public works

There are inextricable linkages between the provision of affordable housing, the major problems with the public housing solutions of the past, and the need to focus on somehow "reviving our most neglected neighborhoods", as the Mayor likes to put it. This chapter deals with three recent aspects of this problem (in reverse chronological order):

o NARPAC reviews and analyzes a recent book entitled The Unintended Consequences (of over-concentrating the poorest of the poor") and concludes the authors underestimate the magnitude and cost of the solutions, suggesting that the whole region must get involved, not just a handful of DC community-minded residents;

o NARPAC picks a few promises from the Mayor's 2005 State of the District Address and doubts that crime and poverty will be so much reduced as just shuffled around;

o A detailed analysis of a 2004 report by the respected Urban Institute on an "Equitable Housing Strategy for DC", where it again concluded that any such strategy would have to be regional to succeed.

o A new chapter was added in 2006, analyzing the potential role of existing blocks of lower-income row housing in accommodating long-term increases in DC residential population.

Family and Community: the Victims of Isolated Poverty
by James G., and Peter S. Banks


NARPAC was recently made aware of a new (2004) book by DC authors James and Peter Banks. Entitled the "Unintended Consequences", its fly leaf describes "the tremendous impact of housing policy, which often discourages communities from growing and inhibits family stability. The authors trace housing history from the Victorian Era to the present day, giving special attention to Washington DC, and the various grass roots programs that provide community support to impoverished areas....The book also gives important firsthand accounts of the federal urban housing decline and explains the importance of nurturing is appropriate for urban planners and advocates for the urban poor, students of sociology and urban studies and anyone interested in the local history of the nation's capitol." It could have been titled "The Decline and Fall of Public Housing and What to Do about It".

NARPAC finds most useful the historical context for the growth and decline of public housing both nationally and locally, and is impressed by the many local efforts to somehow redeem the "poorest of the poor". We find less convincing the linkages between cause and effect, and cannot avoid skepticism over the proposed solutions, particularly in the American 21st Century.

In these first two sections, we discuss the issues of clustering and isolation of the poor and the need to distinguish between the needs of those with low income or no income. Then we move on to issues involved in "deconcentrating" the poor, the problems of sensing deterioriation", and wonder about the need to return to some modern kind of settlement and/or poor houses. And this is followed by NARPAC's favorite issues: the need to quantify the problem before suggesting solutions, and the fundamental companion problem of determining how to pay for poverty.

clustering and isolation

The authors present an interesting case of two nearby housing developments created in the late 1940s in Southeast Washington. The 2000-unit "Parklands" was built under the FHA program for moderate-to-middle income black families and attracted an enthusiastic group of younger black couples. It was privately owned, offering garden-type rental units. Only a block or so away, the National Capital Housing Authority built a 250-unit development called the Frederick Douglas Dwellings, which was first populated by young WWII workers, and then converted to public housing. Well into the 1960s, both developments enjoyed stability, high demand, good maintenance and attractive appearance. In the late 1950s, a third development called Stanton Dwellings was built on adjacent property to house (generally poorer) families displaced by the Southwest Urban Renewal Program. "As the requirements for admission began to favor those in greatest need, subtle changes began in the neighborhood." Crime rose, idle young men loitered in clusters, rent collection dropped, single moms on welfare moved in, and "the more stable residents began to move out". By the 1980s, crime was rampant and businesses began to suffer. Ultimately, as many as 1500 Parklands units were vacant. Across Ward 8, the pattern was repeated, and by the end of the decade, 20,000 residents (25% of the 1980 Census total) moved away, leaving behind almost 10,000 vacant (and surely run-down) apartments.

The changes in this area over 50 years, according to the authors, "provide a good example of the broad impact of clustering thousands of the 'poorest of the poor'". This, according to the authors, was the major unintended consequence of subsidized public housing. The real intent of the Federal Housing Act of 1937, which authorized the national low-rent public housing program, was to "promote the general welfare of the nation" by providing new housing opportunities that would, hopefully, eliminate the root causes of much of the nation's crime, social distress and attendant costs. It was intended to assist families that were seeking a better life. And in the early days, those families were apparently a good cross-section of the nation's low income population: two parent families with at least one wage-earner that adopted stable, decent, and orderly lives in their newfound homes.

The real problems arose, however, when the beneficiaries shifted from motivated, low-income families towards the poorest and most troubled families that brought with them an increasingly indecent, unsafe, and unstable environment. Instead of two-parent, working families, the new arrivals were often immature, lonely, single-parents faced with severe financial, emotional, and physical problems. The authors suggest that these residents were "absorbed by a myriad of grievous problems that oftentimes were unable to give thought and time to forming community or offering the children the nurturing required for healthy growth and maturation". They then go on to describe in greater detail the consequences, including: deterioration of community and family life; public education; social services; and neighborhood businesses on the one hand, and related increases in crime both in and beyond their communities on the other.

From this, the authors conclude that "the detachment (isolation) between 'mainstream' society and the urban poor has been truly devastating", and that "the isolation of impoverished families from the daily cycle of economic, social, and cultural activities of the society of which they are a part leads inevitably to more all-consuming poverty and despair".

low income vs no income

NARPAC has no reason to disagree with these conclusions. But we also have no reason to believe that relatively large, concentrated, developments of relatively low-rent garden apartments are necessarily destructive to stable, motivated, low-income families that are determined to work their way into mainstream America. The lesson we take from this is that high-density rental units can work for motivated working families, but do not work for a large group of the unmotivated "poorest of the poor". The fact that many of the housing projects deteriorated appears to have resulted from a lowering of the standards for eligibility, not the (economical) clustering of the "affordable" units. Oddly enough, the successful stepping stones provided by what is now called "affordable housing" are now limited primarily by their lack of availability, not their detrimental "unintended consequences". The real problem for urban planners remains how to break the cycle of poverty for the "poorest of the poor", and to realize that they represent very different problems from those of the working poor.

It is of some interest that the authors support the more recent Hope VI approach to public housing which mixes the poor, the low-income, and the middle-income in a single community. NARPAC has supported these redevelopment programs in DC , and developed its own "Bad Apple Theory" concerning the dangers of over-concentration of the very poor. This same concern for exceeding the "critical mass" of counter-cultural individuals in a single cluster has been expressed by NARPAC (and many other concerned observers with more professional background) with respect to kids in poor schools as well.

deconcentrating the poor

In this vein, the authors go on to provide their own recommendations for solving this problem. In their view, "the ideal solution to the concentration of poverty would be to have all new housing developments, apartments, and single family homes include some small number for impoverished people, no matter where they are located (or how they are funded). This is based on the assumption that as these poorest of the poor "experience an increased sense of self-worth and mainstream involvement, they will begin to take steps to protect and retain their new status". Such individuals, it is claimed, are proud to be members of such a community, and consequently "constantly seek to preserve the respect and support of their neighbors". This is apparently based on successful small-scale efforts now being undertaken by private groups in various parts of Ward 8. NARPAC has absolutely no basis for assuming that such efforts can (or cannot) be extrapolated to the far larger scale efforts required. But we surely doubt that all the truly poor would react well to being thrust into communities with more prosperous lifestyles they cannot match, or that all those prosperous communities would welcome them.

The authors then introduce an interesting concept of community as essentially a social immune system. Communities emerge naturally as families facing common challenges and opportunities instinctively solicit each other for support. "Members of a community react to protect community interests", they say, and "the social immune systems protect community members from participation in behavior that is destructive to themselves and to others". A quote is provided from a 1991 book entitled "Full of Life: How to Achieve and Maintain Peak Immunity", which describes:

"The immune system is an example of perfect democracy in which each member performs its task without being controlled by a central organ. It provides a 24-hour security system always on the alert for viruses, harmful bacteria, fungi, protozoa...even malignant cells".

It seems to NARPAC more likely that this was written by a medical scientist than a political scientist. In many ways the parallel seems somewhat inappropriate in this social context. It might be more appropriate to a socialist state than a representative democracy with a free society and a market economy. In fact, most immune systems appear to destroy the foreign intruders rather than make them over in their own image. And the foreign intruders are seldom driven to accept the host's life styles or purposes. Many other observers of the current American urban and suburban scene would as likely claim that such a sense of community is largely missing except when it comes to change or intrusion! Furthermore, tightly knit as a community may be, it is not a single organism without other options such as moving away, legal and/or police action, and ostracism.

sensing deterioration

The authors then stress that "our failure to recognize and respond to the subtle signs of human deterioration as we sought to meet the needs for affordable and decent housing must serve as a warning for our future. That experience must convince us that corroding conditions which are allowed to fester in certain parts of society ultimately bring grief to us all." NARPAC cannot disagree with that statement, but it does seem to suggest that the "social immune system" was not operative as well-intended working poor communities degenerated into slums for the poorest of the poor, who apparently did not work to preserve the respect and support of their neighbors!.

The book goes on to stress the importance of families and communities generating for themselves a "learning environment". It suggests that such a " learning environment must focus on reading, visits to cultural centers, and encouraging children to keep diaries of their experiences." NARPAC finds it disappointing that the authors did not relate the absence of a suitable "learning environment" to the lack of education among the dysfunctional families themselves. As NARPAC points out elsewhere, "bum schools don't make bum students, bum parents do".

Finally, the authors discuss the view that the most critical failure of various human services organizations (presumably government, non-profit, and faith-based) has been their unwillingness to recognize the indispensable role of families and community in the amelioration of the problems that are faced by isolated families. Not surprisingly, they then conclude that "there must come to be agreement among advocates, human service givers, and neighborhood leaders that community is the underlying force that supports human services: "Human service leaders must come to acknowledge that theirs is a helping role, not a redeeming one. With our urban population projected to increase dramatically in this new millennium, the need for strong communities and families is more urgent than ever. The fate of generations to come depends largely on our success in restoring these basic components of civilized living." NARPAC seriously doubts that such stronger communities or stronger families are likely to be spawned in urban areas like DC. At the very least, we doubt that there are anywhere near enough strong and willing communities to successfully embrace all the poor that need their ministrations.

limitations on community?

NARPAC sees precious little indication that the majority of Americans share an all-inclusive definition of "community" that is broad enough to encompass all human kind. What may pass for community at, say, the national or state level, or in public spaces such as airports or football games, does not seem to be operative at the block or neighborhood level that households call home. In this narrower, day-to-day context, the need to be associated with and surrounded by people with common interests, tastes, goals, and experiences seems to grow stronger. In fact, community culminates at the family level itself. However, the strongest common bonds in American society are neither race, religion, nationality, age, work style, or political affiliation. The real American community bonds seem to be the life style manifestations of economic status. NARPAC has never seen the slightest real evidence that the very poor want to live cheek by jowl with the very rich, or vice versa. In fact, even a modest change in economic status often brings with it an almost immediate change in community affiliation, and a tendency to disown their prior, more humble status. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the emigration of more successful blacks from their less successful cousins in Southeast Washington, or, for that matter, of the more successful Irish from their less successful cousins in South Boston.

settlement houses and poor houses

One of the intriguing sidelights mentioned in this book is the long-forgotten institution of the "settlement house" which "early in our urban experience earned the respect of the families that they served and were treasured by the communities where they were located". Settlement houses came into being primarily with the migration from Europe and were intended to help the immigrants adjust themselves to a new country in every way, from language and music to recreation. The work of the settlement house was primarily to help the community come together. There were no "caseworkers": particular issues were handled by the community, not by professional social workers. But the immigrants were, by and large, anxious to learn the new ways and to become productive members of their new communities. There is no equivalent mention of the poor houses and work farms common throughout the US up until the 1950s and the beginnings of a national social security system. Even today, it appears to NARPAC that some of these long-discarded concepts deserve another look. It was in this context that we recently proposed the development of group homes on school properties for the "adult education" of those stuck in the cycle of poverty by their own inadequate education.

quantifying the problem

As NARPAC has tried demonstrate over the past eight years, many good ideas in the abstract can founder on the shoals of quantification. The city's ability to deconcentrate the poorest of the poor and embrace them into communities of the willing will certainly depend on the numbers of each in the real world. The chart below is an attempt to quantify the numbers of each in terms of the distribution of relevant households in each jurisdiction of the DC metro area. It should be noted that these numbers are at best approximate, but they do show the trends.

The stacked lefthand bars for each of the metro area jurisdictions named below indicate the approximate distribution of owned home sales value, based on the 2004 summary real estate tables presented in the Washington Post. It assumes that the same percentage of homes changed hands in each of the four price categories shown. In fact, housing roll-over is only about 12% per year, and the proportions maybe somewhat off, but not by enough to change the obvious results. It shows quite clearly that in every jurisdiction (including DC), the vast majority of the homes were bought for $200-$400K (blue: 62%) or $400K-$600K (green: 22%), with a substantial number over $600K (purple: 7%) in the wealthier jurisdictions (again including DC!). The summary bars to the left provide the basis for the metro area totals shown in parentheses above.

The much smaller orange bars standing next to them (above) indicate the number of rental units with household incomes less than $10,000 per year in the 2000 Census. These numbers are, of course, somewhat out of date, but this is NARPAC's arbitrary numerical definition of the cut-off for the "poorest of the poor". Raising that bar to $20,000 in renters' household income would essentially double those numbers (148,000 vs 75,000). But even at the lower level, there are significantly more poor renter households than there are home owners in homes selling for less than $200K. Unfortunately, 42% of them live in DC! And this, of course is the rub. Without analytical proof, NARPAC is confident that the potential for generating cooperative mixed communities improves as the income disparity decreases. Inspiring the poor to improve their lot among neighbors two or three times as prosperous will surely be more successful than by thrusting them into the bizarre embrace of households 50-100 times wealthier!

But it seems intuitively likely that not all communities will accept a meaningful obligation to their less fortunate brethren (more likely sisters), and that those neighbors willing to participate should numerically exceed their beneficiaries several fold. In terms of impersonal statistical indicators, then, it might be reasonable to seek to place one poor renter among ten average homeowners, half of whom might be willing to provide the needed long-term succor. The chart below shows how these ratios vary by jurisdiction. Virtually all the counties can provide a 15:1 to 30:1 ratio of households in homes selling for $400K or less to renters earning $10K or less. The exceptions are DC and its two "urbanized" neighbors, Arlington and Alexandria. DC cannot reach much over 3:1, including homeowners in all wealth categories, while the other two can't reach 3:1 among homes worth less than $400K. Unless there is a major effort to redistribute the poorest of the poor among the broader family of regional jurisdictions (shown at the bottom of the chart), NARPAC concludes that there are simply too many urban poor to be saved by a willing volunteer "buddy system". To the extent that this approach will work on even a few of the needy at a time, however, it surely deserves a try.

The regional distribution of housing stock was analyzed in greater detail by NARPAC in its critique of a 2004 Urban Institute report proffering "An Equitable Housing Strategy for DC" which follows this section.

paying for poverty

Not mentioned at all in this book is the ugly but inescapable fact of life that poverty is very expensive to the broader "community" that is obliged to pay for it. As NARPAC never tires of pointing out, the piper must be paid. It also appears to be an inescapable fact of life that the "poorest of the poor" tend to congregate (and become isolated) in core cities that have the least capacity to raise the revenues they need. Land use becomes an almost overriding consideration in those areas where there is little land left to use. Unlike the suburbs that still have considerable undeveloped land from which to derive additional revenues, inner cities tend to be far more land use-constrained. (In other words, the suburbs are poor-poor and land-rich, while the inner cities are land-poor and poor-rich.) Since deconcentrating the poor almost certainly involves devoting more scarce land to revenue-consuming purposes and less land to revenue-producing uses, it becomes a difficult and possibly unwise decision for officials obliged to make ends meet. Surely the urban poor should be housed at a substantially higher density per acre than the urban rich. In fact, this may not be the case in DC, where many of the highest taxpayers live in splendid, isolated, non-deteriorating concentration.

District officials spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about the lack of "state revenues" that can be transferred from the normally more net-productive suburban and rural areas to their less net-productive city. More realistically, they are complaining about the Congressionally- imposed ban on hitting up commuters for a share of the revenues they generate for their suburbs. In reality, DC leaders are pointing out that DC's "common-revenue community" is too small for its disproportionate revenue burdens. This is, of course, far more politic than suggesting that the suburbs are not accepting their responsibilities for sharing the burdens of the poor. But the facts remain: it is economically unstable for the jurisdiction with the least capacity to subsidize the "poorest of the poor" to try to sustain a disproportionate share of the region's most dependent; or even worse, to be attracting a larger share as an "unintended consequence"! Surely DC cannot afford to displace more taxpayers to make room for more tax consumers, and would have as much difficulty, albeit of different sorts, in doing the opposite. On the other hand, NARPAC ees no evidence whatsoever that the urban poor want to "deconcentrate" towards the suburbs or that the suburban community wants to embrace them either. The only realistic alternative is to assure that current levels of poverty are not allowed to propagate to subsequent generations.

It seems quite obvious, at least to the dispassionate analyst, that the regional community must either accept the burden of sharing its wealth or take on the greater burden of sharing and alleviating its poverty. If this is as unnatural to the regional community as it appears to be, then America's national community is going to have to step in to provide suitable federal incentives. Just how this can be done is surely still up for grabs, but NARPAC remains very skeptical that DC can break its remarkably intractable "cycle of poverty" with good intentions and a limited number of very dedicated souls.


The Mayor's Latest Plan for DC's "Most Distressed Neighborhoods"

One of the many ambitious plans for eliminating the city's extensive "blight" involves a new focus on a few of the city's most depressed communities. In his 2005 "State of the District Address", he unveiled his proposal to rebuild some areas like Sursum Corda, a failed public housing project only recently renovated:

When I spoke here last year, our city was still in shock over the killings of our children, including Princess the community where she lived and died, I heard from residents about how drug dealers had taken over their streets. So, we decided to turn Sursum Corda and 13 other crime-ridden neighborhoods into "Hot Spots." That meant we arrested the biggest criminals and put more cops on the street,...towed abandoned cars, repaired traffic lights, removed trash and graffiti,....expanded services... (including a community-built) playground for the kids....In the last year, violent crime in Sursum Corda went down 43 percent. And there hasn't been a single murder there since.

But we can and must do more. There are pockets of despair throughout our city, areas with high concentrations of crime, poverty, drop-out rates, and unemployment. Unless we act, our neediest citizens will be pushed down by the ills surrounding them and pushed out by the forces of gentrification. This year, we will launch our New Communities Initiative to transform four of our most distressed neighborhoods, starting with Sursum Corda and three others....

We're not talking about a few more dollars here or there. We're not just talking about bricks and mortar. We're talking about...(a new) approach to creating healthy neighborhoods. So, why do we call them new communities, even though the character of the community and its residents will remain the same? What's new is the partnership with the residents, which will create a blueprint for change in the neighborhood. What's new are improved schools, libraries, job training, recreation, homeless, and health centers, if the neighborhood needs them. What's new are the government teams working directly in the community to bring critical services, person by person. What's new are the housing options for all income levels: a healthy mix of low-income, affordable, and market housing. Every public housing unit that goes will be replaced by a new subsidized unit.

....(T)his is about diversity in housing, not displacement. Because, if we do nothing, the gentrification bulldozer will roll over our neighborhoods. So we must act now. We are pledging $50 million this year to revitalize our most needy communities. But this type of monumental change requires more money than our regular budgets can sustain. The booming real estate market in the District has meant significant resources for our Housing Production Trust Fund. I have sent legislation to the Council allowing us to borrow some of the Funds income tomorrow so we can invest in our neighborhoods today.

This is essentially the formula developed for HOPE VI federally-supported public housing redevelopment programs. What's new here is a) the creative rationale that "gentrification" does not occur as long as the previous number of subsidized houses remains, and b) the mayor hopes to borrow against his recently established Housing Production Fund which is apparently accumulating cash faster than it can be spent. While these approaches may seem a bit wobbly to some skeptical analysts, if some distressed neighborhoods are substantially improved, and some "pockets of despair" are replaced primarily by pockets of taxpayers, then NARPAC says, "Wobble on!"

The snapshot above shows the empty and litter-strewn kids' playground associated with the Sursum Corda housing development just off North Capitol Street, about ten blocks from the US Capitol. Recently rebuilt, and sporting some young cherry trees, it was totally unoccupied on a recent April Sunday morning. This relatively new public housing complex, built in 1968, became infamous in 2004 for the accidental killing of a young girl, presumably by warring drug dealers. It has since been singled out by the mayor (see above) for redevelopment as a mixed income community. On that same morning, another playground pictured below, this time only five blocks northeast of the capitol in the Capitol Hill neighborhood around Stanton Park, was filled with kids, mostly accompanied by their fathers. The physical distance between the two can be walked in ten minutes. The sociological gap is still measured in decades.

Making Over Major City Streets:

The Mayor's 2005 "State of the District Address" also has some big plans for some of the city's streets:

And, in the next few years, we will see our major corridors literally transformed. It isn't right that one half of Massachusetts Avenue is a showcase, and the other half is falling apart. It isn't right that one half of Pennsylvania Avenue is an example of what can happen when we restore a corridor and the other half an example of what can happen when we neglect it. Georgia and Alabama Avenues should be just as inviting as Connecticut and New Hampshire Avenues.

Our corridors are (DC's) arteries.... When we clean them up, we attract businesses, create jobs, improve neighborhoods, decrease crime, and showcase the beauty and diversity of our city. We've already seen what can be accomplished on Barracks Row Main Street. Its executive director....says that the two most important changes happened first: streetlights and sidewalks. They inspired residents and business owners to take more pride in the neighborhood where they worked and lived. A few years ago, there was only one outdoor cafe in Barracks Row. Today, there are nine.

........Join me in a decade-long campaign to transform corridors across our city. This year, we'll start with H Street in NE; Pennsylvania Avenue east of the Anacostia; and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in SE. Then we'll move over to Benning Road in NE, Georgia Avenue and 7th Street in Northwest; South Capitol Street. east of the Anacostia, and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in NE.

The Barracks Row Main Street is, in fact, an interesting case in point. It is a short section of three or four blocks of 8th Street, SE, running from Pennsylvania Avenue down to (and under) the elevated Southeast Freeway. On its west side stand the impressive buildings and entrance to the Marine Barracks. Two short blocks further down 8th Street is the historic and ornamental entrance to the Navy Yard. As noted above, the sidewalks were refurbished, a string of ornamental street lights added, and any number of attractive stores and cafes have opened up. There can be no question that such street improvements in selected places can attract businesses, create (a few) jobs, and showcase the (refurbished) beauty and diversity of the city. The mayor might also have added that it is a strong prerequisite to getting DC's millions of annual tourists further from the National Mall. On the other hand, NARPAC is skeptical whether three new blocks of street lights had any meaningful impact on crime reduction or the plight of the poorest of the poor. Don't they just move to some other poorly lit stretches of DC's 1200 miles of streets?

The snapshots above provide two views of Barracks Row. On the left is the section right across from the Marine Barracks. The section on the right is a bit further north near the intersection of 8th and G Streets. Directly behind NARPAC's indomitable photographer, stands the modest entrance to the historic residence of the Marine Commandant. The Marine Corps has a long history of trying to improve this neighborhood. The Corps only recently completed its new barracks for the Marine Band just south of the Freeway where the disastrous Arthur Capper public housing project was recently demolished. (See NARPAC's Photo Album for a recent shot of those barracks.

As an aside, it might be noted that the connectivity between the Marine Barracks and the Navy Yard is in no way hindered by the graceful arch of the Southeast Freeway (though it could use some lighting!). It is a shame that the Marines have no installation just north of Union Station where one of the city's major streets (K Street) dips under the railroad tracks through one of the most disreputable underpasses in any American city. NARPAC hopes that before the city (or more likely the Federal Government) spends hundreds of millions to tear down the mythical Freeway "barrier", it will spend a few million to refurbish this disgrace shown below:


Summary of Report and Comments

In June of 2004, the Urban Institute published on their web site a new report from Margery Austin Turner, its Director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Center. It lays out in considerable detail a set of goals, actions, and next steps based on a set of "Critical Challenges" that affect each of DC's four categories of neighborhoods. It is a well constructed piece put together to serve as a framework for the Mayor's Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force. That 28-member task force was appointed in May, 2004, and has one year to study the city's overall housing needs and policies for achieving them.

NARPAC analyzes the overall report content, wherever possible using the direct wording from the report:

o it begins with a brief outline of the content, concerning challenges, goals, and next steps;

o this is followed by a summary of the report's topical highlights, as re-ordered from NARPAC's somewhat critical point of view;

o these are followed by the Urban Institute's 30-odd proposed specific actions essentially verbatim from the report's summary chart, but again reordered by NARPAC to point out their difficulty of achievement;

o NARAC follows this with its own very different alternative formulation of the basic issues;

o and follows that with an analysis of the distribution of housing stock and household income among the six jurisdictions of DC's "inner metro area", pointing out the very substantial disadvantage within DC;

o and follows that with a brief outline of the elements of an alternate strategy which NARPAC believes the Task Force must consider if their efforts are not to be wasted;

o in conclusion, a recent letter to the Washington Post from a Howard University undergraduate is reproduced that poignantly summarizes the mixed human emotions that must accompany the city's inescapable gentrification.

o a summary of this chapter also becomes the subject of NARPAC's July editorial found here until Aug 15th, 2004, and with NARPAC's other editorials thereafter

Basic Report Outline

(NOTE: Direct wording from the UI report is shown in italics)

The report sets out five critical current challenges re DC housing:

Housing shortages and potential displacement.
Weak market conditions in other parts of the city.
Limited housing options for moderate and middle-income home-buyers.
Severe housing hardship among very low income residents.
Geographic concentration of lower-cost housing and very low income households.

And proposes five ambitious goals:

1. Expand the city's housing supply
2. Preserve and produce more affordable housing.
3. Minimize displacement and housing hardship in revitalizing neighborhoods.
4. Catalyze neighborhood renewal in weaker areas.
5. Nurture racially, ethnically, and economically diverse communities.

Which would apply selectively to each of the DC Office of Planning's four neighborhood types:

Stable neighborhoods
Transitional neighborhoods
Emerging neighborhoods
Distressed neighborhoods

And involve various combinations of specific actions:

(some 30-odd actions summarized below)

Including four priority next steps:

1. enact an inclusionary zoning ordinance;
2. target housing and non-housing initiatives in a few "demonstration" neighborhoods;
3. strengthen Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program to make it a national model; and
4. assume a regional leadership role on affordable housing issues.

Interested readers will have little difficulty finding and downloading the complete report from the Urban Institute web site.

return to the top of the pageNARPAC's View of the Highlights of the Content

NARPAC is continuously amazed by the ability of DC's well-intentioned special interests to so thoroughly compartmentalize their goals and objectives with virtually no consideration of the limitations on the city's real-world abilities to generate the needed revenues or to legislate radical social change. While we strongly believe that negativism by itself is counter-productive, it still appears worthwhile to point out some of the inconsistencies in this report in the hopes of evolving more practical alternatives. Here are a few of the incongruities that would potentially lead to different policy objectives:

In the first paragraphs of the report, the following key statements appear:

"For the first time in decades, it is realistic to imagine that the District will share more fully in the region's growth and prosperity."

"DC is home to a disproportionate share of the region's very low income households, and these families and individuals face particular hardship in today's booming housing market"

"Population continues to decline and vacancy rates remain high in many of the city's neighborhood clusters, especially east of the Anacostia River. Many properties in these neighborhoods are vacant or abandoned, and a substantial share shows signs of physical or financial distress."

"The city would need to address the housing needs of at least 3,600 households with incomes below $50,000 (about 2,900 renters and 700 homeowners) annually over the next two decades to eliminate excess cost burdens and homelessness" (i.e., 72,000 households)

"Not only is low-cost housing in short supply in D.C., but it is also geographically clustered, limiting neighborhood options for very low income people and contributing to neighborhood distress and decline. Four of every 10 rental units that are affordable for very low income households are located east of the Anacostia River."

And further on, it acknowledges that:

"Meeting the needs of the lowest-income households is especially challenging, because of the large gap between the costs of building and maintaining decent housing and the amount these families and individuals can afford to pay."

"Limited resources-both from the federal government and from the city's own funds impose the most severe constraint on what can be accomplished "

"Regardless of the attractiveness of the housing stock, people with options will not move into an emerging or distressed community unless they can see real potential for improvements in non-housing conditions"

"Although the federal government's commitment to addressing low-income housing needs seems to be at a low ebb......"

Only once is the notion of "poverty deconcentration" mentioned:

" If used effectively, (Section 8) vouchers can complement the city's investments in moderately priced rental housing; assist households with very low incomes; and contribute to housing preservation, income mixing, and poverty deconcentration." And only in the last paragraph of the report is there acknowledgment that:

"The fundamental demographic and economic forces shaping the District's housing market are regional, and the District government alone can neither control them nor fully solve the challenges they create for very low, low-, and moderate-income households. In recent years, D.C. has become among the region's most active jurisdictions in addressing its affordable housing needs. "

even though it earlier states that:

"In fact, neighborhood groups should be encouraged to think about their needs and priorities in the context of a citywide vision and strategy."

NARPAC finds these statements completely inconsistent with the proposed actions. Furthermore, there are several statements with strong policy implications which strike NARPAC as unresolved social issues rather than implicit factual assertions. These include:

"The city clearly needs more residents in order to thrive"

"Low- and moderate-income families may be unable to remain in these (wealthier) neighborhoods, or may feel they are no longer welcome. If so, residents that suffered through the city's years of decline may suffer again from the city's renewal."

"The District of Columbia needs to attract and retain more residents at moderate- and middle-income levels in order to fully regain its fiscal, social, and economic stability."

"To ensure long-time residents do not suffer from revitalization, the city needs to moderate the market pressures in neighborhoods where prices are rising particularly quickly, by expanding the housing stock, preserving existing affordable housing, and diverting some of the demand pressure to other parts of the city."

" DC has a relatively limited stocks of homes in the $100,000-$300,000 range, giving households earning $40,000 to $120,000 fewer options in the city than in the surrounding counties"

"Over the long term, the city needs to attract more families with children as well as individuals and childless households. To do so, attention to non-housing factors will be at least as important as housing policy. "

" In addition, existing residents of gentrifying neighborhoods need protection and direct assistance so they can remain in their communities and share the benefits of revitalization. "

"Part of what makes the District attractive to both existing residents and newcomers is its tremendous diversity."

return to the top of the page UI's Proposed Specific Actions, Recast by NARPAC:

Somewhat cynically perhaps, NARPAC rearranges the Urban Institute's 30-odd "specific actions" into several categories, but then suggests that the list could as well be retitled :

"Reasons Why DC Cannot Solve its Low-end Housing Needs
Within City Resources"

major policy suggestions subject to question re practicality, priorities:

o Encourage higher density development along key transportation corridors, near Metro stations
o Give priority to capital investment in infrastructure projects that support housing development
o Create mixed-income urban neighborhoods on large underused sites
o Link high-quality support services to existing affordable housing
o Implement inclusionary zoning for new construction and major rehab projects
o Gain control of vacant and abandoned properties
o Limit opportunities for PUD developers to transfer their affordable housing obligations to lower-income communities
o Ensure that any major new housing developments include at least some affordable units

major (unspecified) funding requirements

o Strengthen non-housing conditions, especially schools, public services, and safety
o Expand and improve retail services
o Deliver effective job training and retention programs to help residents earn more
o Link current residents to high-quality jobs

significant (unspecified) other funding requirements

o Subsidize the preservation of existing low-cost housing units
o Subsidize the preservation of existing affordable housing
o Subsidize the production of low-cost housing, including high-quality supportive housing
o Subsidize some units targeted to very low, low-, and moderate-income households in new developments around Metro stations and on large underused sites
o Support community building activities that celebrate diversity and resolve conflicts
o Link current residents to high-quality jobs
o Provide financing assistance to help low- and moderate-income households buy homes
o Provide tax relief to help low- and moderate-income homeowners retain their homes
o Provide effective relocation assistance and housing search counseling
o Offer financing incentives to attract moderate- and middle-income home buyers

policy platitudes

o Reduce regulatory barriers/delays that impede land assembly and new housing development
o Link low-cost rehab financing with long-term affordability requirements to aggressive housing code enforcement
o Help low- and moderate-income renters exercise their rights to purchase
o Promote the use and acceptance of Section 8 vouchers
o Target Section 8 vouchers to give very low and low-income households access to rental units
o Aggressively enforce fair housing protections
o Support resident organizations and community self-help activities

return to the top of the
page NARPAC Alternative Formulations of the Basic Issues:

We continue to believe that it is essential to take a more dispassionate view of the future of American cities in general, and of the national capital inner city in particular. We believe that some less brutally blunt version of the following statements should be developed in an attempt to eliminate the false hopes of the disadvantaged that they can maintain indefinitely a socio- economic status quo, or status quo ante, in a free market-driven, representative democracy.

o The implicit assumption that central cities should become the poor houses for their metro areas is simply self-defeating: "equitability" must be region-wide;

o The further assumption that our national capital city should bear the financial and perceptual burdens of a very disproportionate (and growing) share of its region's poor and destitute is starkly inappropriate: DC is not the national capital of a Welfare State;

o Americans accept national, state, regional, and local obligations to improve, not just perpetuate, the lot of their least fortunate members: our residents must become affordable, not just their housing;

o The real public costs of alleviating poverty, its repetition, and its visual impacts are very high and increasing. These costs must be realistically quantified and equitably shared in proportion to jurisdictional abilities to pay: the metro area must either shares its wealth, or its poverty, or both;

o The poor and disadvantaged, at the same time, have obligations to accept change and exert personal efforts on behalf of their own betterment. They cannot remain indifferent to, or opposed to, improvements in their lot, or to practical, realistic reductions in the support costs to their benefactors. They cannot assume that circumstance, poverty, indolence, or immobility are 'inalienable human rights': "re-gentrification" of blighted neighborhoods is a municipal obligation to retain a competitive urban quality of life;

o Central cities tend to be constrained in their ability to generate revenues from their limited, and often already pre-empted land and land uses. Increased urban densities and 'smart growth' principles are inevitable and should be enforcible: neighborhood rejection of suitable 'smart growth' should be subject to legal or fiscal penalties;

o Central cities require some specific sources that generate more in revenues than they consume in services. Real estate devoted to residential uses are seldom as "productive" as commercial properties. The belief that more residents mean more (net) revenues is unjustified: cities need to develop explicit formulae defining the 'net productivity' of their zoning categories;

o As central city space becomes more limited, the romantic notion that all neighborhoods should be "saved" and reconstituted at any cost is sheer folly. Neighborhood triage is unavoidable, and so is changing land usage: cities are obliged to humanely pursue 'deconcentration' of poverty in conjunction with their suburbs;

o The emerging concept that widespread racial, ethnic, or economic "diversity" within communities has universal appeal and should be legislated or subsidized, has yet to be demonstrated: enforcement of extreme economic diversity is probably not realistic;

o The assumption that free market, capitalistic economic forces can or should be strictly controlled for the benefit of those with minimum wealth is dangerous at best: it is far more appropriate to find mechanisms by which the poor get into the game: gentrification and capital formation are synonymous;

o Existence of 'negative critical mass" effects in human behavior and outlook appear indisputable. The 'deconcentration' of poverty and its attendant impacts on health, crime, schools, and blight (and hope) should become a major driving force in neighborhood redevelopment: accept the concept that concentrated poverty feeds on itself;

o The peculiar notion that urban demographics should match national or regional norms appears counterproductive. More families and more kids do not automatically increase the quality or sustainability of urban life: cities must develop their own demographic features and avoid emulating the suburbs;

o The equally peculiar notion that the urban poor have a right to nearby shops and jobs wherever they may chose to live is a socialist concept, not a capitalist concept: market economics thrive on individual mobility, not subsidies to perform social services;

return to the top of the
page Facing the Regional Distribution of Housing Stock

The distribution of households, and housing stock, is a basic indicator of the distribution of wealth within the metro area., and also of the ability to raise revenues and thereby provide government services. Of relevance in this analysis is the "inner metro area", consisting of DC at its core, and the five counties which share common borders: Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland, and Fairfax, Arlington and (the City of) Alexandria, on the Virginia side. As of the now somewhat dated 2000 Census, this inner area was home to some 1,3600,000 households, with a total household income of $86.5 billion, and a total value of owned homes of $140.6 billion.

But the distribution of inner metro area wealth is far from even. As shown on this click-up chart to the left, DC hosts over 18% of the total households, but 27% of those who rent (generally a sign of lower income, not choice!). As a result, DC has only 11.% of the household income product, and an even lower 8.5% of the owned-home value. It is inescapable that DC's financial ability to provide services is substantially lower than that of the Maryland and Virginia inner suburbs. Close inspection of the break-out on these charts illustrates that DC has an odd distribution before poor, rich, and the normally important "middle class". Hence DC has disproportionately fewer home owners with homes values between $150K and $300K, too few upper-end renters, and too few with household incomes between $50K and $200K.

The result is a serious deficiency in the ability of DC's relatively wealthy to support the needs of its relatively poor. Furthermore, it is the direct ratio between the two that shows the full impact of the difference. (For instance, in a basket with 10% bad apples, the good outweight the bad by 9:1; but if 20% are bad, the ratio drops to 4:1.) This is clearly shown on the two charts below. To NARPAC's knowledge, these ratios are never used to demonstrate the "affordability", or lack thereof, of caring for a disproportionate share of the region's disadvantaged. There is nothing magic about the cut-offs selected below. But if one defines as needy all those owning homes worth less than $100K or renting housing units for less than $200 per month, and if one defines as households contributing more revenues than they consume in services as those earning more than $75K per year (a very optimistic assumption), then DC has a very much lower potential to support its poorer residents than do the inner suburbs.

To put it in numbers, as shown on the left chart above, DC has only two households making more than $75K per year to generate the revenues needed to support those living in homes worth less than $100K, or renting for less than $200 per month. By comparison, the entire inner metro area averages 6.7 wealthier households per poorer household, or even more indicative, 9.6 wealthier suburban households per poorer suburban household. That is almost a five-to-one advantage for the suburbs over their core city. If the poorer cohort are defined to include those paying less than $300 per month in rent (v $200), and the richer only those above $100K in income, then DC's ratio of net taxpayers to net tax consumers falls to 1.1:1 and the inner suburbs to 5.7:1, giving those suburbs better than a five-to-one advantage. The very large differences in contributing shares are shown to the right for the base case.

Finally, it is of interest to show how much change would be required in DC's housing wealth to bring it up to the inner metro area average: in other words, have the same capacity to care for its less fortunate residents. This is shown on the chart set to the right. DC would need to shift some 60,000 households from less that $50K per year to well over $100K per year, and fill over 60,000 more homes valued between $150 to $300K, and get rid of some 58,000 rental units. In truth, DC does not have the residential wealth to take care of all of those needing affordable housing. It reaches to the heart of the matter in the real world.

return to the top of the
page Elements of a NARPAC Alternate Housing Strategy

NARPAC is in no position to recreate a detailed DC Housing Strategy to its own liking, and the more detail presented, the more vulnerable we become to criticism about individual trees instead of the nature of the forest. But we believe the following elements are essential:

* The real costs of compensating for, and alleviating, poverty must be quantified;

* The best ways for cities to increase revenues must be defined and delimited;

* A realistic national, regional, and local vision for the nation's capital city must be developed;

* The basic elements of urban smart growth must overpower local activist resistance;

* 'Gentrification', 'deconcentration', and 'relocation' must be re-cast as urban virtues;

* The burdens of poverty must be shared both nationally and regionally;

* It will probably require Congressional intervention to achieve realistic burden-sharing; and

* Some more practical definition of the rights and obligations of the poor must be developed.

return to the top of the
page Anguishing Over Gentrification

In many places across this web site, there are references to the necessity for, and inevitability of, upgrading DC's housing stock, and of attracting wealthier residents who will contribute more in revenues and require less in city services. It is inevitably a campaign against the perpetuation and/or spread of poverty. NARPAC has in some places preferred to use the term "re- gentrification to offset the de-gentrification that has already taken place in too many DC neighborhoods. But there is no way to sugar-coat the implications: some people will be forced to 'relocate', not necessarily to their own disadvantage, and the desired result will be to 'deconcentrate' the poverty that often feeds on itself. The only real question is how to minimize the inconvenience and heartache, not how to legislate against its inevitability.

A recent letter published in the Outlook section of the Washington Post approached this issue from the vantage point of a female student at Howard University who will graduate in August of this year, 2004. Somehow, NARPAC feels that she caught the essence of the dichotomy about the benefits and costs of community redevelopment. Her letter is reproduced here, and for a change, without further NARPAC commentary:

On U Street, Mood Indigo
As published in the Washington Post, June 13, 2004

When I arrived in the District in 1999, the vibrancy of U Street made an impression on me.

Duke Ellington was on U, and because I was an 18-year-old jazz aficionado fresh from Nashville, his presence made me feel at home. G. Byron Peck's mural of the great musician at the corner of 13th Street NW spoke volumes about Duke's effect on the Washington jazz and cultural scene. It also said to me that Washington valued its past and the contributions of its African American artists.

Duke's familiar face helped through my first years at Howard University and gave me a sense of permanence through my many transitions. His face was there when I emerged from the Metro or crawled down U Street on the No. 90 bus. Duke's said eyes watched over my friends and me as we made our 2:30 a.m. walks back to the dorm.

But one day my painted guardian disappeared. In his place was a construction site. Washington was expanding the Metro, and new (and expensive) housing was being built all around the neighborhood. Most significant, a luxury high-rise was going up across the street from where my mural had been. It was to be named "the Ellington." The nerve of some developers, I thought.

With Duke discarded to make room for a larger Metro stop, a sandwich shop and a Starbucks, it seemed that gentrification was wiping away U Street's character. I mourned the death of my Duke and my street.

But somewhere amid the pounding of jackhammers, the drying of concrete and the procession of construction workers, I began to undergo a little reconstruction of my own. It had been more than five years since I as a Howard freshman with twisted hair and penchant for throwing my fist in the air for the cause of the week. As the years passed, and the hole between 13th and 14th NW filled in, I felt a strange anticipation begin to brew inside me.

When the "Starbucks coffee coming soon" sign was placed in the window of the signature green, black and white storefront, I could picture myself enjoying a Sunday morning there with my Apple PowerBook, a croissant and a double-tall extra-foam latte. Maybe the neighborhood was changing but as a product of capitalism, I was finding ways to rationalize the changes.

The sidewalks suddenly seemed cleaner and the streets safer. Businesses were popping up where they had been afraid to pop up before. Dilapidated houses were getting makeovers and the results were beautiful. I even booked an appointment to view the Ellington, where the cheapest apartments were going for almost $2,000 a month. As I toured the building, with its mirrored elevators and state-of-the art exercise facilities, I wondered if even Ellington could have afforded the rent. Maybe it was for the best that he wasn't around anymore to see how his community had been transformed.

Then, one day in spring, as I was walking down U, I looked up, and there he was. With the construction complete, Duke Ellington was back on his corner, gazing out with those soulful eyes. I almost couldn't look.

In the years Duke had been away, I had betrayed him with my double-tall extra-foam Starbucks latte'. I had betrayed him with my hope of moving into a high-priced apartment. I had betrayed him by watching silently as the elderly and other lower-income residents of the neighborhood had been quietly displaced.

When I think of the U Street corridor, I like to imagine it as it was when I first came to the District. Even though it was rundown, maybe even down-and-out in some people's eyes, for me it was hallowed ground. If Peck were around to create a new Ellington mural, he might paint a tear in the corner of Duke's eye.

If I quiet my mind, I still can feel the history of these blocks. If I close my eyes, I can see the community that supported black businesses, black children and black art. And if I listen long and hard, I can hear a jazz band. But when I open my eyes and look around, I see the face of a man who once embodied all these things, and these sad eyes that will never see them on U Street again.

By: Amanda S. Miller
copyright 2004

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This page was updated May 15, 2006

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