By Art Rodgers
Recent articles and posts everywhere, including Greater Greater Washington, have talked about how housing is becoming unaffordable. However, the graph below suggests that home prices may be more affordable now than they were in 1990. It was constructed by calculating the purchasing power of household income using prevailing mortgage rates and comparing it to the growth of the Case-Shiller Index over time.
In 1990 the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimated the Area Median Income (AMI) for the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) was $51,000, and according to FreddieMac the average interest rate for a home mortgage was 10.13 percent! This suggests the typical household could afford a mortgage of about $144,000. Over time the AMI went up and interest rates went down. In 2012 HUD estimates the AMI is $107,500 and interest rates average 3.5 percent. Using the same calculation, the same typical household can now afford a mortgage of $595,000. When the average annual rate of change in the Case-Shiller Index is applied over time to the same starting point of $144,000, the index suggests a current home price of $527,000.
So yes, housing prices have outpaced household income, but this analysis suggests that it’s primarily due to increased buying power from low interest rates that has inflated housing prices and not a gap between supply and demand or other factors. If this is the case, it raises some different, but vital questions the region should be asking:
- If prices are up in large part due to interest rates being kept perhaps artificially low? What happens when those rates go back up? The Federal Reserve’s program of quantitative easing seeks to offer a soft landing to keep housing prices stabilized. But unlike everything else, the saying for interest rates is “what goes down must come up.” A simple increase in interest rates from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent reduces purchasing power by $67,000 or 11 percent. Renting will become more attractive. However, to the extent this affects housing prices, how will local budgets be affected by potentially even lower property values?
- The problem is perhaps not a shortage of housing, but where the housing is in relation to the jobs. Drive till you qualify is certainly part of the problem. OP’s study on housing & transportation costs estimated that lower transportation costs in the District can save a household on average $4,000 to as much as $16,000 annually compared to the outlying suburbs, but the lending industry doesn’t recognize the savings from low transportation costs or the expense of a high cost area when underwriting loans.
- It’s also the region’s overall imbalance, where all the jobs are to the west and all the lower cost housing is to the east. In Prince George’s County the median sales price is $177,500 and demand has only recently taken note of the opportunity. The imbalance adds to the region’s traffic congestion, longer commutes, etc. Therefore, how can we fix the regional jobs/housing imbalance, and create greater housing affordability to the west and more jobs to the east and help people live closer to their work?
- Finally, the growing barbell distribution of household income is making it harder for a larger percentage of households on the lower end to afford homeownership. Homeownership does confer several benefits of greater housing cost stability and asset development that can help raise intergenerational wealth. How can these benefits be extended to a wider range of households while growing the stock of affordable units as population increases?
 Using the standard 30 percent of income toward housing costs. Down payment requirements held constant.
A recent series of blog posts on Greater Greater Washington have focused on housing in the region. Over the next few weeks OPinions hopes to continue the conversation and potentially raise additional questions for everyone to discuss. Please give us your thoughts.
In the meantime, check out this 2011 study by OP and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, H+T in DC: Housing Plus Transportation in DC.
By Art Rodgers
When it comes to hyperbole, “it’s got it all” might be the most overused, but with regards to describing what makes Columbia Road, NW from 19th to 18th Streets a successful urban street, it’s dead on. Ok, so it doesn’t have a zip line into Rock Creek Park, but with the slope and the trees it could be fabulous.
There are three core elements to the best three blocks in DC and they start with Kalorama Park, which has huge shade trees, two playgrounds, a community garden, a basketball court and a beautiful westward facing slope for catching the sunsets. It is the community’s center and without it, these three blocks would be far more ordinary.
Next it’s got people living in anywhere from six to eight story buildings, to row houses, to even a few single-family detached homes. Through tools like rent control, limited-equity coops, and a few nearby subsidized buildings, all kinds of people live in the neighborhood including fixed-income retirees, a few low-income families and of course the ubiquitous young professionals. That said, I wouldn’t disagree that some more affordable housing, so lower income families could be in boundary and send their kids to one of the District’s best public school at Oyster, would be a good idea.
The final core element is handy daily shopping including two local grocers, three competitive dry cleaners, a liquor store, a gallery/frame shop and an athletic shoe store. Not far away there is a hardware store, an electronics store, a post office, and several import stores. The stores keep the sidewalks active with people running errands, picking up a carton of milk or other sundries or going out for a tasty frozen treat on a hot summer night. Did I mention the range of restaurants from fabulously affordable Mediterranean and Peruvian Chicken to Brazilian, French and Sushi and how they are adapting to the growing population of toddlers? No? Well I have now.
I must admit the rest of what makes the best three blocks in DC are an accident of location. It’s bracketed by Rock Creek to the west, Walter Pierce Park to the north, 18th Street’s entertainment strip and Marie Reed’s comfortably dog eared, but shaded and cool kiddy pool to the east. Beyond the three blocks in the immediate neighborhood are two more supermarkets, and farther are the adjacent destinations of Woodley Park (Red Line Metro) across the fabulous Duke Ellington Bridge, Columbia Heights (Green Line Metro) connected by the DC Circulator and Dupont Circle (Red Line Metro) with all that they offer.
Others may wish to point out how the assets of their neighborhood make them such wonderful places to live, and that’s actually the point. Let’s identify what are the elements of urban areas we love and make sure that all the neighborhoods of DC are provided the same opportunity for relatively sane (but never boring), if not high quality urban living.
By Charlie Richman
What if the General Services Administration is right about telecommuting and stops renting office space?
We looked at where GSA puts federal workers today, and imagined where the workers might be in 15 years if plans for increased telecommuting proceed. Existing rules already favor transit-accessible locations.
Our back-of-the-envelope analysis started with GSA’s current offices. We dropped expiring leases each year to meet an aggressive schedule for consolidating space, ending leases farthest from mass transit first and consolidating jobs at the remaining sites. After 15 years all of the leased space would be gone. Look what that would mean for the density of jobs downtown!
We don’t believe the future will look exactly like this, but we’re trying to learn from the exercise. Perhaps we’ll need to focus more on meeting the needs of part-time telecommuters.
What do you think?
By Kim Williams
Around the turn of the 20th century civic activist, urban visionary, and developer Mary Henderson clearly got city planning. Among other things, she understood that by controlling building heights, you can create great places for the benefit of the public. A stroll through Meridian Hill Park with its low-scale buildings framing the park to either side confirms this attitude.
According to the 1910 Height Act, buildings at the time could rise 85 feet on residential streets. For the strong-minded Mary Henderson, 85 feet was too high, especially for Meridian Hill Park where views to the city were a major part of its allure. Henderson argued that buildings that rise above the standard skyline cut off light, air and harmony of height. In her flamboyantly written editorials and oral testimonies, she claimed these streets were diseased and suffered from what she labeled “pulmonary consumption of residential avenues.” Henderson also often noted that buildings that rose above a certain height made “pygmies” out of existing building stock—quite a visual image illustrated by the historic photograph here.
As a reference point for building heights along residential avenues, Henderson looked to the Champs Elysees in Paris, noting that it always maintains a “comparative general height of 65 feet, which is enough for four or five stories.” So, with 65 feet thus established as a maximum height in her own mind, Henderson set out to maintain it around Meridian Hill. To either side of the park, along both 15th and 16th Streets, she built nine private mansions and foreign legations all conforming to this height limit, some of them shown here:
When other developers deviated from her established norm, she interfered. In 1915, for instance, she negotiated the purchase of land away from developer Harry Wardman who planned the construction of three apartment buildings overlooking Meridian Hill Park at 15th and Euclid Streets. After completing the deal, she expressed satisfaction that the park was “now protected from any surrounding which could fall below a certain standard of beauty.” The following year, when the Kennedy Brothers proposed construction of the Meridian Mansions apartments (now the Envoy) at 2400 16th Street at a height exceeding Henderson’s ideal notion, she sought to stop its construction. When she found she couldn’t prevent it, she instead negotiated to collaborate on the building’s design, to “have a hand in helping it fit into the pattern.”
When it came to the Hadleigh Apartments (now the Roosevelt), she took her fight against its 77-foot height to Congress. In her Congressional testimony, Henderson argued that the view from Meridian Hill Park was “the only one remaining in the capital” and is comparable to similar outlooks in Paris and Rome, which she claimed “have been preserved for posterity.” Although it was built higher than she would have liked, the owners were required to eliminate pergolas that rose above the roofline, cutting off those precious views.
As long as Mary Henderson was alive, it seems, the height of buildings on Meridian Hill was held in check. After her 1931 death, however, developers were free to exercise their zoning rights, introducing several aberrations into Henderson’s vision for Meridian Hill, the most egregious example of which is found at the base of the park, eliminating the views Henderson fought so hard to protect.
Despite such intrusions, the scale of buildings surrounding Meridian Hill Park as imposed by Mary Henderson makes the park one of the city’s great places.
By Stephen Cochran
We’ve all been here. It’s one of those places where we hand over $1 billion shopping dollars each year to Maryland or Virginia. If even half of that money could be spent in DC, our 6% tax rate would generate $30 million in revenue. That’s enough to supply 300 new affordable housing units, or pay for the education of 1600 District children, every single year.
The city has been working for decades to reverse this loss of dollars, and we’re starting to see results. Larger retailers are moving into the District to supplement our local stores. Some are bringing new designs that fit in with, and bring new life to, our traditional neighborhood centers. Others, unfortunately, continue to bulldoze trees, fill in wetlands, or construct stone-walled mesas so they can just replicate their suburban stores.
Planners need to provide models of how major retailers can come into the city without compromising good design and active street life.
This storefront I saw on Broadway in downtown L.A. shows how to do it: name recognition, openness to the street, pedestrian and bicycles friendliness, and a broad selection of brand goods at every-day low prices.
Having a vital shopping street need not take a zoning overlay, or city subsidies; just some creative entrepreneurs, sensitivity to scale … and a lot of red paint.
By Tanya Washington-Stern
Welcome to OPinions, the blog of the DC Office of Planning! We envision this blog as a space for OP staff to dialogue with you about the urban environment and related topics such as urban design, historic preservation, transportation, health and other areas that intersect with planning. We want to talk about innovative, thought-provoking or just plain cool trends and developments in the urban planning world. The geography of our dialogue is not just Washington, DC and its region, but also the United States and the rest of the world. This blog is our room to look beyond our official day-to-day work and talk about what we as individual planners find interesting.
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