Families Absent From Flourishing D.C., Study Says

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The housing boom that has reinvigorated the District of Columbia and pumped millions into city coffers has been lopsided, attracting waves of singles, empty nesters and childless couples but not families needed for stability, according to a study released today.

The report on District housing, produced by the Urban Institute and the Fannie Mae Foundation, recommends that the city create affordable housing in particular neighborhoods where it also would boost the quality of the public schools.

"There's a really strong consensus that Washington wants to be a city that is attractive to people with children as well as singles and empty nesters. It's that mix of households that are going to make neighborhoods stable and lively and create demand for a wide variety of services and retail," said Margery Austin Turner, an Urban Institute demographer. "The current trends do point in the wrong direction."

Part of that stems from a hot real estate market where most new housing units are expensive condominiums favored by singles and couples without children.

The city's struggling school system also is seen as a deterrent to attracting and retaining families with school-age children, according to the study. "Because the school system in the District of Columbia has had so many challenges, many families choose not to live in the city," said Stacey D. Stewart, president and chief executive of the Fannie Mae Foundation.

Although the District's population has been increasing lately, reaching 582,050 in July 2005, the average household size of the new residents has been shrinking, said the study, predicting the trend is likely to continue. Between now and 2010, more than 60 percent of the housing construction in the District is projected to be condominiums; just 4 percent will be single-family houses.

Meanwhile, the city has been losing apartments to condominium conversions, which can push out working-class families who can afford rent but not a down payment and mortgage. Last year, 2,300 rental apartments were converted to condominiums in the District, four times the number in 2004, the study said.

"In neighborhoods where there are good schools, family housing is out of reach," said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education. "It's almost as if we're allowing the development community to decide this will be a bedroom city and not a vibrant city. . . . That's not to say we don't want young singles. I think we need a balanced approach. But this balanced approach needs to happen quickly."

To encourage a healthier mix of housing and residents, the city needs to coordinate investment in housing with improvements in schools, the study said. In addition to modernizing schools across the city, in some neighborhoods, the city should upgrade schools and build affordable housing simultaneously, the study said.

One area it mentions specifically is in Southeast, around the Anacostia riverfront, where several housing developments are planned.

"The city is at a moment where it has some opportunity to change the direction," Turner said. "Although a lot of new development is expected to be expensive condos not attractive to people with kids, a modest restructuring with more emphasis on affordable housing, preservation and more emphasis on mix of housing types could make a huge difference if it goes hand in hand with visible improvements of some schools."

Stewart pointed to the Bellevue neighborhood in Southwest, where Patterson Elementary School was built recently. While the school was under construction, the city committed more than $7.9 million to revitalize the neighborhood, including the creation of 78 affordable apartments. A privately owned garden apartment complex across from the school was renovated, and a developer is building more than 100 townhouses nearby.

"This kind of coordinated approach is something we're seeing happening in other cities," Stewart said. "Housing and education are the two key factors; they have to be looked at together."

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