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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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Moving Season

When I worked in shipping back when I was in college, it got busy three times a year. Christmas, of course, and moving season. Moving season is actually two periods, one at the end of the school year and one at the beginning of the school year. And the latter was always the bigger one.

Right now, I'm stuck at my current bungalow in Laurel for another winter. The Bush economy has prevented me from making the necessary upgrades that would enable me to sell my house. I figured I'd look at a few areas that seem to be the hot spots around here. This of course will be anecdotal, based on my friends and coworkers, so feel free to comment on other areas.

Everyone in the DC area in their mid-twenties to early thirties knows at least one person who lives in Arlington. I have a few friends that work in Tysons Corner who are relocating to the region for convenience. Ironically, they'll be able to take the Metro everywhere except to their jobs! (for now). I was there just the other night, and that place never ceases to amaze me, attracting young professionals of all kinds. There's definitely a narrow age demographic there, but perhaps over time it will cater to a more diverse age spectrum. For now, it's a great place to be in your twenties.

Or as Silver Spring, Singular likes to say, SSINO (Silver Spring in name only). Many of my recently married friends are making their way to communities in Aspen Hill, Colesville, and White Oak. Though relatively car dependent, this area is ideal for raising a suburban family. The New Hampshire Avenue and US29 Corridors are each a string-of-pearls suburban neighborhoods. In my opinion, the corridors are deteriorating and in need of a lot of elbow grease, and I believe a good number of these young families will be making their way back towards the city in the not-too-distant future.

Now, I've never been a fan of Capitol Hillbillies... You know, the trust fund just-graduated-from-a-really-good-school congressional intern types that turn the historic row homes into mini frat houses... But a lot of my city dwelling coworkers are moving there because it's the only place in the city with a valuable resource for them: MARC. You see, MARC is the only half decent transit system that runs anywhere near Fort Meade, and if you want to live in DC and ride the MARC, you have to live near Union Station. This is the main reason that I think Metro ought to go out to BWI. But for now, Capitol Hill is home to a growing pocket of "reverse commuters" headed north in the morning rush.

I hate to admit I am not as familiar with this town as I'd like to be. It is certainly attracting a good number of my friends down there. even a young family I know is making their way down near the King Street station. I suppose this will give me more opportunity to explore down there, like I should have been doing the last 28 years I've been living here!

I have a coworker who moved here from Glen Burnie. It quadrupled the length of his commute, but he says actually drives less because he only uses the car to get to work. I might have gone with something a little closer to 295, like perhaps Anacostia or H Street, but less driving nowadays is less gas, which means less money. I think it speaks volumes of the city if someone can move a half hour further away from work and actually drive less overall because of the walkability of the neighborhood.

Cheaper than regular Bethesda. It is a very convenient area for driving, but Metro is clustered in narrow pockets along Rockville Pike. I imagine over the decades the area will become a little more pedestrian friendly, but for now it is a series of wide empty roads, strip malls, and office parks. If you can afford one of the grossly overpriced single-family houses there, you're doing alright and probably don't mind paying for all that gas (which is also overpriced in that town!)

I've noticed a major run on houses in the North College Park neighborhood just south of the Beltway and east of Route 1. I was wondering why so many people were flocking to that part of town for a while before it struck me. It is a nice, clean safe neighborhood of low-density single-family houses, and it's relatively cheap. But the kicker is that there is pedestrian access to the Greenbelt station, which has Metro and MARC, and is a major bus hub. I've seen friends sharing a house, young families, and settled families flocking to this neighborhood because it has all of the suburban charm and it is staggering distance to public transit often reserved for high density regions. The other side of the tracks is currently nothing but a parking lot, but plans to develop the area will mean that in the future, residents will be walking distance to a major town center as well.

Interestingly, i don't see anyone I know flocking to Hyattsville, and indeed they are still laughing at me when I tell them it's where I'm trying to move. Perhaps the joke will be on me when I do wind up moving next spring. Of course, for now I'll do anything to get out of this ratty little neighborhood.

Where do you see a run on housing?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Youth Sports and the Car (plus a couple random links)

Hello readers. Apologies for the light posting as of late. I have been balancing my life against coaching a Capital Beltway League football team, the Silver Spring Saints. It's a four night a week commitment, which soaks up a lot of my free time.As I get used to the hustle and bustle of football season, I'm sure the posts will pick up again.

It has lead me to realize something about youth sports, however. I find that they are an extremely valuable asset to communities all over the US. They teach numerous good values, and keep kids occupied at hours when they might be engaging in some less than admirable activities. One value they do not teach, however, is responsible transportation practices.

Admittedly, it's not exactly responsible for me to drive from my job in Anne Arundel County past my house in Laurel down to Silver Spring to coach this team, but I'm going to coach it, and transit just isn't an option in this case. But I'm a coach, I'm an adult, and I've chosen to coach at Silver Spring rather than Laurel or some closer program.

Here's how it works. Kids get dropped off and picked up from practice in cars by their parents. For games, kids and parents are responsible for getting themselves to the appropriate field by the appropriate times. There's no busses, and rarely is there transit, which would be an extremely cumbersome option anyway. Carpooling happens, but it is a given that each team will bring about 15-20 cars per game. There are 11 teams in the Silver Spring Saints program. Multiply that by two for games and you have upwards of 330 cars facilitating each gameday in the Capital Beltway League.

I can say with confidence that a good portion of the boys on this football league (and those that can get the most out of youth sports) are not among the area's wealthiest residents, and it is quite a sacrifice to schlep a kid to football games at Montgomery Village, Clinton, and Northeast DC through the course of a season. Last year I had a boy from a single parent household with no car. He spent two and a half hours taking the bus from Rockville to Four Corners every practice and another two and a half to take the bus back when I couldn't give him a ride (which was quite out of my way!) I loved the kid's dedication. He easily could have played for Maplewood or a team closer to Rockville. And, despite putting 7 hours into football three nights a school week, he was an honors student. But in any case, families relying on public transportation to facilitate these kinds of activities are at a major disadvantage, and in my experience, often don't consider it worth the trouble.

Am I chiding the CBL? No. I played for this team as a kid. I swam in the Montgomery County Swim League, I played CYO baseball and basketball, and I was on a Boy Scouts street hockey team. Never once did I ride a team bus or take the Metro to any game I ever played. That just doesn't work for this sort of activity. But few would argue that we ought to get rid of youth sports because it assumes reliance on automobiles.

How do we reconcile this problem?

Certainly, over time new urbanism and expanded transit might do a big part in easing this problem. League programs promoting carpooling could reduce the problem as well. But how do we solve it. Is there a solution? Or will youth sports remain the privilege of those fortunate enough to own cars and afford the gas? With college and even a lot of major high school events, transit and team buses are far more wide spread. As the automobile becomes less and less feasible for the not-so-well-off, what will be done to maintain the Little Leagues, the Pop Warners, the Pee-Wee Conferences? Though soccer moms may carry the negative stigma of association with urban sprawl, the youth sports associated with them are perhaps the best side effect of suburbanism, and we really ought to find a feasible way to make them work without heavy reliance on the personal automobile.


I came across an interesting website about plans to refurbish the urban core of Iqaluit, Nunavut. Iqaluit, formerly known as Frobisher Bay, is the capital of the Arctic Canadian territory and is located just outside the Arctic Circle. Given the harsh climate, geographic isolation, and limited resources, it offers a very unique example of making the best of what is there when it comes to urban planning.

New Hampshire Avenue might be getting a makeover. Just Up The Pike reports on possible boulevardization of the thoroughfare between the DC line and University Boulevard. It's about time that area got a little more attention. Greater Greater Washington also posts on the topic.

That's all for now. Hopefully I'll be up again soon.