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Posts about Housing


Worldwide links: Does Seattle want more transit?

Seattle is about to vote on whether to expand its light rail, stirring up memories of votes to reject a subway line in the late 60s. In San Francisco, people would love to see subway lines in place of some current bus routes, and in France, a rising political start is big on the power of cities. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by VeloBusDriver on Flickr.

Subway in Seattle?: Seattle is gearing up for a massive vote on whether to approve a new light rail line, and a Seattle Times reporter says the paper is, on the whole, anti-transit. Meanwhile, lots of residents haven't forgotten that in 1968 and 1970, voters rejected the chance to build a subway line in favor of a new stadium and highways. (Streetsblog, Seattle Met, Crosscut)

Fantasy maps, or reality?: Transit planners in San Francisco asked residents to draw subway fantasy maps to see where the most popular routes would be located. They got what they asked for, with over 2,600 maps submitted. The findings were also not surprising, as major bus routes were the most popular choices for a subway. (Curbed SF)

Paris mayor --> French president?: Sometimes labeled as the socialist "Queen of the Bohemians", Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has quietly moved up the political ladder, and she's now a serious candidate to be France's future head of state. Hidalgo did the unthinkable by banning cars from the banks of the Seine, and her ability to make change at the local level makes her believe cities are, in many respects, more important than the countries they inhabit. (New York Times)

How romantic is the self-driving car?: In the US, driving at age 16 was a 20th century right of passage. But what happens when we take the keys away? What happens to people's love affairs with cars if cars drive themselves? Does turning 16 mean anything in terms of passage into adulthood? In this long read, Robert Moor wonders how the self-driving car will affect the American psyche, and especially whether older drivers will ever recover. (New York Magazine)

Pushing back on art in LA: Local activists in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles, are pushing back against artist spaces they feel are gentrifying the neighborhood. Research shows that the arts aren't necessarily a direct gentrifying agent, but planners do watch art spaces to analyze neighborhood change. (Los Angeles Times)

Quote of the Week

We've had this concentrated population growth in urban areas at the same time that people have been doing an increasing percentage of their shopping online. This has made urban delivery a more pressing problem.

- Anne Goodchild on the growth of smaller freight traffic in urban areas. (Associated Press)


National links: Fair housing in Arizona

Arizona is cracking down on racial discrimination in housing, there's lots we don't know about how people get home from transit stations, and in Chicago, old pipes and telegraph lines at excavation sites may no longer be a problem. Check out what's happening around the country in transportation, land use, and other related areas!

Photo by kmaschke on Flickr.

A win for fair housing: In Yuma, Arizona, developers can sue the city if they think reasons for blocking affordable housing projects are race-based, and the Supreme Court recently declined to hear arguments to overturn the decision that allows that. The case in question found that residents in a historically-white neighborhood were, in effect, organizing to keep Latinos from living nearby. (Arizona Daily Star)

The first last mile: Even if the trip isn't that far, lots of people have to figure out how to get between their homes and jobs to where their nearby transit network is running—this is called the first/last mile problem, and people in transportation talk about it all the time. But there's really not much research has on the subject. David King, a professor at Arizona State, says we need to know more about how much riders will tolerate fare changes, whether they're ok transferring, and how much people budget to cover the last portions of their trips. (Transportist)

Mapping Chicago's underground web: Underneath Chicago, long-forgotten wood pipes and telegraph lines make digging or tunneling an undertaking in bravery. But a 3D modeling company has created a way to map all of the underground pipes and wires so excavating a site is far less dangerous. (Chicago Magazine)

A subway in downtown Dallas: The Dallas City Council is supporting major transit projects downtown, including reorganizing the bus system and building a new subway line. This focus on the urban core means not prioritizing a suburban subway line that was competing for funds, which is a big shift for the council. (D Magazine)

A new approach in Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh hopes to add BRT and more bike lanes soon, and to better coordinate transportation projects between all of its departments, the city is opening a new Department of Mobility in Infrastructure. The hope is that the department will make it easier to make things like signal priority for buses and solar-powered autonomous vehicles happen. (Pittsburgh City Paper)

Quote of the Week

"'Suburbs feel the same everywhere you go. All the same streets. All the same trees. All the same houses. It's a way of living. I'm not saying it's bad. I enjoyed it.' ">Brooklyn, though, has character, he said—the parks, the architecture, the people, the shops. 'You walk to the stores, and you talk to the people there. He knows you, and you know him. Every place has a story behind it.'"

- Brooklyn Nets basketball player Luis Scola describes living in Brooklyn after the team moved there from New Jersey. He sold his minivan because he couldn't find parking often enough! (New York Times)


DC has rent control, but if landlords aren’t making a 12% profit they can file a hardship petition and raise rent

Thanks to the Rental Housing Act of 1985, DC has rent control laws that limit how much rents can go up in a given year for anyone living in a building with five or more units and built before 1975. But a lot of people miss out on these protections when landlords use a loophole called a hardship petition.

1320 Nicholson Street NW, where a landlord raised rent after filing a petition saying he wasn't making enough of a profit. Image from Google Maps.

"The landlord raised rent three years ago with no notice. A lot of people who had lived here fifteen, twenty years chose just to leave." That's Javier Rivera, a resident at 1320 Nicholson Street NW, talking about how rent in his rent-controlled apartment recently went up.

The basic rule of rent control is this: if you live in a building built before 1975, your annual rent increase is limited to inflation plus two percent. For 2015, that would mean about a three percent bump. So, if your rent costs $1000, and inflation is 1%, that means your rent could go up by $30 at the most.

But because of a loophole called the hardship petition, that's often not the way it works.

This section of the law seems to dictate simply that rent control shouldn't prevent landlords from making money on their investment. If they're not getting a reasonable return, they can file a hardship petition with the DC Rent Administrator to ask to be allowed extra rent increases. It's an eminently reasonable idea—if landlords are putting money into buying and fixing up apartments, they should be financially rewarded for their work.

It's become problematic, however, because of what the law considers to be a "reasonable return." Landlords of rent-controlled buildings in DC can file a hardship petition if the rate of return on their property is less than 12%.

Given that DC is dealing with an affordable housing crisis and costs keep rising, that's a questionable bar to set for raising rents.

If landlords aren't profiting enough, rent can go up

To put that in context, the average landlord in both DC and the greater region saw about a five percent return on investment in 2014.

And this takes us back to 1320 Nicholson Street In 2013, Rivera's landlord Michael Lesesne filed a hardship petition. He won, and residents soon saw increases of 40, 50, even 70 percent on their monthly rents.

The tenants hired a lawyer and were eventually able to convince a judge to overturn Lesesne's petition. But the damage had already been done: Lesesne had pocketed the money and to this day claims he's unable to pay residents back.

Latare Whitaker, another tenant, says the irony has not been lost on those who live there. "Mr. Lesesne didn't have any mercy on us when he raised our rent. Now he's asking for mercy after a judge has ordered him to pay back what's ours."

Some lawmakers are working to ditch hardship petitions

The Nicholson Street residents say this all could have been prevented if their landlord hadn't had such tools at his disposal in the first place, and they're fighting to save other tenants from their fate.

"This," says Whitaker, "is going on all over the city."

DC Councilmember Anita Bonds agrees with him. She and fellow councilmember Robert White (who was then the Democratic nominee for an at-large seat on the council and has since been appointed as councilmember) both spoke during a summer rally at the Nicholson Street property about the problems rent control faces.

"We have to draw attention to these situations," said Bonds. "So often on the council all I get to do is hear. Today I get to see."

Councilmember Bonds has also gotten to do some writing. Last year she introduced the Rent Control Hardship Petition Limitation Amendment Act of 2015, a bill that would limit the amount rent can go up as a result of hardship petitions to five percent, which is the regional average.

Bonds's bill is currently before the council and needs to be voted on before the end of the year, when proposed bills that haven't had a vote will slip away or need to be reintroduced next year.

Other rent control bills have recently come before the DC Council as well.

For their own sake and for the sake of their fellow tenants, the residents at 1320 Nicholson Street hope that sometime soon, the council gets to do some voting.


Can we develop communities for the people who already live in them?

Income inequality, gentrification, and neighborhoods changing in a short period of time—put them all together and the question is "who is left behind?" How can change happen in a city without displacing people?

Photo by Tony Hisgett on Flickr.

On October 3rd, HBO aired Class Divide, a documentary that provided a look into gentrification's effects on one neighborhood in New York City. The film examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend the Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.

Last week, we attended a sneak peak that was followed by a panel discussion on how the larger issues in the film are also affecting the DC region. The participants were Class Divide director Marc Levin, 11th Street Bridge Park project director Scott Kratz, and Oramenta F. Newsome, the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Hyisheem Shabazz Calier, who participated in the documentary, also spoke about his experiences living in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project and experiences since leaving to attend college and pursue entrepreneurship. The panel was moderated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell.

After the first half hour of the documentary played, the panelists discussed gentrification, income and racial inequality, and the unintended consequences that come when planning large public projects like the Manhattan's High Line.

We (Joanne and Andrew) attended the event and later watched the full documentary. We discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Andrew Ausel (AA): I thought the documentary was a good segue into a discussion on DC. Particularly because what New York is experiencing is kind of like mega-gentrification. And while what DC is experiencing is challenging, it's nothing near the extent to which West Chelsea residents are experiencing it.

Joanne Pierce (JP): You make a good point, that New York City shows us this mega-gentrification but DC could easily be a mega-gentrifier in its own way if we're not watching out for it. Oramenta made a great point about that, which is that developers are "finding" neighborhoods and finding these beautiful pre-World War II buildings they want to turn into luxury condos. These neighborhoods have been here for such a long time, and yet developers come in and seem to just swallow them whole with their shiny new buildings or luxury things.

AA: Absolutely. Neighborhoods with rich cultural and architectural features are attractive to developers and the residents treat them almost like ornaments that add to their property values. Exhibit A… the High Line in Manhattan.

The High Line in Manhattan. Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr.

AA: An equivalent DC example would be Capitol Hill, Union Station, or any of the numerous historical landmarks that have been flipped. Look at the NoMa area as an example: the neighborhood runs just adjacent to the Uline Arena, which is set to become the fifth flagship REI. But look just north of Florida Ave., opposite of the Red Line to NoMa, and development isn't really happening there, primarily because it is outside of the Business Improvement District. I think more work needs to be done to bridge that gap.

Uline Arena. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: One of the things I liked was how the High Line was used in this documentary. It was one of the three central structures, along with the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects and the Avenues school. Have you been to the High Line before?

AA: I have not, have you?

JP: I have, and I loved it. It's overwhelming in scale and sensory input.

The brick building in the middle of the frame is the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects and the building at the right of the frame is Avenues: The World School. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

JP: Scott brought up unintended consequences. I hadn't considered the High Line to be one of those, because it's so beautiful and it's brought so much joy to what was a desolate, unwanted piece of transit history. But we see in the documentary that it also created this real estate boom and I don't think I considered that the High Line had negative consequences because I had no idea there were housing projects nearby. So that brings up questions of privilege and how we can be really unaware of the circumstances that lead to social and income inequality, and how our desire for nice things and amenities has possibly made people complicit in gentrification, even when we don't live in the areas being gentrified.

AA: It really is a new development, and something that I think we have to start assuming will happen as we try and address urban blight. In generations prior, I don't think the desire for urban living was there, so we never asked "what happens when we fix this place up?" Now, as we fix it up, there is a demand and a market and its being filled by people who aren't from the community.

I think the real gap in understanding then comes from the "invading" ignorance to what was there before. The residents who purchase these $15 million condos don't necessarily appreciate all the different culture that was there before. Oramenta made a good point when she said that we do live in a free market, and those are the rules of the game.

JP: She said, "we have to remember that in our society, the [income] bar keeps moving."

AA: But what [Marc Levin] does such a good job of in his documentary is observing the issue from the perspective of the kids. Kids who don't necessarily want to be viewed as the rich white kids but want to be looked at as humans.

JP: What is wealth today may not be wealth ten years from now and what's striking about that idea is that people at the bottom won't necessarily get wealthier just because these areas like NoMa are becoming popular and revitalized. Looking through the eyes of the kids and without explicitly stating it, he showed that children aren't different from each other in their fears and uncertainties just because of their socioeconomic status.

AA: And he reflected on that during the panel when he said that this generation is truly unique in that they recognize the forces of free trade and the globalization of the economy and they are figuring out, where do they fit in? They are much more reflective and aware and you see this in the film.

JP: Even though the documentary doesn't really go into globalization, it's a huge concern.

AA: We have to answer anew, how exactly do we develop communities for the people in the community? Scott Kratz was particularly helpful in coming up with strategies for that.

JP: He was, and I appreciated how focused he was on the collaborative side of the 11th Street Bridge project. He was very clear that he wanted to understand, first of all, did residents even want something like that? It's a question that I don't think gets brought up enough.

The 11th Street Bridge. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

AA: Right. It was a much more communicative version of community organizing that represented bottom-up development instead of a planning commission or a developing company telling the people how the plan would look. It was truly encouraging and part of me honestly felt weird feeling optimistic when thinking about this issue. It was almost like I wanted them to dive more into the problem of gentrification so I could understand the issue, while what Scott really did was reject the challenges of community unity and figured out how to make it work. It really sounded like the community was the approval body for a lot of the design. And it made me realize something very important for any effort like this. It made me realize that communities have to have a unified vision and sort of be very homogenous.

JP: I looked up some information on the 11th Street Bridge project and the website says there are 76,000 residents within a two mile radius of the bridge. The kind of collaboration required to get as many of those voices heard seems stunning. I think the documentary brought up an interesting point about homogeneity by class, and not race: that the residents of the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects aren't excluded because of race, but because of class.

AA: It's definitely a good point and may make for a good lesson learned from the film, that communities are only as equipped to fight the forces of development as they are unified and empowered to fight it.

JP: What do you think about Ornamenta's point about race, that it's always present but in many cases what neighborhoods want to preserve is history and that is sometimes African-American history. Her example was Anacostia, which she says has only been an African-American community for two or three generations.

Anacostia. Photo by Axel Drainville on Flickr.

AA: I think that's true. To observe the inverse, Alexandria, which is a predominately white city, does a lot to preserve its history and highlight the positive aspects of their colonial culture. You don't see a whole lot of African-American festivals in Alexandria and that's for a reason. So much of human history is tied up in race, likely because so much of human identity is tied up in race. Which raises the question, is the only force that prevents equitable development economic?

JP: Alexandria has a lot of African-American history and there should be more opportunities to emphasize it. But we also have to talk about which Alexandria we are referring to. Old Town, the West suburbs (Seminary Hill), or Fairfax County and the immediate Route 1 corridor, which is probably more Hispanic and African-American.

AA: Very true. But that is arguably a more recent development. I think the important point here is that Americans in general feel a sense of community that is strongest with those who look most like them. That is true in DC, Alexandria, and NYC, among others. We need to be actively figuring out ways to compensate for this and foster communities of understanding and, really, pluralism.

JP: I read that immigrant communities aren't actually that mobile. They find an area they like and tend to stick to it. I think it can be trickier than that. Maybe on a more general scale, people do want to be homogeneous but there are some aspects of racial identity that may make that difficult. Anecdotally, I think younger Asian-Americans, for example, yo-yo between wanting to hang out with an Asian community and conversely don't think that's the most important or relevant. It does help if your "community" is all over the Northern Virginia and DC area, though. East Asian-Americans do have that.

AA: True. I think the documentary was revealing in the way the high-rise condo community treated the minorities who lived in their building. [One of the documentary participants] reflected that he often gets looks like he doesn't live there. But the interesting thing is that often times the white kids who lived on the top floors of these places didn't want to fall into that stigma. They wanted to understand. The challenge becomes how do we fight stigmas then.

JP: This is a pretty old question. We've had cultural and racial stigmas for a very long time. Gentrification seems to exacerbate that, in that you sometimes see the developers coming in and they're all well-educated, relatively wealthy people. They are proposing a dream that in some cases, means pushing other people out. As Scott said, it's "cultural displacement." The stigma behind that can be race or socioeconomic status, and what Scott and other community-focused organizers seem to focus on is bolstering the voices of people who would be marginalized or ignored by the planning community. Using their well-educated, relatively wealthy status for good and not evil, I suppose.

AA: It is a very old question, but the truth is that communities don't do the hard work to answer it and find ways to live together effectively in the face of the prospect of gentrification. There is a blind allegiance to the ideology that promotes quick development. But you are right in that the 11th Street Bridge Park team took the time to lead that discussion and really bolstered the voices of those that would have been washed out.

JP: I think Oramenta spoke about that as well. She said that there's a difference between diversity you see on The Mall and diversity in her neighborhood, whether it's due to income or race. She said there are people who can go home to a comfortable place, and she wants to create more opportunities to see others and be like, "I could live there." To me, that seems to also focus on preserving a neighborhood but also encouraging growth in a more organic way. Leading new people in by showing them what the neighborhood already has to offer, and how it's going to be progressive about its growth, but not doing it through only having shiny luxury goods and condos.

AA: I also thought that a big issue that was presented by the panel was the idea of renter empowerment. What were your thoughts on the strategies presented like community land trusts and homebuyers clubs?

JP: They mentioned TOPA, which is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. It allows renters to have first opportunity to buy their rental properties before a landlord can sell the building. I think TOPA is great but it also requires extensive education and understanding of DC housing processes and that's one area where the homebuyers clubs can really step in. They can provide that education. A lot of times, what shuts people out of the process, whether it's democracy or planning their neighborhood, is that it's overwhelming.

AA: Sure, and the challenges can seem larger and influenced by so many more things than one community can prevent. I think dispelling that narrative and empowering low-income residents to protect their homes through effective policies is an important lesson I took from the panel. Luckily for D.C. it sounds like they have a lot of good laws in place to protect the tenant

JP: We've seen through examples like the Wah Luck House [in Chinatown] that sometimes these fights take many years. I hope in the future that it won't be so hard.

AA: I'm hopeful. The panel actually really helped with that!

JP: It presents a good blueprint for that kind of collaboration to take place. It'll be interesting to see how the 11th Street Bridge project moves forward.

AA: Indeed. I think it's in a very preliminary stage which may mean I should temper my excitement just a little. Regardless, it sounds like they're doing everything right.


How strict land-use rules keep poor people in Mississippi

For much of the 20th century, the US labor market presented unrivaled opportunity for low-income workers to move to greener economic pastures. If the economy sucked in Oklahoma, Colorado, or Mississippi, you could move to California, Connecticut, or New York. Though certain barriers to moving, like racial discrimination, have since lessened, new ones have risen to block low-income Americans' access to thriving cities.

Image by Peretz Partensky on Flickr.

This is the second in a series of posts on the social and economic costs of unusually strict land-use regulation. You can find the first post here.

According to a recent working paper by economists Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag, it's getting harder for low-income and less-educated Americans to move to prosperous places. They find that, on net, these workers are trickling out of expensive cities, and stranded in poorer states. The reason, they argue, is restrictive land-use policies that price lower-wage workers out of economically-vibrant areas. This isn't just rough for a few individuals in Mississippi and other low-wage states; the authors find that the falling migration rates of lower-income workers might have increased US inequality by as much as 10% over the last three decades.

Let's back up to Ganong and Shoag's first observations. During the mid-20th century, average per capita incomes in poorer states grew faster than per capita incomes in richer states, closing the gap in average incomes between the two by about 1.8% per year.

This happened because in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, people migrated from poorer states to richer states. This migration increased the supply of labor in richer states, which caused local wages to rise more slowly. Conversely, cross-state migration decreased labor supply in poorer states, and helped buoy wages and incomes there.

Drawings by Jonathan Neeley.

But something happened in the last few decades. Fewer people were moving from poor to rich states.

The graphs below show the relationship between average state income and state population growth in 1940-1960 (left panel) and 1990-2010 (right).

Let's look at California in these graphs as an example. In 1940, people in California had high incomes (the state had a high "logged per capita income"). So from 1940-1960, California also had high population growth rate--people moved there to earn those high incomes themselves.

In 1990-2010, people living in California still had high incomes relative to people in other states. But its population growth rate had fallen dramatically--fewer people were moving to California. Why the change? The authors' argument is that restrictive land-use policies have kept people out.

All charts from Ganong and Shoag's paper.

And, as you might expect, this fall in migration slowed the rate at which incomes in rich and poor states came together. Between 1990 and 2010, income convergence was less than half what the authors observed before; just before the Great Recession, it had slowed to a crawl.

The graphs below show this. The left panel plots the relationship between initial state income in 1940 ("log income per capita"), and state income growth in 1940-1960. As we'd expect, the richer the state was initially, the lower its income growth--because lots of workers moved to those rich states, increasing their labor supplies, which tempered wage growth. Conversely, the lower the state's starting per capita income, the faster its income grew.

But this stopped happening in the 1990-2010 period, shown in the right panel. Both states that were rich and poor in 1990 experienced similar income growth in the 20 years that followed.

Mississippi is a good example of this. You can see that Mississippians had low incomes in 1940, but per capita income grew rapidly between 1940 and 1960, compared to other states. In other words, Mississippi was part of a broader trend during this period: a shrinking gap between rich and poor states. In 1990, the state still had the lowest per capita income of all states but its income growth rate was relatively worse--posting a growth rate barely better than already-wealthy Massachusetts. The result? More inequality across rich and poor states.
The role of land use regulations

To get at the role of land-use law, the authors created a way to measure how intense a state's land use regulations are. They track the number of local appeals court records that mention the phrase "land-use," scaled by the size of each metro. Unsurprisingly, the frequency of mentions has increased over time:

The authors show that, even accounting for the amount of available land, rich metros that developed more-restrictive land-use rules built less new housing, reduced migration among lower-income people, and curbed existing state trends towards per capita income convergence. This not only shunted the poor into low-wage states, it also exacerbated US inequality because the wealthy and educated are still streaming into rich areas. Migration is still worth it to them, as they are able to pay high rents and mortgages. As the authors write,

Had convergence continued apace through 2010, the increase in hourly wage inequality from 1980 to 2010 would have been approximately 10% smaller. The US is increasingly characterized by segregation along economic dimensions, with limited access for most workers to America's most productive cities and their amenities.
In other words, allowing for more housing (and more affordable housing) in places like suburban Washington could lower US inequality to levels seen in the mid-twentieth century. That seems worth the effort, or at least worth considering.


Rent in our region is expensive. Does that mean it's unaffordable?

It's no secret that rent prices in the Washington region are very high. But when we talk about affordable places to live, we often forget that there are two components to affordability: there's how much we spend on rent, but also how much we earn in income.

Rent here might be pricey, but is it expensive? Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Typical surveys like this one by Zumper usually find that a select group of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Washington have the most expensive apartment prices. According to these measurements, Washington has the fourth-most expensive rent of any large city in the country.

But if rent is $1000 in two different cities, but the average income in City A is 50% higher than in City B, then residents of City A can afford housing more easily, generally speaking. A recent article by Greater Greater Washington contributor Kate Rabinowitz demonstrated how cheaper cities also often lack good-paying jobs.

Here's how various metro areas stack up

To better evaluate this relationship, I looked at households across major metropolitan areas and how much of their income they spend on rent.

Two terms that are critical to understand renting affordability are rent-burdened households (those than spend over 30% of income on rent) and severely rent-burdened households (those that spend over 50% of their income on rent). For my own analysis, I chose only to look at rent-burdened households.

I also did not include median income in this analysis, as large cities in the United States have a large amount of income inequality, so median income does not necessarily reflect the experience of low-income households.

Additionally, I chose to use Census's Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) for data samples, rather than just large cities proper since most Americans live outside of major cities. Here are the 33 metropolitan areas with a population of above two million:

Graph by the author.

The results are very different from what we might expect. Cities typically associated with high rent, such as Washington (7th place), Seattle (10th place), Boston (12th place), and San Francisco (16th) have below-average numbers of rent-burdened households. Rent burdens in Texan cities are among the lowest, while the places where the most people use more than 30% of their income to cover rent are in California and Florida.

For reference, although many cities have significantly lower rent burdens than the US average, over half of renting US households spend above 30% of income on rent. Consequently, over 45% of renting households are rent-burdened in even the most affordable cities.

At the other end of the spectrum, over 60% of households are rent-burdened in the most unaffordable metropolitan areas, such as Miami and Riverside.

Although these measurements help better explain housing affordability, there are a few things that this analysis does not take into consideration.

  1. This analysis only looks at renting households. Some metropolitan areas may have a larger share of owned households, which are difficult to compare to renting households.
  2. The data measure the total number of rent-burdened households; they say nothing about households that are severely rent-burdened. That is to say that these measurements tell us about the breadth of the problem, not the depth.
  3. This analysis does not evaluate apartment size or household occupancy. Accordingly, residents of cities with expensive rent may make the "economic choice" to live in single apartments with a high number of occupants (roommates, multi-generational households, etc.).
  4. The Census's measure of rent-burden does describe how housing subsidies, rent control, and other mechanisms affect households' ability to afford rent. In all likelihood, liberal housing policies in cities like New York, Washington, and San Francisco decrease the number of households that are rent-burdened.

Washington DC's relatively high incomes may make it more affordable in comparison to economically depressed cities. This does not mean, however, that all households in the region have equal opportunities to find affordable housing, especially those below the median income.

As income influences affordability, higher salaries should be part of the larger debate of housing affordability in the region and across the country—especially since incomes have stagnated for most workers, while the price of housing continues to rise.


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.

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