As walkable urban places have become more commonplace across the national real estate landscape, the subject of affordability within these communities has become a greater concern. Developers, government officials, and urban planners and educators in Washington, D.C., determined during ULI’s Walkable Urban Places Conference: Keys to Success for Social Equity and Economic Diversity that building cities more inclusive of people of multiple economic strata would take a multipronged and comprehensive plan that could take 20 to 30 years to fully realize.
The increased popularity of walkable urban places mirrors the desire of both baby boomers and millennials for greater mobility. Christopher Leinberger, chairman of the George Washington University Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, president of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS, and a ULI trustee, pointed out that greenhouse gas emissions have been on the decline since 2005 as more people have opted to live closer to where they work. This is convenient for residents in these areas, but there’s also a distinct financial advantage: Leinberger points out that residents of the D.C. metro area living inside the Beltway save $5,000 per year in commuting costs.
Yet, while people in these walkable neighborhoods save at the pump, they’re often paying a much higher amount for such desirable housing. “ ‘Drive until you qualify’ is the current strategy [for dealing with affordable housing],” said ULI CEO Patrick Phillips. “That will not work.” Indeed, according to the Brookings Institution, there has been a 65 percent growth in poverty in the nation’s suburbs over the past ten years. Elizabeth Kneebone of Brookings stated, “There are now more poor residents in suburbs than cities…and this trend has occurred in almost every major metro area.”
Related: The Rise of Suburban Poverty | Chapter 1: Confronting Suburban Poverty in America | Leinberger on Walkable Urbanism
Rushern Baker, the county executive of Prince George’s County, spoke to both the verity of the Brookings Institute study and to Phillips assertion that “what we need is a conscious affordable housing strategy.”
“Our plan [regarding affordable housing] was ‘We don’t want it,’ ” said Rushern, “Which means we got all of it.”
Congressman Earl Blumenauer was on hand at the conference to show that social equity could exist in major metropolitan areas, using Portland, Oregon, a city where he previously served as mayor, as an example. Matthew Klein, CEO of local developer Akridge, also pointed out that 48 percent of the housing in Portland’s booming Pearl District, an area that had accommodated abandoned rail yards, was either affordable or workforce housing. Blumenauer stated that land use planning was key, but that adding in accessibility in the form of a streetcar played no small part in developing both this neighborhood and the city as a whole.
Yet, while Blumenauer urged conference participants not to give up on the federal government, the vast majority of the speakers indicated that a change led by the private sector—and developers specifically—was essential. Indeed, LOCUS, the group that came up with a 13-point solution to make social equity in walkable urban places a reality, includes D.C. development giants Forest City and JBG. Leinberger believes that tweaking government spending and zoning (such as making granny flats legal), accompanied with keeping residents involved in the details of planning their housing, will allow social equity to become a reality for the next generation of urban dwellers.