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.
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
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