Housing Complex

What Marion Barry and Campus Neighbors Have in Common

As has been amply noted, D.C.'s a hot apartment market right now: Rents are sky high, and new rental buildings are going up all over the city. In fact, it's one of the only forms of real estate development that really has a crack at financing these days.

But not everybody loves apartment dwellers. Over and over and over again, I've heard homeowners grumble about the prospect of a bunch of renters coming into their neighborhoods; people almost universally prefer condos. Take ANC 2A's objection to rentals at Eastbanc's West End Project. From the anti-internet Northwest Current:

But neighbors worry apartments could attract more undergraduates to a community already saturated with students. Condos, commissioner Asher Corson said, would appeal to a base of residents who are more committed to remaining in the community and engaging in local issues. "The consensus is that condos provide more benefit to the community than rentals," he said.

(Corson, a 2007 alumnus of George Washington University himself, says he owns his condo). Then, of course, there's Burleith's opposition to more students at Georgetown University, mostly on the grounds of real estate devaluation. In response to the Washington Post's editorial on the subject, Burleith Citizens Association president Lenore Rubino wrote:

The most serious consequence of this dramatic expansion is the conversion of single-family, residential row houses into transient student group rental homes. Of the 535 houses in Burleith, for example, 166, or almost one-third, are student group rentals. In the next ten years, if only 30 additional graduate or undergraduate students come to live in Burleith, there could easily be a loss of ten or more houses.

It's telling that she considers rental houses to be "losses." As if the people who inhabit them could not possibly be constructive members of a community.

Opposition to rentals isn't just a wealthy, Northwest phenomenon. Councilmember Marion Barry proposed—and is still pushing—to ban new apartment buildings in Ward 8 entirely. He agrees with the Burleithians and West Enders that people who rent don't have the same stake in their community. But Barry also thinks that renters are the most susceptible to being pushed out as gentrification advances, and that the best way to prepare these neighborhoods for the onslaught is to make them all into homeowners.

It saddens me to see this antipathy towards the 52 percent of D.C. residents who, according to the 2010 census, rent instead of own. It costs a crapload of money to buy real estate in this town, and banks aren't exactly throwing money at people without impeccable credit. What's more, housing demand is trending towards rentals: According to a new study from the Center for Regional Analysis, the District would need about 76,000 new apartments if it were to house all the new people with jobs in the city by 2030, and only 46,000 new for-sale units.

And besides, people who rent are also those who bring a city much of its dynamism: They may not be around forever, but while they are, they'll buy things and go out to eat and patronize art. They are no less capable of participating in their neighborhood associations, forming communities of interest, and maybe buying when it makes sense financially.

Perhaps this is an obvious point. That makes it even more surprising to encounter so much distaste for anything other than single family homes.

  • Mony

    One of your last sentences is the salient question: "They are no less capable of participating in their neighborhood associations, forming communities of interest, and maybe buying when it makes sense financially." Sure, they are capable-but do they actually do so? I would venture to say that ANC commissioners are comprised of much less than 52% renters.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.

    Renters might not be around forever, but if you force them to buy in order to enter the neighborhood, they might not be around at all.

    Not that I'd want to foist such nefarious motives on anyone opposing rental housing.

    Renting is a good thing. It's good for the city, it's good for the national economy. Prices are too high here, people will need to rent. The Burleith example is interesting - despite a predominant housing stock that's predisposed to owning (rowhouses), 1/3 of the houses are rentals. That would seem to indicate a strong demand for rental housing - but we certainly can't build anymore rental housing, no.

    The conflation of various conflicting issues is a NIMBY hallmark. Burleith student rowhouse rentals are downmarket and bad. But upmarket West End luxury apartments with high price points - are also bad.

  • http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com Richard Layman

    wrt "mony's" point, likely the issue has to do with short term vs. long term tenure in a neighborhood, rather than renting per se, plus whether or not outreach-engagement processes are very robust and focused on reaching renters as opposed to property owners in terms of participation opportunities. Of course prop. owners will be more motivated, seeing the link to the value of their property. Getting other people out requires more effort, which most groups don't make.

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Many people rent homes in Ward 8 -- renters aren't just in apartment buildings. Barry knows this.

    Also, with upwards of 40% of Ward 8 "residents-eternal renters" with the DC Housing Authority as their landlord, what sack is Barry smokin' on?

    In Henson Ridge the renters hammer holes in the floors so the can pass cigarettes back and forth to each other.

    Everyone like Asher Corson isn't so blessed with parents so inclined to invest in the city's real estate market.

  • Sally

    Marion Barry rents his apartment.

    Asher Corson is a trust fund baby.

  • er

    i think it's unfair to interpret "there could easily be a loss of ten or more houses." by saying it is
    "As if the people who inhabit them could not possibly be constructive members of a community."

    that is not what is being said. you've jumped from an assessment of property usage to a judgement of character. i can't say that she doesn't feel that way but the text you've quoted doesn't support it. likewise, the antipathy Barry has to renting is not the same as having an antipathy to renters.

    I have also been under the assumption that property owners are more civically engaged in their neighborhoods. Is this actually true? does anyone know for certain?

    and what is the actually relation of property values to percentages of rentals in an area?

  • Southeast Ken

    Once Marion Barry is dead, who will the media discussed constantly?

  • TC owner

    er: I can only speak from my own experience, but go to any local civic, anc or planning meeting and there the attendance is definitely not the 50/50 rental/owner split if renters chose to show up.

    There are of course different types of renters. The extended stay tourist/intern/2yr post-college crowd, while they may add to the dynamism of the city, you're lucky to get them to shovel the sidewalk outside their group house. If you get them to show up and engage the neighborhood, the interaction tends to be similar to the PCU cause-head, I'm right, you're wrong preaching.

    The longer term family/couple renters tend to be wonderful neighbors. Even while the acknowledge their short-term residency (hello baby, good bye city) they tend to add life and vitality to the block. Most tend not to get involved in larger picture issues, but do care about local, quality of life issues. (moving corner boys alone, not getting run over by VA/MD commuters, getting a quiet nights sleep, etc)

    One of the problems w/ renters vs owners is the amount of skin in the game. If something happens in the neighborhood they don't like, crime uptick, undesired business, new group house, etc. *poof* They're gone when the lease expires. I don't have that luxury. Owning places and fixes you in a neighborhood in a way renting never will.

  • Java Master

    As a renter myself in my student daze, I would never want more rental units in my neighborhood, and all the reasons cited by occupant-owners against renters are damn good ones!
    Marion Barry himself is a corrupt, racist fraud. That Ward 8 voters are so consistently stupid to keep voting for this pathetic excuse of a man reflects not only theur lack of judgement, but also their continuing inability help themselves and shake off their shackles, even after have been showered with public subsidies, public assistance and government monies of all kinds and character, for decades by a complacent public.

  • Jes’ sayin’

    @Southeast Ken:

    I don't know, but I bet we both agree that at least 40% of the District can wait to find out the answer. And that would include at least 80% of Ward 3.

  • Jes’ sayin’

    *** oops....make that CAN'T WAIT to find out the answer.

  • er

    tc owner,
    i guess my question was more about wondering if any one has done a study on it. i know what i've seen with my eyes, but theres got to be more than i can see. voters rates, volunteering rates, participation on safety walks, clean ups etc... if the argument that lydia is making.. that renters make up a contributing force in the city, there should be evidence to back that up. otherwise, and i guess i shouldn't be surprised by this, it's just speculation. but otherwise, from my limited perspective, i agree with your assessment.

    i would disagree with the sentiment of others that marion barry is racist. whatever bad policy decisions he has made, he's not really a bigot. and the desire for him to die? damn, that's evil. has his time of political relevancy passed? absolutely. but that's no reason to personally attack the man. black folk will remember him for the time he was actually a great mayor. white folk will remember him for his faults. the division is a sad shame.

  • Dizzy

    Much of this argument is based on old, class-based thinking and reads exactly like the arguments that were made for why the franchise should be limited to property-holders only. After all, if only those who have "skin in the game" are responsible, invested citizens who contribute to the communal fabric, why should their votes be diluted by non-property owners who are not similarly invested? Obviously, the critical factor in good citizenship is whether you're wealthy enough to own property, right?

    Given the impact that wealth - and wealth inequality - have on all manner of social indicators, one could not simply compare owners to renters, since the latter will be far less wealthy. And at that point, we get to the real crux of the matter: those who are better off prefer to be surrounded by others who are better off and are not afraid to use their political, economic, and social capital to make it so.

  • Ick

    There's also the other point that home ownership as being mandatory for participation in society says more about our economic system than the people who rent.

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