Housing DC's Future


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]


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.


As indicated below, this chapter addresses a number of qualitative terms that would either be difficult to define in quantitative terms, or should be. It is backed up with various specific comparisons to note various 'norms' elsewhere. In general it intends to push the Comprehensive Plan drafters towards specifics that can be used as objectives for the Plan. Issues addressed here:

NARPAC comments
Inconsistent definitions of time horizon: 10-yr, 15-yr, or 20-yr
No definition of, or metric for, the word "inclusive"
No definition of or metric for the word "diverse"
Relative to the US, or to the states of Maryland and Virginia, DC has roughly:
Relative to the lesser of Prince George's or Montgomery Counties on DC's immediate land borders, DC has roughly:
No definition of or metric for a "neighborhood" or a "community"
Just what is meant by "mixed-race" and "mixed-income" neighborhoods
Where is the linkage to neighboring suburban housing (and shopping)?
Where is the linkage of housing with transportation?
Where is the innovative thinking in 21st Century affordable urban housing design?

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


Or go back to: Chapter 1: SUMMARIZING THE PLAN

NARPAC comments

From here on, the parenthetical italics are eliminated, NARPAC addresses a series of failings within the report -- particularly with respect to its applicability to the city's 20-year comprehensive strategic plan. Where possible, we introduce quantitative data which supports our preference for "fact-based planning". Almost all of it is based on the Census Bureau's "American Community Survey for 2004" data readily available at It should also be clearly understood that NARPAC is far from satisfied with the DC Comprehensive Plan as it now exists. Some of the comments here apply equally well that effort at this stage.

Inconsistent definitions of time horizon: 10-yr, 15-yr, or 20-yr

While it might be appropriate to propose a set of interim objectives over the next ten years, surely the second ten years should be devoted more to changing the status quo, rather than to making it more comfortable. Prime among these objectives should be a program to reduce the number of families requiring housing assistance closer to some acceptable norm. (see below)

No definition of, or metric for, the word "inclusive"

The current draft of the city's comprehensive plan contains an interesting introductory quote to its opening section on "Guiding Principles". It is informative, if remarkably vague:

"Growing inclusively means that individuals and families are not confined to a particular economic and geographic boundaries but are able to make important choices choices about where they live and where they earn a living, how they get around the city, and where their children go to school. Growing inclusively also means that every resident can make these choices regardless of whether they have lived here for generations or moved here last week, and regardless of their race, income, or age."

This sweeping, open-ended fantasy is so far from reality that it defies qualification. Even the failed socialist systems of the 20th century did not pretend that anyone could do anything they want inside a closed jurisdiction with limited resources and regardless of their capacities to provide for their own desires.

No definition of or metric for the word "diverse"

NARPAC finds the term "diverse" particularly dangerous as a sociological descriptor or as a planning tool. While obverse terms such as "identical" or "monolithic" can be relatively easily defined (and rejected as societal aims), the questions of how much diversity is best, or is "A" more diverse than "B", simply cannot be answered. To the extent that planning should establish measurable goals, then diversity does not fit the bill. Furthermore, even if absolute values for diversity cannot be set, should planners be guided by some available norms, such as averages or means, and if so, by what larger "set": the whole US? the metro area? neighboring states? We list below some of the possible measures of "diversity" and wonder whether DC's departure from the norms is good or bad, and whether they should be increased or decreased over the next twenty years:

Relative to the US, or to the states of Maryland and Virginia, DC has roughly:

o a third less family households;
o a third less married-couple households;
o twice as many single-mom households;
o half again as many non-family households;
o half as many white households;
o four times as many black households;
o a quarter less homeowners;
o more low and high income households, fewer in "the middle";
o half as many families with school-aged kids have two parents;
o twice as many families with kids below the poverty level;

These are shown on the graphic below:

Relative to the lesser of Prince George's or Montgomery Counties on DC's immediate land borders, DC has roughly:

o half again as many households with incomes below $30,000;
o a quarter to half the total income product;
o lower earnings for the same educational level, particularly for women;
o half the number of jobs paying under $50K;
o almost the same pay for the same educational achievement;
o three times the share of persons in poverty;
o four times the number of school-aged kids in poverty;
o significantly lower household income for all non-white households;
o twice as many people below the poverty line who don't work at all;
o half the share of single-family homes (vs apartments);
o half as many owned homes compared to rentals (at all income levels);
o twice as many housing units with less than four rooms;
o the same number of elderly (over 65) in poverty as the larger counties combined;
o three- to four-fold fewer cars in owner-occupied homes;
o several times as many households with no owned vehicles;

If these are potential measures of diversity, is DC better off or not than its neighbors (where the region's people can also chose to live vibrantly), and how should DC shift from the status quo?

NARPAC is convinced that neither the city's planners nor its housing advocates can make sensible decisions about its own future directions without taking a good look at how other jurisdictions in the area are developing. The District's unique position in the eyes of the Census Bureau as a "state" is surely a mixed blessing. It provides huge amounts of data that are not normally available for "core cities" or even for amorphous "metro areas" that keep changing in "inclusiveness". In addition, there should be some advantage to being able to compare the city (that wants so badly to be a state) with two of its closest neighbors, the counties of Prince George's (PG) and Montgomery (Monty). Unfortunately, equivalent data for Virginia's Alexandria City and Arlington County have not been updated in the Bureau's "American Community Survey" for 2004. They would be, in fact, better samples of successful "urban counties" than PG and Monty.

Nevertheless, the two Maryland counties are excellent and contrasting examples of suburban growth. One is "predominantly white" and the other "predominantly black", but neither has many of the troubles that plague DC. Moreover, a large number of those who become dissatisfied with the city can move to the "suburbs" next door (and many have, taking their kids with them), while those who tire of the suburban "sprawl" with its endless roads and soccer fields can return to the city (often after their kids have left the nest).

The next five charts set the basic comparisons with PG and Monty. The first presents the distribution of housing units by their value as shown in the key, lower right. On this and the next four charts, DC always appears upper left, PG upper right, and Monty right below DC. The color variations differentiate renters from owners.

Clearly, DC's pattern differs from the other two: way more renters; no "peak" to establish the customary "bell curve" distribution that indicates variation around from some norm; and a much larger concentration at the lower end if the housing scale.

The second chart shifts the x-axis to median household income (MHI) and compares the various age brackets in each income bracket. Again the pattern is very distinctive, with a much larger collection at the poverty end of the scale, reflecting both "non-householders" (mainly loners) and DC's very large number of single mom families. These are collected by age group in the lower right hand chart where DC's uniqueness stands out.

One might also note on the lower right hand chart in the cluster above that poverty in DC is far more heavily concentrated at the bottom of the scale than in either PG or Monty. These are the very large numbers of near-destitute single moms with kids who are inescapably spawning the next generation of near-destitute single-moms as well as a large fraction of the young males involved in "the justice system". So much for inclusiveness and diversity. Not only is DC's share of the full range of poor persons almost twice as high as PG's, but half-again as many are concentrated at or below the 100% mark. Surely this must be recognized as a problem that cannot be resolved by subsidized housing.

The distribution of households containing kids points up another of DC's major economic and demographic abnormalities. The low proportion of married families (look at Monty!) seems completely disproportionate, and not something to be encouraged. The PG distribution seems far more appropriate, and shows that "predominantly black" does not mean "predominantly poor", or "predominantly unwed".

The fourth chart in this series looks at the kids-in-households issue from the standpoint of the number of kids being raised in each income bracket. Again, and not surprisingly, DC looks completely different from PG and Monty, with an enormous number of future householders at the bottom of the economic chain. As an aside at lower right, the parental mix is summarized separately. Less than half as many two-parent families certainly should not be considered a boost for inclusiveness or diversity.

Finally, the black/white issue cannot be completely overlooked. That black need not be clustered at the near-poverty end is shown by both PG and Monty, and the black/white proportionality need not change so drastically from one end of the scale to the other. Surely the primary aim of "social engineering through housing" cannot be to simply spread the races more evenly around the city when their incomes are so different.

No definition of or metric for a "neighborhood" or a "community"

While NARPAC recognizes that these common words are primarily qualitative, when taken to their lower extreme in terms or land area or population count, it appears impractical to achieve the level of autonomy implied. With nearly 150 identifiable "neighborhoods", there is no hope of getting a local school for each one, for instance, a major public transportation stop, or even a group of local mom&pop retail stores. Nor does NARPAC find it reasonable to look for the desired income or racial mix or balance within each set of about 2000 households, on average. We prefer to think more in terms of the 40-odd neighborhood "planning clusters", or the newly emerging 10 "planning areas" in the Comprehensive Plan draft. This is an area where an evident disconnect between planning elements would be counter-productive.

Just what is meant by "mixed-race" and "mixed-income" neighborhoods

Both the CHSTFR and the Comprehensive Plan place great stock in bringing households together that differ significantly in both ethnic and financial caste. One influential advocate has been heard to say that the Comprehensive Plan should send a clear message that "if you don't want to mix, we don't want you!" NARPAC, often somewhat skeptical of too much "social liberalism", most certainly supports a position that excluding, or even discouraging, such mixing would be unacceptable, and certainly "un-American". On the other hand, requiring such mixing by, say, legislating a certain mix of housing in a certain area, or in every area, does not appear sensible, desirable, or practical. We have seen no convincing evidence that kids, adults, households or communities in general are bound together more strongly by their differences than by their common interests.

NARPAC also believes that these common interests are driven more strongly by similar customs, education, and financial status, than by skin color, religion, or ethnicity. To a considerable extent, customs, education, and financial status are closely related in the US. However, there are significant differences in lifestyles and preferences based on level of education and prosperity. Beyond certain differentials, there would appear to be little common grounds for bonding. Surely enabling neighbors with income variations of, say, 2:1 or 3:1 to live together may be desirable. Trying to reach for 5:1 or 10:1 seems unrealistic. An attempt to illustrate this is made on the chart pair below. The left chart lines up the 39 Planning Clusters by how "black" they are, and the one on the right by how rich they are. Gray bands indicate the range from 25% to 75% black, and from $25K to $65K in Median Household Income (a spread of 2.5:1 around the DC median). In both cases, the "outliers" at each end of the spectra are probably statistically so different that trying to enforce intermingling simply would not work from the standpoint of either extreme.

To NARPAC, the bottom three criteria are possibly the most telling: there is a remarkable spread across the city in the number of adults in the community compared to the number of kids. This is somewhat indicative of the number of single moms, and also of the mix of families and non- families. The second is the (resulting) extraordinary different in community household income per kid. This may have substantial impact on the lifestyles of the community members. Lastly, there are likely to be lifestyle differences, or at least preferences, depending on the level of education achieved. At one extreme at least 2/3rds of the householders have finished college; at the other extreme, only 2/3rds finished high school. Clearly, it seems more fruitful to work the racial and income mixes closer together, and leave the extremes til another day.

Where is the linkage to neighboring suburban housing (and shopping)?

There is an almost ludicrous token gesture on page 3 of the housing element of the draft Comprehensive Plan to the effect that:

"This (affordable housing) shortfall will continue to create a market dynamic where housing costs increase faster than incomes. The only way out is through consistent multi- jurisdictional efforts to increase the supply of housing to better meet demand. Intergovernmental agreements and initiatives will be needed to ensure that all jurisdictions bear their fair share of the region's housing needs and do not leave that responsibility to the District of Columbia.".

And that is the end of that. There was no such mention in the CHSTFR, and no further mention in the Comprehensive Plan, of the imperative to generate appropriate area-wide solutions to the area's housing dilemmas and inequities. One wonders if this was some diplomatic translation of NARPAC's blunt assertion that "DC is not obliged to be the nation capital area's poorhouse".

In fact, there is no indication of relative housing supplies in the metro area, or even the close-in jurisdictions. There is no visual acknowledgment that there is a metro area. There is no graphic of any sort that indicates what housing or economic activity is developing just outside DC's borders. Although residents may have different license plates, there are no passport requirements, and jurisdictional differentiation is far lower on area residents' list.

Where is the linkage of housing with transportation?

There are several valuable references to concentrating new housing, and affordable housing in particular, near transportation nodes of one sort or another. Again, however, this appears to be yet another token gesture to "transit-oriented development" with virtually no evident follow-up. For instance, there is no visible depiction on the Comprehensive Plan's "General Land Use Policy Map" that public transportation exists, or that there are metrorail stations all around the city, but not necessarily near the planned areas of development. There is no discussion whatsoever of the possible need to add to public transit routes over the next 20 years for 55,000 new households.

On the opposite side of this coin, there is also no indication of where additional housing units would be adversely effected by the large, and surely increasing, flow of heavy commuter and commercial traffic. There is, for instance, no depiction of where the "Level 1" 24/7 heavy truck routes have been designated. While suggesting that some partially abandoned low-density commercial 'strip malls' might be converted to residential use, there is no consideration of whether these unsightly relics died of truckaphobia.

Finally, there is no indication of what impact additional housing will have on the number of additional private and commercial vehicles moving, standing, parked, or abandoned on city streets. There is also no mention of the inescapable fact that cars are a virtual adjunct of American housing units and that they must be designed together. This is treated numerically in a later section. Where is the innovative thinking in 21st Century affordable urban housing design?

Finally, the housing report and the comprehensive plan avoid the issue of creating new kinds of urban housing developments that might better serve the emerging needs of the new kinds of urban residents. As households get smaller, less family-oriented, and more car-dependent, it is possible that housing units may be better distinguished by the numbers of available rooms they have. Both report and plan mention the need for more one-room apartments, group housing (i.e.,"co- housing"), "granny flats", and the like. NARPAC has an as-yet unarticulated vision of some new derivative of the well-known DC "rowhouse block". It might be developed from the ground up to accommodate a variety of room combinations; (underground) parking; (aboveground) common green and play spaces; as well as various other modern amenities for safety and community support. Try to imagine a modern, stationary, vibrant, inclusive, urban "cruise ship"! Think ahead!

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This page was updated on Feb 5, 2006




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