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.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Keeping families in cities: safety; schools; space + money

In "What Happens When Millennials Age Out of Micro-Lofts?," Next City interviews the author of Downtown Families: Discovering How Cities Support Urban Family Living.

I aver the issue of "aging out" of the city as people age and the nature of their household changes is nothing new.

I first was exposed to it on a tour of the Warehouse District in Cleveland in 2002, on a field tour during the National Trust for Historic Preservation national conference. 

In your mid-30s, you don't go out drinking so much and noise at night tends to be more bothersome. So living in an apartment above a night-life oriented street becomes less appealing (also see "Daypart and age-group planning in mixed use (commercial) districts" from 2009).

Singles committed to living in the gritty city can deal with safety issues somewhat, and young marrieds don't have to worry about schools or having a yard and a bigger place (space) if they don't have any children.

Willingness to deal with grit and crime changes as household characteristics change.  Plus, as you get older, "tiredness" from dealing with municipal problems increases and if the situation doesn't appear likely to change, moving out of the city becomes more likely.

Whether or not you can retain families (and in a way this is a financially bad choice for cities as the income to the city from a household is far exceeded by the cost to the city of paying for public schooling) is also shaped by whether or not the city is a strong or a weak real estate market.

Generally, housing costs increase as you move from apartments to single family housing, and the price differential can be significant, let alone the issue of whether or not there is a decent inventory of available housing.

In a strong market, high prices make retaining families much more difficult unless household incomes are extremely high, because the cost of housing + children + day care is significant.

If there are general public safety issues, people will move out of the city regardless of housing availability.  If there are general problems with the quality of public schooling, people will move out the city.

Note this presumes that families with choice will still prefer semi/detached houses surrounded by decent sized yards.  It's only dense, hyper expensive places, like New York City or to some extent Vancouver, where the nature of the housing market steers families to apartment buildings.

Cost of housing.  The biggest issue in retaining family households in strong market cities like DC is the cost of housing. Rowhouses in the core cost $1 million or more.  At today's interest rates, that requires a mortgage+tax+insurance payment of close to $5,000/month  (think about how much the cost was when interest rates were 2.5 to 5 times greater than they are today).

Some neighborhoods well placed but undiscovered may have housing costs significantly less, say around $500,000, but as housing inventory shrinks, prices are rising in these neighborhoods too.

Schools.  In the outer city, at least in Ward 3, traditional public schools are quite successful.  But in those areas, housing costs are equally high as in the core, if not significantly more because houses are bigger.

In outer city areas where public schools lag most households have access to charter schools, which may or may not be much better than traditional schools, but people generally have higher satisfaction and confidence in those options.

Pre-school/day care: availability and cost. One advantage possessed by DC compared to other communities is publicly-funded Pre-K, starting at three years old. This means families can offload expensive daycare onto the public and charter school system.

Public safety.  If people experience a great deal of crime, if they have the choice, they will move out of the city as they build their family, because of their concerns.

Multiunit family living.  In 2006, The Vancouver Courier community newspaper ran a story, "In the City," about families with children living in the downtown, often in high-rise buildings (as opposed to garden style apartments).

It's an article worth reading because it shows that with the right mix of amenities--schools, parks, places to go and things to do--and high housing costs, people may be induced to shift their preferences and accept multiunit housing options.

One of the familes featured in the story has 6 children, and they live in a 1,300 s.f. townhouse. (The average DC rowhouse has far fewer than 8 inhabitants, and tends to be that size or larger.)

The Spino Family, from the US, chose to move to Vancouver to live as an urban family, after observing friends doing so in Sweden.  They searched across North America for similar conditions, and chose Vancouver.

From the article:
For 39-year-old Spino, an elementary teacher recently hired on the Vancouver School Board's teacher-on-call list, downtown is the ideal place to raise children. "I don't see the need for having rooms in houses that you don't use. I don't see why you have two spare bedrooms for visitors that you just use to store boxes. I don't think that's efficient. I don't think that's a responsible way to live," he says. "You don't need that space. You don't need skis in the garage or a snowmobile somewhere and stuff in the attic-all that consumerism collecting. I don't think we're occupying a lot of space here. This high-density living is good for the city. It's good for the environment. It's good for the children-it's a fantastic way to live." ... 
They own one car. Otherwise, the Spinos walk or ride bikes kept in a bike locker. They don't have to go far for entertainment. Granville Island, English Bay, Stanley Park, the aquarium, shops, and restaurants are nearby.
In Vancouver, it helps that the government planning process ensures that there are community amenities including parks (downtown is already close to the water), schools, and other services. Most other cities haven't figured this out.  Also see "Pack up the kids - we're movin' downtown! from the Toronto Globe and Mail and "Families say sacrifices to live in downtown Vancouver well worth it" from Global TV.

-- "Downtown living: for families? : the Vancouver, BC urban livability experience and lessons for other cities," MIT master's thesis, 2008

The pedestrianized center of Essen, Germany does not include residential housing, but there are a number of playground facilities--constructed of the highest quality materials--installed throughout the area. 

For example, DC's downtown park and plaza spaces lack any playground accommodations and there aren't many public schools located within the central business district or the neighborhoods on its outskirts.

If you get schools, safety and space right, the real issue is housing cost.  However, with escalating housing costs in Downtown Vancouver, family living has become less prevalent, abetted also by the lack of production of family-sized units, and the cost to the city to provide additional schools, and leasing costs price out day care facilities.

Policy changes.  Figuring out an appropriate set of policies to encourage the production of larger units as well as how to lower construction costs is an important issue.

But so is deciding how many families a city can afford, compared to the cost of servicing them.  Even a city like DC, which collects 100% of the local (state) income tax on households, "loses money" on a household when it pays to educate them.

Some practical advice comes from this All About Cities piece, "Urban families after the great reset."

Multiunit housing developers aren't developing buildings with internal amenities for families.  For example, while multiunit housing developers in strong markets are developing buildings with a wide range of amenities from rooftop pools and dog walking accommodations, outdoor barbecues and exhibition kitchens, outside of garden apartment complexes, I haven't come across articles ("5 Apartment Amenities to Incorporate in 2015," Multihousing News) highlighting center city apartment buildings with out of the ordinary amenities for children and families.

Of course, another option is to pay towards the development of common amenities serving multiple buildings in a subdistrict of the city.

And maybe, still, mobility.  It's difficult to get around with young children between strollers, supplies, and basic wrangling.  Without amenities and services easily accessible, living in the core can be a problem for young families.   Between bikes, car share, and transit, and probably package delivery, people do it, but it isn't easy.

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At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Been thinking about this some recently. I know a lot of families in cities right now. Some of that is just proclivity to peers who like cities. So they've stayed in NYC or SF or Seattle or Chicago to raise their children. It's also interesting to see how their entertainment evolves. I think about my parents in their 30s and 40s: the golf leagues, the bowling leagues, the progressive dinner parties.

What I see in NYC and SF is sort of the adult version of life in our 20s: getting sitters so you can go see favorite bands, getting sitters to go to evening fundraisers and work events, family friendly brunches, etc.

That's definitely the SF/NYC line. While SF has more single family housing than NYC does. Or row houses. And adjacent communities: Berkeley, Oakland, the Peninsula.

What's particularly interesting is friends from high school. Ones who I always assumed would stay in the suburbs: now they have kids and live in Chicago. Some have been transferred elsewhere and others have chosen walkable older suburbs closer in.

What I don't see is a lot of new houses in greenfield developments, or the leisure activities of our parents or grandparents.

People are definitely evolving. There's something new emerging.

At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant posting Richard- again you prove to all of us why you are so much more perceptive than newcomers like Alpert who misses out on critical issues like this one. Big problem here- as DC's schools are often sub par and highly segregated . It is simply dangerous for most families who are not hard core ghetto culture to send their kids to DC schools- the kids will get the shit kicked out of them. Believe me - this is a fact and few are willing to face up to it or even mention the truth. However we are starting to see some positive changes. John Tyler is now safe for most kids to attend and other schools are beginning to admit kids who are not from indigent family [ more like pseudo- family as many of these kids come from a no-father background and single mom in charge]. While I am not implying that all kids from this background are bad- it is a fact that this sort of environment is not conducive to social advancement or a college degree. This problem must be tackled. I have a feeling that parents themselves are going to mass together and send their kids to a school at once- as was done around the CH area. The city will continue to refuse to do anything at all in encouraging affluent families to stay on. And they continue to teach and African nationalist styled cirriculum that simply does nothing to prepapre a kid for the realities of the planet we live on and the future workplace.

At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

In Mortimer Caplan's book (he was a founder of Neighbors Inc.), he discusses the problems his white kids had in school, getting beat up etc. They wouldn't tell him about it, but yes, it is an issue.

Last week I think, Jay Mathews' column was about a particular teacher's book, and his recommendations for dealing with disruptive students. Mathews didn't think the recommendations were particularly noteworthy.

But my few interactions with teachers in DC at the high school, they are very much focused about the problems of disruptive students, how they ruin the environment in terms of being able to teach or learn, and how the students aren't taken out of those classrooms, but just get put back in.

This is the kind of stuff the book was covering, but personally, I think some of the recommendations were probably over-ambitious in believing that highly disruptive kids could be re-mainstreamed pretty quickly.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

Christopher -- interesting point you make about the nature of the activities people want to do/like, e.g., bowling vs. music shows, and why should they change as they age, etc.

It's really "cohort" specific. Bowling vs. Bad Religion.

e.g., I appreciate classical music and theater, but I'd still rather go see Iggy Pop or Cracker.

2. another thing is the community element of religion and cohorts. I wrote about urban settings and religion a few years ago. But now there are a bunch of new movements, that in a way, are comparable to your points, applied to religion.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of blogs have a lot of angst about this "issue". But really, in most westernized economies, parents to tend to find childrearing preferable on the edges of the core. One place is not going to meet the needs or preferences of all people. Cities should focus on what they do and can do best. Its fine that young people might settle in cities in the early part of their careers, then perhaps move out, then maybe back again. The churn is part of what makes cities great. I see no necessity in micromanaging the population mix.

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

I used to think DC was really great because within one city there are a number of different types of settings. DC, although it never developed an "urban village" approach to planning comparable to Seattle, has a bunch of urban villages.

However, as housing prices uniformly escalate across the urban villages probably some of the village character is lost and the places because less accommodating to different lifestyles, more homogenized.

2. I do think that some attention needs to be paid to accommodating families in multiunit housing, but I agree that it's just one of many elements that need to be considered.

It does matter because there is a belief that families can't exist happily in multiunit housing, and I don't think that's true. Definitely yes it won't work though, if no thought is paid to accommodation and facilitation.

At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is really huge topic that cannot be ignored. Most journalists and pundits ARE ignoring it. This city cannot expect to grow and continue to turn schoolhouses into gyms and condos. If anything we are going to have to build new ones at some point in certain areas. On Capitol Hill- no decent safe middle school or high school that is not private exists- this is going to be a really crucial issue if we expect to keep taxpayers here. We cannot pander to the lowest on the economic ladder for every reason just because itmakes us feel good. We need to make life esier for regular people- and those who are throwing down 500 K on a tiny house are not necessarily going to be able to afford private cathoic schools like we had or that kind of thing as in the old days. The public middle and high schools in DC must be made safer and need to teach to a more literate and demanding caste of people. This will also have the effect of bringing "up" those on the lower end of the economic spectrum. We are wasting time here in DC. These people that came here will leave unless this mayor and her successors do something about this.The whole city and our future does not revolve around ward 7,8 AND 9 for cripes sake...

At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wilson and deale are not nearly enough anymore

At 6:35 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Somewhat related:

The vancouver examples of multi-unit+families aren't convincing to me -- a lot of chinese immigrants.

For a lot of reasons, hard to get into the 1800 sq foot area with multifamily. Not to mention the noise.

My anceodatal evidence differs from Christropher; I can think of one acquitance left in DC with kids. Plenty before kids hit 5 or 6, but they inevitably move on.

When I look at my broader circles -- conservative southern white lawyers -- what is amazing is how many are pro-urban villages and even when they move on they are very pro-urban. Not pro-biking, however.

For example, a friend who is a partner at a firm in Birmingham. He bought and renovated two houses in "gentrifying" areas there before moving out to the suburbs with 2 kids. His wife squealed like a pig when she saw yoga in Dupont circle. They also laughed at my bikeshare membership.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

noise: G-D, I forgot about that. Last Friday, we went up to Philly for an arts walk, for artists we met in NYC about 18 mos. ago. Will write more about it later as it was pretty amazing.

We stayed at their house (they do airbnb too) and the lot next door is vacant, so neighborhood noise drifted back to the back of the house where we were.

I forgot how loud the 'hood is!!!! I guess I wiped my H St. days out of my memory.

Anyway, late at night there were many many pocket bike, motorcycle etc. types out with the aim of making as much noise as possible, probably illegal. At a couple points, police intervention equally loud, stopped it for a time.

Me, I sleep pretty soundly between 11 and 4ish, so it wasn't that big a deal. It was for Suzanne.

Plus around 2 am the young people in the house next to the vacant lot were out and about on the roof, very loud. (Again, this bothered Suzanne, me not so much.)

But yes, I thought that this was an unintended omission from the entry.

At 7:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt you vs. Christopher vs. us, again, it must be cohorts. When I read his comments, I was thinking of a bunch of people we know in Seattle and Salt Lake, who are more like Christopher, but then two of the people were in bands, the other's ex-husband (father of her two kids) is in a band, etc. Maybe we just know more music types.

2. but it's that urban villages thing (again, more about this later). So it depends on the inner vs. outer city.

E.g., you know Cleveland very well, and I was first introduced to the concept of aging out with the Warehouse district specifically.

I think that while some families are fine with Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights type environments (e.g., I am in Capitol Hill early on Monday mornings and there are lots of kids biking and walking to Peabody or Brent Schools), what happens is that a goodly number of people with "traditional" expectations about how to raise kids move to the outer city urban villages like Takoma, Manor Park, Brookland, etc. where they can have yards.

E.g., most of the new households moving in around us, except us--Suzanne and I met too old for kids, either has kids, produces more kids, or if they came in without kids, have some.

Our block had 9 kids for a time, but then 3 of the kids moved because the house was rented and taken back by the family, and 2 more went to Morocco with their parents on a teaching gig.

But then the 4 kids spread across three households became 7, one single household generated a new kid, and one new move in has a kid so we are back to 9 kids on the block. If the people who moved to Morocco come back, that'll be up to 11.

In places like Birmingham, I wonder if there would be a difference with the outer city schools (e.g., a bunch of the traditional public schools are very good, e.g., Murch, Lafayette, or decent, Shepherd Park, etc., plus some are improving) or the public charter school option.

But I do think that the urban village option will dissipate some as housing prices in formerly unknown neighborhoods also escalate.

e.g., the house that just sold across the street, with totally wacked basement and minimal improvements sold for $550K.

3. note though that the families in Seattle and Salt Lake are in White Center, Ballard, and Capitol Hill/Central and the SLC family in 9th and 9th, which have characteristics similar to say my area of Manor Park, although the Ballard-Capitol Hill neighborhoods have much much smaller lots (bigger than rowhouses, but not a lot bigger, but they aren't rowhouse style) where the White Center/9th and 9th areas are more like ours (our backyard is very large, not quite 90x50).

At 8:16 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Noise, I was more thinking of the noise children make and how it drive other residents crazy. I know in my building there would be a lot of resetment -- if there was a child in the building.

RE: Cohorts, yes, absolutely (both age and professions) but the larger point he made that there are social trends that make urban life easier for parents is true.

And yes, rising property values will flood urban villages.

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ah, your point about noise is well taken. It's all about sorting and people moving into those buildings "without kid-friendly amenities" wouldn't expect kids and their noises.

sometimes, when one of the girls next door scream-cries, it can be problematic... but it would be more pronounced in tighter quarters.

2. but the amenities thing is something I am thinking about for public housing. I might get to consult on a project in SE DC, and I have been thinking about this, how to attract market rate renters in addition to social housing tenants, at a location about 1 mile from a Metro station.

The idea was to do hyper great amenities. BUT, the problem is that the site can take 3x the number of units, but they don't want to increase the units from somewhat more than 200 units.

I don't see how you can offer a great amenities package without many more units to spread the costs across.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

IMHO, RL, your neighborhood--like the vast majority of DC neighborhoods throughout DC--is much more suburban than urban, and (even though I think it's a good one) it is nearly impossible for me to take this discussion seriously.
And, lest everyone forget, Anthony Williams and crew did "plan" on attracting 100,000 new residents--don't know if those purported 83,000 who came were the ones he was hoping to attract--among other things back in 2003. Still not very urban.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 2:53 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... no argument from me about your characterization of where I live.

I'd like to live in a rowhouse neighborhood but Suzanne didn't want to.

And I like where I live, but yes, it is T4 from the standpoint of the New Urban Transect, and T5 and T6 is what defines the core. (In fact I think there should be a T7 and T8 for even denser places, so that people don't get confused over Manhattan vs. say Downtown DC.)

But we do have amazing neighbors on either side of us and the house is really cool, making it tough to leave.

... pricing houses in the Kensington area of Philly last weekend, still too much for us now, around $350-450K without selling.

Then again, you can get rowhouses 3x the size of ours in Balt. for $200K.

... but I don't have the same level of energy I did at the age of 27 in terms of being willing to withstand the difficulties of living in a distressed area.

2. finally, your commenting reminds me something I forgot to mention, that mixed age groupings aren't always seen as desirable. That "older people" sharing a building with college students aren't too keen on dealing with vomiting drunks, and similarly, as charlie pointed out, younger and older demos without an inclination toward children might not want mixing either.

... I think I learned the thing about sharing an elevator with vomiting college students from you?

At 4:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... I think I learned the thing about sharing an elevator with vomiting college students from you?"

LOL... you may have read about it during the "Trachtenberg Wars" here in Foggy Bottom. This was how Columbia Plaza (along with every other residential building in the 'hood that wasn't luxury) was cleared of regular tenants and replaced by students. Lots of vomiting, urinating and defecating in the elevators. Parties from Thursday-Sunday during the school year. Public drunkenness. Lots of trash and garbage strewn randomly about. My recollection is that the apogee of craziness occurred in 2005-06 when a drunken couple from McFadden's (closed for good this year) had repaired to the front lawn of a nearby townhouse at 24th and L Streets to have sex. It was around 3:00 am when the cops finally arrived after someone from the Ritz or the Columbia had called to complain about the noise from the crowd cheering the two on.

At 8:12 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

@EE, one might hazard a guess that the convseration is pointless not because of where RL lives, but the lack of child-rearing experience by others.

In any case, you'll be amused to know that Anthony Lanier's daughter has worked that magic with the SCLA/Equinox squash on fire program and is driving anyone over 30 out. Well the entire gym is going to GWU. Also I've heard GWU students complaining about 22 west.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... I have the virtual children next door, but of course, none of the real responsibilities outside of babysitting, taking them on outings, etc.

Both girls adore Suzanne ("SuSu") while they like me quite a bit, I am still chopped liver compared to Suzanne.

2. your point about the squash program. Someone aged I knew (now deceased) swam, and he joined the Trinity pool-gym, but then stopped because of "the music" that was played.

There are many issues.

b. The photo of the two senior citizens on the foldable tandem, I took it and talked with them probably in 2006? They commented about the impending (then) dissolution of the YWCA downtown, and how 1. it removed a rec. facility from the core and 2. eliminated the only existing "deep water" full sized pool that had public access (albeit paid) in the general area.

c. not being quite senior center age, I don't know how they function in DC. Again, in Balt. County, they have a variety of functions, weight rooms, etc. Programming varied (like it does in the reg. rec. facilities because of how it's delivered). One of the centers, Ateaze, has a serious bike club where the people do long weekend rides, probably at paces beyond what I am capable of...

So it does come down to recognizing age specific needs, and maybe "mixed primary use" by time of day, with special programming for different audiences, rather than expecting a constant all ages mix to work well.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

this is the caption:

A couple summers ago, I talked to this couple one day seeing them get on their bicycle at the Capitol Hill Starbucks, after finishing coffee on the patio. He retired and biked everywhere. After awhile he realized his wife wasn’t participating and so they bought a tandem, and began bicycling together. They ride all over, including to the YWCA (which has a deep pool) downtown, and to Trader Joes. They live by the Potomac Avenue Metro.

At 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Charlie...LOL on the child-rearing skills/experience gap--however, as I said, my quibble wasn't that it was a useless discussion (IMHO free-ranging discussion is a good thing), just that I can't take any chats about DC being "urban" too seriously.

Regarding the Lanier clan, very reminiscent of "Dynasty" IMHO... don't understand what the issue is with 22 West. Why would a bunch of GDubbers care about a luxury condo?

Can't wait until the West End opens and TSHTF, which it inevitably will:



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