Summer solstice in the Flickr pool

Here are a few of our favorite new images submitted to the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best (and sometimes the worst) of urbanism in the greater Washington region.

Tuesday’s sunset over the Anacostia River, from Kingman Island, DC by Jim Havard used with permission.

Bethesda Image by Boris used with permission.

Fireflies at Shirlington Park Image by Erinn Shirley used with permission.

Image by Brett Young used with permission.

We need your photos! Have a snap that embodies the greatest (or worst) of places in the Washington, DC region? Please join the Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Top image: Union Market on summer solstice. Image by the author.

Comment on this article

National links: Is New York City losing its heart?

New York is becoming a haven for the wealthy and losing what once made it great, the author argues. Climate change is influencing homebuyers' decisions. The Boring Company's bid to build a transport line in Chicago seems really low for a project so large.

Death of a once-great city: New York City is changing. In this longform piece, Kevin Baker argues that the once-gritty, freewheeling city is losing its spirit and becoming a haven for the rich, at the expense of the quirks (and the people) that once made it interesting. (Kevin Baker / Harper's Magazine)

Climate change is determining housing decisions: Homebuyers in the United States have been taking climate change seriously, even if regulations and rhetoric are slow to take hold. Purchasing data shows that home prices in dangerous areas depreciated over a 10-year period from 2007 to 2017. It's tricky though, because many homes in dangerous areas are also seen as benefiting from the amenity of location close to water. (Christopher Flavelle and Allison McCartney / Bloomberg)

The Boring Company's cheap bid: After months of speculation, Elon Musk's Boring Company was awarded the rights to build a transport line between O'Hare airport and Chicago's central business district. Sources reveal that the cost is expected to be $1 billion. However, observers are extremely skeptical of that number. If the project fails, many of Musk's investors will be out a lot of money, as no public funds are expected to be used. (Andrew J. Hawkins / The Verge)

Dismantling racial discrimination protections at HUD: The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) indicated that it may reverse Obama-era rules that prohibit subtle forms of racial discrimination in housing, namely any “facially neutral practice that has a discriminatory effect.” HUD is also battling a fair housing law in court and wants to drastically raise rents on low-income families. (Kriston Capps / CityLab)

The autonomous road to municipal ruin: Cities are highly dependent on revenue generated by vehicles, from registration and parking fees to gas taxes and more. But in a new autonomous future, those sources are likely to dry up as vehicles get safer and have no need to park. Replacing these revenue sources is tough, especially at a time when states are starting to limit the ability of cities to raise fees on companies the author calls "fundamentally predatory." (Susan Crawford / Wired)

Did the Blitz benefit London's long term economy? From September of 1940 to May of 1941, the German Luftwaffe dropped 18,000 tons of bombs on London in a campaign now known as "the Blitz." Researchers looked at data showing where the bombs landed and destroyed urban form in tandem with what those areas look like today, showing the relaxation of codes after the destruction led to economic growth. (Gerard Dericks and Hans Koster / Spatial Economics Research Centre)

Quote of the Week

"But just as Brits can claim no monopoly on the sun in our low-skied, grey-clouded land, so ancient humans all over the world refashioned their own built environments to mark and celebrate important solar moments in the calendar."

Justin Marrozzi in The Guardian talking about cities that have been designed around the longest day of the year.

This Week's Talking Headways Podcast features Odetta MacLeish White of Atlanta's Transformation Alliance

Comment on this article

DC’s historic preservation process is too easy to abuse

Recent contentious historic preservation cases have shown DC’s system can be abused by neighbors who simply want another tool to halt change in their neighborhood. Part of the problem is that the very process used to designate a site does not legally incorporate the views of the surrounding community.

Certainly, preservation officials should have some power to act on behalf of the priorities of historic preservation, but excluding the voice of the community is problematic.

Over the past few week’s we’ve explored multiple facets of DC’s historic preservation system that need reform. Take a moment to read and sign our full petition here. This week we’ll look into how residents’ views are not officially accounted for in historic designation, and propose more democratic solutions.

Sign the petition!

A neighborhood can be designated historic without community education and input

When it comes to historic preservation, there are two different tools available: historic landmark status (typically for one building or a small group of buildings), and historic districts designating a geographic area, such as a neighborhood, historic. Buildings with these protections are governed by a number of site-specific regulations that aim to protect their historic character, mainly affecting exterior alterations.

In order to get a landmark or historic district, an applicant (typically a neighborhood group, or an organization on behalf of a neighborhood group) must apply to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO). Eventually the application is voted on by the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), a mayorally-appointed volunteer board which makes preservation decisions.

The very design of this process is problematic as we explored in an earlier post, but other reforms are needed here: community input is not officially quantified and considered as part of the historic designation decision.

Now agencies will point to regulations that say public opinion is “beneficial” “accorded great weight,” and even “essential to informed decision making in the historic preservation process.”

However, when it comes to the final vote before the HPRB the law is clear: “by law, HPRB makes its decision on the basis of the written designation criteria,” things like architecture, historical importance, or being the “work of a master.”

In other words, the board decides on the historic bonafides as described in the application. Community input is not legally weighed, as expressed in any Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) or community vote. HRPB members and other preservation advocates say this is correct, because whether something is historic or not shouldn't be put to a vote by the public.

As a result, we see cases where the HPO moves the application process along even if there’s community opposition. Fundamentally, both HPO and the HPRB rely on the applicant to conduct community outreach and education. Unfortunately, there are no legal requirements on what that outreach should look like, no number of required meetings, and no required proof of neighborhood support in terms of a vote or the like.

This isn’t how it works in, say, transportation or zoning. Sure, not every resident will agree about parking or a bike lane or setback rules or stormwater requirements, and the decision isn’t put to a strict vote every time. However, what neighbors think is a huge — and formal — part of the calculus.

This current system creates a risky dynamic where a motivated group of neighbors can simply apply for historic designation, do limited or zero community outreach, and ultimately secure a positive HPRB vote without community consensus or education.

Has this happened before? Not until recently.

In the past, applicants themselves have simply withdrawn or scrapped their applications when it was clear that the community opposed historic designation or there was at least severely divided opinion. This is what happened in Eckington in 2016 and in Chevy Chase in 2008.

But recently two cases have pushed this issue to the limit. In Kingman Park, a controversy-filled historic district was just approved by the HPRB. The applicant in this case did very little community outreach (in fact the vote was originally delayed because HPRB was worried about the outreach), and ANC votes were decidedly split on the issue (6A voted against, 5D for, and 7D did not take a vote, though the most-impacted commissioner in 7D was one of the most vocal opponents of the district).

Amidst all of this, ANC Commissioner Bob Coomber (7D) put out a survey and when combined with the official comments sent in to the HPRB, it is clear that most residents who responded opposed the designation. Yet HPO still brought the case forward for a vote, and HPRB designated it.

Map of comments from Kingman Park residents on historic district application. Red = against. Green = for.  Image by Bob Coomber.

Some residents in Bloomingdale are worried about a similar situation. A survey of neighborhood property owners revealed a majority opposed to the pending historic nomination, and later the ANC (5E) voted against it. To date, the applicants have still not pulled their application. The HPRB hearing and vote is set for July, and opponents are anxious that again, clear evidence of community opposition will not formally be accounted for in the HPRB’s deliberations.

These cases highlight a real problem with our current historic designation process. There should be a more clearly-defined procedure for public engagement. Why not actually require a vote from affected neighbors? Those are both things that agencies could set standards around and require from applicants.

HPO and HPRB could also start officially considering these metrics in their deliberations. Undemocratically designating buildings and neighborhoods historic does not seem like a good way to protect and preserve DC’s history.

Bloomingdale. Image by Aimee Custis Photography.

Help us take this issue to the DC Council

There are other aspects of how DC does historic preservation that could be reformed and we’ll discuss those in future posts. This particular issue of quantifying and requiring community support came up in the council oversight process of the Office of Planning (OP) and HPO. Councilmember Vincent Gray (Ward 7, which includes Kingman Park) asked direct questions about how the office quantifies community support or opposition. The answer from HPO’s David Maloney was somewhat elusive: “It is up to the board to review the support and opposition and come up with a decision.”

Gray pushed a little harder:

With Kingman Park, you have people on both sides of the issue. You have some in favor, and a lot who are not. You said there is no quantification that is determitative, but there has got to come a point where there is a weighing here.

We agree! It’s not the only thing that should change about our historic designation process, but it is an important one.

If you agree, help us bring this issue to the DC Council and sign our petition. There are a lot of issues in front of the council right now, and in order for historic preservation reform to make it to the floor we need to show that enough neighbors want to see some changes.

We can and should have strong historic preservation in the District, but we also should ensure that it is fair and democratic process. Otherwise we cheapen what is fundamentally an important tool for maintaining our city’s historic places..

Sign the petition!

Top image: Historic districts have been used by neighbors to fight unwanted changes to the neighborhood, such as pop-ups. The process is set up in a way that does not defend well against abuse. Pop up row house by nevermindtheend licensed under Creative Commons.

Comment on this article

Improvements for safety, cycling, and walking on C Street NE are back on (cycle) track

C Street NE near RFK Stadium is a mega-street with fast-moving traffic. A project to calm traffic and make it better for walking and bicycling is moving forward, after transportation officials almost cut back the project but reversed course in the wake of community uproar.

Residents in the Kingman Park, Rosedale, and Hill East neighborhoods in this area are very eager for this street to be less of a freeway off-ramp and more of an actual city street. They have advocated since at least 2008 for slowing traffic in the area. DDOT commissioned a study in 2010 and a more detailed design in 2015, which culminated in a January 2016 report.

The recommendation called for reducing C Street from 3 driving lanes each way to two (plus parking lanes), adding a protected bikeway on each side at sidewalk level (rather than at street level, sort of like the one at the Wharf), and adding bulb-outs around the parking lanes. There would be space for stormwater rain gardens and raised crosswalks for better pedestrian safety. It was an exciting project.

Proposed design at C & 18th streets NE. Image by DDOT.

The project then moved into the engineering design phase, where engineers drew every intersection, every crosswalk, every parking space, modeled the traffic performance, and planned where the concrete and everything else would go. There were regular community meetings through this period. DDOT presented a nice detailed design in February of this year, and residents showed up to an April meeting expecting more of the same.

Instead, they suddenly showed up to discover big changes. A bunch of the bulb-outs were gone on the north side of the street for about six blocks. One block would lose parking to create a right turn lane, and other blocks would still have parking, but with a note that after the project is complete, DDOT would evaluate whether traffic was backing up too much and there needed to be a morning rush hour restriction to have three through lanes. The south side would lose bulb-outs on one block and have evening rush hour restricted parking.

Changes in the April plan. Removed bulb-outs are in purple. Blue cars represent parking which could become rush-hour restricted. Image by DDOT.

In short, DDOT was giving itself an opening to back down and move more cars if traffic was backing up too much.

Residents say, no way!

The response was swift and virtually unanimous. Residents at the meeting gave overwhelmingly negative comments about the change:

Comments on the April design. Image by @kpkindc.

Councilmember Charles Allen, ANCs 6A and 7D, Friends of Kingman Park, and many residents decried the changes, and the community groups passed resolutions asking DDOT to reverse them.

DDOT restores almost all of the original design

At a follow-up meeting this month, DDOT engineers presented another iteration of the design. They have restored almost all of the bulb-outs and parking. They do propose having two driving lanes instead of one at 21st Street heading east, and adding right-turn lanes on the north (westbound) side at 16th, 17th, and 19th streets.

Comparison of February, April, and June designs. Image by DDOT.

In a statement to people who emailed, DDOT said,

DDOT has reviewed all of the public feedback and, in response to those concerns, has made additional modifications to the plans which are now being proposed in a June 2018 draft of the 65% streetscape design. The June draft maintains most of the February 65% design plans and addresses the public concerns related to the April draft. The only changes now remaining from the February draft are critical safety changes to separate high volume turning movements from bicycle traffic in order to enhance the protection of people biking in the corridor.

In addition to revised design plans, we have posted a technical memorandum describing the model validation issues which led to revisions to the February design and final traffic analysis based on the June design. We think the changes remain consistent with the original purpose and need for the project, and we are excited to advance a project that meets community goals and objectives.

GGWash contributor, WashCycle blogger, and bicycle advocate David Cranor is excited:

This is going to be a great project. It's going to be a signature project from a biking standpoint. They've really done a lot to make biking safer and more appealing. Walking will be better too and the whole road should get safer.

The redesign was handled badly, but makes sense and was made better in the most recent design. From a bike standpoint, very little has changed through the 3 designs. Pedestrians will have longer crossing distances, at some intersections but those are controlled intersections. Some parking will be lost, but that's a good trade.

At the meeting, a number of participants still wanted to see DDOT be more aggressive for safety:

Why did DDOT do this?

According to the presentation from that meeting, DDOT engineers re-ran the traffic analysis and decided that some of the assumptions in the original model might not have been right, or aren't any more. For instance, it apparently didn't consider that C Street has a 3% uphill grade, which slows drivers. Since the earlier study, DC has retimed some signals. And the "Highway Capacity Manual" prescribes using a "Central Business District" mode when there are narrower streets, bus stops, and sharper turns, as there will be in this plan.

In other words, the engineers punched some stuff into the computer and it came back saying there would be more traffic than the 2015 study estimated. From the way it was communicated, it sounded to a lot of people like DDOT was putting the desire to move as much traffic as possible ahead of safety.

However, Cranor argued that it's a little more complex. He said:

The motivation for the change wasn't exclusively about moving traffic faster, but also about making it move safer. They were concerned that if traffic backed up in one lane behind a right turning car waiting on pedestrians, that people would swerve out of that lane into the one moving straight and that this is something that leads to crashes.

DDOT's April presentation does bear this out, if you read closely. It says, "After further traffic analysis, DDOT staff was concerned about diverting traffic onto neighborhood streets and the potential for increased queueing and crosswalk blockages along C Street NE that could negatively impact safety benefits of project." (That's engineer-speak for what Cranor said).

It's clear this wasn't communicated very well, since people in the meeting certainly got the impression it was about traffic volume, and the report also is filled with engineer-speak about the like. Communicating with laypeople has always been a weak point for DDOT engineers, and they could be a lot more successful if they worked to improve in this area.

Too much reliance on the computer?

WABA wrote in a blog post attacking this change, "Traffic models only tell the driving part of the story and they are notorious for overestimating future driving habits. We should not compromise safety today to avoid theoretical delay in 20 years."

According to Zimbabwe, DDOT is willing to do more on C Street but wants residents to recognize that there could be more traffic on other streets. DDOT doesn't want people to be surprised and upset at the consequence.

Though, one frustrating element for advocates is that even though traffic models can be quite imprecise, especially far into the future, engineers tend to take them as gospel. Put something into the computer and something else pops out. And since the computer is just modeling traffic flow, even if your goal for the project is not to increase traffic (here, it's to reduce speeding and otherwise improve safety), you're going to get traffic-oriented answers out much of the time.

Also, traffic engineers often assume that freely flowing traffic is safest, and thus argue that they need to make a change "for safety" to move cars if there is congestion. Yes, when cars are backed up people might change lanes unexpectedly and get a crash, though that crash rarely leads to serious injury. But if drivers are speeding or taking turns too fast, they can strike people on foot or bike, even fatally. Slower cars overall means more safety, but not in a way that fits traffic engineers' usual assumptions.

Advocates say there's a trust gap

Many advocates I've spoke with appreciate that DDOT reversed course and did the right thing, and are truly excited about the project. However, they are also frustrated that after years of work, they found out about major changes unexpectedly at this meeting.

Cranor wrote, "Mostly DDOT messed up in the way they surprised everyone with the re-design. They should have approached key people first and kicked the idea around. Come to them with the problems first."

Residents also worry: if this can happen to C Street, will it happen elsewhere?

On C Street, residents were united in support of this project. It helped that it was good for car parking (a perennial third rail of transportation), and for cyclists, and pedestrians, and maybe just bad for Maryland car commuters who don't vote in DC.

What about when the alignment isn't so strong? Or when the road is narrower (as nearly every single one is) and there isn't room for everyone to get what they want? DDOT has set goals of zero traffic deaths (Vision Zero) by 2024 and shifting mode share to 50% transit and 25% walk/bike by 2032. It'll be hard to achieve those goals quickly if projects can be altered so radically and so suddenly because a computer model spits out a different answer than it did before, or when the model tail is wagging the transportation dog.

But let's not lose sight of the outcome: Residents will be able to enjoy protected bikeways in each direction, better sidewalks and crosswalks, bulb-outs and parking, and a more pleasant street befitting this community. DDOT hopes to finish the design later this year and begin construction in late 2019.

Thank DDOT for fixing this

Even though a lot of people were frustrated at what happened and still are nervous, our public officials are people and they make mistakes. I don't think this was malicious on DDOT's part, and I think they really see this as having mis-stepped, heard feedback, and corrected the situation.

We should support DDOT when they do that. Click here to write a quick note thanking DDOT for pushing forward on a C Street which is better for people walking and biking, and being willing to put the traffic models down to keep the eye on the big picture of safety and sustainability.

Click to email DDOT!

Top image: Current conditions at C & 18th streets NE. Image by DDOT.

Comment on this article

Breakfast links: What’s the holdup on homeless shelters in Wards 7 and 8?

Why is contruction slow for new homeless shelters in Wards 7 and 8?

The DC Council will investigate the reason for the delays in building new homeless shelters in Wards 7 and 8. The shelters were proposed as a part of Mayor Muriel Bowser's plan to close DC General, but construction has been slow to start.  (Morgan Baskin / City Paper)

An unusual apology following the Potomac Yard Metro station scandal

City Manager Mark Jinks apologized to Alexandria residents for not keeping them up to date on the loss of the south entrance to the planned Potomac Yard Metro station, which was cut because of rising costs last summer. City officials believed a confidentiality agreement with Metro barred them from discussing the change.  (Patricia Sullivan / Post)

Small banks are just as likely to discriminate against customers of color

A recently-passed federal law eased regulations on small and medium sized banks in the hopes that they would increase access to credit on a local level. However, a new study finds they routinely discriminate against black and latinx customers via fees or subjective approvals.  (Brentin Mock and David Montgomery / CityLab)

A DC law on child care centers is challenged in court

A new lawsuit challenges DC's law that requires lead teachers in child care centers to have associate degrees. The law drew criticism because it would disqualify many child care workers from their profession; proponents argue it improves standards.  (Hannah Natanson / Post)

Nearly 1,000 DC teachers lack required certification

About one fourth of DC teachers (approximately 1,000) do not have the city-required certification to teach in the District. Some of the teachers have certifications that have expired, a number lack an expired certification or a temporary certification.  (Perry Stein / Post)

Arlington should embrace a “mobility smorgasbord,” author argues

Arlington should update its car-free approach with innovative new options for people to get around, such as dockless bikes and scooters, the author argues.  (Lisa Nisenson / ARLnow)

DC’s newest arts festival is from one of its newest nonprofits

A new arts festival called "By the People" is put on by a young nonprofit, Halcyon, which has quickly established itself in the DC arts scene. The festival takes place at numerous venues like the Smithsonian and Union Market and showcases a wide range of visual and performing arts.  (Kriston Capps / City Paper)

Restructured Columbia Pike buses begin Sunday 6/24

Columbia Pike is the busiest bus line in Virginia. Restructured bus service there begins this Sunday, June 24, with simpler routes and streamlined service.  (WMATA)

Comment on this article

Metro Reasons: Metro is trying to mitigate some of its summer delays

Metro is expecting delayed trains and congestion due to repairs this summer, and the agency is trying to mitigate some of the pain for riders. Orange and Silver line trains will run at late-night headways all day, and Blue Line trains will end at Arlington Cemetery for 16 days in August. A temporary bus lane will help move MetroExtra G9 buses while Rhode Island and Brookland stations on the Red Line are closed from July 21 to September 3, WMATA announced on Wednesday, June 20.

“During the 10 commuting days of the Orange, Blue and Silver line work in particular, customers who use these lines are being encouraged to plan alternate routes now and use Metro only if absolutely necessary,” notes the transit agency's press release.

Headaches come to the Red Line first

The first project of the summer is a 45-day shutdown on the Red Line to perform ‘rail reprofiling’ around the Rhode Island Ave station in order to raise the tracks up a couple inches. Currently when train doors open at Rhode Island Ave, a gap between the doors and the granite edge of the platform is large enough that Metro says the station is no longer ADA-accessible.

The transit agency responded to a letter from Ward 5 Councilmember McDuffie and noted the shutdown includes Brookland station as “Metro crews will be working on both sides of the track along the entire rail segment from NoMa-Gallaudet U Station to Fort Totten Station throughout the duration of the shutdown.”

Metro previously shut down this same section of track for 25 days from October 29 to November 22 in 2016 during SafeTrack in order to perform major rehab work. The final report available from that project notes 2,028 crossties, 795 insulators, 1,738 feet of rail, 1,245 fasteners, and 38 power cables were replaced during the earlier surge, among other things.

During the upcoming shutdown, Red Line trains between Fort Totten and Glenmont will run every 10 minutes, and trains between Shady Grove and NoMa-Gallaudet will run every 6. The agency plans to run shuttle buses between Fort Totten, Brookland, Rhode Island Ave, and NoMa-Gallaudet during the hours Metrorail is open. Another set of shuttle buses will run between Brookland, Rhode Island Ave, and Metro Center, Gallery Place, and Union Station.

The buses running the bus bridges during the shutdown will not be Metro buses, according to agency documents. Metro issued a Request for Proposals in April requesting bus companies to provide both buses and staff to operate the shuttles between the affected stations. All buses are required to be ADA-accessible and accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

The temporary bus lane set up on Rhode Island Ave will be between North Capitol Street and 12th Street NE, and will be in effect 7 am to 7 pm Monday through Saturday. Metro expects the MetroExtra G9 — which will run all hours Metrorail is open seven days a week — to be the main user of the lane.

Metro’s current plans call for extending every other Yellow Line train up to Greenbelt during some morning and evening peak periods, a 50% increase in service from the current schedule, though still fewer trains that have run in years past between Mt. Vernon and Greenbelt. The Yellow Line currently ends at Mt. Vernon during peak.

Orange, Silver, and Blue riders to see their own challenges

While the Red Line shutdown is in effect, Orange and Silver line trains are set to single-track for 16 days from August 11 to August 26 between McPherson Square and Smithsonian stations. Metro says those two lines will run every 20 minutes all day, even during morning and evening rush.

Similar to work done during SafeTrack, crews are going to use the extended shutdown between these stations to install new rail, fasteners, and pour new concrete grout pads which support the electrified third rail.

Blue Line trains will run between Franconia and Arlington Cemetery every 16 minutes, and ‘additional’ Yellow Line trains will run between Franconia and Greenbelt every 16 minutes - the old Rush Plus routing some may remember from years back. Yellow Line trains from Huntington will end at Mt. Vernon like usual while the two projects overlap.

Rush Hour Promise, Metro’s program which refunds riders if their trip is 15 minutes longer than the maximum length of the trip should be, will not be in effect for the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines during the extended single-tracking, nor will it be in effect on the Red Line between Glenmont and Fort Totten.

Metro Reasons is a regular breaking news, investigative reporting, and analysis column by Stephen Repetski about everything Metro. Please send tips to Metro Reasons.

Comment on this article

#GGWashReads “Evicted,” which puts a human face on a widespread problem

The threat of eviction is a constant stressor in the lives of nearly all low-income Americans. In DC alone in 2016, more than 12 people were evicted from their homes each day. Once someone is evicted, it becomes exceedingly more difficult for them to obtain safe and stable housing. This pushes already-struggling Americans into states of transience with little to no disposable income, further reinforcing a cycle of poverty.

A few weeks ago, members of our summer book club discussed the harsh and complicated realities facing tenants and landlords at the bottom of the housing market as we read though Matthew Desmond’s award-winning book, Evicted. Want to join us? Sign up here and check out our schedule here.

Unaffordable housing has created this crisis in our American cities

Desmond shows that most cash-poor families spend at least half of their income on rent, and a quarter of them spend around 80% of their incomes on rent. That leaves little left over for expenses like food, childcare, medicine, and emergencies.

Mass eviction is a symptom of the poverty crisis in the United States which has been made increasingly worse with the lack of equitable affordable housing in both the public and private sectors.

In DC, rents have been rising quickly, and affordable housing is becoming harder to find. There is great pressure on a competitive housing market at all income levels, but this is especially true at the lower end of the market.

Image by Fibonacci Blue licensed under Creative Commons.

The District is simply not producing or preserving enough homes at the bottom end of the market. A study from 2013 found there were only half as many affordable housing units in the District than there were in 2002. This trend only seems to be continuing. In 2015, rents for residents with incomes of about $22,000 a year increased $250 a month from 2005 to 2015, adjusting for inflation. All the while, incomes remained stagnant.

In 2016, DC was listed as the sixth most expensive city in the United States to rent in, with the median rate for a one bedroom at $2,200.

As Desmond writes in Evicted: “In Washington, DC, the wait for public housing was counted in decades. In those cities (larger cities than Milwaukee), a mother of a young child who put her name on the list might be a grandmother by the time her application was reviewed.”

That forces many of the District’s lower-income residents to decide between paying more than half of their incomes in rent in the private market, or moving outside of the city.

Rents aren't actually that cheap at the bottom of the market

Nick Sementelli said that as he read Evicted, he realized that the rent prices in poorer parts of Milwaukee were similar to housing in wealthier neighborhoods.

“It just struck me as the root source of so much of this. They are getting so much less for their money — the units are often described as very low quality, but they aren't matched by lower prices. There seems to be a sticky floor to the rental market. Yes, these folks have very low incomes, but also the rent just seems objectively too high,” he said.

In Milwaukee, Desmond noted that just $270 separated some of the cheapest rental units from some of the most expensive. Even more troubling was the realization that in the city's poorest neighborhoods (with 40% of residents living under the poverty line), median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

Book club member Reshma Holla explains, "…landlords at the bottom of the market actually preferred to keep the rents higher than they should be so tenants would be perpetually behind and they could skimp on maintenance. So even if there were code violations thanks to deferred maintenance, the tenants didn't have legal protection because they were behind on rent.”

Low-income residents are prevented from accessing neighborhoods with greater income diversity and better housing because of poor credit history and/or low monthly earnings. So, concentrations of poverty occur not only because these are the only places low income people can afford, but more because it's the only place someone will rent to them.

Knowing this, landlords like Sherrena, who Desmond followed throughout his work, may take advantage of their tenants by charging unfair prices or skimping on upkeep. Sherrena says that her worst properties gave her largest returns.

This finding is reminiscent of northern cities in the 1920s and 30s where rent for dilapidated housing in black neighborhoods was significantly higher than that of better housing in white neighborhoods, due to racist housing policies on federal and local levels.

“I think this book helps make the case that there needs to be more regulated, government-subsidized housing. There are perverse financial incentives to providing affordable low-income housing, as this book shows,” Reshma Holla said.

What happens when you pay 80% of your income in rent?

Matthew Desmond draws from quantitative and qualitative research, he conducted living in low income communities of Milwaukee. His book, Evicted follows the trajectories of eight people as they struggle to maintain stable housing. Through these stories, it becomes clear just how quickly you can fall behind when well over half of your income goes to rent each month.

Pam, an expectant mom struggling to make rent on the mobile home she shares with her partner and children, was evicted because she was not able to internalize the cost of repairs for her car. Money was tightest in winter as her husband, a construction worker, was out on leave during the colder unworkable months.

Unable to find the cash to repair her car, Pam lost her job at the printing plant where she had worked. Determined to get her job back she shorted her rent, promising the rest to her landlord once she got her job back, and bought a car for $400 so she would be able to make her 7 pm to 7 am shifts. A week later the $400 replacement car gave out, and Pam was forced out of her home.

Image by Thomas Hawk licensed under Creative Commons.

Low income families renting at the bottom of the market find themselves unable to maintain housing without a safety net of savings or disposable income. Negotiation between paying rent and other vital expenses creates a situation where families are set up to fail.

As Joanne Tang explains: “We've discussed underbanked/unbanked people on GGWash before. It's a whole other set of factors, like how it's not fair that our banking system relies on credit history, and how people often make "bad decisions" when there are no good decisions to be made. It's rent a sofa so you have a place to sit and end up paying 200% on it or ....don't sit?”

Even when there are often no good options to choose, many of the renters followed are extremely tactful and resilient when renting at the bottom of the market.

Under these circumstances, other services appear. For example, in Evicted, a woman named Belinda acted as a liaison between landlords and tenants. Every month, Belinda would pay rent from the supplemental security income payments tenants received and it would go to the landlord before tenants received the rest.

“I had no idea that a role like Belinda's exists,” Brina Seidel said. “On the one hand, it seems enormously disrespectful to take away someone's autonomy. But on the other hand, psychology and behavioral economics teach us all sorts of reasons why people might make short term decisions that are clearly a bad idea in the long run, and avoiding those sorts of decisions could really help someone out when they're struggling.”

"The vivid example of the stress of poverty in the book is very affecting,” Nick Sementelli commented. “The descriptions of people navigating difficult financial decisions despite that stress (saving the final rent's money when an eviction is imminent, prioritizing certain bills over others, reserving certain lifelines for only a higher bar emergency) are good examples of why the stereotype that people experiencing poverty are more financially illiterate/irresponsible than average is wrong."

The stories of the families and individuals followed can be overwhelming at times. “I found it rather tough, frankly. It’s draining to read these stories of privation, turmoil, and resignation,” Rahul Sinha commented. “Obviously that’s just a sign of how insulated some of us are, but this is a book I somewhat have to steel myself for.”

Even so, in just the first six chapters our book club has read, Desmond has supplied us with valuable narratives on about eviction previously overlooked in the discourse of urban poverty.

Comment on this article

#GGWashReads “Evicted,” which puts a human face on a widespread problem

The threat of eviction is a constant stressor in the lives of nearly all low-income Americans. In DC alone in 2016, more than 12 people were evicted from their homes each day. Once someone is evicted, it becomes exceedingly more difficult for them to obtain safe and stable housing. This pushes already-struggling Americans into states of transience with little to no disposable income, further reinforcing a cycle of poverty.

A few weeks ago, members of our summer book club discussed the harsh and complicated realities facing tenants and landlords at the bottom of the housing market as we read though Matthew Desmond’s award-winning book, Evicted. Want to join us? Sign up here and check out our schedule here.

Unaffordable housing has created this crisis in our American cities

Desmond shows that most cash-poor families spend at least half of their income on rent, and a quarter of them spend around 80% of their incomes on rent. That leaves little left over for expenses like food, childcare, medicine, and emergencies.

Mass eviction is a symptom of the poverty crisis in the United States which has been made increasingly worse with the lack of equitable affordable housing in both the public and private sectors.

In DC, rents have been rising quickly, and affordable housing is becoming harder to find. There is great pressure on a competitive housing market at all income levels, but this is especially true at the lower end of the market.

Image by Fibonacci Blue licensed under Creative Commons.

The District is simply not producing or preserving enough homes at the bottom end of the market. A study from 2013 found there were only half as many affordable housing units in the District than there were in 2002. This trend only seems to be continuing. In 2015, rents for residents with incomes of about $22,000 a year increased $250 a month from 2005 to 2015, adjusting for inflation. All the while, incomes remained stagnant.

In 2016, DC was listed as the sixth most expensive city in the United States to rent in, with the median rate for a one bedroom at $2,200.

As Desmond writes in Evicted: “In Washington, DC, the wait for public housing was counted in decades. In those cities (larger cities than Milwaukee), a mother of a young child who put her name on the list might be a grandmother by the time her application was reviewed.”

That forces many of the District’s lower-income residents to decide between paying more than half of their incomes in rent in the private market, or moving outside of the city.

Rents aren't actually that cheap at the bottom of the market

Nick Sementelli said that as he read Evicted, he realized that the rent prices in poorer parts of Milwaukee were similar to housing in wealthier neighborhoods.

“It just struck me as the root source of so much of this. They are getting so much less for their money — the units are often described as very low quality, but they aren't matched by lower prices. There seems to be a sticky floor to the rental market. Yes, these folks have very low incomes, but also the rent just seems objectively too high,” he said.

In Milwaukee, Desmond noted that just $270 separated some of the cheapest rental units from some of the most expensive. Even more troubling was the realization that in the city's poorest neighborhoods (with 40% of residents living under the poverty line), median rent for a two-bedroom apartment was only $50 less than the citywide median.

Book club member Reshma Holla explains, "…landlords at the bottom of the market actually preferred to keep the rents higher than they should be so tenants would be perpetually behind and they could skimp on maintenance. So even if there were code violations thanks to deferred maintenance, the tenants didn't have legal protection because they were behind on rent.”

Low-income residents are prevented from accessing neighborhoods with greater income diversity and better housing because of poor credit history and/or low monthly earnings. So, concentrations of poverty occur not only because these are the only places low income people can afford, but more because it's the only place someone will rent to them.

Knowing this, landlords like Sherrena, who Desmond followed throughout his work, may take advantage of their tenants by charging unfair prices or skimping on upkeep. Sherrena says that her worst properties gave her largest returns.

This finding is reminiscent of northern cities in the 1920s and 30s where rent for dilapidated housing in black neighborhoods was significantly higher than that of better housing in white neighborhoods, due to racist housing policies on federal and local levels.

“I think this book helps make the case that there needs to be more regulated, government-subsidized housing. There are perverse financial incentives to providing affordable low-income housing, as this book shows,” Reshma Holla said.

What happens when you pay 80% of your income in rent?

Matthew Desmond draws from quantitative and qualitative research, he conducted living in low income communities of Milwaukee. His book, Evicted follows the trajectories of eight people as they struggle to maintain stable housing. Through these stories, it becomes clear just how quickly you can fall behind when well over half of your income goes to rent each month.

Pam, an expectant mom struggling to make rent on the mobile home she shares with her partner and children, was evicted because she was not able to internalize the cost of repairs for her car. Money was tightest in winter as her husband, a construction worker, was out on leave during the colder unworkable months.

Unable to find the cash to repair her car, Pam lost her job at the printing plant where she had worked. Determined to get her job back she shorted her rent, promising the rest to her landlord once she got her job back, and bought a car for $400 so she would be able to make her 7 pm to 7 am shifts. A week later the $400 replacement car gave out, and Pam was forced out of her home.

Image by Thomas Hawk licensed under Creative Commons.

Low income families renting at the bottom of the market find themselves unable to maintain housing without a safety net of savings or disposable income. Negotiation between paying rent and other vital expenses creates a situation where families are set up to fail.

As Joanne Tang explains: “We've discussed underbanked/unbanked people on GGWash before. It's a whole other set of factors, like how it's not fair that our banking system relies on credit history, and how people often make "bad decisions" when there are no good decisions to be made. It's rent a sofa so you have a place to sit and end up paying 200% on it or ....don't sit?”

Even when there are often no good options to choose, many of the renters followed are extremely tactful and resilient when renting at the bottom of the market.

Under these circumstances, other services appear. For example, in Evicted, a woman named Belinda acted as a liaison between landlords and tenants. Every month, Belinda would pay rent from the supplemental security income payments tenants received and it would go to the landlord before tenants received the rest.

“I had no idea that a role like Belinda's exists,” Brina Seidel said. “On the one hand, it seems enormously disrespectful to take away someone's autonomy. But on the other hand, psychology and behavioral economics teach us all sorts of reasons why people might make short term decisions that are clearly a bad idea in the long run, and avoiding those sorts of decisions could really help someone out when they're struggling.”

"The vivid example of the stress of poverty in the book is very affecting,” Nick Sementelli commented. “The descriptions of people navigating difficult financial decisions despite that stress (saving the final rent's money when an eviction is imminent, prioritizing certain bills over others, reserving certain lifelines for only a higher bar emergency) are good examples of why the stereotype that people experiencing poverty are more financially illiterate/irresponsible than average is wrong."

The stories of the families and individuals followed can be overwhelming at times. “I found it rather tough, frankly. It’s draining to read these stories of privation, turmoil, and resignation,” Rahul Sinha commented. “Obviously that’s just a sign of how insulated some of us are, but this is a book I somewhat have to steel myself for.”

Even so, in just the first six chapters our book club has read, Desmond has supplied us with valuable narratives on about eviction previously overlooked in the discourse of urban poverty.

Comment on this article

A pop-up bus lane is on its way for Rhode Island Ave NE

A new “pop-up” bus lane will be coming to DC this summer, thanks to a Metro shutdown and your advocacy. Recently the DC Department of Transportation (DDOT) confirmed that in order to help mitigate effects of the previously announced Red Line shutdown this summer, they will be installing a temporary bus lane on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

Neighbors asked for this early

On February 14, Metro announced that the Brookland and Rhode Island Avenue stops would be closed this summer from July 21-Sept 3. Fortuitously, just a month earlier ANC5E had passed a Comprehensive Transportation Resolution endorsing pilot bus lanes on Rhode Island Avenue during any future track work.

Dozens of neighbors signed a petition in support of the idea, and that seems to have paid off. Metro’s release confirms the installation.

To reduce travel times, Metro has received approval from the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to use a new dedicated bus lane along Rhode Island Ave. NE for MetroExtra G9 from North Capitol Street to 12th Street NE. The lane will operate Monday through Saturday from 7 am to 7 pm.

The bus lane itself will be a modest one, but will expedite not only the existing G9 service (recently made permanent) but also the shuttle buses between the closed stations and the special shuttle buses shown below. As you can see, the lane won’t help bus riders southwest of North Capitol, which is unfortunate.

Rhode Island Avenue is six lanes wide (thanks to being a former streetcar route) and has no parking in the far lane during rush hour. Enforcing the existing parking restriction and putting up cones during the shutdown will have minimal cost for Metro and a tangible benefit both for existing G8/G9 riders and those who switch due to the shutdown.

The impact of saving five or 10 minutes of traffic for thousands of commuters everyday is great, but the real victory is in getting city leaders to implement a new bus lane, even if it’s temporary. DC still lags far behind other cities in bus-only lanes, and we should continue to press our leaders for more.

A bus map for advocacy

Hopefully this experience can also serve as a template for future advocacy, whether transportation-related or otherwise. ANC resolutions alone don’t bind WMATA or DDOT to take any action. But in this case, our ANC’s resolution served as the basis of an immediate advocacy campaign.

After several conversations with leaders from WMATA and DDOT, delivering a petition, and recieving over 60 emails from residents, it became clear that WMATA was not opposed to the idea of a pop-up bus lane but that it was up to DDOT to implement it. Given the amount of items on his plate as a then-interim and now permanent Director, I applaud Jeff Marootian for taking the time to understand the issue and for having the courage to push it forward.

Having a document like ANC 5E’s Transportation Resolution, while entirely unenforceable, was useful to point to as demonstrating the desire of the community. Let’s keep pushing for more pilot programs like this one, and take a moment to thank DDOT and Metro for their response.

Click to send a thank you note!


And on a personal note, if you’re interested in running for ANC and carrying this banner forward, please let me know — especially if you live in 5E01.

Comment on this article

Widening I-270 could demolish hundreds of homes and affordable homes

Last fall, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced an ambitious $9 billion dollar plan to add express toll lanes along I-270 and I-495 as well as the BW Parkway. The transportation merits of this project, the public/private construction, and bid process have been controversial, but a tremendous impact that has not received attention is the potential significant displacement of low-income residents along its path.

Similar to highway projects in the era of Robert Moses, this proposal would displace hundreds of low-income families and knock down affordable homes closest to the region’s job centers. At the same time, even those who don’t lose their house will lack access to the Express Toll Lanes (ETLs), as many of the interchanges in Montgomery County do not have right of way to build separate entrances to the ETL.

Studies show that homes will be destroyed

The 2009 Environmental Impact Study (which is missing from the Maryland Department of Transportation US15/I270 Multimodal Study website) is available through public meeting records such as the staff presentation for the Montgomery County Council. It says that hundreds of homes, mostly low-cost condos and apartments, are at risk, despite more recent comments by the Maryland Transportation Secretary saying that housing impacts would be minimal. If you look closely, this is simply not possible.

The 2009 study highlights impacts of the ETL from Frederick to I-370 on page 39-40 of the staff report. In this small section alone, the findings are dismal for low-income housing with anywhere from 251-365 homes displaced.

The study identifies several displacements in the Brighton Village Apartments. The Londonderry apartments also may have several units impacted, although these may be mitigated depending on availability of federal land on the NIST campus. In each of these cases, the expanded highway cuts into the existing properties, necessitating some level of demolition.

Given the large number of homes identified, the financial viability of these communities will likely become untenable. These are not state- or federally-subsidized homes, but rather are “market-affordable” homes, something that is increasingly rare in our region. Fewer units in these complexes contributing to maintenance and upkeep may prompt the remaining owners to sell their properties for redevelopment.

Given that there are no affordability protections on these properties, the resulting redevelopments would only have to follow the 15% workforce housing requirement instituted by the City of Gaithersburg. The result would be a loss of a large segment of housing that property records show are valued between $80k - $300k, depending on the size of the unit in a prime location near job centers.

Google map of Gaithersburg apartments along I-270 in satellite view.

Image by Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County staff analysis notes that the safety requirements for ETLs require additional right-of-way that would produce significant business and residential displacements. While retaining walls and narrow shoulders may be used to reduce the impacts to 9-74 housing units, the impact cannot be truly known.

Despite proposing ETLs which generally require more room, the mitigation report in 2009 was much more optimistic than the 2002 report, which cited no fewer than 127 displacements. The 2009 report also notes safety issues with reducing shoulders and of course, traffic crashes may produce more congestion without adequate shoulders.

This situation could be widespread

In examining a map of census tracts for the larger region, this story continues not just for the areas studied in 2009 which primarily impacted City of Gaithersburg affordable housing, but for the broader current study area along I-270 and I-495.

An examination of median income around these highways shows concentrations of low-income housing along the edge of the highway, especially in Montgomery County. Those with the least ability to fight a highway expansion would be impacted the most.

Image by US Census Explorer.

Interestingly, even those who might benefit the most from the ETL proposal in Frederick County have expressed concerns that the funding for I-270 will defer work on more urgent local congestion relief on US-15, which is not included in the recent widening proposals.

Furthermore, the 2009 study examined the corridor from Frederick to I-370 only, but found Level of Service barely improved under all scenarios, primarily continuing to function at Level of Service D or F even after the improvements during peak rush hour times.

The resulting loss of affordable housing units would push these families to relocate much further away, increasing the very traffic that the widening seeks to avoid and likely furthering the region’s east/west income divide. These low-income families would have higher transportation expenses potentially pushing them into further poverty.

The original 2009 study included transit alternatives such as the Corridor Cities Transitway (CCT), but Maryland has deferred further investments and as of right now, it won’t be constructed.

In short, the addition of ETLs would do little for congestion, provide minimal improved travel times from the densest housing areas in Montgomery County (since access points would be primarily far north), and displace large segments of affordable and low-income housing along its route.

Innovative approaches like the recently-announced spot improvements along I-270 and concentrated ETL efforts to relieve traffic from choke points such as the merging traffic around the American Legion bridge may eventually prove worthwhile. (These projects actually improve level of service to grade B or C through 2040 and beyond.)

However, the I-270/I-495 ETL project needs to answer these displacement concerns, which might be the most costly of all. The public will get another opportunity to comment this summer on this project according to the timeline.

GGWash sometimes organizes around issues affecting our region. Should we consider advocacy around this topic? Let us know!

{code_1}

Top image: Brighton Village Apartments. Image created with Google Maps.

Comment on this article

Copyright Homes with Casey 2018