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Posts about Public Housing


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

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

Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

The promise of mixed income

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author.

But... combining two extremes can lead to problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One possible solution: The middle class

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

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

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

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

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


Events roundup: Movies and more

Take an evening to relax and enjoy a documentary (or two)! The Summer in the City film series kicks off tomorrow with an illuminating look at public housing in America in the 1950s and 60s. If movies aren't your thing, RSVP for a reception to honor 50 years of the Urban Mass Transit Act.

Photo by Pruitt-Igoe Myth on Flickr.

Pruitt-Igoe on the big screen: Watch the tale of the infamous St. Louis public housing development and the residents who share their experiences and challenges living in public housing in the 50s and 60s. This film is the first of five films the Housing for All campaign is showing this summer. It starts at 6 pm, Wednesday, July 2 at the Southwest Library at 900 Wesley Place SW.

After the jump: Transportation Tuesday at APTA, more movies, and a women's health and biking workshop...

Happy 50th, UMTA! The American Public Transportation Association will be hosting a presentation and discussion to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964. The act has played a pivotal role in the mass transit renaissance in the US in the last half-century.

The event is July 8th at 1666 K Street NW, 11th Floor. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 5:00 pm, with the presentation and discussion to run from 5:30 pm to 6:30 pm. Please RSVP to Cynthia Owens at or 202-496-4851.

The Legend of Disco Dan: This film follows infamous graffiti artist Cool "Disco" Dan as he discusses the changing city he once marked. The documentary highlights the culture of DC during the crack epidemic and the evolution of Go-Go. See the film at the MLK Library, 901 G Street NW, on Wednesday, June 9th at 6:00 pm.

Biking and Women's health: Ladies! Join WABA's Women & Bicycles initiative to talk biking and women's health in Georgetown. Women's Health Expert and Roll Model Laurie from Proteus Bicycles is hosting a skillshare on women's health and biking on Sunday, July 13 at 1:00 pm at the Georgetown Library, 3260 R St. NW.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


Is Barry Farm going Dutch?

Here's something you don't see every day; a dozen urban planners from the Netherlands walking through Barry Farm, a large public housing complex in DC's Ward 8. Through a collaboration of the Dutch Embassy and the city, Barry Farm and Northwest One (the area around First and K Sts. NW) are receiving the attention of leading new urbanists.

Photo by author.

An amalgamation of six companies that combine the skills of architects, planners, and social scientists, members of the "GoDutch Consortium" were in DC to run workshops and meet with residents to develop a model of lasting sustainability. Urban renewal in the Netherlands is "not just about bricks but about the social" and is "three dimensional," according to members of the Consortium.

Diminished municipal budgets on both sides of the Atlantic have created a hard-edged reality where policy makers realize that to repeat the failed social policies of the past fifty years would be not only socially disastrous but financially ruinous.

The "national government's policy of building housing for poor people stacked all together, sociologically and culturally" has not worked, according to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who was subdued as he addressed the group.

Originally settled by emancipated former slaves, Barry Farm is a hilly 25 acres that holds 432 public housing units, more than two dozen of which were boarded up on the recent walk through. The neighborhood was selected as one of four New Communities during Mayor Anthony Williams' administration, making it the focus of a proposed public-private development partnership. But Barry Farm activists rejected the Fenty administration's effort to begin the redevelopment process.

Photo by author.
The first phase of the $550 million development plan is now underway. A total of 60 replacement units are planned to come online at Sheridan Station on Sheridan Road SE, and Matthews Memorial Terrace on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, within the next 6 months for Barry Farm residents.

Eventually each existing home will be replaced, with current residents of Barry Farm guaranteed the right to return, because "they have nowhere else to go," according to Bishop Matthew Hudson of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church. The redevelopment of Barry Farm is expected to deliver 1500 mixed-income units, according to Reyna Alorro, Project Manager for Barry Farm within the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

"Cities are continually interchangeable, because of the whole concept of cities changing," said Arie Vooburg. His native Rotterdam is similar to DC with its poor separated and "isolated on the southside" due to a waterway. "If you want to have a dynamic city, a city that can adapt to change, you must do it in a physical structure but also in its people."

Photo by author.
"One of the biggest challenges is the training of our people," Hudson said. This past Sunday he welcomed members of the Consortium to his church. He praised the group and told members of his congregation they "are here to work with you, not for you." Barry Farm residents embraced the planners at church, giving them hugs, and greeted the planners with pats on the back as they toured the neighborhood on foot Monday.

"How do you say? Ah, yes, merry-go-round," said Vooburg. "Each program on its own is good, but together they don't work." The Consortium seeks to maximize the triple bottom line in redeveloping Barry Farm. To do this, there must be a human capital program, a physical revitalization plan, and a redevelopment and finance strategy that can withstand fluctuations in the credit market and changes in administrations.

These problems have undermined the redevelopment of not just public housing in the United States but "social housing" communities across the world. For new urbanism to evolve and succeed, there must be a degree of certainty in planning that is repellent to political or market pressures.

Behind the United Kingdom and Japan, the Netherlands is the third largest investor in the United States and fourth largest investor in DC with $350 million in total investment, said Renée Jones-Bos, the Dutch Ambassador to the US. The city is not paying the Consortium; it has paid its own way, offering its services and expertise in an attempt to establish stronger connections with the city.

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