Thursday, December 19, 2013

DC's Shrinking Share of the Regional Population

In 1950, the year of the decennial census in which DC's population peaked, the District of Columbia was home to 47% of the region's residents. Over the next six decades, the region grew and the District's population decreased.

There's nothing particularly special about what has happened in the DC region. Suburbanization happened everywhere. So the following hypothetical is a kind of pointless "what if?" What if, from 1950-2010, DC proper's population had grown at the same rate as that of the metropolitan area?

From 1950-2010, the Washington region grew from 1,701,937 residents to 5,582,170, while the population of the District fell from 802,178 to 601,723. Now that the city is growing again, some are feeling cramped, feeling that the new residents are forcing out existing residents.

This notion that there is not enough room for everyone suggests that we are somehow approaching maximum capacity for the city, which is not completely untrue, given existing land use regulations. Under current zoning, and factoring the development of unused sites, maybe the population capacity of DC is 800,000; maybe 1 million? But given that restriction, the region will continue to grow horizontally and the District will continue to become home to a smaller share of the metropolitan population.

Suppose none of the factors that caused cities to suburbanize had ever occurred. (I realize that is equivalent to asking you to ignore a half century of American history, but just play along.) If, from 1950 to 2010, DC had maintained its share of the regional population, we would now have approximately 2.6 million people living in our city, making the city more than 4 times as dense as we are today.

If we are outraged by even the thought of easing the city's height restrictions a few stories, then this scenario must sound apocalyptic. And DC would certainly have a different character. But it is interesting to imagine what sort of benefits it potentially could have on the environment and the affordability of housing, two increasingly distressful dilemmas we face today.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Underground Economy: D.C.’s Richest and Poorest Metro Stops

Originally Printed/Posted in the Washington City Paper on April 25, 2013: 
The Underground Economy: D.C.’s Richest and Poorest Metro Stops

Metro doesn’t just run from one part of town to another; it bridges some enormous gaps in income around the D.C. region. Median annual household income along the subway system ranges from $147,630 around the Friendship Heights station on the Red Line to $31,735 in Congress Heights on the Green Line. These figures are from the American Community Survey’s 2011 5-Year Estimates. Each number represents an average of the median household incomes for all populated census tracts within a half mile of the station. (This was inspired by a New Yorker project that mapped income inequality on New York subway lines.)

The most volatile route in our system is the Orange Line, reaching upward of $142,000 at East Falls Church and bottoming out at around $34,000 18 stops later at Minnesota Ave. Just across the Anacostia River from what your realtor will have you believe is Capitol Hill, Minnesota Ave. is also one of the two adjacent stations that boasts the highest level of income inequality between next-door neighbors; the Stadium-Armory station’s surroundings have an annual household income of about $88,000, more than two and a half times Minnesota Ave’s.

Here's another look:

Monday, April 15, 2013

America's Most Efficient City Is... Miami?

DC may be tops when it comes to green roofs, but the region stands out less on a more impactful environmental indicator: how efficiently our infrastructure is laid out.

The purpose of infrastructure is to connect people, goods, information, and services. When people live close together, less infrastructure is needed to make these connections. Consider one type of infrastructure, perhaps the most representative from an urban planning perspective: roads.

Roads cost money to build and maintain. Movement along those roads creates pollution and costs the users time. All else equal, it is more efficient to build, use, and maintain fewer roads per person.

Which of the 12 statistical areas in the United States with more than 5 million inhabitants has the greatest number of people per mile of arterial roads? That honor goes to the Miami Metropolitan Area, perhaps not by choice but rather by geographic necessity, tightly bound by ocean to the east and the Everglades to the west.

In contrast, the Atlanta Combined Statistical Area (CSA), the most sprawling of the 12 regions, has roughly the same population as Miami, but its roads total a distance nearly 3 times as long. Wouldn't it be great if we could spend all the money that goes to maintaining those unnecessary miles of road on something more productive?

The DC-Baltimore-Northern Virginia CSA ranks right in the middle, at number six, just behind Los Angeles, a fact that local environmentalists probably won't find especially comforting. At least we have both Houston and Dallas beat.

Miami is the only one of the largest metro areas not to have multiple Metropolitan Statistical Areas making up one larger CSA. Does that account for the change? No; even if you look at the individual Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas that make up those 11 CSAs, Miami's still has the most people per road mile.

The gap between the Miami metro area and the second place, New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA, is closer, and without Ventura County and the Inland Empire, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA metro area jumps to #3, but otherwise little changes in the calculation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

White Privilege and Trayvon Martin

From one year ago, originally posted here.

3 years ago I was walking through a public housing project in DC because it was the quickest way home from the post office. As I rounded a corner, a pair of plain clothes cops in bullet-proof vests sprinted towards me, started frisking me forcefully, and demanded to know what I was doing there. I could see the pleasure in their eyes, convinced that they were about to book an arrest. I mean, why else would a white boy be in the projects if not to buy drugs? The cops’ satisfaction faded as their search uncovered a book of stamps and my driver’s license, substantiating my alibi and proving that I lived in the neighborhood.

Grudgingly, they let me go. The experience was terrifying. I walked the last few blocks to my apartment trembling violently, similar to how I had felt years earlier when I got robbed at gunpoint. But soon my anxiety passed and I archived the event as a funny story to tell my family over Thanksgiving dinner, knowing that what had happened was an anomaly; it was the first and last time I would ever be mistreated or wrongly accused because of my skin color.

 It’s not that I’m not used to being treated differently because of my race - I get racially profiled on a daily basis. Tourists go out of their way to ask me directions instead of asking the Black police officer standing next to them.  Elderly Black men call me “sir,” even though I am 28 and like to shop at thrift stores. A while back, a man 20 years my senior approached me bashfully on the metro and asked if I would review his resume. I was wearing basketball shorts and a hoodie. The grocery store I shop at just started checking customers’ receipts as they exit, but I get waved through every time. Plus, I have no trouble sneaking into a second movie at the theater after the one I paid for lets out. The difference between me and my Black peers is that when people see me on the street, they immediately assume I am an upstanding citizen and not a lurking home invader or iPhone snatcher. I am racially profiled in a way that has absolutely no negative impact on my safety or my psyche.

 My white privilege isn’t responsible for my accomplishments in life, but it certainly has given me a boost. Society trusts me and has faith in my abilities. Every day I experience instances of positive reinforcement from strangers, colleagues, and superiors, which cumulatively give me a psychological, and sometimes tangible, advantage over my Black peers. Only once in my life have I been received with distrust and suspicion based solely on my appearance, and even though I was not stripped, handcuffed, beaten, or shot, the experience still felt like an assault.

Dismantling white privilege would require major attitudinal and institutional changes, and will only occur over a long period of time, if at all. In the short term, there are three things that I can do as an individual to advance the movement:

1. Acknowledge that when people racially profile me, they treat me in a way that makes me feel good about myself, and occasionally saves me time and money, but that when Black men are racially profiled, it more often results in insult or humiliation and can endanger their safety.

2. Encourage other White people to recognize and admit the same: That, as individuals, they benefit from white privilege.

3. Demand justice when racial profiling is taken to the extreme and results in a heinous crime. George Zimmerman must be arrested and tried for the racially motivated murder of Trayvon Martin. Anyone protecting him should be charged with harboring a fugitive, and the police cover-up of the murder must be investigated and prosecuted.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DC Home Sales 2012

According to data from the DC Office of Tax and Revenue, 5,372 single family homes or condo units were purchased at fair market value in the District of Columbia in 2012. The geographic distribution of these homes and their sales prices follows some generally unsurprising patterns.

Homes are expensive west of Rock Creek Park; Condo sales are concentrated in the core of the city and along certain major arterial roads; and the markets for this specific type of residential real estate lagged east of the Anacostia River and along Eastern Avenue. These maps make a statement about where mobile homeowners and investors are choosing to live and risk their money in the District, which in turn reflects the perceived existing or potential quality of life in those neighborhoods. They also provide insight into the District's housing stock.

Neighborhoods with high concentrations of apartment buildings, whether 4 units or 400 units, will not have a dominant presence on the maps. Turnover rates and neighborhood density also influence these visualizations, as do many other factors that readers will surely suggest in the comments.

Some notes about the data: The above total includes 2,286 condominiums (horizontal or vertical) and 3,086 single family homes (attached, detached, or semi-detached). Some of these may have been sold more than once in the calendar year, but because the figures only reflect the most recent sale, those cases only count once.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington

Update: This visualization hasn't gone over very well. Hopefully I can at least get a shout-out on Cartastrophe.

Comments from Greater Greater Washington

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The High Cost of Strict Zoning

Urban land is expensive where demand for floor space is high but supply is limited. When firms and households can't afford a rent inflated by high land costs, they move elsewhere, resulting in long, polluting commutes, new infrastructure costs and revenue and job loss for the city. Businesses that do stay - from law firms to grocery stores to daycares - pass the real estate costs on to their clients, increasing the cost of living for all of us. So does it really make sense to regulate development so strictly? It depends.

For example, the map closest to the bottom in the graphic above shows that there is tremendous pressure to upzone and develop Yards Park, but most would agree that the social value of an active waterfront public space outweighs the potential environmental and economic benefits that development could bring.

Across town, the Wesley Heights overlay zone strictly regulates the bulk of the buildings within its boundaries for the sake of preserving the neighborhood character.  Is it ethical for the city government to mandate, essentially, that no home be built on less than $637,500 worth of land in certain residential neighborhoods?

The largest concentration of overly restrictive zoning (from an economic perspective) appears to be downtown, along Pennsylvania Ave and K Streets NW. If we value our designated open spaces, and won't concede the exclusivity of certain neighborhoods, but understand the environmental and economic benefits of compact development, then isn't downtown as good a place as any to accommodate the growth this city needs?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

More on $3,000 Rents

Over the past week I have developed an unhealthy obsession with the concept of paying $36,000 annually for shelter, with no equity or tax deductions to show for it. So here is one more tidbit on high rents in the District of Columbia.

Between 2006 and 2010, 169 District households (remember that only a sample of households were surveyed) told the Census Bureau they pay an amount equal to at least $3,000, in 2010 dollars, in gross rent every month. The demographic that these households represent likely captures a diverse range of people, from high-income loft dwelling bachelors like John Wall, to bands of 4-plus entry level nonprofit staffers united by Craigslist.

While the sample size behind these statistics is too small to make any concrete conclusions, the relative figures below give a sense of who's paying $3k:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Week in Review

How far does $250,000 go?

Speaking in favor of limiting property tax increases for DC households, Jack Evans told the City Paper,"$250,000 in Washington, that's a lot of money, but it doesn't get you very far here." Compared to what? That amount might buy you less here than in Tulsa, but it absolutely goes further than an annual household budget of less than $250k, which is what approximate 93% of District households earn.

Ten seconds of human interaction will reveal an enlightening secret: everyone thinks they are struggling. The more money you have, the more you spend. After mortgage and car payments, private school tuition, restaurant bills, travel expenses, and retirement savings contributions, even the rich feel stressed financially. But policy should be based on data and not anecdotes, and the data shows that nearly a quarter of District households earn no more than one-tenth of the amount Evans classifies as meager.

Is Brookland shabby?

Annie Lowrey's critique of Washington's economic success has the District chattering, in part because of how she characterizes Brookland. "Shabby" and "decidedly unhip" are too subjective to evaluate, but we can work with the claim that the neighborhood is mostly lower-middle-class. 

There are five census tracts that (arguably) are at least partially included in Brookland. The median household incomes of the tracts range from $50,500 to $72,587, according to the 2010 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. In 2010, the Area Median Income for the D.C. metro area was $103,500, and a household of four people earning between $51,750 and $82,800 was considered low income by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Using this standard, it is probably safe to call Brookland predominantly low-middle-class. Whether HUD's standard is a good one is another question.

How common is it to pay $3,000 in rent?

Lowrey's article also suggests that Washington's yuppie newcomers are quick to shell out three grand for an amenity-rich crash pad. But data indicates that only 2.2% of District renters pay that amount or more. 

Since her article looks at the Washington region and not just D.C., let's include Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria, Montgomery, and Prince George's Counties. The statistic only increases ever so slightly.

While the $3,000 rent seems to be mostly a myth, Washington-area homeowners do pay outrageous sums towards their mortgages, with close to 20% of mortgage-paying residents of the District and the region (including only those counties listed above) spending at least this much. So let's say Lowrey is half right on this one.


Update: Comments on Greater Greater Washington suggest that $2700-$2900 might be a more realistic high end rental rate for apartments. Perhaps Lowrey rounded up to $3000? That does not seem unreasonable. 

If "$3000" actually means $2500+ (rounding to the nearest thousand), then more than twice as many area renters are in this category:

  • 5.07% of D.C. renters pay at least $2,500 in monthly rent.
  • 4.84% of regional renters pay that much.

Also, the ACS data used is adjusted to 2010 dollars. Survey responses from previous years are adjusted up to account for inflation,  but not for steeper boom-induced increases.