Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is the D.C. region a model for walkable urban neighborhoods?



by Janet Viveiros, Center for Housing Policy

Ten minute walk to the grocery store, seven minute walk to the metro, five blocks from restaurants, cafes, stores and public library. Descriptions like this are found in many home and apartment listings in the D.C. metro area. In D.C., and other cities around the country, walkable neighborhoods with public transit and other amenities are increasingly sought out by homeowners and renters. The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at George Washington University recently released DC: The DC WalkUP Wake-up Call by Christopher B. Leinberger, a report that assesses the growth and market trends of walkable urban places, referred to as “WalkUPs” by Leinberger, in the Washington, D.C., metro area. The neighborhoods that constitute WalkUPs typically generate significant economic activity and have a mix of residential, office, and retail space; high density and multiple transportation options, and. Leinberger asserts that D.C. should serve as a national model for developing compact, walkable communities due to the number and variety of WalkUPs in D.C. and the surrounding suburbs. Growing demand for housing in amenity-rich, transit-oriented neighborhoods coincides with expanding awareness of the advantages of compact development policies that encourage denser and mixed-use development.

The dense, mixed-use neighborhoods in the D.C. metro area offer many benefits to residents and the region. The compact and walkable neighborhoods encourage the use of public transportation, walking or biking, and have the potential to reduce traffic, environmental impacts, and increase economic activity. Yet, the news about the growth in demand to live in D.C.-area compact neighborhoods is not all good. 

Many Arlington County residents, like me, are attracted to the highly ranked WalkUPs of the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor that offer walkable neighborhoods with easy access to various amenities and public transportation. However, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is notorious for high rents and home prices. The popularity of Arlington’s neighborhoods along the Metrorail corridor supports the expansion of the market for high-cost housing that is unaffordable to moderate- and low-income families. According to the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, the increases in average rents and home sale prices in Arlington have outpaced the increase in median income over the last seven years. Growing demand for desirable, walkable urban neighborhoods throughout the D.C. metro area, in addition to already-high land prices, increases pressure on housing costs and can often lead to the exclusion of moderate- and low-income families from these communities. This exacerbates the challenge that local governments face in providing affordable housing in transit-oriented neighborhoods. 

It is important for local governments to implement comprehensive affordable housing strategies in tandem with compact, mixed-use development in order to prevent moderate- and low-income families from being priced out of these areas. Some of local governments in the region have taken steps to incorporate affordable housing development into their compact development strategies. For example, Fairfax County’s Tysons Corner Comprehensive Plan provides an option for developers to receive rezoning approval in exchange for reserving at least 20% (a relatively high number) of housing units as affordable workforce housing. Tysons Corner will provide an important case study for dense, transit-oriented development and the inclusion of affordable housing as it undergoes densification and compact development in conjunction with the extension of the Metrorail. 

If cities and suburbs around the country use the D.C. metro area’s compact and transit-oriented development as a model, they should also examine the affordable housing strategies of the region’s communities to adopt best practices and also learn from the struggles that local governments face. The potential equity issues associated with WalkUPs should not be overlooked by communities anxious to reap the benefits of compact, walkable developments.

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