Dec 6 2011

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.


Apr 18 2011

Adams Morgan Pedestrian Mall

Night Train attended a December hearing on whether to grant a $46m tax abatement to Beztak Properties, Brian Friedman of Friedman Capital, Ian Schrager and Marriott for the development of a proposed 10-story hotel in the distinctive 4-story neighborhood of Adams Morgan. At that hearing, the two main reasons given in defense of this gift were that the hotel would bring more day-time foot traffic to Adams Morgan while increasing the area’s economic vitality and tax base.

(A special note: the proponents of the hotel were not talking about just any foot traffic; they wanted us to know that the quality of the clientele they would bring to the area would be higher than those of us who currently patronize businesses along 18th St.)

There was also some discussion of creating local jobs, though neighborhood commissioners raised concerns about how those promises would be enforced. Either way, the discussion of the project’s impact on the wellbeing of the Adams Morgan community was limited to economic arguments.

We have an alternative proposal to increase daytime foot traffic and economic vitality in Adams Morgan:


Make 18th St. from Florida to Columbia a Pedestrian Mall

We have seen how dramatically such efforts have reinvigorated communities and businesses in places as diverse as downtown Charlottesville, VA; Boulder, CO; every major city in Europe; and one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Shanghai, Xin Tian Di.  Times Square in NYC is even creating a car-free zone.

The benefits of these projects have not been just economic, of course; in addition to increasing foot traffic and economic vitality, they have also strengthened the social fabric and very character of their surrounding neighborhoods in many intangible ways.

This particular proposal has been seen before, on the Adams Morgan community listserv in 2009, albeit with some concerns about how to divert bus traffic and emergency vehicles (though, we’re sure that parking, buses, and a range of other concerns could be worked out easily with the eager willingness City Council Member Jim Graham and his colleagues have shown in working with developers to bend zoning laws and height restrictions to make this hotel development possible).

Mr. Graham, in order that we may grant you the premise that you are fighting hard to win tens of millions of dollars in tax abatements for the developers of this hotel because you are deeply interested in hearing the best ideas our collective creativity can garner to benefit the wellbeing of the Adams Morgan community, would it be possible to see a comparison made of the impact on day-time foot traffic and economic vitality of Adams Morgan of the proposed hotel versus an 18th Street pedestrian mall?

If you have the means to do so, we dare you to extend your comparison to include either project’s impact on the wellbeing of Adams Morgan.



May 27 2010

VFFs – Not just a great wingman

Our secret is out.  Vibram Five Fingers are undoubtedly good conversation starters, and therefore undeniably great wingmen.

This made us think; by the law of large numbers alone, surely by now some boy and girl are very happy together, and would never have met if not for these curious anti-shoes.

But suppose the social value of these much feted shoes goes beyond the romantic.  What if Vibram Five Fingers are arguably making our communities stronger?

Social Capital refers to the number and strength of bonds between members of a community.  Higher overall levels of social capital in a community has been shown to be associated with everything from healthier to more productive communities (caveats aside about organized criminals or self-serving politicians also tending to have very large amounts of social capital).

Just for fun, here’s some rough mental math about the effect of Vibram Five Fingers on social capital:

  • A friendly source working in retail for a sports store in D.C. estimated that around 5 thousand Vibram Five Fingers have been sold by their establishment this year.  Let’s say that this number is half of the total VFFs that have been sold to D.C. residents this year, including other retailers and online purchases.  This means that there are now 100,000 mesh-wrapped toes on 10,000 runners darting around our nation’s capital.
  • Let’s say that on average these runners run 2 days a week (over last 3 warmer months).  Next, let’s assume (based on personal experience) that these runners average one random conversation with a stranger every other time they run (many times, it’s more).  On the whole that would mean that 120,000 conversations have happened between Vibram Five Finger wearers and perfect strangers this year, which would not have happened otherwise.
  • The next step is to determine what percentage of random conversations between strangers and Vibram Five Finger wearers on the street typically lead to an actual friendship (romantic or otherwise), the fundamental unit of social capital.  If we assumed that 1 in 100 interactions results in an invitation to join a running club, a discovery of a shared friend or coworker, a swapped phone number, etc., we could attribute 1,200+ new acquaintanceships to Vibram Five Fingers this year.  To take it a step further, if on average a person has 130 acquaintances, and 5-6 very close friends (personal experience), odds are that 5% of these 1,200 acquaintances may, in time, become close friends.  Therefore, we could attribute 60 or so new close friendships in Washington, D.C., this year, to Vibram Five Fingers.

This is all just-for-fun, psuedo-statistics, of course.  But it begs the question: If we could see this kind of an effect from random interactions prompted by shoes, what would the value be if we each said something kind to a stranger, or did something unexpected and helpful,  once a day?  Those clever boy scouts and their “do a good turn daily…”