Washington, DC – Housing Innovation Capital

In my travels this Fall I noticed that some clever cities have been putting themselves on the map by picking one area of great social need that they desperately need to solve for themselves, going big, and then becoming a model for rest of the world to learn from.

The examples I highlighted in a separate post on Copenhagen and cycling, Lyon and lighting, Chicago and green roofs, etc. made me wonder; on what particular area of social innovation might my own city focus?

There are so many areas of pressing need here in DC, and also so many talented and passionate people who live here, that it can be hard to choose. But there is one area that could have large multiplier effects and which takes advantage of one of the coolest things the DC community already has going:

Washington DC should become a laboratory for housing innovation


While the primary stock of housing in most cities in the US still consists mostly of high-rise apartments, condos, and single-family homes- all designed for 1-3 residents or a nuclear family- there are many more options than that already available in DC.

For example, one of DC’s greatest assets is our strong culture of group house living for young professionals who move to the city to work for one of the many social sector organizations here, but who generally aren’t making much money in the process.

You will find many of these young, passionate people living in beautiful, century-old row houses that were originally built as small mansions in particular neighborhoods throughout the city, some of which have since been converted to group houses where 5-10 people in their twenties or thirties are now living together.

Building community in new ways in our 20-30′s

The city’s rich stock of row houses, which virtually none of us could have afforded to live in on our own, probably helped get the movement of group housing started in DC. But many of us are living in group houses as much out of a desire for community and for living with people who share our values, as for any other reason, like money. It’s not uncommon for these houses to have names (Rosemont, the Bike House, the Monday House…) and along with that, a sense of identity and history. For many of us, our housemates are like families.

Some of these houses are co-operatively owned, some are rented, but virtually all of these have cultures of sharing. Most make use of their beautiful homes as community spaces as often as possible. More than half of the art galleries and concerts I have been to in DC have been hosted at group houses. I have been to film screenings, study groups, organizational planning meetings, and fundraisers… all hosted at group houses. In fact, I typically work 2-3 days a week in a group house that becomes a co-working space during the day, the early predecessor to Hub DC.

Demographic trends and dealing with gentrification

It’s great that we have this option in DC, and a culture built around it, because of an important demographic trend in our generation; it is no longer the norm that all people now get married right after completing their education and move in with their spouses to start a family. Group houses give those of us who didn’t take that route yet in our twenties and thirties (a growing trend) a way to still have a sense of community and family that is comparable, if not better, to what we would have found in nuclear family homes, college dorms, or in the multigenerational homes that have been the norm in almost every culture of the world at some point.

I personally love group houses in DC and would love to see that option grow. There is so much more demand for group houses than the city has in supply. It is typical to have 50 people show up for an opening in a group house. Expanding the stock of group houses in DC could be an important strategy in helping keep the city affordable both for the droves of young people who move here early in their careers and for our invaluable long-term residents, who are in risk of being priced out of the market by the former, otherwise.

Building a local industry around housing innovation

But, like Copenhagen, Lyon, and Charlotte, we have so much more we could do. There are many other existing and new local models we can continue to expand alongside the group house option, from cooperative apartments to multi-socioeconomic row-houses with shared backyards.

With a concerted effort, DC could become a leader for demonstrating to the rest of the world what can be done when we make it a priority to implement intentional development strategies (remember Lyon’s lighting plan and Copenhagen’s cycling plan?) to help us better house our city’s amazingly diverse range of residents and to strengthen community across our huge range of socioeconomic groups and lifestyles.

Internationally-known partners with offices here, like Calvert Investments, Ashoka, the World Bank, Aspen Institute, and the World Resources Institute- not to mention the federal government- will all directly benefit from improving the diversity of housing options available for the passionate young transplants they hire, and they will all see network effects of cooperating in such an effort.

Like Charlotte and its energy efficiency initiative, new companies will emerge to meet the needs of the effort. And like Copenhagen and Lyon, other cities will want to learn from DC’s example.

In short, housing innovation could put DC on the map.


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