Thursday, September 07, 2006

Why we need a greater diversity of housing options in the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor

Arguments against building multi-family housing on the Upper Wisconsin Avenue corridor because there is no market demand for them are just silly. Attracting more folks of whatever income bracket to whatever type of housing in other parts of the city like Ft. Totten requires improving city services particulary public safety and the schools. While I don't believe that those improvements necessarily depend on more funding that is at least part of the equation and that funding has to come from somewhere. Theoretically the new development could pay for the cost but developers aren't going to take their chances on projected sale values based on a theoretical. And while land acquisition costs at, say, Ft. Totten may be less than they are in Friendship Heights, the construction costs don't vary and in fact may be higher. The whole reason there are those large tracts available for development along the other side of the Red Line is because really that area, originally along the railroad tracks, represented one of the only parts of the city where there was any industry so there is likely to be some siginificant clean up costs. And this doesn't even take into account the value of having industrialized land uses in a city that is almost completely built out - please see this recent Washington Post article for more on that (or maybe no-growthers should advocate that our underutilized lots in Upper NW be rezoned for for light industrial uses - surely such uses would adhere to their fixation on heights and densities). And of course the lower yield per unit or square foot in fact will make it tougher for those units to subsidize the lower and middle income housing we need in every corner of the city.

All along the Red Line we have diverse housing types - in fact if you think about it it is the Connecticut avenue corridor that has the high rise apartment/condo buildings and then you segue to the rowhouses and a bit further away the single family homes. Near Wisconsin we have just a couple of buildings with condos, which are mostly new, a handful of rowhouses (and some duplexes), mostly in FH, and then mostly single family homes. So in fact what is lacking are multi unit/family buildings.

There is a good argument that there is a shortage of multi-room housing being built, but current zoning does nothing to help this - in fact by limiting the available pool of all housing it hurts the overall housing situation in DC. It's not just a shortage of family housing or affordable housing - it's a shortage of housing in general in DC that have driven up costs and priced people out of the city. If indeed more family housing is what we need, why not try and amend the current proposal to mandate inclusion of family (multi-bedroom) units? When it comes down to it, limiting height and density is always going to be the opposition's determining factor in approving a new development, nothing else, no matter how badly it is needed.

I would take this argument a step further and add that one of the benefits of multiple types of housing is that it creates more supply and enables more folks to move in and out of different types. For example young folks can get in first to a condo, live there a few years building up equity, maybe move up to a row house and then in middle age when they may have teenagers hopefully get into a single family house with the most space. And once the kids are gone they can start to move the other direction and start downsizing. But the lack of diversity in housing options inhibits that movement.

Folks who are young and want to be close in but aren't willing to take a chance on a more transitional neighborhood like Ft Totten might opt to not live close in because the restraint of supply has driven the cost of 1 bedrooms to a starting level of $300,000+. Conversely the older folks who have more house than they need have no incentive to leave their extra square footage behind - sure they may have a $900,000 home they paid $200,000 for but a 2 bedroom in Chase Point is starting at $800,000 so that move makes no sense for them. But strangely some seem to suggest that the market could soon be oversaturated with these units. Why that is their concern (particularly given their animosity towards developers) I don't understand but the example I just cited is why that could be a good thing even for buyers looking for single family homes - if that 2 bedroom in Chase Point comes down to a more reasonable $500,000 then maybe that retirement age couple makes that move. Enough folks do that it increases the supply of single family homes and slows the inflation of their prices.

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