Sunday, December 30, 2012

The 2012 Achievement Least Worthy of Celebration

Police Chief Cathy Lanier is rightfully reluctant to celebrate the District of Columbia's historically low murder tally in 2012. Homicides of young African-American men continue to occur at a tragic rate. According to statistics compiled by Homicide Watch DC, 28 Black men in their twenties were murdered in DC this year.*

The most recent complete count of the District's population, the 2010 decennial Census, reported 20,245 African-American males between the ages of 20 and 29. Assuming that number did not change significantly in the two years since, then one in every 723 Black men in this age bracket was the victim of homicide in 2012.

If this year's murder rate holds constant, one out of every 72 Black male twenty year-olds will be murdered before their cohort reaches the age of 30. And one out of every 38 will be violently killed before the age of 40.

To put DC's murder rate in perspective, consider Chicago's 500 homicides in 2012, a statistic that has shocked the nation. 163 of these victims were Black men in their twenties, a demographic totaling 56,726. That means that one out of every 348 Black males between the ages of 20 and 29 was murdered this year. That is appalling.

The survival rate of young Black men in DC in 2012 was double the rate in Chicago. But to rejoice in that fact is akin to the Sacramento Kings celebrating that they have ten wins compared to the Wizards' four.

Until we can reduce the homicide rate to a point where the murder of a single 21 year-old Black man shocks the city, addressing violent crime and, more importantly, its roots, should be a top priority of the District.

Thanks to Homicide Watch DC for the valuable work they do. Please check out the site if you have not, and consider supporting them.

*Note: Officially, the race of four of these victims is unknown, but it is almost certain they were African-American. Why? Because 91% of the homicide victims for which the race is known were Black, the ethnicity of the four Asian and Hispanic victims were identifiable by their surnames, and the murder of a white person in the District does not go unscrutinized.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Where Could a Small Grocery Store Thrive in Ward 8?

The Yes! Organic Market in DC's Fairlawn neighborhood has struggled to survive, and Anacostia's only grocery store recently closed. Why can't grocery stores thrive here? Mainly, economics. But one spot could work.

There are many factors that determine the success of a retail enterprise, including marketing, accessibility, visibility, competition, demographics, and location. Yes! Organic may have been difficult to access for westbound drivers, and it could certainly have benefited from an improved outreach campaign, but the fundamental challenge for the store is that it is located in an area with low aggregate income, a result of relatively low household incomes and the presence of relatively few households.

Much of the area around Fairlawn's Yes! is undeveloped (Anacostia Park and River, Fort Dupont Park, etc.), and the developed blocks are low- to medium-density. The graphic above helps illustrate how the purchasing power the store's service area compares with those of other grocery outlets in the city.

The Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket closed its doors because the former owner sold the property. The buyer is optimistic about the site's potential, but in a presentation to the Historic Anacostia Block Association in February of this year, he all but ruled out the possibility of bringing in another grocery store. He said that the potential grocery tenants he spoke with were deterred by the presumed arrival of Walmart at Skyland, just up the street.

Does the eventual presence of two full-service grocery stores at the top of the hill mean that Ward 8's flatland neighborhoods will be forever without their own market? If there is a location best suited for a store to fill the gap, it is at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE and Howard Rd SE, immediately adjacent to the Anacostia Metrorail station and Metrobus hub, and the meeting point for the Anacostia, Hillsdale, and Barry Farm neighborhoods.

The ideal, and most feasible, site for new development at this intersection is the vast lot owned by Bethlehem Baptist Church, currently used as parking. It is not uncommon for churches, often major landowners, to develop the land they own for a purpose consistent with their mission.

Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, two blocks from Bethlehem, recently oversaw the development of a new affordable housing complex on one of their parcels. Across town, at 10th and G Streets NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ was part of a redevelopment team that delivered a new facility for the church on the ground floors of an office building.

Bethlehem Baptist Lot - Photo by Author

By developing their vacant land as housing, office space, or a community or spiritual facility, with ground floor retail including a grocery store to replace the shuttered Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket, Bethlehem Baptist Church, and its pastor Reverend James E. Coates, DC's inaugural Ward 8 councilmember, could cement a legacy in the District while doing a huge service to their neighbors in the heart of Ward 8.

Cross-Posted at Greater Greater Washington.

Click here for grocery store location data. Please add any stores I missed.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Parking Wars

The District of Columbia is an expensive city, so any increase in the cost of living is likely to get people riled up. And it's hard to argue against the protests of those who work for minimum wage, are unemployed, or simply earn modest salaries as teachers, trash collectors, or security guards. A $100 parking ticket can feel crippling to a low income family.

Although car ownership rises with income, lots of poor families own and drive cars too. A household with two full time minimum wage workers earns slightly less than $35,000 per year. According to data from the American Community Survey's most recent 5 year estimates, the probability that a DC household with a $35,000 annual income owns a car is slightly higher than 50%. The likelihood that a household earning $50,000 has a car is about 64%.

Which brings us to the debate over whether DC is doing right in reducing the subsidies that have traditionally been given to drivers, for example in the form of free or artificially cheap parking.

The problem with charging a flat fee on a certain behavior, like parking, speeding, or plastic bagging your groceries, is that the poorer you are, the more you pay as a percentage of your total income. Behavior taxes are highly regressive, but usually accepted by progressives because there is a cheap alternative of equal quality (e.g. canvas grocery bags in lieu of plastic ones).

Is there a high quality alternative to driving? It depends on your travel patterns. If you live near a metro station, work or study near a metro station, and only visit friends who also live near metro stations, then WMATA offers a service equal or superior to car ownership. But if you live far from metro (keep in mind that housing near transit is more expensive), put your kid in a charter school across town because the neighborhood school is crappy, shop at the cheapest store rather than the closest, and visit family in places like Bowie on the weekends, then Washington's public transit system is not an efficient option.

While I feel for the low and moderate income families who have become car dependent, I've also drunk the Smart Growth Kool-Aid. Our society must change its driving habits, urgently. We have to drive less and drive shorter distances, and regulations and policies at all levels must facilitate this transition. For the sake of the environment and for the fiscal well being of the country, which wastes too much money on sprawling infrastructure and the militaristic pursuit of foreign oil.

So how can DC make the necessary changes to its transportation policies and urban form without disproportionately burdening low-income drivers? Here are three ideas:

1. Stop subsidizing parking and driving. Charge as much as people will pay for on-street parking, using performance parking. Eliminate minimum parking requirements for new developments, require developers and retailers to unbundle parking costs from all other goods and services, and toll the roads.

Then use a portion of that revenue to send every poor family in the city a big check. Send middle income families a medium sized check. If driving is an indispensable part of their lives, then they can use this check to pay for the new tolls, parking fees, or expensive speeding tickets. If they can reduce their driving or get rid of their car completely (perhaps they were among the many who didn't drive in the first place), then they will have a big or medium sized check (or, more realistically, a refundable tax credit) to spend on anything else their hearts desire.

2. Make alternate modes of transportation so unbelievably attractive that everyone will want to use them. Make public transportation cheap for the user. Not just cheap in terms of fare, but also time. Have you ever ridden a bus in DC? Not only do they have to deal with the stop signs, stop lights and congestion just like cars, but they also stop just about every block to pick up and drop off passengers, and then merge back into traffic.

So let's give buses their own lanes, free from cars. If public opinion insists on streetcars instead of buses, then give the streetcars their own lanes. Let people pay before they board so it doesn't take a decade just to load. There are entire websites dedicated to how Metrorail can improve its service, so I won't go into detail on that topic, but like any other form of public transit, it must be faster and more reliable.

Even so, all this assumes that the beginning and end points of your trips are on a transit line, which is often not the case. Zoning restrictions that limit development around Metro stations must be eased or eliminated to allow more transit-accessible jobs and housing units to be built. Then...

3. Pay low income families to live near metro stations, because housing near transit costs more. DC offers low income renters vouchers (though the number is very limited), property tax abatements, and down payment assistance. Households that live within a half mile of a Metrorail station should have these benefits increased by 50% (or some other less arbitrary, evidence based percentage).

The Smart Growth movement will continue to be seen as arrogant and elitist if its main policy proposals involve regressive taxes and fees. To counteract this perception and broaden their base, anti-sprawl enthusiasts must also advocate for social and economic justice and reject the overly-simplistic assumption that the poor are entirely transit dependent.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Who’s Commuting to DC's East of the River Neighborhoods?

WMATA's latest data release confirmed what we already knew: most Metrorail riders take the train from the suburbs into DC. But relatively few ride to the District neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Where are they coming from and going to? About 75% of total trips in the AM peak terminate at one of the 42 stations in or immediately adjacent to the District (within 500 feet). Only 2% of these riders, or 1.5% of all trips, get off at one of the 7 stations in or bordering the portion of the District east of the Anacostia River.

Of the more than 3500 riders who make up the numerator of this statistic, 40% get off at Anacostia and 20% at Minnesota Ave, affectionately known as the downtowns of their respective wards (8 and 7). The reason nearly 5 times as many people take the train to Farragut North as to all East of the River stations combined is obvious: Land use.
The Anacostia and Minnesota Ave station areas offer fairly similar non-residential uses, which include a limited number of destinations one would commute to on a weekday morning. Both have a few schools nearby, one relatively new District government office building, a smattering of small retail stores and restaurants, mostly carryout, and a number of light industrial sites.
Anacostia has a couple additional office or medical buildings, while Minnesota Ave boasts a grocery store. For those who do commute to work or school in these neighborhoods, parking is cheap or free, and buses often offer a superior option to rail for those who are traveling between East of the River neighborhoods.
But what about the chosen few who do take Metrorail to these 7 stations? In contrast to the system-wide statistics, 63% of trips ending east of the river originated in DC, 28% in Maryland, and 9% in Virginia. The share coming from the suburbs is certain to increase when the federal Department of Homeland Security campus at Saint Elizabeths is completed.
Interestingly, 9% of riders traveling East of the River boarded at the Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth stations. Without additional data, one can only hypothesize why so many people (relatively) are making this specific commute. One driver may be the schools. For example, Thurgood Marshall Academy, a high performing public charter high school across the street from the Anacostia metro station, draws students and teachers from all over the city.
Perhaps WMATA could release a subset of their data showing trips made with discounted student passes? That would make it possible to further explore this hypothesis.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Affordable to Whom?

Earlier this week, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) put out their latest report demonstrating how unaffordable housing has become in DC. Chuck Thies tells those burdened by housing costs to suck it up, noting that approximately 60% of the households spending more than half of their income on housing costs are childless singles, who he assumes are wasting their money on Sam Adams and data plans. Yeah, some yupsters probably show up in the data, but I suspect the DCFPI is more concerned with the perpetually poor, whose rents are rising now that there is increased demand for DC's limited housing stock. I'll echo Lydia DePillis' call to affordable housing advocates to pay attention to the effect that excessive land use regulations have on housing costs. Relaxing building height restrictions and eliminating barriers to the construction of housing is a good way to make housing more affordable across the board, even though chances are, the free market will never produce housing in DC that its many impoverished residents can afford, which is why DCFPI's recommendations to increase subsidies for low-income housing production and homeownership are also valid. But more on that later.

DCFPI's report provides a demographic glimpse of who is struggling to afford housing in DC; I wanted to know where those people live. My suspicion was that most would be in neighborhoods where prices have increased sharply over the past decade (e.g. greater Columbia Heights, H Street NE), but wasn't too surprised to learn that my hypothesis was overly simplistic.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Census Bureau, Meet the Elias Sports Bureau

Originally Printed/Posted in the Washington City Paper on September 28, 2012: 
Get on the Nats Bandwagon! 

With a field measuring more than 100,000 square feet and only 10 to 13 players on the diamond at one time, baseball is the sprawliest of all major sports, befitting of America’s pastime. Yet paradoxically, almost one-third of all World Series games have been won by a team from our densest urban area, New York City. That feat looks slightly less impressive when you consider that the city’s home teams account for 266 (12 percent) of all 2,244 seasons ever played—not to mention their payrolls. (Why 2,244 seasons? One season for each year each team has been in the majors.)

Relative to the number of baseball seasons played in each city, New York, Miami, and Oakland are the most decorated. In comparison, with 76 seasons under its belt and only one championship to show for it, the District of Columbia is, historically, a baseball underachiever.

Regardless of how the Nats perform over the coming months, there is at least one fact in which District residents can take immediate pride. According to, the D.C. area has midwived more pro ball players per capita over the course of MLB history than any other U.S. state or foreign nation, easily outpacing its closest competitors in Pennsylvania, the Virgin Islands, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Curacao. Pop Snyder, Lu Blue, Red Webb, and Frank Funk? All native Washingtonians!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Racial Segregation of the College Educated

Last week in the Washington City Paper, I stated the obvious: DC's neighborhoods are segregated by race. Several readers countered that the root problem is that the city is segregated by class, and this manifests itself as a racial division since DC's rich tend to be White and the poor tend to be Black. That theory is true to an extent, but it misses a lot. Even within the highly educated social class (people over the age of 25 with a bachelors degree or higher), DC and the region appear to be extremely segregated.

The "Hot Spots" (and "Cold Spots") depicted above in red and blue are the result of complex a spatial-statistical analysis/magic trick done in ArcGIS that I don't fully understand the mechanics of, but I do know how to interpret it: 
  • Educated Blacks are concentrated in Prince George's County, DC's Ward 4, and southeastern Montgomery County. 
  • Educated Whites are clustered in the western half of DC, southwestern Montgomery County, and Fairfax County.
Mathematically, there is no reason that these clusters can't occupy the same space. In a racially integrated but socially segregated environment, you would find highly educated whites and blacks in the same census tracts. Clearly this is not the norm in the DMV.

To be fair, there are some places where White and Black college grads live side by side:

This map uses an invented indicator, equal to the number of college grads of the minority race (white or black) divided by the number of college grads of the majority race, multiplied by the number of total college grads, white or black. The closer a neighborhood is to having a 1 to 1 ratio of educated whites to educated blacks, the higher the score. And the more highly educated folks the neighborhood has overall, the higher the score. So an area with a high score on this indicator will be both highly educated and diverse.

Chances are, few clusters in the country can boast such a diverse population of highly educated residents as the places listed here, so we've got that going for us. But there's too much blue.

DC's (and America's) segregation problem is social, economic, and racial, all at the same time. And as a number of commenters noted, the real question is what can we do about it?

Apart and Parcel

Originally Printed/Posted in the Washington City Paper on August 9, 2012:
Apart and Parcel: What Housing Segregation in D.C. Looks Like

For the first time since a brief moment in the 1950s, neither African-Americans nor Caucasians account for a majority of D.C.’s population. The District of Columbia is at its most diverse, but the city remains grossly divided, a reality noted with such frequency that it threatens to become a cliché. That division, though, isn’t just rhetorical or political: It’s geographic.

The persistence of black-white residential segregation reflects the nation’s inability to fully overcome the legacy of slavery, and it negatively affects education attainment, race relations, and productivity. Despite nearly a century of legal and legislative struggles to integrate our blocks, segregation by race is still the norm in the District.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Big K Redevelopment

Named for a defunct corner liquor store with an enormous “K” painted on its side, the true significance of the Big K site in Historic Anacostia lies in the three decrepit but once majestic wood-frame historic homes that sit on contiguous lots adjacent to the Big K itself.

Last week, the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) released a Solicitation for Offers for the development of the Big K Site. A Solicitation for Offers (SFO) is essentially the same as a Request for Proposals (RFP), an equally bureaucratic but slightly more familiar term. 

The first Agency Goal listed in the solicitation is, “Consistency with the recommendations of the Big K Community Advisory Group.” The Community Advisory Group was guided by two relatively conservative DHCD-commissioned market studies (housing & commercial). For the most part, the recommendations are straightforward and predictable:

• Desire mixed-use project;
• Project that will support/benefit the community;
• Prefer commercial use over housing;
• Full-service restaurant was top choice for retail; and
• Interest in having cultural use / community garden on-site

In this case, the desired mix of uses appears to exclude residential. The SFO states specifically that the Advisory Group recommends no housing at all. However, the solicitation also gives weight to the Comprehensive Plan, which values this type of metro-accessible site, located on a commercial corridor, as an opportunity for higher density mixed-use development that does include housing. More importantly, adding households within walking distance of this site will increase the demand for retail goods and services, raising the feasibility of the project’s commercial component.

Physically, the site has some constraints, though none are insurmountable. DHCD only owns four of the five properties on the block. The one that it does not control is currently operated as a used car lot. Prospective developers could sweeten their offers by gaining control of the car lot and proposing to pair it with the adjacent lot (2228 MLK) included in the solicitation that contains a historic single family home approved to be razed (Solution 1, below).  

The Big K liquor store on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave and Morris Rd (2252 MLK) lies outside of the Historic District, but considering the historic nature of the overall site and the community’s desire for preservation, it may be wise for a developer to save as much of the building as possible. With that said, there is still plenty of room for the structure to grow up and out (Solution 2), and even laterally behind the adjacent homes (Solution 3).  

The two remaining detached, single family homes (2234 and 2238 MLK) are located smack in the middle of their respective lots and must be preserved. But why not move them up to the lot line (Solution 4)? If the additional density gained justifies the cost, this may be an option worth exploring.

Ultimately, what gets built at the Big K will depend on the creativity of the development teams that respond to the solicitation, particularly in their ability to lure commercial tenants and make effective use of the plentiful incentives available at this site. While DHCD does not explicitly offer a subsidy beyond, presumably, selling the property for less than the appraised value, the project may be able to take advantage of Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits, and/or Tax Increment Financing. Plus, if a high quality proposal is received and championed by residents of Anacostia, the Mayor and Council may be able to find a way to make it work financially via grants or tax abatement.

Here’s to hoping the Big K gets some visionary responses, and why wouldn’t it? Developers, architects, and preservationists should be drooling over the opportunity to be able to say that their project triggered the revitalization of Historic Anacostia.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vacant Properties and Neighborhood Reinvestment

On March 30, 2010, three teenagers were shot to death while hanging out in front of an abandoned, 4-unit apartment building at 4022 South Capitol Street SE. Last week, five men were convicted of murder for their involvement in the string of events that culminated in the deadly attack. The fact that the victims had been gathered on the stoop of, and presumably at some point inside of, a vacant and unsecured building neglected by its owner has nothing to do with why they were killed. But that this was the setting of the worst massacre in recent District history is symbolic: the scene represented the intersection of decades of disinvestment in both people and place. The disinvestment in the young men who perpetrated the attacks, their families and the institutions responsible for forming them is the truly devastating issue here. However, this post will focus only on the disinvestment in the built environment - itself the cumulative result of numerous systemic forces (see White Flight, Black Flight, Redlining, Blockbusting, Wage Stagnation, etc.) - and some of the current challenges that impede reinvestment in neighborhoods like this one.

There are 2,232 addresses on the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs' (DCRA) vacant and blighted properties list, the principal data source for the maps above. The list includes 4022 South Capitol Street as well as the two apartment buildings immediately adjacent to it. These are not normal short term vacancies, simply between leases. They are the buildings that are unleasable in their current state of disrepair. Some are bank owned, some are city owned. Some have absentee owners, some have local owners who live in poverty and have no means with which to fix up their assets. In some cases, the owner listed on the title is deceased and there are multiple heirs to the property. Many require a significant investment of time and money before they can again be occupied.

The purpose of DCRA's list is to identify targets for the District's first line of defense against dilapidated buildings: taxation. By threatening to raise property taxes to 5% for vacant properties and 10% for blighted properties, the city encourages the owner to either bring the property up to code or sell it to someone who will, probably at a price less than what the owner would otherwise be willing to accept. Ultimately, if the owner neither takes action nor pays the elevated taxes, the property goes to tax sale and is awarded to the highest bidder. If no one bids, ownership rights go to the city, but that doesn't mean that a fresh title magically appears in the name of the District of Columbia. The District, like any other winning bidder, must first go through foreclosure proceedings, sorting through existing liens on the property and attempting to resolve any other title issues that exist. In other words, no one, least of all the District government, wants it to get to that point. This approach is a relatively new, boutique initiative that seems to have promise.To better understand how the program works, you've gotta read Lydia DePillis' narrative and analysis.

In the grander scheme of things, there are really three variables to consider in relation to the rehabilitation or redevelopment of nuisance properties:
  1. Acquisition Cost - the cost of purchasing the property, which may include substantial legal fees, and interest or investor payments on borrowed money.
  2. Redevelopment Cost - site preparation (potentially including demolition), design and construction costs, interim maintenance and taxes, debt payments.
  3. Income from the Redeveloped Property - the income that the property generates once it is redeveloped and operational, whether in the form of net operating income if the owner chooses to lease it out, or income from the sale of the property minus any costs associated with the sale.
For redevelopment to make sense, the sum of the first two variables must be less than the third, and when it doesn't, the free market won't mitigate vacant properties and blight. 

The first two solutions presented require a direct taxpayer subsidy - is it justified? It is easier to quantify the costs associated with rehabilitating blighted properties than it is to quantify the benefits. The broken windows theory suggests that blight can encourage and support illegal activities, but it is difficult to measure to what extent that is the case. Blight may lower surrounding property values and deter new investment. It can also contribute to the stigmatization of a neighborhood if dilapidated properties are seen as representative of the entire community. Across the country, the consensus seems to be that investing public funds in individual nuisance properties in order to battle the negative effects of disinvestment is a worthy cause.

The Gray Administration, like previous administrations, uses a combination of the three strategies discussed in the previous graphic to combat long-term vacancy and blight, though there seems to be an intentional focus on Solution #3. Dedicating a greater share of energy, resources and talking points to large scale economic development projects, which in Ward 8 tend to revolve around St. Elizabeths, is certainly a more glamorous approach and it probably will have a greater impact on the District's bottom line in the long run.

However, it is interesting that there has not been a more coordinated, ambitious, or heavily-funded government proposal for dealing directly with vacant and blighted properties in the parts of the District where they are most concentrated. After all, this is the topic that Ward 8 residents ranked as their top development-related priority at the Ward 8 Community Summit, and unfortunately it is an issue that will forever be intertwined with the tragic events that occurred two years ago at 4022 South Capitol St SE.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Riverside at Poplar Point Place

Pobrecito de Jeff Epperson.

Dude bought some land on Poplar Point, intending to develop a half-billion dollar mixed-use project. He tried to get Walmart, then he tried to lure a Homeland Security contractor. But eight years later he hasn't drawn a tenant or acquired the lots that separate the parcels he does own. Now his land is going to auction.

Presumably some new speculator will purchase these 10 properties for the same reason Epperson bought them in the first place: The city and federal governments have visionary plans for just about every square inch of land in all directions around the site.

(1) Poplar Point; (2) Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge; (3) Barry Farm; (4) St. Elizabeths West; (5) St. Elizabeths East; (Not Shown) Anacostia Streetcar Extension.

But this can't all happen at once, and you hear much less buzz these days about Poplar Point than you do about the District-owned portion of Saint Elizabeths, or nearby Skyland, due in no small part to the selected Poplar Point developer withdrawing its winning proposal three years ago. And the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) won't even begin to think about breaking ground on the South Capitol Street project until the three new spans of the 11th Street Bridge, located just upstream, are complete. The new Sheridan Station is a nice reminder (though not without problems of its own) that the Barry Farm plan is underway, but at last week's budget oversight hearing, the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) stated that the redevelopment plan from 2006 needs to be updated and his office will soon solicit a new master planner for the site.

One dark horse player to keep an eye on at Tuesday's auction is Bob Nixon. The Hollywood producer-turned-activist and founder of the local non-profit Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) believes that developing the wooded Poplar Point would be an act of environmental injustice, and he put up this sign on the the two lots his organization owns to prove it:

Earth Conservation Corps will be an important ally to the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) in achieving a number of the objectives outlined in its new Vision for a Sustainable DC, such as cleaning up the Anacostia River. But Nixon's zeal to keep Poplar Point au naturale conflicts with Mayor Gray's sustainability goal of adding 250,000 net new residents to the city's population, many of whom will presumably live in new neighborhoods and housing units created on previously undeveloped sites like Poplar Point.

No matter what, the federal government will require that the Poplar Point developers retain at least 70 acres of parkland, but if Nixon wants to block development completely, he could start by taking his checkbook up to the office of Alex Cooper Auctioneers.

On Tuesday, Epperson and company will say adios to the bulk of their Poplar Point holdings, owned officially by Poplar Point North LLC, Poplar Point South LLC, and Poplar Point One LLC. Interestingly though, they will not be letting go of three small properties owned by Poplar Point East LLC (to the author's knowledge, there is no Poplar Point West LLC), suggesting that the persistent developer may not be quite ready to give up on Poplar Point completely.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Prince George's Pinkskins

This Thursday the Washington Redskins will draft RGIII, probably the most exciting thing to happen to the team since Sean Taylor inverted an opposing punter. In urban planning circles, a much more pressing issue is that the Mayor and some Councilmembers want to spend public money to entice the team to build a practice facility on Reservation 13, a master-planned new neighborhood near RFK, in hopes that the team might someday relocate back to the District from Landover. For the politically correct, it's hard to have any conversation about the 'Skins without noting the obvious: the team name is kinda racist.

Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 14 (44%) are named after animals (5 birds, 4 cats, and 2 horses, plus the Rams, Bears, and Dolphins) and one is named after an inanimate object (Jets). The remaining 17 are named after some form of Homosapien:

The Redskins are unique in that they are the only team named after a non-mythical race of people. In some enlightened, hypothetical future universe our city's team would succumb to a grassroots movement and choose a superior moniker, but for now, public disapproval is quenched by a chuckle-inducing opportunity to brainstorm alternate team names

While RGIII will have to show me some results before I consider transferring my allegiance to his new team, I will without hesitation jump on this renaming bandwagon and toss out my own geographically-appropriate proposal: Hail to the Prince George's Pinkskins!

Friday, April 20, 2012

2323 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE

If you have ever traveled down Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE in Anacostia, you may be familiar with Morgan's Family Fish Fry. One order of flounder at Morgan's contained about 17 fried fillets, over-stuffed into a standard Styrofoam tray. Now Morgan's is no more. I first noticed the absence of activity at 2323 MLK a couple of months ago, and the For Sale sign confirms it.

This is one of the larger properties on the business strip to hit the market recently, and it offers the advantageous combination of being located close to the Metro and outside of the historic district (meaning there are fewer restrictions on redevelopment). If the eventual purchaser follows in the footsteps of most commercial property owners in the neighborhood, he/she will hold it vacant indefinitely, speculating that at some point in the future the redeveloped property will command the high rents that it would need to justify the development costs and still turn a profit.

Before this week, I had heard the term Crowdsourcing, but then all of a sudden it got tons of hype, specifically as it relates to having neighborhood residents identify a preferred retailer for a site. Elahe Izadi thinks it's classist; Richard Layman thinks it's stupid; I just think it's fun.

So, based on absolutely zero reality, here are four hypothetical options for this site. They range from optimistic to pessimistic, and each has impacts associated with it that should be taken into consideration. 

A) Redeveloped with Busboys and Poets restaurant on the ground floor and three stories of subsidized rental apartments above. Creates jobs and slightly increases property values (and taxes) for homeowners in the surrounding neighborhood, but also raises commercial and residential rents. Increases traffic and night-time noise, and makes it more difficult to find street parking within a few blocks of the site.

B) Redeveloped as a Five Guys restaurant and a bank on the ground floor, with three stories of commercial office space above. Creates a number of retail jobs for neighborhood residents, but most office jobs will already be filled by people from across the region. Increases traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave and Howard Road during the morning, lunch-time, and afternoon rush hours.

C) Existing building reused as a Wendy's restaurant with drive-through window. Increases traffic slightly throughout the day and creates some entry-level jobs. No impact on property values, and does not increase rental rates in nearby homes or lease rates for neighboring businesses. What good is a fancy restaurant if I can't afford to eat there anyways?

D) Site remains vacant and parking lot is used informally by patrons of nearby businesses. No impact on traffic on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave, and lack of development prevents rents from increasing for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. I like the neighborhood exactly how it is, and I don't want any changes that will attract new residents or increase my cost of living!

Which option would you prefer?

Monday, April 9, 2012

US Housing Subsidies: The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction + Some Scraps for the Poor

When you think of subsidized housing, you probably picture a scene from the PJs or The Wire. Don't. Funding for low-income housing accounts for only a small portion of government housing subsidies in the US.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) hasn't funded the construction of a new public housing unit since 1994. However, that hasn’t entirely halted Housing Authorities’ groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings: Between 1993 and 2010, HUD competitively awarded $6.7 billion in HOPE VI funds to demolish or redevelop the most distressed public housing projects across the country, creating housing developments with a mix of public housing and market rate units. While the initiative certainly improved the physical quality of the projects it reached, it also reduced the nation's public housing stock by 39,400 net units. Public housing refers to a specific type of low-income housing – properties developed, owned, and operated by a HUD-funded Housing Authority – and it is a dying breed. Instead, HUD now supports housing for low income families primarily through two mechanisms: (1) vouchers awarded to low-income households to supplement what they can afford to pay towards rent or a mortgage payment, and (2) privately-owned housing, the construction of which is partially or completely financed with public funds (grants or low/no-interest loans), that is reserved for low-income tenants or purchasers at a rate deemed affordable. When combined with local programs and regulations, the full list of subsidies (a term that I am using loosely to mean any intervention that makes a housing unit available at a price below the market rate) that specifically target low- or moderate-income households here in the District of Columbia looks something like this:

Supply-Side Subsidies - public money (or land) spent, granted or loaned (at a favorable rate) to develop or rehabilitate housing units that, in return, will only be rented or sold to low- or moderate-income households at a price they can afford:
Demand-Side Subsidies - tax dollars allocated, granted or loaned (at a favorable rate) to individuals and families to supplement their ability to pay for housing costs, including rent and mortgage payments, down-payments, and property taxes:
Zoning Regulations - rules or one-time determinations that require the construction of affordable housing units (rental or for sale) as part of a larger development, in exchange for government relaxation of applicable zoning restrictions.
  • Inclusionary Zoning (IZ)
  • Planned Unit Development (PUD) approval

Government deserves a cookie for the sheer number of low-income housing policies and programs it has implemented, but when you look at all housing subsidies dished out (not just those that target the poor), the above list only represent a drop in the bucket.

The Home Mortgage Interest Deduction

By far, the biggest government subsidy the government offers to help individuals and families pay for housing is the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID), which was claimed on about 26% of all DC individual tax returns. The Mortgage Interest Deduction allows homeowners to reduce their Adjusted Gross Income (what you pay taxes on) by the amount they paid towards interest on their first $1 million of home mortgage debt. Oh and BTW? You can also deduct the interest on your vacation home (just in case the debt on your primary residence doesn't get you to the million dollar cap). It’s easy to get caught up in semantics on this issue: Unlike a voucher, which is a direct government expenditure and therefore a more tangible subsidy, the MID is instead foregone government revenue, which is more politically palatable than a direct outlay, but serves the same purpose. Consider two scenarios: (A) getting $10 taken out of your paycheck before you ever see it; and (B) receiving full pay but then having to give $10 right back. If there is a difference between the two, then it is only psychological.

The cost of Home Mortgage Interest Deduction to the federal government amounts to a cool $100 billion dollars annually. Compare that to the annual budget of the biggest low income housing programs:

One natural reaction to these statistics is to suppose that, as an entitlement program available to all homeowners (about 2/3 of the country), the Mortgage Interest Deduction is likely a shallower subsidy disbursed to a much broader pool of recipients than something like Housing Choice Vouchers, which target a specific income range. That’s true to an extent, but it turns out that the biggest individual beneficiaries of the MID actually receive a greater (and more reliable) subsidy than recipients of housing vouchers.

Comparison of Vouchers and the Mortgage Interest Deduction Subsidy in DC

Based on approximate figures provided by the DC Housing Authority (DCHA), the average housing voucher in 2009 was worth $967 monthly. Most (at least 75%) vouchers are reserved for households earning no more than 30% of the Area Median Income, which today translates to a maximum of $32,250 (75 hours per week at minimum wage) for a family of four. Using the industry-standard assumption that households can afford to pay 30% of their income on housing, a family at the upper limit of this spectrum can afford to pay $806 per month for housing. Since most of the families eligible for vouchers earn less than the upper limit, it sounds about right that it would take $967 per month per household to get them into decent housing (Fair Market Rent for a 2BR home in DC is $1,506). This is a steep subsidy, and the overall federal low income housing budget is not astronomical only because, unlike food stamps or Medicaid, housing vouchers and public housing are not entitlement programs, meaning that even if you qualify, you may not receive the benefit. DCHA spends $130 million per year to provide vouchers to 11,200 households, but there are an additional 25,000 to 37,635 on the waiting list. 

In comparison, the average subsidy to a DC resident who claims the Mortgage Interest Deduction is $331. But unlike a voucher which increases with need, the MID subsidy rises in proportion to the cost of your home and your marginal tax rate. Take a look at who claims the deduction, and how much it costs the government, on average, for each income range:

Data Source:,,id=171535,00.html

Lower income households are less likely to claim the Mortgage Interest Deduction because (A) they are less likely to own their home, and (B) the sum of their itemized deductions (including mortgage interest payments) is less likely to exceed the standard deduction. The percentage of tax returns claiming the MID for each income range reflects this, with only 9% of households earning under $50k taking the deduction and 80% of households earning over $200k deducting their interest payments.

While the subsidy does increase with income, remember that there is a cap to the amount of interest that can be deducted (only that which is paid on mortgage debt up to $1 million). Here’s a hypothetical scenario to illustrate how one might achieve the maximum benefit from the MID: You take out a $1 million loan from the bank at 5% interest to buy a big-a$$ house. Over the first 5 years you would pay  $240,461 in interest on that loan (an average of  $48,092 per year). If you make earn enough money to buy a million dollar house (not extremely uncommon in DC), then your marginal tax rate is probably 35%. Because you can deduct your interest payments from your income, you reduce your tax burden by 0.35 x ~$48k: about $1,402 per month, or 1.5 times what the average voucher holder receives. What’s even more kush about this subsidy is that there is no waiting list, and the benefit never expires!

While affordable housing advocates and local politicians nobly debate over whether local tax money should be used to finance the construction of low-income units or for vouchers, the federal government continues its backwards system of giving homeowners (renters, of course, get nathan) a guaranteed subsidy that is disproportionately doled out to the rich. There are a number of ways we could reform the Mortgage Interest Deduction, for example by lowering the cap or by eliminating it completing, but no matter what, an understanding of the subsidy must inform our perception of welfare programs in this country and should be central to any discussion about housing policy.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Lunching in Ward 8

Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry said some stuff last week that angered anyone in his or her right mind. If there's an upside, it's that the statement triggered thoughtful responses on topics including race relations and economic justice. A much more mundane issue that I wish to explore here is that many people who live or spend time in Ward 8 think that the available food options suck.

There are lots of places that serve food in Ward 8. The problem is that many of them are school cafeterias, gas stations, corner stores, or warehouses that sell products to stock vending machines. Of the remainder, most are "delicatessens" - the Department of Health's fancy way of referring to what everyone else calls a carryout. There are 8 delicatessens/carryouts/mumbo-sauce-dispensaries owned by Asians within walking distance of Barry's office in Anacostia. If that bothers you, then you are a racist. However, if the fact that there are only 2 black-owned restaurants (a number that recently decreased from 4) in Downtown Ward 8 doesn't concern you, then you probably shouldn't expect to be elected to public office in the 94% African-American jurisdiction.

Anacostia is sparsely populated and its average resident is relatively low-income. This combination does not generate a competitive, varied retail market. Those who are dependent on the few restaurants that do exist get the shaft, because they pay the same price as they would in a market with a broader consumer base but for an inferior quality meal. Hopefully Barry and others whose gears this situation grinds will pursue more reasonable solutions than the one he proposed on Wednesday.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

How the Other Half Lives

Of all the baloney terms that get thrown around in planning meetings, "neighborhood character" might be my least favorite. Part of DC's "character" (I refuse to say it without quotation marks) is that it is racially and economically segregated, and is increasingly unaffordable to the average mortal. Any policy or tradition that reinforces this disgraceful reality should be revisited.

DC is a place where people want to live. There are jobs, universities, and plenty of cultural and recreational attractions. It is the type of diverse and stimulating environment that fosters innovation and tolerance, and we as a city should embrace anyone who wants to call the District home. And yet many of our policies impede the supply of housing from responding to the high demand in a way that might make housing more affordable.

Why can't you and 5 families buy a piece of land in Spring Valley and split it into 6 smaller, less expensive pieces and build 6 separate houses? Because that is incompatible with the "neighborhood character." Why can't a non-profit organization buy a property there and build subsidized apartments for low income families? Because apartments would negatively alter the "urban fabric." Apparently there is something inherently wrong with putting anything other than a mansion next to a mansion, because almost all zoning codes prohibit the mixing of uses and building typologies on the majority of the land under their jurisdiction.

American Community Survey 2005-2009 5-year estimates
DC GIS shapefiles (

Friday, March 23, 2012

Transit Oriented Housing

If you haven't heard an aspiring (or sitting) elected official in DC hype Transit Oriented Development (TOD), then you haven't been paying enough attention. And you certainly have not spent much time around city planners, for whom this buzz word is gospel.

DC is growing, and for the most part, that has people excited. The TOD philosophy professes that the majority of the new homes, workplaces, and amenities that are built to accommodate this growth should be located within walking distance of a metro station. Whether the DC of the future has 700,000 residents or 1.5 million, taking public transportation will be an increasingly attractive option if for no other reason than that the convenience of driving will decline; roads will be more congested and parking will be more expensive (unless prices are artificially suppressed at the expense of everything else). In other words, we won't all fit unless we travel more efficiently.

A companion term to TOD, which gets just about as much play from public administrators trying to sound savvy, is Mixed-Use. Land uses that generate lots of human activity (think retail, housing, offices) should be clustered together so that you don't have to waste unnecessary time (or emit pollutants) traveling between your daily activities, and so that there is a critical mass of activity to support infrastructure investments, whether public (metro) or private (restaurants and grocery stores).

If you live within walking distance of your job, then lucky you. But you probably don't. The next best thing (sorry cyclists) is to live near a metro station and to work near a different metro station, so you can get between the two using only one mode of transportation. Most of DC's jobs are located close to metro stations, but too much of its housing is not. The market and public policy have started to recognize this problem and a big percentage of new housing is being built close to transit stations and more densely concentrated than the norm (see Columbia Heights).

DC's population density is 9,856.5 people per square mile. From the perspective of mixed-use TOD advocates, there is really no excuse for a Metro station area to have a population density lower than the city average. And yet, there are 28 stations in DC or on the border that are below 9,856.5 residents per square mile. The worst offenders (Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, the Farraguts, L'Enfant, Metro Center...) are all in the Central Business District where office demand outbids residential for the limited space available, explaining the low population density, but the stations in the next-lowest tier (Fort Totten, Southern Avenue, Brookland, Anacostia) are located in predominantly residential neighborhoods. See the full list of stations below:

To maximize the utility of the Metro system, much of DC's future growth must occur around these underutilized stations (assuming land use restrictions on the city core aren't loosened). Over the weekend I am going to begin to look at how neighborhoods around the Anacostia Metro station might change over the coming years and decades as the surrounding population density increases. In the meantime, I wanted to share this data with anyone who might find it interesting.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Study Area Feedback

I am planning to do a land use and market analysis of the area around the Anacostia Metro station and the Downtown Anacostia retail corridor, and am hoping to get your feedback on the study area boundaries.

I want to capture the core retail market for the Martin Luther King. Jr. Ave business corridor between Good Hope Rd. and the Metro Station. That is, for whom is this business corridor the most convenient retail destination (and will continue to be the most convenient once Skyland and St. E's are built out - assuming development/retail options along MLK progress at the same pace)?

I chose the area shown below using the following steps:
1. Draw one mile buffer around the the entrances to the Anacostia metro station.
2. Exclude the Anacostia River and beyond.
3. Exclude Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.
4. Exclude St. Elizabeths campus and everything southwest of it.
5. Exclude area south of Suitland Pkwy.
6. Annex remaining properties slightly outside of 1 mile buffer but that couldn't logically be assigned to any other neighborhood.

Now here's where the cutoff points get arbitrary:
7. As you travel east on Good Hope Road, eventually Skyland becomes the convenient destination.
8. Similarly, the north side of Fairlawn is better served by the Pennsylvania Ave SE retail corridor. I tried to avoid splitting census blocks (for data purposes) which is why the proposed boundary deviates from the 1 mile buffer.
So with that in mind, should I make any modifications to the boundaries or does this look copacetic?

What is the most appropriate way to refer to this area?
It covers at least a portion of several neighborhoods:
  • Fairlawn
  • Anacostia
  • Fort Stanton
  • Hillsdale
  • Barry Farm
  • Poplar Point (future neighborhood)
Calling an area "Anacostia" when you actually mean a larger geography always offends people; calling it the "Study Area" is too boring; and calling it "PopLawnCostiaFortBarrySdale" is ridiculous.

"Greater Anacostia" seems tame enough. Any commenters have a better proposal?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Los Latinos en DC

Close to completing this latest graphic, I took a break to catch up on my reading and encountered a @housingcomplex post informing me that my breaking analysis was 6 months late: See the original story via @lizfarmerDC. Oops.

Well, Latino migration patterns within DC are interesting story worth retelling and expanding on. Here's my version:

For me, the real story here is what is happening in Ward 7. A shift from Ward 1 to neighboring Wards 4 and 5 makes perfect sense, but why are so many Latinos moving to Ward 7? Is it a combination of the availability of affordable housing and proximity to Prince George's County's Latino concentrations? Please share your hypotheses in the comments. I hope to do some more research on this soon.

Country of Origin Data

You will uncover many interesting nuggets if you dig deeper into the Census data. For example, take a look at the breakdown of the Latino population by national origin:

Why did 900+ Iberians start identifying themselves as "Spaniards" ten years after calling themselves "Spanish?" Is there even a difference?

Except this Spain-related anomoly, all the groups that had a decline in population were "Others": i.e. "Other Central American," "Other South American," or "All Other Other." Who are these others? I believe all Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America are included on this list. Perhaps speakers of other Latin-derived languages  (i.e. Brazilians, Haitians, French Guianans) in the region identified as Latino even though the Census tells them not to. (As an aside, the Eurocentric Census definition of "Hispanic or Latino" is cringe-worthy - "A person of ... Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race" - in that it blatantly ignores the complex multiculturalism of the region. I'm sure @CarlosQC would be happy to address disputes on this subject.)

So unless there was a mass exodus of Brazilians from DC, chances are that most of the "Others" simply did not identify a specific country of origin in 2000, but did in 2010, potentially due to better education/outreach on behalf of the Census. If that is the case, then a significant portion of the increase for each individual country may be artificial. Even if the country-level statistics are inflated, the relative values can be useful.

The number of DC Latinos from South America increased at a higher rate (105%) than did the number from Mexico (67%), Central America (48%), or the Spanish-speaking Caribbean (51%).Overall, the fastest growing groups are Hondurans and Venezuelans, though several other South American nations are close behind. It would be interesting to see if there is any correlation between these rates and some indicator in the  origin-countries, such as the employment rate, political or economic instability, crime, etc.

Note: All data used for this post is from the 2000 and 2010 Decennial Censuses, SF-1.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Native Washingtonians

Let me preface this post by admitting to the conclusion you will likely draw after reading the introductory paragraph: I am jealous of Native Washingtonians. My consolation is that I am from the equally great SF Bay Area, and if I ever move back I will wield that status like a tyrant.

Click here for PDF version of infographic