Greater Greater Washington readers are reading DC’s Comprehensive Plan, a document that lays out how we build our city, and discussing it as we go. Each week, we’ll post a summary of the chapter we most recently read, along with some highlights of what our book club participants think about how the plan could change in the upcoming amendment process.

DC’s Comprehensive Plan set out to help the city “grow inclusively.” In its second chapter, it outlines how to do that. But, looking at it from 2016, people immediately noticed that it didn’t really talk much about the central planning challenge of our era: how to keep housing prices from spiraling out of reach.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Last week, members of the book club read the first half of chapter 2, Framework (up to page 2-21). That section lays out the then-current trends DC: A 50-year population decline turning around, but DC still growing slower than suburban and exurban neighbors; a gradual loss of federal jobs; and shrinking family sizes as people marry and have kids later in life.

It says:

In 1950, Washington had 802,000 residents and was the 9th largest

city in America. By 2000, Washington’s population had dropped to 572,000 and it ranked 21st in size among U.S. cities. Between 1970 and 2000 alone, the number of people living in the District of Columbia dropped by almost 25 percent. …

Unlike the experience of other major cities, the loss of population in Washington was not the result of “white flight.” In fact, between 1980 and 2000, African-Americans registered the largest decrease among the city’s racial groups, dropping in population by almost 100,000. This drop was partially offset by increases in the city’s Hispanic and Asian populations.

While population loss after 1950 was significant, the decline in the number of households has been much less dramatic. The number of households in the District declined by just 2 percent between 1980 and 2000, standing at 248,000 in 2000. Thus, population loss in the late 1900s was less a function of housing being abandoned and more a result of larger households being replaced by smaller households. In fact, the average household in Washington contained 2.16 persons in 2000, down from 2.72 in 1970. Middle-class families left the city in large numbers during this period and the number of school-aged children dropped dramatically.

Looking forward, the city expects household size to continue falling through 2010, and then stabilize. According to the US Census, the percentage of seniors is expected to increase as “baby-boomers” retire, and the percentage of foreign-born residents, particularly those of Hispanic origin, is expected to rise. The District is expected to continue to be a magnet for the region’s young professionals and empty nesters. Its ability to attract families with children rests largely on its ability to improve the quality of public education and address basic issues like crime, service provision, and housing affordability.

Corey Holman calculated the numbers and found that household size may or may not have dropped depending on which Census survey you look at, while the percentages of baby boomers and Latinos have NOT risen.

We might be adding more families, and they’ll need a place they can afford to live. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

What about costs?

The 2006 plan forecasts a lot about DC, but not housing costs. It mentions the danger of displacement as housing costs rise, but actually explores that quite scantily. Many of the members of the book club noticed this gap.

Stephanie Thomas said, “An honest assessment of housing costs is key, and I hope that the updated plan will focus more on what DC can do to control costs and contribute towards its stated goal of an inclusive city.”

Cheryl Cort added, “Using an approach that looks at low, medium, and high growth projections rather than a ‘right number’ approach to forecasting population growth would better serve the region’s and city’s goals to be more sustainable, and better address housing demand.” Education, too, didn’t come up as strongly as some expected.

Yuki Kato observed that the plan “does mention that income divide as ‘the biggest challenge facing the District as it planned for its future’ (p. 2-5), but it is not clear in what ways … this is going to be addressed.”

Growth where?

Perhaps one reason rising costs became a big challenge is DC actually built 13% less housing than the plan predicted.

A part of the framework chapter forecasts growth by “planning area,” large sections of the city. Here’s a graphic of the housing projections:

Graphic by Peter Dovak.

Payton Chung pointed out last year that the growth hasn’t actually followed this plan. Much more of it was in “Central Washington,” basically downtown and NoMA; Southwest Waterfront; and the ballpark area. And the total fell short of the plan’s estimates.

Chung wrote, “The District’s other policies to ‘conserve single-family residential neighborhoods’ are doing too good of a job at keeping new housing out of the neighborhoods that were supposed to accommodate 70% of future housing growth—and keeping the District as a whole well below its housing growth projections.”

Yuki Kato worried about how this would affect areas with lower incomes and lower levels of education. She said, “More urgency could have been placed on these projections to seek ways in which the Comp Plan can ease the concentrated burden on some of the areas.”

The framework chapter also talks little about transportation, and book club members noticed that too. This is because, Cort said, “In 2006, there was no city transportation plan, and DDOT has only been around for a few years at that point (established by DC Council in 2002).” DC now has created the MoveDC plan, and the current Comprehensive Plan amendment process will incorporate MoveDC (all or in parts — specifics aren’t out yet).

This half of the Framework chapter looked at trends and projections. The second half is where the plan starts taking a stand, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. We’ll be discussing that next, followed by the Land Use chapter, which is similarly pivotal. If you want to be a part of the book club, fill out the form below!

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.