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Housing DC's Future

Foreword

Whether its residents relish the role or not, the District of Columbia is the nation's capital city. As such, it symbolizes what America stands for. What it does, and how it does it, is broadcast around the world. It helps shape global opinion of our down-to-earth success in achieving our lofty goals and ideals. Who lives here, votes here, pays taxes here, and governs here has the unique burden of being on display as America's urban showcase.

The city is now struggling to prepare a new 20-year Comprehensive Plan that appropriately recognizes virtually every American special interest. A combination of idealism and pragmatism, it will provide a public guide book on how the city should grow. How it grows will depend on who it attracts to live here and work here. This in turn depends on how the city's limited land is zoned for continued development. Housing, and all that goes with it, will help define the desired evolution of the city's "residential mix", the lifeblood of the capital city's 'body politic'.

This analysis is intended to provide some (updated) quantitative data to inform that ongoing debate.

[It is also the subject of NARPAC's Editorial for February, '06]


Chapter 6: MARKET HOUSING AND MARKET CARS

Due to the amount of quantitative graphic data presented in this new analysis (much of it from the Census Bureau's 2004 American Community Survey), this work has been broken into seven bite-sized pieces for easier loading, printing and greater reader selectivity. You can read the brief summary immediately below, and then decide to continue to the end of this chapter, or shift to another one by clicking on the chapter titles listed below.

Summary

This chapter goes after two distinct but related issues. First the CHSTFR, (and now the draft Comprehensive Plan) focus almost entirely on the needs for affordable housing, but do not engage at all the planning objectives for market rate housing development. Surly they deserve more even treatment, and a better understanding how the characteristics of these new households are likely to differ from the past. In addition, NARPAC never stops insisting that cars are an inherent part of American households, and that future housing guidelines must include what to do about these ubiquitous, road-blocking appendages to the American family. Based on relevant statistics, we estimate a substantial growth in private vehicles in DC, just as soon as almost any DC household can afford to buy one, and even if it isn't used to get to work!

. Issues addressed here:

What about the future of non-subsidized housing?
How about allowing for commercial growth?
What about the roll-over in existing DC housing units and householders?
When is a housing unit not a housing unit?
No indication of the role of private cars in "moving up to the middle class"


If this does not hold your interest, please click ahead to:

Chapter 7: FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS

Or back to:

Chapter 1: SUMMARIZING THE PLAN
Chapter 2: PROBLEMS WITH DEFINITIONS
Chapter 3: PROBLEMS WITH NUMERICS
Chapter 4: LOOKING POVERTY SQUARELY IN THE FACE
Chapter 5: EDUCATION AND JOBS


What about the future of non-subsidized housing?

There is a tacit assumption in the subsidized housing advocacy report that the rest of the population growth, which the task force endorses, will take care of itself, responding to "market conditions". NARPAC believes this assumption deserves further consideration. In essence, it is not clear that DC residents are any more ready to absorb 34,000 more "high-end" housing units than they are to accept 19,000 "low-end" housing units. Most of the city's "high-end" homes (over $500K) are currently located in the "mostly white" areas and there are probably less than 75,000 of them. Yet, the Comprehensive plan refers to this area as a "conservation area" where the "guiding philosophy...is to conserve and enhance established neighborhoods" and that "major changes in density....are not expected". Even in the unlikely event that this area were to absorb 20% of the planned growth (i.e., 15,000 new homes), at least 19,000 would still need to be "mixed" in with less affluent areas, and this may present somewhat of a challenge.

n this respect, however, the citywide comprehensive planners seem to be ahead of the affordable housing enthusiasts, even if they have complicated the job for the statisticians. As shown to the left, ten new "Planning Areas" have been established around which specific elements of the citywide plan will be allocated. Unfortunately, these new planning areas do not appear to line up with the 39 Planning Clusters, the 120-odd "neighborhoods", DC's ZIP Codes, or even Census Tracts. Nevertheless, the Comprehensive Plan indicates that there is "room" for at least 57,300 new homes, mostly by taking advantage of current vacant or abandoned lots, and lists how many are in each of these new Planning Areas. This crude chart shows the ten planning areas, with their somewhat puzzling designations. NARPAC has divided them into three "mix" categories consistent with the cluster rankings of the previous section, and indicated how much growth in housing is expected in each. Clearly, the "Somewhat Mixed" area that runs down the center of the city (including its "downtown" and "monumental core") and separates the less mixed areas, is expected to grow the most.

How about allowing for commercial growth?

It might be noted that the Comprehensive Plan draft also predicts a "practical" growth in jobs over the next 20 years of some 138,600 (many filled by non-residents), and the majority of the commercial grow will also be in the "mixed" area which includes both downtown and the newly- emerging Anacostia Waterfront area. It is of some significance that this new planning area covers both banks of the Anacostia River and strengthens the ongoing effort to incorporate the disadvantaged areas "East of the Anacostia" in the city's burgeoning growth. It might also be noted, as shown to the right, the projected 20- year growth in DC office space is a conservative projection of the past 15 years and should be met without difficulty. The proposed household growth, on the other hand, is a substantial departure from the past 35 years.

What about the roll-over in existing DC housing units and householders?

Any meaningful 20-year plan concerning DC housing must address the issue of increasing age of the housing stock. After all, houses do not last forever, and some become increasingly dysfunctional as family and householder characteristics change: demand increases for modern conveniences in plumbing, air conditioning, and electronic devices; requirements increase for those with disabilities (including older age!); and more off-street parking is needed for more vehicles. The top pair of charts below indicates how much older the housing units are in DC (almost 60 years) than in PG and Monty (less than 40 years). Surely the next 20 years in DC will see larger numbers of replacement housing units rather than simply adding units. Experience in DC and neighboring Chevy Chase, MD is already indicating the need to regulate the extent to which new units clash with, or overwhelm, the existing ones. Roll-over of existing housing units must be treated in the Comprehensive Plan.

The lower two charts above also show another interesting, and perhaps unexpected, trend. The rates of householder turn-over in housing units throughout DC and its closest neighbors are almost identical (between 14 and 15 years). This has substantial significance. In the first place, on average every home in DC and the suburbs will change hands during the next 20 years! In the second place, there are not many housing units to which current occupants are permanently attached. (there are doubtless some high-profile, high-sympathy exceptions). But, nonetheless, there is no reason to be obsessed by the fear that neighborhood change cannot be part of the city's master plan. In fact, neighborhoods should accept the need to change with the turn-over in residents' preferences.

The current (early 2006) draft of the Comprehensive Plan mimics the CHSTFR and appears to ignore this roll-over issue. It notes that some 3000 new housing units per year needed to reach the advocates objective of 45,000 additional units, and a total inventory of some 300,000 housing units. There is nothing in the housing element draft that specifies a roll-over rate, but if DC rolls over its housing stock once every 100 years, that will require 3000 new units yearly, without increasing the housing stock at all.

When is a housing unit not a housing unit?

There is a tendency to think of all "households" as families, and all "housing units" as multi-room condos, row houses, or houses on separate lots. In fact, this is not the case. As the average urban household size drops below two, it is time to recognize that "granny flats", "spare rooms for rent", and "co-housing units" can significantly change both the perceptions and realities of what constitutes a "housing unit", particularly 20 years hence. This subject arises again when the "affordability of affordable housing" is discussed. Possible variations in housing configurations are also treated in considerable detail in the CHSTFR and the draft Comprehensive Plan, but, are not reflected clearly in the summary of either plan's goals. No attempt is made to tally up those 19,000 new affordable housing units by their size or interdependence. Nor is there any attempt to provide a separate analysis of the city's housing needs by room rather than by household.

In fact, the requirements for affordable housing units within DC is likely to be substantially different than that for the neighboring jurisdictions. As shown on the left, on the chart below, typical rooms-per-housing unit is significantly lower, and the fraction living in "multiple-unit dwellings" is much higher. For whatever it's worth, DC has 1.3 million rooms, or 2.4 rooms per resident. By comparison, Monty has almost 2.3 million rooms, but a close 2.5 rooms per resident (because their households are larger). DC has 50% more units of 3 rooms or less than PG and Monty together, but only 20% as many units of 7 rooms or more.

The right chart above shows the percentage of total housing units devoted to single family homes and to apartments. In short, DC trades off 20% of its homes for double the suburbs shares of non- householder apartments. Oddly enough, the small percentage of DC families living in apartments is very close to that in the suburbs. The dividing line between one-person apartments, and "granny flat" rooms in "normal" sized single-family homes is certain to blur further. Housing advocates and DC planners both need to be more descriptive about the types of "affordable housing units" they are espousing.

No indication of the role of private cars in "moving up to the middle class"

Private vehicles are as much a part of American households as the housing units they live in. Within the national capital metro area, there are at least 50% more cars than households. We note that neither the current draft of the Comprehensive Plan or the near-final draft of the CHSTFR makes any mention of the impact of increased car ownership on the city's transportation needs 20-years hence. (This is another issue where the independent Transportation Plan is not connected to any of the other plan elements.) Making simple guesses as to possible car ownership based on current statistics, 60,000 new cars could easily be added to the city's streets (and curbs?).

NARPAC suspects that many of the proponents of urban "smart growth" underestimate the extent to which cars have become indispensable adjuncts of modern American families. As pointed out earlier, many of those credited by advocates with the wisdom not to own cars in the city are not really smart city dwellers, they are really poor city dwellers. They will get one (or more) as soon as they can. In many instances, they steal them well before they can buy them.

Furthermore, there is a clear relationship between owning one's own home, and owning one's own car(s). As shown on the (possibly confusing) chart below, total car ownership substantially exceeds to number of owned housing units (solid green bars on left chart), but barely matches the number of rented housing units (green bars on right chart). But note also that in general the number of households without cars is overwhelmed by the number of households with more than one car.

While multiple car ownership in the city by no means matches that in the suburbs, it is a very significant fraction. The Comprehensive Plan should compensate for this major oversight in the CHSTFR. NARPAC would strongly urge that NO new housing unit in DC be built without space for off-street parking of at least one vehicle, and probably more.

There is no strong evidence that the American love affair with their cars is waning. The chart below presents several different statistics relevant to car usage over the past 37 years. (The reference Personal Transportation Surveys appear to have been done by the Federal Highway Administration on somewhat random years.) Total personal vehicle use has more than tripled in terms of American "person-miles", now topping 4 trillion per year. Total vehicle miles has more than doubled to over two trillion, although the number of individual vehicle trips seems to be leveling off around 23 billion (top left). Vehicle miles per household have almost doubled, but stabilized over the past few years to about 18,000 miles/per year (total, not per vehicle owned).

Householders are traveling a bit further to work, four times as far for personal business, three times as far to shop (the Big Box effect?) And half again as far for pleasure and recreation. (top right). The number of individual trips per household appears to have dropped after a large spurt in 1995, but perhaps more important, the percentage of trips associated with work has dropped significantly relative to other uses (bottom left). In other words the availability of public transportation to and from work may not translate into less need for private transportation for a large share of a households trips. Finally, the average total trip length for all four reasons has changed little, though shopping and family business seems to have grown relative to commuting and pleasure. In any event, on a nationwide basis, the car is here to stay as natural extension of the home. Long-range planners should not assume that either they, or DDoT's bureaucrats, can legislate (or zone) away the American dream, even if householders don't take them to work.

Perhaps equally important, Washington, DC residents already use more public transportation than other cities of equivalent population density. With a density between Baltimore and Philadelphia (on the chart to the right), DC would fall better on the curve if it used perhaps 25% less public transportation than it does. If DC had fewer poor households and more full time working householders, perhaps it would!


Go back to:

Chapter 1: SUMMARIZING THE PLAN
Chapter 2: PROBLEMS WITH DEFINITIONS
Chapter 3: PROBLEMS WITH NUMERICS
Chapter 4: LOOKING POVERTY SQUARELY IN THE FACE
Chapter 5: EDUCATION AND JOBS

or Go forward to:

Chapter 7: FINANCIAL IMPLICATIONS


Any serious reader who wishes an (informal) hard copy of this text and/or charts can provide a mailing address by using the "feedback" feature immediately below. Please signify "all" or a specific chapter. Expect some modest delay, please.


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This page was updated on Feb 5, 2006


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