Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Low Income Housing Needs New Ideas

G. Lee Aikin, Candidate, Council At Large
DC Statehood Green Party, June 2016

This article was prepared as a handout to distribute at the 2014 TENAC (DC Tenants' Advocacy Coalition) Candidate Forum.  [At that time I was in our party's primary in 2014.  Now in 2016 I am running for At Large Council on the November 8, 2016 ballot.]  I am proud to have received the 2016 TENAC endorsement.

This is a complex and difficult problem and I will add new thoughts and links to this post from time to time.  To start with, I would say there are 4 major groups of particular concern regarding housing.  These are:
   1) homeless and distressed individuals,
   2a) young people, often college students or graduates coming to DC to study or work,
   2b) young people growing up in DC but ready to leave home,
   3) lower income families, and
   4) lower income elderly.
Two significant subgroups that sometimes fall in the above catagories are veterans, especially those with PTSD, and LGBT persons, especially the young and elderly.  Much of the new housing being built in DC is apartments in the 1 and 2 bedroom category.  Even the 1 bedroom apartments often start at $2,000 a month or more.  Established people with good jobs can afford such rents but not very many in the categories above.

Recent failures of Metro and the disruption caused by much needed repair, plus heavy snow conditions, have demonstrated the fragility of our commuter economy [2016].  In addition should our only tunnel to Virginia fail the results would be horrific.  Some in Virginia are already advocating building another tunnel.  If we do not add more low income and affordable housing, we could find ourselves in a serious emergency with a shortage of firemen, teachers, police, and hospital, hotel, restaurant and sanitation personnel.

Apparently big developers do not think about things like that, as demonstrated by a NO-BID contractors efforts to put Tyson's Corner type development into McMillan Park (see various links here on that).  Rush hour traffic is already almost at a standstill at the intersection of North Capitol St. and Michigan Ave., NW.  Imagine adding the rush traffic of two 13 story and one 8 story office building, plus 160 market rate town houses.  One developer was reported to comment that it was already a terrible traffic situation so what difference did lots more traffic make?  Is this insanity or merely sociopathic greed.

I recently saw a TV news report on innovative construction at Catholic University.  They are using reconditioned shipping containers to build a dormitory complex. I Googled "Shipping Container Homes" and found much interesting material, so posted a separate article here.  I spoke with a recently homeless person about the concept and specifically the 8' by 20' efficiency shown there.  He said, "That's all I need, a place that's mine with a lock on the door."  He is currently renting a room for $350 which might be enough to actually buy such a small unit.

Washington DC needs breakthrough legislation that will mobilize the energy and resources of DC people and government to solve the pressing problem of affordable housing. Exclusively central planning style management of resources and pricing will not solve the problem. DC simply has too great an attraction for too many kinds of people who want to live in DC. There is too little supply so the prices go up. If prices are frozen then new supply will stop, which will just be another way for us to have a dramatic lack of affordable housing.  Actually given the current oversupply of higher cost apartments, we may actually end up having a reduction in those rent rates, but it still will not help lower income people.

One TENAC question asked what we candidates will do to protect tenants against the permitted rent increase in rent controlled apartments of 2% above inflation (CPI) rate.  I pointed out that I have seen 3 proposed property tax assessment increases for 2015 of row houses in various areas of northwest.  Two of them were for 10% the third was for 14.6%, that one was also on the block where there were still some modest room rents.  They won't be modest long at that rate.  So this is at least 5% more than inflation plus 2%.  I certainly understand the tenants grief at having to pay more, but will owners want to rent rooms and apartments if their margin drops 5% or more year after year.

These 3 properties had not been upgraded, but their new higher assessments were based on upgrades to neighboring properties.  This is a major cause of the rent hike spiral and must be stopped.  We must change from using the most expensive, newly renovated properties sold in a neighborhood as the basis for all tax assessments on unimproved properties.  Even if increasing values mean all boats are raised, the old leaky boat will still not bring the same price as the sleek new yacht.  Thus older unimproved properties should not have their tax assessment percentages raised to equal these fully renovated properties with their granite counters, stainless appliances, and fully tiled bathrooms.

It might be reasonable to allow no more than an increase in property tax of the inflation percent until the property is sold.  At that time the assessment could be increased to the sale price.

In addition utilities are increasing.  WASA has recently more than doubled its base rate to pay for the big tunnel storm overflow projects.  One of these is at McMillan Park.  We taxpayers will be paying around $70million to support the NO-BID developer referred to above in the destruction of this historic site.  We now must shell out over $18 before one cent pays for water

The Council has given preliminary approval to let PEPCO spend $1 billion to put more electrical lines underground.  Although the article linked says they estimate a $1.50 increase to our monthly electric bills, I don't trust that figure.  In addition they will be wanting an additional $2 billion to complete the job.  Big digging and paving contractors are no doubt supporting those Council members who vote for this.  Another article points out that rates will likely increase by $3.25 per month and there is a local hiring mandate (which we darn well better enforce!!).  Keep an eye on this issue.  We also have no idea how much more the Exelon takeover of PEPCO will cost.

Habitat for Humanity has an attractive framework for a solution. Large enough volunteer teams with the right number of professionals to supervise and do work requiring licensed professionals serves well to provide modest cost housing. Imagine if Washington DC budgeted $200 million a year for building materials and professional talent to move the Habitat for Humanity model to large scale.  Actually at TENAC Mayor Gray proposed spending closer to $300 million.

People may think the many thousands of volunteer hours required to use such a large investment would not be present. However, all we need is for people to see a practical self interest in volunteering their time. What if after 1,000 hours were donated to such effort they could expect a down payment on an inexpensive condominium is a reward? What if this were an option that young workers could follow when convenient over a period of years? What if the costs were so low that people would love to buy such units at prices that would provide enough profit to the DC government, to create more funds to provide housing? What if many of the 60,000 returning citizens in DC could be trained in construction as part of this process? This would provide apprenticeship pathways to well paying jobs and a clear path to affordable housing.

Several in our DCSGP have spent long hours working to create a DC Public Bank. Why put our money in Wall Street owned banks when we can have our own? The bank charter could focus on small business assistance, infrastructure development including housing, and job creation.

Big increases in housing will lower the cost. Over 800,000 people were living in our city at one time. There is room for a substantial expansion back to those levels. We just need the creativity to provide that housing at affordable costs. It is presumed that DC funded housing is just for the poor. If this model is applied to the many young people with middle class assumptions and ambitions then it would have much broader support and funding might conceivably be raised above $200 million per year.  The needs of such newcomers to DC were provided after World War II by places like Hartnett Hall.  With 800 units around the city, with the units described below on 21st St. between O and P Sts., NW, it was a first stopping place for many young people.  There was a cafeteria which served some 3 meals a day.

Hartnett Hall consisted of 80 individual townhouse buildings located around Dupont Circle offering daily, weekly and monthly boarding facilities to over 1000 persons. Rental fees ranged from $10-$25 per week and included daily housekeeping and two meals per day. They specialized in multi-cultural living and served, at one point, one out of every five persons who had moved into DC from the 1940's - 2000s.
Persons could rent a private dorm room or share a room in a house that consisted of men or women's dorms with a shared bath, pay phones for each building and a general meeting room with a television, chess and bridge games and an opportunity to meet persons from every country in the world.

In times past when new, mostly young people came to the city, they expected to live in small studios or in shared apartments. The city is currently overbuilt in middle/upper middle/luxury income apartments. Recently, a friend posted ads for a $900 room and a $1,800 one bedroom apartment. Dozens of responses came in for the room but almost none for the apartment. Craigs List has hundreds of postings for apartments in the $2,000 to $2,500 range showing up repeatedly. DC law requires 150 square feet for a one person dwelling, plus an additional 100 sf per each extra person. A bedroom must have 70 sf, not counting closet for one person, or 50 sf each for more than one. Very small, low cost units can be built with these rules.  Here is one woman's experience with downsizing to an 84 sq. ft. dwelling (photos, other links, and comments at this site.)

The best way to prevent rising apartment rental costs from making housing unaffordable is put people in housing that they own. The best way to prevent people from flipping that housing at much higher prices is to keep the supply of new housing flowing so a substantial shortage does not develop. One option being explored is the concept of the very tiny house (a one hour 20 min. video with a number of links) or efficiency. Council member Vincent Orange has favored this concept.  One experimental project is currently under construction where tiny homes (this in DC with around 600 comments) might be purchased for less than $50,000. The needs of young people, both college graduates, and young people in town turning 18 are somewhat different, but neither can afford to spend a lot on housing. Nor do they need a very large space to live in. They have not yet accumulated the “stuff” of living. Young professionals have expressed interest in living in cheap small units of 260 square feet or less  as shown in this example. There is a need for high quality design so that use of the space would be similar to a much larger living space. The same design expertise needs to be brought to the creation of highly functional spaces for families.

Unfortunately, most builders in DC seem to have a Donald Trump complex.  Mr. Trump's father built a very successful business meeting the needs of blue and white collar workers in New York.  When Donald grew up he had learned a lot from Dad, but he wanted to build big, fancy, spectacular buildings and he has.  Do we have any builders in DC with the vision to see that these goals can be combined?  For example, especially in the fast growing popular areas of the city, why not include a segment of dormitory style housing in new market rate apartment buildings.  There new arrivals in DC could rent rooms by the week and month while sharing a bath and cooking areas or having a functioning cafeteria, where some could even be employed.  While there they could make friends and discover who would be a good apartment roommate.  The management would by then have a record of who was a stable room rent payer, and move appropriate people into their nice new apartments.

Hopefully, some builders would even be willing to build mixed income apartments.  The health of a given community is far better if there is socio-economic diversity. Outcomes for children will be better if there are example of success through education that are very visible in the immediate surroundings. We need to focus on reasonable sized multi-family housing clusters that do not extend to a size that has failed in the past. DC residents do not want Cabrini Green or Pruitt-Igoe type projects.

In 2014 when I was following work of the Tax Revision Commission, we were told that Virginia does a much better job of promoting favorable development.  They appoint a support person to expedite permitting and other necessary steps required for fast action.  Even if DC, for some unknown reason, could not adopt this sensible procedure, they should do it for fast tracking housing for low and affordable housing.  This would make producing that kind of housing more competitive with the market rate builders.  DC has 70,000 people on it's housing waiting list.  Enough already.

A critical design criterion is long term costs of maintenance and operation. There is a passive house standard very popular in Europe and especially Germany. This standard has highly insulated R40 walls, R60 insulation for roofs, triple pane windows with creative features in the frames to prevent thermal loses, very tight seals everywhere to prevent leakage and a high tech heat exchange unit for preserving 90% of heating and cooling energy. Long term durability and low cost maintenance must also be central to design philosophy.

My answer to all of the TENAC concerns about housing affordability is to provide the supply needed to keep housing affordable. The housing philosophy advocated here can be very complex in practice. In addition I believe a substantially larger part of the DC budget must be allocated to housing. This can best be done with the focused attention of a DC City Council Committee dedicated to housing.

Socialism as a philosophy does not overthrow the basic laws of supply and demand. However, caring for the poor that is implicit in socialism is a moral good that we must embraced. If we can start with a vision based on a creative sense of inclusive community and use it to solve the critical problem of housing it would be a massive win for our city. DC should want to be the caring community that can solve this problem with a style that can be a shining example for the rest of the nation.

Here is one group's efforts to produce a solution

Home, squeezed home: Living in a 200-square-foot space

By Emily Wax, Published: November 27, 2012 E-mail the writer
Step into an alleyway in the Northeast Washington neighborhood known as Stronghold, and you will see a vegetable patch, a campfire, a view of the Capitol and a cluster of what neighbors call “those tiny people, building their tiny houses.”

The people aren’t really tiny, but their homes are — 150 to 200 square feet of living space, some with gabled roofs, others with bright cedar walls, compact bathrooms and cozy sleeping lofts that add up to living spaces that are smaller than the walk-in closets in a suburban McMansion.

“This is the dream,” says Rin Westcott, 28, who lives in Columbia and came out on a wintry Saturday afternoon bundled in a flower hat to help her friend Lee Pera with a tiny-house raising.

Pera, 35, wore safety goggles as she treated the cedar boards of her “little house in the alleyway,” one of three under construction in what is thought to be one of the country’s first tiny-house model communities.

If these affordable homes — which maximize every inch of interior space and look a little like well-constructed playhouses — are the dream, they represent a radically fresh version of what it takes to make Americans happy.

Tiny homes first drew national attention when the Tumbleweed Tiny House Co., now based in Santa Rosa, Calif., launched the concept in 2000. The idea gained visibility when it was featured in several national magazines and, in 2007, became the focus of the Tiny House Blog, established by self-proclaimed “lover of tiny spaces” Kent Griswold.

The small homes, some on wheels, don’t warrant many trips to the Container Store. There are no kitchen islands, three-car garages or living rooms that are never lived in. In fact, their increasing popularity could be seen as a denunciation of conspicuous consumption and a rejection of the idea that more is, well, more.

The group behind Stronghold’s tiny-house community calls itself Boneyard Studios. “As property values and rents rise across the city, we want to showcase this potential option for affordable housing,” the group writes on its Web site. “We decided to live the questions: Can we build and showcase a few tiny homes on wheels in a DC urban alley lot? . . . Not in the woods, but in a true community, connected to a neighborhood? Yes, we think. Watch out left coast, the DC adventure begins.”

There’s one problem: The city’s zoning laws don’t allow residential dwellings on alley lots unless they are a minimum of 30 feet wide, or roughly the width of a city street. D.C. is currently discussing lifting the 30-foot restriction. So, as Boneyard Studios continues to advocate more progressive zoning laws, it is using the property to showcase what could be.

“We want to inspire thinking about this as a possibility in the District,” says Brian Levy, 37, one of Boneyard’s founding members, who is building his tiny home in Stronghold but currently lives in a rowhouse off of U Street.

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