Interim Director for OP Appointed

Rosalynn Hughey photo 1Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins has appointed Rosalynn Hughey as interim Director of the D.C. Office of Planning (OP) effective February 24, 2014. Harriet Tregoning is resigning as Director effective February 21, 2014 to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Prior to her appointment Hughey served as OP’s Deputy Director of Citywide and Neighborhood Planning.  Hughey joined the Office of Planning in 2000 and has over 25 years’ experience in urban planning.

Are Children an Endangered Species in Urban Areas?

By Art Rodgers

The classic problem of many science fields is you can only weigh something if you stop it, or you can determine where it’s going, but then you can’t weigh it.  Fortunately, this is less of a problem with demographic data where you can measure where it’s been and measure where it is now and at least forecast where it’s going.  Why is it then many fail to take advantage of this? Last month an article has made the claim that children are disappearing from urban areas and others have picked up on it.  The assertion is based on data from one point in time; the 2010 US Census.  Their conclusion?  Cities are unfriendly toward children and what is more, cities are not doing enough about it.

First, let’s expand the data to more than a single year.  Nationally children are becoming a smaller percentage of the population, from 24.0 percent in 2010 to 23.5 percent in 2012; so it is only natural that dense urban areas reflect that trend as well.  But wait!  Half of the cities listed below didn’t!  They actually increased their percentage of children, and even San Francisco with its astronomical housing prices was able to maintain its current percentage.

Population Under 18 years

  United States

24.0%

23.5%

Rank Municipality

2010 Census

2012 ACS 1-yr

1 San Francisco city, CA

107,524 (13.4%)

13.4%

2 Seattle city, WA

93,513 (15.4%)

15.3%

3 Pittsburgh city, PA

49,799 (16.3%)

16.1%

4 Washington City, DC

100,815 (16.8%)

17.3%

5 Boston city, MA

103,710 (16.8%)

17.3%

6 Urban Honolulu CDP, HI

58,727 (17.4%)

17.3%

7 Miami city, FL

73,446 (18.4%)

18.8%

8 Portland city, OR

111,523 (19.1%)

19.2%

9 Atlanta city, GA

81,410 (19.4%)

18.4%

10 Minneapolis city, MN

77,204 (20.2%)

20.7%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS)

Second, it’s true that two data points do not a trend make, so let’s investigate why this percentage of children is increasing in these cities and estimate if it will continue.  I use Washington, DC as an example.  In DC’s case, between 2000 and 2010 it was one of the top cities for attracting recent college graduates due to the combination of growing tech and federal job opportunities.  This is probably true for other cities where tech, finance and other industries were growing.  Well it’s only natural that these young professionals who migrated as singles met, hooked up and guess what happened next.

What has changed in this age old story?  In the past, those new young families moved to the suburbs largely because of the poorly performing urban schools.  In the case of the District of Columbia, Boston and a few other cities, what may be responsible for reversing this trend is the move toward universal free public pre-school for three and four year olds.  Not only does this save young professional families upwards of $20,000 per year per kid in daycare costs, it introduces them to the public/charter school system, which helps to change their perception of the schools.  This has created a wave of middle-class children diversifying the public schools while their parents have networked and brought their collective political clout to improve the schools even further.

The private sector in DC has also seen the shift in the market and responded by adding baby happy hours and children’s cultural and athletic opportunities to go along with all the other great children’s activities that are available in DC.

The change in the percent of households with children under the age of 18 has also reflected the shift, moving from 19.3 percent in 2010 to 20.3 percent in 2012.  The DC Office of Planning (OP) believes the shift is strong enough and sustainable that their official ten-year forecast through 2020 includes the number of children under the age of 18 increasing by as much as 50,000.  This would push the number of households with children to approximately 25.0 or 26.0 percent by 2022, but only require about 20% of single-family housing to flip from older/childless households to these new families.

The District’s housing market has also been impacted.  According to Zillow.com, over the past two years prices have grown three times as fast per year for three bedroom units (18 percent per year) as for 1-bedroom units (5 percent per year).  DC’s housing is already very expensive, and many single-family row houses are being split into smaller units for the large numbers of singles, but the $20,000 savings in daycare translates into some serious purchasing power for those who have the means to leverage it.  This of course has the potential to exacerbate the displacement of lower income families in many of the District’s neighborhoods, but the city has also embarked on an ambitious goal of 10,000 new affordable units by 2020 and recently dedicated $187 million dollars for affordable housing to reach that goal.

Urban schools and housing costs certainly make it challenging to raise a family in a city, and cities can do more to make it easier, but I can personally attest through my investigation of the data and my own experiences as an urban parent that, at best, these recent blogs see the glass half full.  Time will tell, but it certainly looks like many cities, including Washington, DC, are setting the table for families with children by improving public and charter school performance; offering universal pre-kindergarten, revitalized public libraries, schools, playgrounds, parks and recreation centers; providing increasingly convenient neighborhoods throughout the city with services and retail in most communities; and creating lots of transportation choices that help families access all the city has to offer.

Art Rodgers is the Senior Housing Planner at the Office of Planning. The opinions expressed in this post belong solely to Art Rodgers and should not be construed as the official opinion of the DC Office of Planning.

How Sustainable DC Meets DC’s Region Forward Goals

By Tanya SternSDC-Logo-2013

The previous OPinions blog post talked about the release of the District’s final Sustainable DC Plan to make Washington, DC the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the nation. The Plan is the result of hard work and collaboration by the Sustainable DC coalition of District agencies, residents, and stakeholders from the private, non-profit and institutional sectors.  The Sustainable DC Plan addresses the challenges of creating jobs and growing the District’s economy; improving the health and wellness of residents; ensuring equity and diversity across the city; and improving the climate and the environment. It puts forth goals, targets, and specific actions to implement the plan over the next twenty years.
 
OP Sustainability Planner Laine Cidlowski and I created this post on the Washington Metropolitan Council of Government’s Region Forward blog about how the Sustainable DC Plan is also a major step in helping the DC region meet its Region Forward goals. 

Are DC Area Housing Prices Outpacing Income?

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.

 

Source: HUD, FHLMC, S&P Case-Shiller, DC Office of Planning.

Source: HUD, FHLMC, S&P Case-Shiller, DC Office of Planning.

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[1].  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?

[1] Using the standard 30 percent of income toward housing costs.  Down payment requirements held constant.

Height Limits Make Great Places

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.

Taming the Big Box

By Stephen Cochran

Pentagon City, VA (Credit: Street Google)

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.

Los Angeles, CA (Credit: Stephen Cochran)

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.

Welcome to OP’s Blog!

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.

If you want to learn more about the DC Office of Planning and our neighborhood and citywide plans, reports and initiatives, please visit our official website, www.planning.dc.gov. We are also on Twitter and Facebook.

We hope you will join us in these conversations!