Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Backwards thinking on housing policy: renters vs. owners

Figure from DC Comprehensive Plan Housing Element
Figure from the Housing Element of the DC Comprehensive Land Use Plan

The Washington City Paper Housing Complex blog reports, in "Marion Barry wants to ban apartment buildings in Ward 8" that former Mayor and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry is concerned about the mix of housing offered in Ward 8 because:

According to Barry, it's all about encouraging homeownership, which stands at only 24 percent of residents in Ward 8. Instead of developing apartment buildings, he wants to get all the boarded-up houses renovated and occupied, with city-subsidized home loans to help people buy them. Because it's homeowners, not renters, who help improve the area.

"Renters, by their very nature, don't keep up their neighborhoods like homeowners would," Barry tells me. "Renters will allow drug dealers in the neighborhood. It's a fact. It's a doggone fact."

While I don't focus that much on housing policy generally, lately I have been considering more deeply the problem of single use zoning as it relates to building robust and resilient neighborhoods.

For the most part residential zones are comprised of a majority of the same type of housing, e.g., all rowhouses or all single family houses, or all apartment buildings, and there is limited mixing of different types of housing, except as a result of pre-zoning practices where apartment buildings and different types of single housing were mixed in neighborhoods, based on distance from transit.

In today's neighborhoods it becomes very difficult to have a diversity of housing tenants by household type and income, because only one type of housing is provided.

As a result neighborhoods can lose their primacy (value of "location") in the regional residential landscape, as housing built for a particular type of resident in a particular kind of economy may not be well positioned to be competitive when times change. This is true of neighborhoods everywhere, in the center city, in suburbs, in the exurbs, depending on the nature of changes in exogenous conditions such as the price of gasoline, location of employment centers, transit connections, and the type of housing and whether or not it appeals to new cohorts as current owners age out.

Barry also says this:

"The American dream is to own a home. And black people have not gotten the American dream as much as they need to," Barry says. "Somebody can rent for 20 years, and has no equity in their unit at all."

And that's the real point. And banning apartment buildings doesn't address that reality.

It's hard to say if Councilmember Barry is right or wrong because while housing ownership is significantly lower in his ward compared to the rest of the city, because of changes in national housing policy (elimination of a goodly section of the mortgage repurchase market, increase in downpayment requirements, higher credit score requirements, possible elimination of the mortgage interest deduction, possible reduction in the amount of money available for loans, etc.) for a variety of reasons, housing ownership rates are likely to decline, and therefore there is going to be a greater demand--not less--for apartment housing (see e.g., "Apartments are the development du jour among builders" from the Los Angeles Times).

That being said, Councilmember Barry is likely right that Ward 8 has an imbalance of types of housing which doesn't always serve the ward, its stability and its ability to improve.

At the same time, the increased value of land located within the city, and the development of land outside of the core of the city as inventory of developable or more intensifiable land diminishes (for example the development of the St. Elizabeths campus for the US Department of Homeland Security, which further drives intensification, e.g., "Developer seizing upon St. Elizabeths as catalyst" from the Washington Examiner) makes the provision of affordable single lot housing increasingly unlikely, especially housing located near high quality transit service.

1. Developing a housing policy for the Ward* (and for the City**) focused on providing a variety of types of housing and a variety of types of "land tenure" systems would be the first course of action, complemented by other policies and programs including:

2. Developing programs to build civic identity within renters so that they are "better neighbors." (kind of like a "Neighborhood Housing Services" program for renters, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, );

3. Develop programs to assist renters in saving money so that they can purchase housing. One such program is lease-option ("rent to own");

4. Provide different types of land tenure and ownership systems such as co-operative housing, co-housing (one of the first in the U.S. is in Takoma DC), and separating housing ownership from land ownership through land trust relationships, to reduce the cost of housing overall;

5. At the same time, provide capacity building assistance to organizations and individuals so that they can manage housing in these kinds of relationships--it's a lot harder to collectively manage a property than it is to manage a single property.

* Note that DC's Housing Element reads pretty well, but it doesn't get at the "granular" level in terms of diversity of housing types within neighborhoods and at more fine grained policy, although the fine grain of policy and actions should really come from a separate Housing Master Plan anyway, because the Housing Element of the Comp. Plan is supposed to set the overall goals, policies, and objectives, and the Master Plan the specifics.

Noting the figure at the top of the entry, neighborhoods in Ward 8 are defined as either distressed or transitioning. A housing policy for those neighborhoods ought to be focused on improving their position on the ladder of stability without fomenting displacement. I would argue that in the context of the respective Area Elements for the Ward (Far Northeast and Southeast Area Element, Far Southeast Southwest Area Element, and the Lower Anacostia Waterfront Near Southwest Area Element) that this is inadequately addressed.

** This is also the justification for allowing infill housing of different types to be built in extant neighborhoods, to allow for a greater economic diversity and to build more resilience into neighborhoods.

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