Decreasing Flood of Millenials & DC Housing

MIllenials

It seems the flood of millennials that have been coming to the District has come to an end. The population of 25-34 year olds has shown significant signs of drying up. The change has been drastic; in 2010, the year millennial growth outpaced that of any other city in the country, 10,430 individuals in that age range moved into the District, compared to only 2,662 millennials in 2014. This huge surge in the young adult population subsequently led to the rapid rise in apartment housing and restaurants catering to a more transient and youthful way of life. This sharp change in demand has some worried. “We have concerns about the millennials and their appetite to move into DC,” says Cardinal Bank president Kevin Reynolds. Kevin’s counterpart, EVP of real estate lending Andy Peden, says millennials are “just like every other generation,” except they are postponing larger life decisions. While there is still demand for housing and more specifically apartments, this shift will more than likely lead to either rental stabilization or a drop in prices.

What’s more important is why this happening is, and what the effects are. Over the last decade college graduates from all over the country have been pouring into District neighborhoods that had suffered from earlier blight and disinvestment. Now neighborhoods like Shaw, Columbia Heights, NoMa, and H Street NE are seeing tremendous growth and increasing home values. The arrival of primarily white collar, white workers felt like an invasion to some. Many new developments and restaurants in the District co-opted the names of historically significant African American figures and events for their high priced eateries and housing complexes, a sort of cultural appropriation.

One of the main contributors to the waning growth is the large decrease in public sector jobs; D.C. lost 11,800 public sector jobs in the past four years. Millennials have also become victims of their own success. The high housing cost that is excluding an entirely new population of young adults was in part generated by the demand created by their predecessors. This is why Director of Planning, Eric Shaw said he was “excited by the fact that people are remaining here.”

“We need to have a wide range of housing choices. So it’s not just the micro-units,” he said. “People are deciding to remain here for longer as they find a partner, add a dog, start a family. They are finding the neighborhood where they want to be.” And we also need to have more affordable housing and Class B apartments. Over the last decade, high end and Class A properties have been the focus to cater to a growing affluent population, but in the wake, the District’s affordable housing has decreased.

Now the time to truly address the city’s housing crisis. While new comers are scarcer, we need to take a harder look at how we can do more for the District’s long-term at-risk households.

 

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Raising the Minimum Wage – Indispensable for Affordable Housing

minimum-wage

Last Thursday, two prominent newspapers, the Washington Post and New York Times, had stories on their front pages about raises in the minimum wage. In New York State, it is likely that fast food workers will have a minimum wage of $15 per hour. In Washington DC, the voters are likely to vote in 2016 whether to increase the minimum wage to $15. Currently, the minimum wage is $10.50 and is scheduled to increase to $11.50 next year in the District of Columbia, a policy change which took years of organizing and political work to make happen.

Affordable housing and minimum wage policy go hand-in-hand, creating housing that families can afford with enough income left over for other basic necessities. Even if the minimum wage increases to $15, it would probably take two wage earners in a household to afford unsubsidized housing in the District of Columbia. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute calculates that in 2010, about two-thirds of households with incomes below 30 percent of area median income, or $31,050 for a family of four, paid more than half of their income on housing.

A minimum wage of $15 per hour brings a full time worker to about $31,200 in annual income or the income for households that was likely to result in a severe cost burden or spending more than half of income on housing. The minimum wage in the District of Columbia has just raised to $10.50 or $21,840 per year, which is clearly still too low to afford housing. Manna has sold affordable homes to families making around or under $30,000, but we and other affordable developers cannot build enough to meet low-income working families’ needs. There is not enough vacant housing stock and public and private subsidies to build enough affordable housing for low-income households without also making efforts to raise wages.

Opponents of minimum wage increases state that while it is laudable to increase workers’ wages, the increases will generate more unemployment because the cost of production will increase and profits will be reduced below minimums needed to sustain small businesses. When wages increase beyond a certain point, the opponents of wage increases will be correct. However, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate economist and columnist in the New York Times, states that minimum wages have not kept up with inflation for four decades while worker productivity has doubled. There is clearly room to raise the minimum wage.

Moreover, Krugman documents that states that raised minimum wages did not experience increases in unemployment when neighboring states left minimum wages the same. Finally, there is a motivational factor at play. If a company pays a worker decent wages, the worker will be more committed, work harder, and call in sick less frequently. The positive experiences of Costco which pays relatively good wages is contrasted with the poor work environment of Walmart that has lower wages and benefits (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/03/opinion/paul-krugman-power-and-paychecks.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/27/business/economy/scale-of-minimum-wage-rise-has-experts-guessing-at-effect.html?_r=0).

During the coming year, the debate over the minimum wage will ebb and flow. It will get heated. But just remember that adequate increases are long overdue, and affordable housing construction and programs are only part of the solution. Housing has become so expensive in Washington DC that we need multiple policies to make it more affordable for DC workers to have a chance at actually living in DC. It’s time for more change and living wages!

 

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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New Accountability Tool – Consumer Complaint Database

bills

 

Do you feel powerless to resolve a debt payment issue, a credit report mistake, or a mortgage servicing issue? Does the financial company promise to resolve the problem, you make repeated calls over several months, and the problem does not get resolved?

Fortunately, you now have one more accountability tool in your toolbox. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was required by Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 to handle and help resolve consumer complaints. The CFPB also did a smart thing: it publishes the complaint data on the internet. Of course, financial companies hate this and complain, but my bet is that the publicly available data has reduced the number of problems and helps resolve complaints faster than they were fixed before. If you feel you need help on an unresolved issue, you can go to http://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaintdatabase/ to file a complaint and also to view other complaints about mortgages, bank accounts, debt collections, student debt, and more.

The CFPB has started issuing monthly reports that will help consumers and counselors understand trends and pinpoint emerging issues. Since 2012, the CFPB has received 650,700 complaints. For June of 2015, the CFPB reports that the top three products/services in terms of complaints in descending order was debt collection, mortgages, and credit reporting.

The database can be sorted by state, issue, company, and resolution status. When looking at Washington DC, complaint volumes increased 10 percent from April through June compared to a year ago (http://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/201507_cfpb_monthly-complaint-report-vol-1.pdf).  Complaints in DC now run about 577 complaints per 100,000 people which is a higher rate per capita than all the other states! Maryland also has a high per capita rate of 333 per 100,000.

A new feature of the complaints database is consumer complaint narratives. The individual consumer is not identified in order to protect privacy, but the narrative appears (if the consumer wants the narrative displayed). Looking at a couple of narratives reported from consumers in Washington DC shows typical complaints. In one case, a debt collection company kept contacting a consumer about debt his brother owed. In another case, a credit reporting company kept records of medical debt owed even though the consumer reports that the insurance company paid the bill.

It is hard to judge a company’s performance definitively on this database without some additional analysis. The companies that show up frequently are large companies, which by their unwieldy nature, will have some staff or divisions that do not do a good job. An analyst needs to “normalize” the data or figure out complaints per loans or complaints per assets or some other measure like this. The CFPB is currently taking comments on how to “normalize” the data. While consumers should certainly use this database to hold companies accountable, they should also be careful in labeling a company bad until additional analysis is conducted. The CFPB itself scours the database to help companies identify issues or bad offices and in some cases to pursue legal enforcement if misbehavior is due to a systematic pattern or practice.

Overall, the CFPB complaints database is a powerful accountability tool for consumers and counselors. Use it!

 

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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Assessment of Fair Housing: Public Input Must be Robust in Order to Create Thriving Communities

fair housingIn the wake of the Supreme Court decision upholding disparate impact theory as a legal tool to combat discrimination, the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week released its final rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). The AFFH rule requires jurisdictions receiving HUD program funding to proactively combat discrimination and segregation. The jurisdictions are to periodically develop and update Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) strategies that describe barriers to fair housing choice, establish goals for removing those barriers, and develop performance measures to assess progress in meeting the goals.

HUD promises to provide a comprehensive amount of data, maps, and charts that will enable jurisdictions to perform fair housing analyses. The analyses are to address the following:

  • Identification of integration and segregation patterns by race, gender, religion, and disability.
  • Identification of racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty.
  • Identification of significant disparities in access to opportunity by protected class (that is, minorities, women, disability).
  • Identification of disproportionate housing needs for any protected class.

After identifying these barriers and disparities, the jurisdictions are required to identify contributing factors causing these barriers and disparities and to prioritize which factors they will combat. Jurisdictions are to develop goals for attacking the factors and how they will measure their progress against these goals.

When developing an AFH, a jurisdiction will need to strike a balance between promoting housing opportunities in integrated neighborhoods and revitalizing struggling neighborhoods. As stated in previous blogs, Manna believes that developing affordable housing in integrated communities and in struggling communities is vital to truly promote choice and fair housing. HUD recognizes this by stating that strategies to affirmatively further fair housing and to reduce disparities include development of affordable housing in “areas of opportunity” and “place-based strategies to encourage community revitalization.” It would seem to be a violation of affirmatively fair housing if a jurisdiction purposively neglected struggling neighborhoods (which are often predominantly minority). This would not provide meaningful fair housing choice to residents of these neighborhoods that want to remain and build their communities. Likewise, it would be a violation of fair housing choice if jurisdictions did not provide meaningful opportunities for low-income and minority families to move into affordable housing developments in integrated neighborhoods.

Jurisdictions should also be careful in developing new programs and policies to ensure that housing needs or inferior housing options do not disproportionately impact protected classes. For instance, inclusionary housing programs aim for the laudable goal of promoting integration through mixed income housing. Yet, some of these programs provide homeownership options that limit, to various degrees, the amount of equity that homeowners can accumulate. This is done to promote long-term affordability of the homeowner units. Yet, in the process, the programs may create a housing need or issue that disproportionately impacts protected classes. In particular, African-Americans have considerably lower homeownership rates and equity than whites. An inclusionary program that disproportionately places African-Americans in homeownership units with limited equity possibilities is not combating lower levels of equity among African-Americans and may, in fact, be exacerbating racial disparities in equity accumulation. It would behoove these types of inclusionary zoning programs to provide substantial opportunities for equity gains or traditional homeownership for every homeowner unit of limited equity if these programs are not to run afoul of the spirit if not the letter of the new AFFH requirements.

AFH plans need to scrutinize private sector as well as public sector actions from a fair housing perspective. For instance, some lending institutions have contributed to segregation and lack of fair housing opportunities for protected classes. Rigorous AFH plans must examine and develop strategies to combat disparities in access to credit impacting protected classes.

How do we ensure that AFH plans promote affordable housing development and fair housing choice in integrated and struggling neighborhoods? How do we make sure that inclusionary zoning programs are carefully crafted to preserve equity building opportunities for all protected classes?  How do we ensure that public and private sector actions are carefully scrutinized by AFH plans? One critical way of doing this is to make sure that the community participation requirements are robust and meaningfully allow for input of all communities, including minority and modest income communities. All laws intended to redress historic and ongoing discrimination from CRA to the Fair Housing Act work best when the community is at the center and has real opportunities for input.

 

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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Micro Units and the Affordable Housing Squeeze

micro-units-museum-city-new-yorkThere’s been a housing revolution on the rise, one comprised of tiny, albeit luxurious apartments called micro units. Micro units are all the rage in the nation’s most expensive city’s because they allow for far more density, and adhere to the transient lifestyle of Millenials. Currently in the D.C. metropolitan area there are seven large micro unit projects that will be coming online in the near future. One of those projects, the only one completed is the Harper, located off of the U St. Corridor. The Harper has been featured in the Washington Post and NPR as a prime example of the growing trend in micro living. A 400 sq. /ft.  unit is going for $2,050/ month in that neighborhood.

So what does this mean for the rest of the District’s housing landscape, especially affordable housing? This type of housing tends to have a dual effect on the market it participates in. On one hand the increased density from the smaller units allows for more housing, which in turn frees up more space around the city. But on the other hand there is an adverse effect. This increase in available stock increases the amount of individuals interested in relocating to the area, as long as they’re willing to deal with tighter quarters.

In the beginning of the microunit boom in the District, the Washington Post did a feature on the relatively new form of housing, featuring individuals who moved from surrounding areas to the District.  One of those featured was Julie Williams, who moved from a two-bedrrom in Olney, Md. To a micro unit in the District the size of a large master bedroom. This trend is also accompanied by an additional layer. These units are being developed to cater to the growing millennial work force, who are finding it increasingly difficult to remain in the District as housing prices continue to skyrocket. Because of the walkability and close proximity to transit and a multitude of dining options millennials love the city, but are facing the same issues as the District’s less affluent population. However, millennials usually are more affluent than long standing residents, and further contribute to the housing squeeze.

In order to combat this issue the District must be very strategic, it the housing it approves for development, as well as the resources it uses to support affordable housing in the city. Increases at all income categories must be sustained, as well as robust resources that support current and long standing residents who want to remain in the District.

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How Nonprofit Development Promotes Neighborhood Integration/Opportunity & Why that’s Important

Last week, Manna released a new study, Does Nonprofit Housing Development Preserve Neighborhood Diversity? An Investigation into the Interaction between Affordable Housing Development and Neighborhood Change, demonstrating that nonprofit housing development promotes neighborhood integration and diversity. The study reveals that Manna’s nonprofit housing development has preserved homeownership opportunities for more than 700 minority and modest income homeowners in revitalizing neighborhoods. Without the nonprofit affordable homeownership, a sizable number of these households would have experienced displacement or not been able to afford to purchase in these neighborhoods

 

Throughout its history, Manna has purposefully developed in both revitalizing and struggling neighborhoods. Manna sought to create opportunity and community development where it was needed most and for low- and moderate-income residents. Manna has worked with local partners and taken a neighborhood approach, seeing promise in neighborhoods that others discarded, some of which have seen great change.

 

The pursuit of neighborhood integration and not giving up on neighborhoods becomes even more relevant in the wake of the recent riots and unrest in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD, and other cities. Highly segregated neighborhoods with concentrations of poverty greatly diminish the quality of life, educational opportunities, and success in the job market. In addition, recent research has found that lower income and minority children do better at school and earn more if they can move to more economically viable neighborhoods. Moreover, research also shows that African-Americans, even middle-income African-Americans, reside in poorer neighborhoods than poor whites.

 

Manna’s neighborhood approach, seeing promise in both revitalizing and struggling neighborhoods, has helped homeowners achieve significant gains in equity. Another recent study by Manna, The Financial Benefits of Homeownership: An Evaluation of a Nonprofit Housing Development Model, evaluates the equity accumulation and foreclosure experience of homeowners that purchased Manna-developed units since 1982. The study finds that the typical Manna homeowner, who started off as low- and moderate-income, gained $171,000 in equity. This equity accumulation has provided a pathway to the middle class and enabled the new homeowners to escape intergenerational poverty. In addition, Manna homeowners experienced lower rates of foreclosure than other homeowners in the District.

 

Manna CEO and President Jim Dickerson remarks, “These studies demonstrate that homeownership for low- and moderate-income families is one of the most effective and efficient strategies for building assets for modest income people, promoting neighborhood integration, and combating inequality that is prolonging the nation’s economic recovery. We are proud of Manna’s hardworking homeowners who underwent hours and hours of counseling to prepare themselves and successfully weather the Great Recession to the benefit of themselves and their neighbors.”

 

Here are the major findings of the neighborhood study:

 

  • Manna’s developments succeeded in preserving affordable housing for minorities and lower income households in rapidly changing neighborhoods.
  • Overall, the percentage of African-Americans fell in both census tracts with Manna properties and the District of Columbia. The percentage dropped from 60 percent to 50 percent in the city and from 76 percent to 62 percent in the tracts with Manna properties between 2000 and 2013. Despite the decrease in the African-American population, Manna’s development of housing units was in neighborhoods with greater racial and ethnic diversity in 2000 and still more racial and ethnic diversity in 2013.
  • Manna’s neighborhoods had higher percentage of Latinos than the District in both 2000 and 2013.  Eleven percent of residents in the census tracts with Manna properties were Latinos while Latinos made up 8 percent Washington’s populations in 2000. In 2013, the tracts with Manna properties have 12 percent Latinos compared to 10 percent in the District of Columbia.
  • A dramatic increase in the share of whites is evident in Manna’s neighborhoods. The percentage of whites grew from 9.1 percent to 21.5 percent in the census tracts with Manna properties between 2000 and 2013.
  • Median household income increased from $30,000 to $55,000 between 2000 and 2013 in the census tracts containing Manna’s properties.
  • In census tracts in which Manna homeowners experienced the largest equity gains, the median income increase was even more dramatic. In 2000, the median income of the census tracts with greatest equity gains for Manna’s homeowners was 79 percent of the median income of Washington, DC. It grew to 123 percent of the city’s median income by 2013.
  • Although many Manna properties had more rapid growth in home value than the median housing unit in a census tract, the values of most Manna properties are still lower than the median values of the census tracts containing Manna’s developments. That means Manna properties did not lead or cause appreciation in the tracts but benefited from overall housing price movements in the tracts.

Housing nonprofit development is not the complete answer in gentrifying neighborhoods, nor in neighborhoods that are struggling. I am not sure anyone has completely solved the riddle of trying to maintain racial and income integration in gentrifying neighborhoods, while also putting resources into struggling neighborhoods. Manna’s history has taught us that both are important. If any reader knows of successful policy and programmatic approaches that focus on both while helping low- and moderate-income residents to thrive, we are eager to learn. It is clear, however, that nonprofit housing development is an important tool for providing opportunity and preserving a degree of racial and income integration. Manna will never give up on this tool and continually seeks opportunities to create affordable housing and preserving opportunity in neighborhoods undergoing change.

 

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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Supreme Court Preserves Legal Remedies Against Discrimination in Housing

Housing-court-caseLast week was quite a week at the Supreme Court, with three historic decisions! 1) The Court mandated that single sex marriage is protected by the Constitution. 2) The Affordable Care Act was protected. 3) Finally, in the third decision that was not as well known, the Court preserved the effectiveness of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as a legal remedy against discrimination.

Affordable housing advocates should know about the background of the FHA and how it works to root out discrimination. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes of the riots and social unrest in the nation’s cities. The Kerner Commission concluded that residential segregation, unequal housing, and economic distress in inner cities were significant causes of the unrest. The Commission concluded that “our Nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white, separate, and unequal.” To combat this, the Commission recommended enactment of a “comprehensive” law “making it an offense to discriminate in the sale or rental of any housing.”

Leading up to the Kerner Commission, entrenched real estate and lending practices were creating segregated neighborhoods. Racially restrictive covenants made it illegal to sell property to minorities. Real estate agents “steered” or directed people to neighborhoods where their race was the predominant race. Lenders engaged in redlining or refusing to make loans in minority neighborhoods.

Lyndon Johnson exhorted Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The FHA makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to any person on the account of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. Also, it is illegal to discriminate in real estate transactions or in the terms and conditions of those transactions.

The FHA makes it illegal to practice overt or intentional discrimination. These are cases in which the intent to discriminate is explicitly stated such as when a landlord says he will not rent to African-Americans or Latinos. In addition, Justice Anthony Kennedy writing for the majority, reaffirmed the use of disparate-impact theory. Under disparate-impact theory, discrimination can be proved when there is no explicit discriminatory communication but when the results of a practice lead to segregationist or discriminatory outcomes. For example, a lending institution may state that it will not make loans below $200,000. The lender is not explicitly discriminating with this policy but if the great majority of members of a racial minority obtain loans from competing institutions of below $200,000, then the particular lender’s policy could be found to be discriminatory.

The FHA states that it is illegal to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling, or “otherwise make unavailable or deny” a dwelling on account of race, religion, gender, or familial status. For Justice Kennedy and the majority, the phrase “otherwise make unavailable” indicates that the consequences of an action as well as its intent can make it illegal. In other words, if an action has a disparate impact affecting a particular racial group, the action can be illegal even if no explicit intent to discriminate was communicated.

At the same time, Justice Kennedy warns that statistical disparities by themselves are not illegal. He reiterates previous legal practice that the disparity must not have a business justification. Referring back to the previous example, if there was no way to make safe loans (that did not default) below $200,000, then the lender would not be found to discriminate. However, if borrowers with loans below $200,000 regularly made their mortgage payments and did not default, there would be no business justification for the policy and the lender would be found to have discriminated.

Justice Kennedy’s opinion also reviews and reaffirms Congressional intent in establishing the disparate-impact standard. In 1988, Congress amended the FHA but did not address or curtail disparate impact. By that time, all nine Courts of Appeals had also ruled in favor of disparate impact. Congress was well aware of these judicial interpretations but did not change the wording of the statute to eliminate the disparate-impact standard.

The Supreme Court’s opinion is a tremendous victory for fair housing enforcement. Jurisdictions still enact zoning decisions that have an exclusionary impact against minorities. Some lending institutions engage in pricing discrimination charging higher rates to minorities or women that are just as qualified as whites or men. The Department of Justice and other agencies have used the FHA and disparate-impact theory to issue cease and desist orders and to require lending institutions to compensate the victims of discrimination.

Today, most have learned that it is not too smart to explicitly state their discriminatory intentions. Instead, they usually adopt policies that have a disparate impact. The elimination of the disparate impact standard would have been a big blow against fair lending and housing enforcement.

Justice Kennedy concludes that the “FHA must play an important part in avoiding the Kerner Commission’s grim prophecy that ‘our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.’ The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving this Nation toward a more integrated society.”

I could not have said it any better. Thank you Justice Kennedy.

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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U Street On the Rise with Affordable

U Street

More affordable housing is coming to the U street corridor, and it’s bringing mixed-use development with it. This week Somerset Development expects to close on a $21 million dollar loan that will be used to begin construction on a 366-unit, mixed use development in one of the District’s most popular neighborhoods. This new development will be replacing Portner Place, a 48-unit Section 8 housing project, and in return a eight story building with 96 units of affordable housing will be built.

A second building will also be built, which will include 270 market rate units and 14,000 square feet of retail for the U street corridor. While the land was purchased last year for $16 million, Somerset has been working with the tenant association and community on the project since 2008. All current residents of Portner’s Place will be relocated during construction, and their Section 8 status will carry over into the new building. The remaining 48 units of affordable housing will be made available to individuals making 60% AMI or less.

Somerset Development specializes in preserving and developing affordable housing. This project is indicative of the great work that can be done when private dollars are paired with public dollars to increase the Districts affordable housing stock.

At The New Era of Affordable Housing in DC event that happened last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser called out private developers, stating that they will need to play a bigger part in the coming years to make sure the housing needs of  lower-income District residents are met. But in order to truly tackle the issue, we must begin to think bigger. David Bowers of Enterprise Community Partners says the real estate industry is thinking far too small on the issue; “We’re having million-dollar conversations about billion-dollar problems.” In the District of Columbia access to quality housing is the premier issue. Unless we think bigger, or at least more creatively, a city that was once more inclusive will only be accessible to the few.

 

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Why Affordable Housing Advocates Should Care about the Purple Line

Purple-Line

Over the years, a Montgomery-based transit advocacy group called Action Committee for Transit (ACT) has been advocating persistently and effectively for a new Metro rail line called the Purple Line that would run from Bethesda to Silver Spring and provide an East-West transit link across Montgomery County. I am a dues-paying member of ACT and live in Bethesda, but I must confess my support for the Purple Line was lukewarm. I commute from Bethesda to Manna, mostly on bicycle. The second choice is transit on days I do not bike. I avoid driving like the plague because I rather have a root canal than sit in traffic and I hate the idea of my idling car polluting the air.

But I was not a strong advocate for the Purple Line. I will not directly benefit from it for most of my travel. I also am a big fan of buses. In the 1990s, I chaired a transit advocacy group called MetroWatch. This was the time period of fiscal crisis in the District and cuts to bus service came fast and furious. I become a bus-first advocate because I saw how critical buses were to middle-income and low-income District residents.

However, I just finished reading Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism by Ben Ross and I am now a fervent supporter of the Purple Line (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/bross/). Ben was President of ACT for many years and is a strong advocate.

Given my affection for buses, I would wonder from time to time why proposals for Rapid Bus were not sufficient to generate the transit volume that the proposed light rail Purple Line would. In theory, rapid bus could possibly come close to light rail transit volume but our politics and culture do not mesh well with rapid bus. It is much easier politically to cut back on bus service and dismantle rapid bus than it is to eviscerate a light rail line once it is built. Culturally, our country may not be ready to adequately support rapid bus. The suburbs, as Ben points out, appeal to people’s egotism and thirst for status. Suburban folk are more likely to ride an elegantly designed light rail line than crowded buses. I don’t like it but Ben is probably right about that. Ben’s blog posts also show how relatively inexpensive the Purple Line would be.

There is also a powerful affordable housing reason to support the Purple Line. Ben describes in great detail how suburban zoning, particularly the emphasis on single family homes and the exclusion of apartments, has driven up housing costs in general and for low- and moderate-income households in particular. Currently, when inner city neighborhoods experience gentrification and become attractive, rents and home values are bid up so high because there are not many alternatives to city living that is less dependent on the automobile. In contrast, if we had more communities in the suburbs and city that were less typically suburban and had higher housing densities, there could be less price pressure and displacement associated with gentrification and demographic changes.

Well, why not just change suburban zoning to allow for more apartments and higher densities? The difficulty is political. There is just too much cultural resistance. On the other hand, if more heavy and light rail gets built, zoning changes become easier as people observe that higher densities work better near rail and that higher densities make rail and neighborhood revitalization more economically viable. Build it, they will come, and the neighborhood will change for the better. Is that pie in the sky or realistic? Based on what has happened in DC and Bethesda neighborhoods with which I am familiar, I think Ben is onto something here.

Communities surrounding the Purple Line are likely to experience increases in housing prices as development heats up after the Purple Line is constructed (http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/21888/behold-how-the-purple-line-corridor-is-changing/). Dan Reed suggests extending the price restrictions on low-income rental housing near the future line. Like Ben, Dan states that more housing development could ease the pressure on prices.

In any case, go Purple Line! It might just help affordable housing, even here in the District. Is the book perfect? Not quite. The prose can be difficult in spots if you are not a planner or transportation junkie. Also, Ben knocks buses a little more than I would like. However, he does support buses as essential to a viable transit network (but not as a replacement for rail).  On balance, if you want to understand suburbs, what changes we need, and you are looking for a good read, pick up Ben’s book.

Josh Silver is the Development Manager at Manna, Inc. Prior to his time at Manna, Josh served as Vice President of Research & Policy at NCRC. Josh is an avid District sports fan and loves spending time with his daughter.

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Housing and The Achievement Gap

The District is making changes to address the city’s growing achievement gap. Usually teachers are left to their own devices as far as how they administer and contextualize the required materials. Recently, this has been discovered as a huge catalyst for widening the achievement gap because teachers tend to focus on teaching specific facts or main ideas, but research shows you can’t understand what your reading unless you have background knowledge and vocabulary about the subject matter. That greatly affects low-income students, who are less likely to be gaining knowledge at home. This is why common core was developed, to build the knowledge of children from an early age. However, common core is simply standards, not the curriculum, which is still left up to local jurisdictions.

Despite the relaxed guidelines, DCPS got to work and began developing a curriculum rich in science, history, and literature beginning in kindergarten. The fruits of these efforts are a module based curriculum that uses six to seven week themed lesson plans to engage students. This new structure not only provides a more concrete minimum level of quality but should also help even the playing field for children who aren’t acquiring as much knowledge at home. Teachers in support of the changes hope that teacher feedback can be used to further polish and refine some of the requirements and curriculum in general.

This comprehensive approach, ensuring that a baseline level of support is providing for all students is a model that can be used in other arenas like affordable housing. This budget season the District Council supported the funding of $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund. In addition to these needed funds, if elected officials, program administrators, and practitioners could work together to refine the programs connected to affordable housing all efforts could work together in concert. Like the city’s growing achievement gap, the city’s affordable housing crisis must be addressed strategically and comprehensively, and we need to remember that these two issues are not mutually exclusive. Like the article stated, one of the biggest factors contributing to the achievement gap is the lack of knowledge being acquired by children at home. A stable housing situation has been known to be one of the biggest components of economic mobility. If the city can address these issues in tandem, the future of young Washingtonians looks very bright.

 

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