Search This Blog

Friday, August 22, 2008

Affordable Housing

Just Up The Pike, who often writes about Moderately Priced Dwelling Units (MPDU's, a county initiative to provide more affordable housing) in eastern Montgomery County, recently wrote a post where he referred to eastern MoCo as a "dumping ground" for cheap housing. There's much controversy over MDPU's as the county struggles to walk the line of providing affordable housing while catering to the affluent populace of the county. Often it becomes a heated argument.

I work with a lot of families from MDPU's along US 29. I don't think the issue is with smaller, affordable housing bringing lower income residents, but with how the housing is laid out. Clearly there is not enough affordable housing in the county, otherwise we wouldn't be seeing things like this. JUTP provides a great take on ancillary dwelling units in traditional suburban neighborhoods, which in my opinion are a very good thing. But they will not satisfy the need for afforable housing in the region.

Briggs Chaney is a great example of how poorly MDPU's and other "affordable housing" can be thrown down into the suburban landscape. It is somewhat dense, but car oriented. It is an area that is seriously lacking in amenities. But thousands of people cram into garden apartments that isolate the lower middle class in a bubble of "lower class-ness", disconnected from their neighbors. If these MDPU's are for lower income residents, why do virtually all of them assume the occupants will own a car? None of them in East MoCo are near Metro stations. Often it is cumbersome to leave the apartment complex by foot. They absolutely discourage walking and transit.

This causes a number of problems from an urbanist standpoint. It creates traffic, wastes land, and is overall inefficient. But from a socio-economic standpoint, it lowers the quality of life of the occupants. Forcing car ownership (and more importantly, more car trips) creates a financial strain on people living in these complexes. Their concentration and isolation effectively make them watered down housing projects. And they're all over the region. Areas like this leave people to fester without mobility or cultural enrichment, and it's a given that there will be a subsequent rise in crime.

Why not try an experiment with MDPU's in a dense grid layout near a major bus route? Throw a discount grocery store and some essential commerce within walking distance and see if we don't create a neighborhood where lower income residents don't seem quite so scary to the folks in the McMansions on the other side of the highway. Scaled, walkable communities for lower income residents increase the residents' economic power, thereby allowing them to contribute more economically to the community around them, raising the quality of life, making their communities fit better into the fabric of the region.

Sequestering lower income residents to a concentrated homogeneous development that is isolated from the rest of the community and near few jobs has been done before. In the old days they called these developments "housing projects" and they were colossal failures. Cabrini Green in Chicago proved that mixed income housing is the best way to go. But we must remember that dropping a couple of isolated garden apartments in the middle of a bunch of McMansions is not mixed-income housing.

Good places to start, perhaps:
-The mall in Wheaton would be a great place to transform into a mixed-use live-work-shop area, with MDPU's to cater to the sizable Central American and Southeast Asian populations there. It's also right on top of transit.
-The empty space across the train tracks from Montgomery College in Rockville would be great. It's close to Derwood Industrial Park, and a Metro station could be placed right there.
-In PG, Brentwood and North Brentwood along Route 1 are full of empty industrial buildings. This is a major bus route with good access into the city. Couldn't there be some affordable apartments placed fronting the street, perhaps with some ground floor retail?
-In the District, the layout is there in most of the city. But Ward 8 looks more like a suburb than anything else. I don't believe this area needs gentrification so much as a better urban design. Keep placing affordable housing down there. Just make more efficient use of the land.
-Alexandria should include affordable housing in the Potomac Yards development. This might be in the works, I don't know. The same is true for Konterra.
-Fairfax County ought to look into the placement of affordable housing in Tysons Corner after the Silver Line is built.
-Have ideas? Share them.

Mixed use transit oriented development is a good thing. It works all over the region, and it creates a much more efficient cost of living. Sprinkling garden apartments in spread out areas far from decent transit, commerce, jobs, and amenities will only perpetuate a cycle of poor for the lower income residents of Montgomery County and the DC Metropolitan area.


ibc said...

Have ideas? Share them.

Sure: reserve affordable housing in DC for firemen, police, teachers, and families of good students.

Market priced housing for everyone else.

Richard Layman said...

by eradicating industrially zoned land you crowd out industrial uses so that's not necessarily a bad thing. But there are many opportunities to create better affordable housing in terms of design and management. It doesn't necessarily have to be crap. Charleston, SC offers examples.

Anyway, the east MoCo will change with the development of the Purple Line and rearticulation of transit in the areas impacted by it (comparable to what RideOn did once the Red Line opened).

There are many great opportunities going forward.

Maybe, in my consulting side of things, I'll even get to work on some of them i.e., Langley Park and along New Hampshire Ave.

But demand greatness from the outset and you have a better chance of achieving it.

Richard Layman said...

I meant to write that crowding out indus. uses is not necessarily a good thing.

Dave Murphy said...

I say give preference to public servants, but the idea is to make cheap market-rate housing in a more progressive layout.

Richard- I'd like to hear more on your opinion about crowding out industrial zoning. I don't see the problem with it on favored corridors, but I'm interested in what you'd have to say.

Richard Layman said...

there is so little industrial land, granted some places like Baltimore have excess, and by converting it you make industrial uses (PDR) much more difficult to site. Plus, by mixing in residents you create natural antagonisms.

Is there really a land shortage, or a shortage in vision on how land, especially for affordable housing, is developed.

Anyway, the crowding out thing is basic Jane Jacobs. If you no longer have a large stock of cheap industrial buildings, you can't maintain low rent, less desirable uses, not to mention innovative uses, and incubation possibilities.

As far as street corridors go, I have no problems with better site utilization including height to add housing.