westernmost nineteen acres of the site, leaving the remaining fifty-eight acres closest to the surrounding communities unaddressed. A process that included the entire site could offer much better solutions while working with Pepco to improve the efficiency of its operations. A more ambitious plan could have included a new Metro station, the restoration of the street grid between Parkside and River Terrace, as well as many more job opportunities for the community.

Despite its limits the report marks a seachange in thinking about the Pepco site. Previously there had been little serious discussion of the Pepco site that hadn't included a powerplant. The discussions started in the TAP should be revisited as the Pepco-Exelon merger continues and new investment facilitates the modernization of Pepco operations. The Mayor's office and the new Ward 7 Councilmember should be on the lookout for opportunities to use land swaps and other incentives to achieve the goals outlined in the TAP plan.


Buying a house is incredibly difficult for me. Here's why.

As a young person in DC paying what feels like a ridiculous amount in rent, I wonder about buying my own place. With these crazy prices, wouldn't it be worth just making the jump to ownership?

Well... no. When it comes down to it, buying a home of any size in DC is just not possible for me. And I'm not alone.

Photo by Chris Devers on Flickr.

I shared my struggle with our contributors, and many submitted their own opinions on and experiences with the matter. There are so many barriers to home ownership in this area. Fundamentally, the finances of buying have changed, as have the financial realities for many would-be home buyers like myself.

Down payments are a pay wall

One reason I've been scared to even consider owning is because of the down payment required on homes as expensive as the ones in this region; it's magnitudes greater than the security deposit I typically have to put down as a renter. My fear isn't unique.

Arlen, a commenter on our site, said:

I'm a renter with a solid income who would love to own a home. The down payment is what stops me. It's going to take a long, long time to save up 20% of the price of a $500,000+ home. It's especially hard to do when paying rent on a place large enough for a family with kids and then paying for child care for those kids.
Of course, I could take out a loan for that up front cash, and interests rates are low right now. But in our region in particular, taking out this loan is more complicated and more risky. Gray Kimbrough said:
A lot of DC-area housing necessitates a jumbo loan (for mortgage value over $417,000), raising the down payment requirement from 10 percent to 20 percent. Down payments have to be much larger because the cost of housing is up so much. In my downtown Silver Spring neighborhood, houses were going for $200,000-$300,000 not long ago, so buyers needed down payments of $20,000-$30,000. Now those same houses are $500,000 or $600,000, needing a down payment over $100,000 for a conventional mortgage.

Image by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr.

These jumbo loans also have more stringent requirements for approval, and restrictions on how much interest I can deduct from my taxes. There are loans backed by the federal government that can help in particular with the down payment problem (Federal Housing Authority, or FHA, loans).

But as Gray pointed out, "FHA fees have been increased dramatically, making this a much less attractive option."

More debt? You've got to be kidding me

For me, taking out a loan to pay such a big down payment makes for a frightening amount of debt. Sure I could try to save up, but savings don't build quickly when I'm paying these high rents.

What is more, myself and many others are already suffocating from student loan debt. In fact, we are suffering from some of the highest amounts of student debt in history.

I personally am not interested in adding to that mountain of bills. Neither is Aimee Custis:

I've been watching many of my friends buy condos or houses, but others among us (myself included, even with a decently-salaried nonprofit job and a successful side gig) simply can't even fathom that jump. The number one thing that sets me back is my student loans.
Dan Reed added his take:
You can definitely see the ripple effects of the student loan burden in the housing market today. Condos that might otherwise attract first-time buyers are already harder to finance today after the Great Recession. But lenders and builders know they'll still have a smaller pool of buyers anyway, hence the glut of new rental apartments that are being built.
Beyond all that, it's been harder to buy a house since 2008's financial crisis

Before 2008, it was arguably much too easy to buy a home, and many people were exploited and took on bad loans.

Things have changed. It's probably good that people looking to buy homes face more scrutiny, but that also limits some groups of prospective buyers.

"Credit requirements have definitely gone way up since the early-2000s boom," said Gray. "This is particularly bad for people with limited credit history or who are self-employed."

"I've been self employed almost my entire career," said Julie Lawson, "and getting a mortgage is incredibly difficult due to variable income and verification requirements."

Charlie, a commenter, agreed: "We've tightened lending requirements. Good luck trying to get a mortgage if you are self-employed... Easy to get a car loan or credit card though."

In many ways, our financial system has simply shifted. It still favors home ownership in many ways (some less equitable than others), but does not encourage it like in the past.

As kob, another commenter, points out:

Banks no longer want home ownership. There's more money to be made in rental investing. Apartment complexes, and single family homes, are being bought up by investment groups for rental. By raising lending and credit requirements to unreasonable levels, people seeking to buy are punished.
So where does this leave me?

For now, I'll remain a renter. And honestly, I don't feel like I have too much of a choice.

What has impacted your decisions about renting or buying?


It's time to build housing at the Takoma Metro station

Metro has been trying for over a decade to spur development around the Takoma station in DC, but in the past, opposing neighbors and their elected officials have created years of delay. The project is ready to move forward again, and hopefully the cycle won't repeat itself this time.

The parking lot at the Takoma station, where WMATA and EYA plan to move forward with plans to build townhouses. Image from Google Maps.

What's the problem?

Since before the turn of the millennium, Metro has planned to redevelop an underused parking lot next to the Takoma station, where parking usage is less than 50% most days. Housing developments on top of or adjacent to Metro stations is hardly controversial; it's a logical idea and part of Metro's development policy to promote them at or near Metro stations in order to make it easy for residents to get around.

In 2000, Metro selected EYA to develop the Takoma station's parking lot, and the first plan developed in 2006 called for the construction of 90 townhouses. Some local neighbors in Takoma, DC, as well as elected representatives of Takoma Park, MD, opposed the first plan, with groups like Historic Takoma saying the proposal was "too dense." They also argued that the two-car garages in each townhouse would bring too much traffic.

The Takoma Metro station today. Image from Google Earth.

Some smart growth supporters didn't think townhouses were unreasonable for an area right by a Metro station, but many did feel such large garages were unnecessary. EYA's original plan got sidelined by a combination of opposition and the recession, but in 2013 the company drew up a new plan to build a medium-density apartment building between five and seven stories high (but scaling down to four stories at Eastern Avenue) instead, with about 200 units and with fewer parking spaces per unit.

EYA's revised plan to build apartments by the Takoma station. Image from EYA.

Many neighbors again opposed EYA's plans, but this time, they had a much more effective online campaign, building and maintaining two separate opposition websites as well as both a Facebook page and Yahoo group. The neighbors also managed to garner support from elected officials this time around.

Complaints about EYA's proposal are varied, but the theme is evident: "it's too big and has too much parking."

The neighbors' petition cites their concerns over the size of EYA's proposed building, the loss of green space, and EYA's use of an above-ground parking garage with the building wrapping around it (rather than underground parking). ANC4B also raised concerns about traffic and said the size of the proposed building violates DC zoning rules for being higher than 50 feet.

Meanwhile, elected officials of Takoma Park also raised concerns about the size of the proposed building, the location of a loading dock for apartment residents, too much parking and that the plan steals public parking spots for the benefit of apartment residents.

Don't let perfect be the enemy of good

The latest development isn't perfect, but it's not terrible either. Looking first at the size, even if the neighbors are technically correct that the proposed building is greater than the underlying zoning, a four-story apartment building abutting Eastern Avenue and adjacent to a Metro station is hardly out of character for the neighborhood. DC law does allow projects (like this one) to go through a process called a Planned Unit Development, which can give a project some latitude, such as to increase density near a Metro station or for affordable housing. That seems like good policy.

The argument that this development will increase parking and traffic is wrong-headed. This development is adjacent to the Takoma station, where people will have to drive less, not more. It does shift a significant number of parking spaces from public to private use, but will retain the number of Metro parking spaces for riders and expands the number of bus bays serving Metro and Montgomery County's RideOn.

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Seth Grimes represented Takoma Parkers, who border the site and led the charge opposing EYA's proposal. He told me that Metro and EYA's motives are good with this project, as he fully supports development around the Takoma station, but he echoed what other neighbors have said: that EYA's plan is still too focused on parking and encourages car ownership and driving. However, the number of parking spaces has dropped from two per unit in the original plan to 0.7 per unit, and at the same time, the housing that would be available would increase from 90 to 200 homes.

Grimes opined that the size issues could be remedied by either building the parking below ground or by greatly reducing it. "EYA designed a building for 10 years ago as opposed to 10 years in the future," he remarked.

You can't always get what you want

The irony to all of this is that the neighborhood is struggling to attract businesses to its commercial street where the Takoma station is located. There is some good news in that Starbucks is opening a store in Takoma; even if it does upset some anti-corporate locals, many see it as a positive sign for the neighborhood's business climate. Heck, despite the announcement by Starbucks to open a store in Takoma, a new local coffee shop announced plans to open nearby too.

But if you walk around Takoma's main street (i.e. Carroll and 4th Streets, DC and Carroll Avenue, MD) you'll find plenty of empty space for lease, including the old Takoma theater, a grand property ripe for reuse. Given Takoma's reluctance to supporting chain businesses, such a result is not unforeseeable. Additionally, Takoma's historic districts may dissuade developers and businesses from wanting to build and invest here.

As an aside here, it's richly ironic that Takoma was founded by B.F. Gilbert, a "New York venture capitalist" who is beloved by many of the same neighbors that are leading the charge against EYA. Meanwhile, people in Takoma are clamoring for more shops, restaurants and services. Look here to see how excited the community was for the startup of a local food truck! Gilbert would have probably supported an even larger mixed-use development than what EYA has proposed.

Personally, I think Metro could do even more development at this site by rerouting the buses to the Silver Spring transit center and developing the entire parcel into a larger mixed-use space, but I doubt that the community would support the loss of neighborhood bus service or the loss of the greenspace, even if it is never used. Still, there is a housing crisis in DC and Takoma has a lot of crime that could be decreased with more "eyes on the street." If only Metro was more ambitious.

More development is coming to Takoma, so let's stop fighting already

With the recent opening of two new apartment buildings on Willow and Maple Streets, Takoma, like the rest of DC, is growing. Does this mean that we should start building skyscrapers adjacent to the Takoma station? Of course not, but Takoma residents cannot claim to be "progressive" and concerned about gentrification while simultaneously opposing new housing developments around a Metro station on the basis of zoning technicalities.

The effects of such diametrically opposed views results in pushing new development outside DC, which increases traffic and sprawl, and only isolates lower-income people from the jobs they need to make a living. While opposing activists may have slowed this development, with the support of other neighbors, the WMATA board approved it so it is now a question of when, not if. I spoke with Jack Lester from EYA and he confirmed that the project is still moving forward as EYA and WMATA work out some of the finer details.

But how do we thread the needle so that Takomans get more shops, restaurants and services while retaining the small-town feel (i.e. no significant traffic increase)? It's not rocket science and a lesson for all business districts: increased density = more people living in the area = more demand for more local shops and services = more supply of local shops and services.

What is most perplexing to me is that much of the opposition to this development appears to be coming from Takoma Park even though the development sits in Takoma, which, again, is in DC. Takoma Park is an extremely progressive community that has laws protecting trees and bans on styrofoam containers and is the only rent control municipality in Maryland.

How can a community that cares so much about the environment and those who are less fortunate be so opposed to increasing the amount of available housing (some of which will be reserved for people who are at or below the poverty line), increasing the number of people who live close to public transportation (which supports Metro's future) and are thereby unlikely to drive very much (which is better for the environment)?

In a Washington City Paper article about this whole ordeal, there was an interesting comment that may provide some insight. It reads:

There's an in increasingly common NIMBY strategy to pretend that what you're really fighting is evil developers. Complaining about the future residents can come off too classist or racist, but complain about the developers who enable those "others" to move in is supposedly going to convince us that the NIMBYs are pure hearted.

Developers wouldn't be interested if they couldn't find a buyer. They are merely agents for the future residents. There is no isolating your objections against "developers' greed" and your objections to the people that simply want a place to live near where you have found a place to live.

What do you think? Does this sounds like what is happening in Takoma or does the opposition raise some valid concerns?

Cross posted at Takoma Talk.


Rent control, explained

The most straightforward way to make sure a family can afford housing is to limit the amount that its rent can rise each year. Although there are a few different ways to do this, they all fall under the umbrella of "rent control."

Photo by Bill Holmes on Flickr.

Rent control measures are controversial. Advocates argue that rent control makes apartments affordable for tenants in rent-controlled units, while opponents claim that it actually makes other apartments in the city more expensive.

In this explainer, I focus on rent control measures in the District and the debates about the effectiveness of these policies.

Rent control creates affordable housing by limiting the amount that private landlords can increase the rent each year.

Typically, these annual rent increases are set by an independent government board or agency. They are often pegged to annual cost-of-living adjustments.

In the District, rents in rent-controlled apartments can increase by the Consumer Price Index—a measure of how much the price of a basket of consumer goods increases over time—plus two percent. However, rental increases cannot exceed 10 percent annually.

For tenants who are elderly or disabled, the maximum increase is the CPI alone. Rents for these tenants cannot increase by more than five percent.

With special approval from the Rental Accommodations Division (RAD) of the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), landlords are permitted to make larger increases to rent-controlled units. These increases are typically approved only to compensate for major improvements or upgrades to a building.

When a rent-controlled apartment becomes vacant, landlords are permitted to raise the rent beyond the rent control limit. Before renting to the next tenant, they can raise the rent either 10 percent or to a level comparable for similar units. However, landlords in the District cannot increase the rent to more than 30 percent of the rent charged to the previous tenant.

In Washington, DC, nearly 80,000 apartments are rent controlled.

These rent controlled apartments are typically in older apartment buildings with at least five units.

There are many other rental apartments in the city that are not subject to rent control. For example, buildings built after 1975 are exempt from rent controls. This means that newly constructed buildings throughout the city are not subject to these regulations.

Apartments owned by landlords who own fewer than five units are also exempt from rent control measures.

Several years ago, a study by the Urban Institute estimated that there were 79,145 rent-controlled apartments in 4,818 buildings in the city.

Proponents of these policies argue that rent control is a simple, straight-forward way to keep housing affordable for families in rent-controlled buildings.

Rent control policies ensure that rents do not skyrocket from year-to-year. Like homeowners paying a fixed-rate mortgage, renters living in a rent-controlled apartment can predictably know their rental costs over the long term.

Photo by Kheel Center on Flickr.

Similarly, these measures help to ensure that rents do not rise more quickly than incomes. By pegging rent increases to cost-of-living adjustments, the share of income paid by tenants should remain relatively steady over time.

This addresses concerns about housing cost burdens, where renters pay an excessive share of their income toward rent.

Finally, rent control regulations help to de-commodify housing by taking it out of the market processes.

Tenant advocates note that housing is increasingly used as a way for speculators and developers to earn a profit. By taking housing off the market, rent control measures can ensure that the goal of housing remains the provision of decent, affordable shelter for individuals, rather than simply investment opportunities for landlords.

To this end, many housing activists argue that housing should be a right, not a commodity.

However, opponents of rent control regulations argue that these programs make the rest of the housing market more expensive.

In fast-growing cities like DC, the demand for housing is outpacing the supply. New housing construction is limited by the fixed boundaries of the city, various zoning regulations and the restrictions imposed by the Height Act.

Because rent control takes a large share of units off the market, people searching for apartments have fewer apartments to choose from. With the supply of housing more restricted as the demand for housing grows, prices rise faster than they otherwise would.

Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Critics also contend that rent regulations impede the natural filtering of households from one rental unit to another. We would expect households to move into more expensive—and higher quality—units as their incomes increase. However, households in rent-controlled apartments may be disinclined to upgrade their apartment, even as their incomes increase, because their rental payments are capped.

As a result, apartments in rent-controlled buildings may not become available to low-income families or people at the bottom of the housing ladder.

Opponents also contend that rent controls do not create long-term affordability because landlords can return units to market rents once they become vacant. Although rent control programs keep housing affordable for a specific tenant in a specific unit, the landlord can substantially increase the rent for the next tenant.

Finally, some cities—like Berlin—are experimenting with citywide rent controls. These policies cap rents for all apartments in the city rather than just some of them (which is what happens in DC). Critics worry that citywide rent controls will halt development because developers will see fewer opportunities to earn a profit from building new apartments.

Rent control policies remain controversial. Although there are many ways to limit annual rental increases, the District has a system that caps rent only for a portion of apartments. While these policies help to keep rents affordable for households living in rent-controlled buildings, they also risk driving rents up on other units throughout the city.


National links: We'll pay you to avoid rush hour

BART, San Francisco's major transit system, wants to reward riders for avoiding rush hour, drivers have run into a house in Raleigh 6 times in 9 years and the owners can't sell, and an engineer in Oslo has turned kids into "secret agents" in a bid to report street hazards. Check out what's going on in the world of housing, transportation, and cities around the globe.

Photo by Storm Crypt on Flickr.

Frequent rider miles: San Francisco's BART is piloting a rewards program that will give points to riders who use the system at times next to, but not during, peak periods. The program gives riders one point per mile an hour before and after the peak rush hour, with 1,000 points equaling to use toward BART passes. (Curbed SF)

Uber as transit: Altamonte Springs, a suburb of Orlando Florida, is subsidizing Uber rides for residents in lieu of a transit system. The city manager had hoped to create a system of smaller buses that came when called until his project idea was killed last year by the USDOT. The agreement is the first of its kind in the country, and is controversial because it leaves out key segments of the riding population including the the disabled and those without bank accounts. (The Verge)

Stop driving into my house: Speeding drivers that fly around a sharp turn on a big arterial have hit a house in Raleigh 6 times in the last 9 years. The family constantly fears for its safety, but the city won't do anything about the road, where people constantly drive over the speed limit, nor will it help the family move out of the house, which is impossible to sell. (Fast Company Co-Exist)

Housing takes a loss: Small dorm-sized apartments called microhousing have been regulated away in Seattle. One legislative change after another brought higher standards, larger floor plans, and higher costs. Best described as death by a thousand cuts, the fight against microhousing has added up to a loss of over 800 units per year. (Sightline Institute)

Walk to get smart: There is a great "link between mind and feet". According to science, we are able to come up with ideas and think better when we're walking because of our body chemistry. When you go on a walk, your heart pumps faster and and circulates more oxygen to all parts of your body, including your brain. (New Yorker)

Put the kids to work: An app in Oslo called Traffic Agent was created to allow children in the city to report hazards. A local traffic engineer came up with the idea when she realized that it would be tough to complete a traffic report on all city roads and wanted to get more children involved in traffic safety issues. The data and information will be used in the future when the city closes the core to vehicles. (Next City)

Quote of the Week

"We're trying to get back to that great system that we had. Get rid of the debt and get rid of the tolls and have a low-cost system that everybody can benefit from."

- Retired engineer Don Dixon on Texas' plans to look at making all of the state's toll roads free. Doing so would cost $24 billion.

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