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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Affordable housing: it's not just one element, it's many elements

One of the ideas in the Washington City Paper "How to Fix Everything"issue is on affordable housing.  It's written by Joe Sternlieb, director of the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

He writes that the best way to focus on affordable housing ("Stop Building Affordable Housing. Buy It Instead") is to focus on preserving existing affordable housing, by buying apartment buildings for sale, and putting easements on a certain proportion of the housing to maintain affordability permanently.

He makes the point that this will maintain a greater stock of affordable housing than the focus on inclusionary zoning requirements requiring that a certain amount of newly produced housing be affordable.

Note that the Montgomery Housing Partnership owns some buildings, including in the heart of Silver Spring, that have mixed income apartments that function exactly as Joe suggests.  (MHP press release, "Montgomery Housing Partnership Brings Business Community Together to Reflect on 20 Years of Providing Affordable Housing in Montgomery County")

Of course he is right.  But it misses the point in at least one respect.  You have to engage in many policies and practices in order to build and maintain a stock of affordable housing, one policy, one idea, even his, isn't enough.

But he is right that advocates fighting the inclusionary zoning battle missed that the "real war" was the overall loss of already existing "affordable"housing, which as the real estate market heated up, was repriced.   The problems of course were abetted by the conversion of apartment buildings to condominiums, which further reduced the stock of rental housing.

A balanced policy for producing and maintaining affordable housing involves at least seven policies:

(1) portfolio investment in existing multiunit buildings to maintain housing as permanently affordable--in DC, Jubilee Housing and Community Preservation* and Development Corporation are examples of nonprofits that do this (* in the public housing field, preservation doesn't mean historic preservation but preservation of affordability), WC Smith Company, a for-profit real estate company, has similar projects in their portfolio also (see "With project near H Street, Enterprise Community Partners offers vision for affordable housing" from the Washington Post), Arlington Housing Corporation and others do this around the region, etc.;

(2) support for community land trusts and cooperatives to extract land from the market to maintain affordability (one of the problems with this is by reducing the upside of appreciation potential for property, people do lose some potential wealth benefits);

(3) putting easements on apartment buildings so that a certain proportion of the units remain affordable, as Joe Sternlieb suggests;

(4) providing density bonuses and other incentives for the production of affordable housing as part of new developments (which is called "inclusionary zoning," and for which Montgomery County, Maryland is a national leader);

Brown's Court, Alley SaleLeft:  Brown's Court is accessible from the 100 block of 6th Street SE in Capitol Hill.  This dwellings are on the "interior" of the block.  Some are on separate lots, others are on the backside of street fronting properties.

Note as an aside that there needs to be a system developed to sell/rent these units that works with individual properties, but doesn't put the responsibility on the developers for running the process.  E.g., in Montgomery County, the Housing Partnership may buy for-sale units in bulk and then rent them.  I have suggested that the city set up the equivalent of a real estate sales operation, just as how groups like the Mayhood Company are retained by developers to market their condominiums, because they are good at it.

(5) allowing accessory dwelling units and accessory apartment units in single family houses and lots--the new Zoning Code will be either/or, but not both; many houses and lots, like ours, could accommodate both--the Office of Planning has waffled on this because of opposition in some quarters.

Adding this kind of housing allows people to rent housing more cheaply while living in settings other than large "multiunit" buildings, it spreads additional housing throughout the city and throughout neighborhoods (ideally it would be focused in areas served well by transit).  It also may make buying property more possible by some people who would otherwise be priced out of the market, so that they need additional income from the property, which they can get by renting out ADUs and apartments (also see, A Guide to Building a Backyard Cottage in Southeast Seattle, and the Income Property TV Show on HGTV).

Right: photo of an "abandominium" by John H. Muller. 

(6) monitoring privately owned multiunit buildings and stepping in when necessary to ensure that properties are maintained and that housing doesn't become decrepit or vacant, as discussed in the blog entry "Deeper thinking/programming on weak residential housing markets is required: DC example, Anacostia."

(7) which can mean, stepping in and taking properties over through receivership, when they are mismanaged.  This is a problem in Prince George's County and has been in DC.  See "Pr. George’s begins to address ways to preserve affordable housing" from the Post about evident problems with certain properties in the county and the lack of a procedure, policy, and system to deal with it.

My biggest lesson that benefits from hindsight: without advanced planning, when circumstances change, you're screwed

In 2000, the city's planning function was pretty weak, but rebuilding, after having been neglected for many years.  But advocates were unprepared for the acceleration of development that we would begin experiencing.

Not having housing policies in place focused on affordability, not having neighborhood plans, not having a parks master plan, and other more rigorous planning and urban design and transportation planning frameworks in place meant that a lot has happened without any means to correct the faults.

These problems continue today, and affordability in housing is merely one element.  Although recently the city produced a housing plan (press release, report--Bridges to Opportunity: A New Housing Strategy for DC), although a housing strategy was produced at the tail end of the Williams Administration, and was mostly ignored by the next Administration (see also "In District, affordable-housing plan hasn't delivered" from the Washington Post).

Note also that the operation of the DC Housing Production Trust Fund (DC Department of Housing and Community Development), and its provision of financial support to various housing developments, is a national best practice.

-- EPA report, Affordable Housing and Smart Growth: Making the Connection
-- NTHP report by Donovan Rypkema, Historic Preservation and Affordable Housing: The Missed Connection
-- Shelterforce Magazine/National Housing Institute

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At 7:32 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I'm going to agree with you that when you don't have a plan this is the result.

And I'm glad to hear the HP trust fund is a national model.

That being said, the rest is a mishmash and the Gray housing plan is a steaming mishmash.

To focus on one issue is reductionist, but I think the problem is focusing on what segment of affordable housing you want. Gray's report, from memory, wantd to target the 30 to 60 of median income market. In real dollars somewhere between 20K and 60K with a family.

There isn't much for keeping that segment in the District proper. There is a lot of arguments for keeping that segment in the area, because otherwise costs will rise.

(and I'd strongly suggest Tony WIlliams knew that without a "plan" that would be the result")

IN fact, it would be better to give tax credits in that group -- you'll notice that almost all of them have to pay a 10% income tax -- and increase the threshold for the DC income tax that spend more money on housing.

To go back to plans, as we've talked about, lack of one meant that you can't remove the section 8/public housing in the Columbia Heights/14thst area during the 2007+ timeframe.

Couple other points I think IZ is not as great as people say. I suspect it is a large reason why MoCo is slowing going downhill. Also, it is prime motivator for killing the zoning update, as it does mean poor people will be moving into that new development down the street.

Same is true of the ADU rules.

In fact, the biggest thing DC could do to increase housing supply is loosen up the restrictive landlord-tenant laws and force condos to do shorter term leases.

So I'd say:

1. Income tax credits and/or increasing the threshold for the tax.

2. deregulate the landlord tenant laws

3. Remove public housing / section 8 from growing areas and increse density.

At 9:46 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I am curious about your link between IZ and MoCo. More please...

2. I think ADUs will mostly support people with higher income, but on a relative basis, the housing will be an addition to the stock of "affordable" housing.

Look where the places are that they can be accommodated, neighborhoods like Takoma, Manor Park, Capitol Hill, H Street, Brookland...

Since legality for the units is dependent on the primary home being owner-occupied, there is a lot of motivation for the owner to rent to what we might call socialized tenants.

3. We discussed your point 3 earlier. As usual, you express it more succinctly than I. I am not sure about removing section 8/PH from those areas, but definitely about increasing density, mixed tenure.

The land is poorly utilized given today's demand, and the increased demand can be monetized to support provision of social housing.

otoh, people of means don't want to live with people not of means, for a variety of reasons. It's not so much "racism" as much as it is classicism and socialization and mores e.g., the arguments in _Future Once Happened Here_ and _Life at the Bottom_.

4. relating to your point 3, I was trying to add that as an additional point, but I couldn't figure out how I wanted to express it. It was both like the CH Village situation, but also to use DC property more purposefully to add lower cost housing in certain situations, e.g., above the fire and police stations on U St. NW.

and to not blow opportunities to add housing when the opportunities are presented, like with the rebuild of the Safeway on Wisconsin Ave. in Upper Georgetown/Glover Park. (The Palisades is another example.)

Even if it isn't likely to be cheap housing. The thing is that adding housing in desirable areas will decrease a wee bit pressures for gentrification in potentially attractive but now lower income areas.

5. And I was trying to think about how to work in the counter proposal that won a CNU award, about how to add density and revenue generating market rate properties to NYC Housing Authority sites, as a counterproposal to the current plans to just lease off the land (parking lots and such).

6. The point about regional displacement of the poorest, that's a toughie, politically fraught.

Very good subtle point you made about the deliberateness of not having a plan.

It reminds me of an incredible story in the Gazette from 2004 or 2003, two full inside pages, evaluating the impact of DC's "public housing revitalization program" which reduced the number of units for the poorest, leading to a lot of displacement to PG County, and the subsequent problems there, which are still manifest.

At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

not sure about this. A lot of what we call "historic building stock" was built before planning as we know it today- before "zoning" and was basically just rubber stamped- if someone wanted to build they would just build. I have a really big problem with the way DC and other cities allot massive urban projects to single developers- they almost always result in a super bland and sterile looking repetitive collection of structures and even when they try to inject variety into a paroject it winds up looking fake or worse. I am more in favor of breaking up areas into smaller lots and forcing developers to build smaller footprint buildings. We definitely need more alley dwellings in DC- this is a super efficient use of the land when you cannot go up high. However- "planning " and neighborhood NIMBYism prevents this kind of logical destiny. We have a glut of people who all want to have 3 cars and live near Metro and never use it. Come to my neighborhood on CH and I will point out to you all of the hosueholds where they have 3 or even more cars next to eastern Market. No ownder they are fighting Hines- they will not have room for all of their cars if we get more people or foot traffic in the area. We need generational change badly in some parts of DC- I am convinced this as at root with the problems we speak of here.

At 2:00 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DC had a very specific set of building regulations in place from the creation of the city. It's why the rowhouse dominates the L'Enfant City.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Nineteenth-Century Building Regulations in Washington, D. C.
Alison K. Hoagland
Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C.
Vol. 52, [The 52nd separately bound book] (1989), pp. 57-77

+ the impact of pattern books

But party walls were key.

The "only" thing people didn't really do was only construct in brick. But in 1877, in the L'Enfant City, the proscriptions against frame construction began to be seriously enforced.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes you are correct- but within this basic constraint a hell of a lot of variety was allowed- and now days it seems as though this kind of creativity is stifled. A lot of people built their own houses by hand- my family among them- and I doubt that the city was as fanatical and that neighborhoods were are eagle eyed as they are today. It seems to be that much of what passes for planning is not real planning it is micromanaging to the point of ridiculousness. In other words- if the present day people running the HPRB and ANCs in this had their way most if not all of the historic housing we have remaining would have NEVER been allowed to bew built. It simply goes against their brand of thinking completely.

At 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is most hilarious is that many of the most beautiful early houses in places like Capitol Hill and in Georgetown were made not by professional "architects" or even builders but by regular working class stiffs who were just do-it-yourselfer and great with tools- many of these people were craftsmen who worked in the construction trades but not the kind of people that these stuffy elitist real estate people or these home architecture writers foam at the mouth about- they would not be seen int he same room with these dirty guys . Truth be told- DC had much more of a blue collar base than is commonly assumed. I read these architecture writers in the Hill Rag and laugh [ LMAO] because they seem to have no idea that these guys were not building a Queen Anne" this or that they were simply making a house and using what was available to them in the supply houses at this time.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

that's why pattern books and a stock of available architectural treatments, from tin cornices to architectural brickwork, to wood turnings... were so important.

The other thing is that small builder-craftsman had only up to a few lots to work with at a time, accounting for the high degree of variability in the finished product, and such great variety on each block.

Compare that to one of the area's first production builders, Wardman.

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

(I'd love to get your thoughts on this)

But it does look as if the city preferred a project where they can keep the apartments in "affordable" move for a 30 years, rather than one where they just built cheap apartments.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thing about Wardman is that his houses have been built with high quality materials and they age very well. They also take advantage of local quirks of topography and vary their desins for such which most modern developers cannot seem to do at all. Wardman used the most up to date designs and thinking on how a townhome could be built and done in an economic way to make life more easy and comfortable. Even the idea of a back porch was unique to make life easier with our brutal summers. My dad told me the families would often sleep in the wooden back areas on summer nights. This was all before air conditioning. People would also go to movie theatres and stay all day long because they had a/c.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Anon -- re the Wardmans and the back porch, etc. Know that I am not an architectural historian, but I think of the Wardman style as updating the rowhouse design with some of the elements of Craftsman style.

We think of the bungalow as the primary example of the Craftsman style house.

But I think that on the interior and in terms of the addition of porches front and back, that the Wardman rowhouse has a feel very similar to the Craftsman/bungalow.

... of course, we have a bungalow without a decent sized front porch, one of the only negatives of our house. And our back "porch" appears to have been built from the get go as an additional room (the floors haven't subsided and the room has a radiator). (Our next door neighbor's bungalow has a converted back porch and yes, the floor subsides.)

One of the other bungalow houses on the street has an incredible screened in back porch. Most of the bungalows on our street don't have great front porches, with a couple exceptions, because they have the style where the front facade projects but has a notch for the entry.

But there are many examples of great front porches throughout the neighborhood, and some day I hope to build an expanded front porch, either full, or more likely, a partial asymmetrical porch.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie -- I will be doing an entry on that case I think.

There were some tough alternatives.

But I wonder how important the "popularize/fundrise" element was, a kind of populist real estate proposal, that gave the winner a political edge.

That being said, Ellis Dev. is already doing projects in the neighborhood.

But then, so is JBG, and not just the neighborhood, but elsewhere in the city, and they do very good work which should be acknowledged and rewarded.

I don't think the commercial building the Ellis project is doing on 7th St. is all that attractive.

The Howard re-do was very important though. A real contribution.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

yes, the fundrise aspect is interesting and hasn't been commented on.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

anon. -- another Craftsman/Arts & Crafts element common to Wardman style rowhouses is the "built in."

Cabinets and such. I haven't been in a Wardman for awhile, and for a long time I wasn't into the "decorative arts" (until we got our bungalow) so I don't have photos.

But when we were looking, there are rowhouses in Brightwood--I don't know if they are Wardman or not, a little later than the period we associate with his production--these houses are a bit more Tudor in style, there was a rowhouse on Gallatin with great cabinet built ins, linen closets, etc., in the halls.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

the fundrise thing is key. Something I hadn't considered except for marginal projects. But it's going to rearticulate community involvement in a way that will recast RFP scoring systems...

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there are some lovely Tudor style townhomes on the north side of 14th street just before it halts at Walter Reed on the east side of the street that are across from the school playground going down the hill that are just lovely- this was a later style- I think it was popular right before WW2. The details on the facades are superb- I have always dreamed of getting one of these but then again...


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