Category Archives: Housing

Sustaining the Biggest Public Nuisance in Richmond

Mosby Court, public housing project in Richmond

Republished from Cranky’s Blog.

Not satisfied at maintaining the largest public nuisance in Richmond – the one that just led to the shooting death of a State Policeman – the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RHHA) now proposes to do nothing realistic about it:

  • Fencing and gates. RRHA says this remedy is “largely . . . impractical.” I guess killing policemen is more “practical.”
  • Parking stickers and IDs. Not a bad idea, but worthless until they have the off-duty cops in place to catch the trespassers.
  • Empowerment programs. So, the problem largely is male visitors and they are going to “empower” the tenant girlfriends who are harboring those males? Please! The remedy is to evict those girlfriends.
  • Summer programs for the kids. Good thing to do but unrelated to the visiting male problem.

This is not rocket science, folks:

  • The feds tell us “(1) that effective property management can have a major impact on the health of a community, and (2) that accessible, legitimate techniques can be used to stop the spread of drug activity on rental property.”
  • Indeed, as to drugs (and certainly as to other crime), nuisance abatement is the sole tactic that has been shown scientifically to reduce crime in residential places. The DOJ monograph says: “With the evidence available we are relatively certain that holding private landlords accountable for drug dealing on their property by threatening abatement reduces drug related crimes.” Whether as to drug activity or other disorder, the landlord is the only entity that can make the physical changes to the property, evict the troublesome tenants, hire the security, control the access, and enforce the lease terms necessary to make the property safe.

Yet, RRHA, aside from the fences they have rejected, is not talking about what we know can help here:

  • Lights;
  • Cameras;
  • Access control;
  • Off-duty cops on patrol;
  • Rigorous trespass enforcement; and
  • Rigorous lease enforcement (i.e., eviction of the girlfriend who harbors the disorder)

As to that last point, the HUD lease [at Para. 25] contains the necessary provisions. These include eviction for, inter alia:

  • Drug related criminal activity engaged in  on or near the premises by any tenant, household member, or guest; and
  • Criminal activity by a tenant, any member of the tenant’s household, a guest or another person under the tenant’s control that threatens the health, safety or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises by other residents or by persons residing in the immediate vicinity.

Yet, when I spoke with them about this (in the distant past), they said

  • Legal Aid makes it difficult to do anything;
  • The judges are reluctant to enforce the lease;
  • It would be “onerous” to ask RRHA staff to follow up on all offense reports and calls for service; and
  • Given the quality of the people who live in subsidized housing, RRHA can’t be expected to do much better.

To judge from their response to the current murder rate, and the shooting of the policeman by a trespasser who was living at RRHA, their indifferent attitude and the soft bigotry of their low expectations have not improved.

It is clear that RRHA is not serious about controlling its property. City Council is quiescent. The Commonwealth’s Attorney is not prosecuting the RRHA Board for maintaining the nuisance. Your tax dollars at “work.”

The Scourge of Rootless, Predatory Males

Travis A. Ball

Last week 27-year-old Travis A. Ball allegedly shot and killed Virginia State Police Special Agent Michael T. Walter in an apparently unprovoked attack in the Mosby Court public housing project. The murder was the seventh homicide and one of about 20 shootings to take place in the troubled housing project so far this year.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch has done commendable work fleshing out the circumstances of the murder and the background of the alleged killer, but a bigger story remains to be told. The crime gives us a window into the pathology of 21st-century American poverty. Through the story of Travis Ball we can gain insight not only into the social breakdown of inner-city African-Americans in public housing but the spreading social dysfunction among the poor of all races and ethnic groups.

The tip-off appears in Robert Zullo’s article in the T-D today: In his arrest warrant, Ball had listed as his address a home on the 1900 block of Redd Street in Mosby Court. But he had been banned from the property in 2016, and his name was registered on a 4,000-person list of people ineligible to live there. Shortly after that ban, according to a second T-D article, an emergency protective order was issued for the mother of one of Ball’s children. Court records show that Ball had engaged in several acts of domestic violence. The T-D articles indicate that he had two children with one woman, and hint that he may have fathered a child with a different woman.

Think about this: Mosby Court maintains a list of some 4,000 individuals who are banned from living in housing project of only 458 units. That is an astonishing number. The T-D reporting does not give us a profile of these people, but I would be willing to wager that the list is comprised overwhelmingly of men, like Ball, and that the vast majority have been blackballed for violent behavior on the project premises.

The problem is that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RHHA) has no effective means of enforcing the list.

“The manpower that’s required, it’s hard to knock on doors on a daily basis,” said RRHA CEO T.K. Somanath. “Neighbors sometimes let us know, and we have our property management [and] maintenance folks inspecting these properties periodically. There are ways to find out if people are not abiding by the lease [which] causes these violations, and we take action.”

The housing authority disbanded its own seven-member police force in 2014 due to budget pressures and the conviction that residents would be better served if the agency deployed its resources consistent with its core mission of providing housing services. It is not clear from the article whether or not the RHHA police were used to enforce the banishment list. Whatever the case, there is no effective enforcement mechanism now.

I am entering the realm of conjecture here, and I advance the following observations not as fact but as operating hypotheses to be confirmed or rejected through follow-up reporting. The RHHA, according to its website, manages and maintains 12 housing developments for low-income families, seven developments for the low-income elderly and the disabled. The low-income housing, I suspect, are dominated by households of single mothers with one or more children. The number of households with married spouses and children approaches zero.

I conjecture the existence of a large floating population of under-employed, unmarried men in low-income communities — be they like Mosby Court or a rural trailer park — who lead a largely parasitical existence. They attach themselves to women as sexual partners, moving into their apartments, eating their food, and contributing only sporadically to the maintenance of the household. These relationships are typically unstable, fraught with domestic violence and child abuse. Men move from woman to woman, impregnating them with no concern for the welfare of the children. Sometimes they establish meaningful relationships with their biological children; often they do not. Nonpayment of child support is endemic. Often, women don’t even know for certain who the fathers are.

I further conjecture that the existence of this population of unattached males explains another widespread and unexplained phenomenon: that of childhood hunger. Low-income families have no trouble obtaining food stamps. Why are children going hungry? Why must school districts maintain breakfast and lunch programs? Why do charities provide children with backpacks of food to take home during weekends? Is it possible that many household food budgets are being stretched by the necessity to feed an adult male whose presence is entirely “off the books”?

The prevalence of unattached, freeloading and often violent males, I submit, is one of the great unacknowledged scourges of poverty in the United States today. Though poor themselves, many of these males are predators and they add immeasurably to the horror of poverty. They prey among the weak in their midst, inflicting routine domestic violence that never makes it into the newspapers (unless a murder occurs). They commandeer the limited resources of the women they live with, often resulting in the abuse and neglect of the women’s children — especially if the children are not their own.

It is not politically correct to portray 21-century American poverty in this way. Progressives are committed to the idea that the pathologies of poverty are the result of endemic injustices such as racism, income inequality, poor schools, and insufficient economic opportunity. Read the academic literature and the politicians’ press releases and you see nothing about the growing population of rootless, predatory males. Unless we acknowledge the realities of poverty, how can we ever hope to combat it?

Let me be 100% clear. Although I am extrapolating from an inner-city housing project, this problem is not unique to African-Americans. Rootless males are prevalent among poor whites, Hispanics and American Indians. (See my post about Jesse Lee Herald, a 27-year-old white man in Shenandoah County who had fathered seven children by six different women.)

This is one of the great untold stories of the United States today. But because of our politically blinkered thinking, we cannot see it.

Bristol Home Builder Proposes Solar Subdivision

Developer Aaron Lilly is seeking Bristol planning commission approval to construct 30 upscale townhouses using solar power to offset electric bills. He envisions the project as the first solar-powered subdivision east of the Mississippi, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier.

The project would be built on 12.5 hillside acres near an Interstate 81 exit. The townhomes would have 1,600 square feet of living space plus a 400-square-foot garage. Units can be configured with “smart home” technology for monitoring and control that, among other benefits, can provide medical information to a caregiver. Lilly sees the houses as “age in place” residences. He intends to price the properties in the $200,000 to $250,000 range. Said Lilly:

After seeing solar was at least possible, we’ve been working on this for over a year. It is more affordable than ever before and the price of electricity goes up every year. … There would be two meters on the house – one telling how much power we consume from [Bristol Virginia Utilities] and the other how much power is produced and the person would pay the difference.

If power keeps going up and solar keeps coming down, we’re there. If we’re not there yet, we’re close enough. This is our goal and we’re working feverishly to make sure it happens. … The first ones are an experiment. We don’t know how much power we can make.

Planning commissioners were supportive of the proposal and granted preliminary approval.

Bacon’s bottom line: It’s hard to imagine that this is the first time a developer east of the Mississippi has proposed building new townhouses with solar panels on the roof. But I haven’t heard of anyone doing it in Virginia, so, who knows. If Lilly says it’s true, maybe it is. If so, good for him.

Economically, it may make more sense for home builders to install solar during the construction phase — Lilly will build nine connected units in Phase 1 — than for individual homeowners to outsource the project to solar installers one project at a time. Also, Lilly can pocket the solar credits, which might be worth more to him than to individual homeowners. Another selling point is that homeowners can amortize the construction cost over the life of a 30-year mortgage.

Home builders are always looking for a competitive edge. I’m surprised that we haven’t seen more of this kind of activity.

Slum Maintenance at Essex Village

Crime scene at Essex Village.

Crime scene at Essex Village. (Photo credit: WTVR)

Who needs tenement slums when we’ve got public housing projects? The supposed “market failure” of the private sector to provide the poor and working class with decent shelter provided the justification for the federal government to get into housing business in the 1930s. We all know the result. Uncle Sam turned out to be the worst slumlord of all. In desperation, the government tried outsourcing to the private sector. How’s that working out?

I’ve highlighted the disastrous Kippax Place in Hopewell in previous posts. Now, courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we learn that Essex Village in Henrico County has similar problems. Here’s how Debbie Truong leads off the story:

Inside one apartment building in Henrico County’s largest federally subsidized housing complex, the bathroom ceiling leaked, the stove thermostat was faulty and the windows wouldn’t stay open.

Across Essex Village, stairs were in disrepair, and there were mice and leaking water heaters. In November, raw sewage bubbled to the surface of manhole covers and, in December, drains backed up in four ground-level apartments.

Since April 14, 140 cases of building code violations were either reported or discovered by the county as part of an enhanced effort to turn around what officials say has languished into the county’s most poorly maintained housing complex.

Henrico County officials have vowed to get the housing complex back up to an acceptable standard. It will continue to pursue inspections aggressively and it will pilot a “family stabilization” project that will bring health, financial literacy, social services and other resources to the 1,600-resident complex, reports Truong.

Gregory Perlman

GHC Housing Partners, which owns the 496-unit complex, said it has addressed the building code violations, which were “fairly minor” in any case. Also, CEO Gregory Perlman noted that Henrico had failed to support a proposal last year seeking federal tax credits that would have helped pay for renovations.

Who is this Perlman person? In 2012 he claimed to have invented a “new approach to affordable housing.” This comes from a GHC press release:

“We focus on our residents and provide them with the opportunity to better their lives through self-improvement programs as well as support from the non-profit Perlman Foundation.”

… GHC Housing Partners specializes in acquiring and managing primarily Section 8 housing and providing social services and amenities that go far beyond HUD requirements. Vegetable gardens, dog parks, job counseling, college scholarships and summer camps are only part of this transformation of affordable housing. GHC Housing Partners is focused on initiatives and programs that improve lives and provide bootstrap opportunities for residents to achieve a higher standard of living.

Wrapping public services around public housing is the hot concept in the non-profit world. But how has the idea fared in the real world? The building code violations speak for themselves. The T-D also quotes a Rev. Joe Ellison who previously ran a day care at Essex and served as a pastor in the community. He left in 2005 “crestfallen over the living conditions.”

He said he approached management at Essex two  years ago, hoping to establish a program that involved mentoring and job creation. After a lukewarm response, he instead turned his sights to Fairfield Court in Richmond.

GHC warrants a closer look, far closer than I can provide in this quick blog post. The company is part of a housing-industrial complex that has grown up around public housing and, some have told me, exists as much to provide a comfortable living for a vast ecosystem of for-profits, non-profits, consultants and government administrators as for the poor themselves.

On its website, the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based GHV claims to be the ” industry’s leading affordable housing owner and developer.” Since 1993, the company has acquired 20,000 housing units across 24 states in $1.25 billion worth of projects.

I infer that the company is for-profit, as the website makes no mention of a non-profit status. The parent company, GHC Housing Partners, is affiliated with GHC Investment Holdings, which acquires, owns and manages affordable housing; GHC Development, which develops properties using tax-exempt bonds and low-income housing tax credits; PK Management, a property management arm whose mission includes providing “quality service to its residents;” and a charitable arm, the All Ways Up Foundation.

In 2014, according to its IRS 990 form, the All Ways Up Foundation provided $128,777 in grants to organizations and $123,935 to individuals — sums that work out to an average of $12 per housing unit across the GHC system — and hosted an educational summit.

PK Management, which manages 18,000 units, purports to employ 41 social service coordinators to oversee resident welfare, focusing on delivering expanded services to its residents. It also offers “educational and professional opportunities designed to break the cycle of generational poverty.” (It’s not clear from the website if PK Management serves Essex Village, nor who pays for these services.)

The federal government turned to outsourcing after it became clear that it was doing a terrible job of running public housing projects itself. Perhaps it is time to ask if the non-profits and for-profits are doing any better. Anecdotal evidence is piling up that they are not, although Essex and Kippax may not be representative of performance at other housing projects. My suspicion is that private players master the latest buzz words and throw out a lot of flash-and-dazzle to impress the bureaucrats and win big contracts but that there’s not much follow through.

Perhaps the Times-Dispatch could do a little digging. What is the precise nature of GHC’s relationship with Essex Village? Does it own the property outright? Does it have a contract with the federal government? Does it provide wrap-around social services? Does the All Ways Up Foundation provide any grants? How much revenue does the project generate, and what is the cost structure? Most pertinently, how much money does GHC devote to maintenance and upkeep? Surely, this information would be available through the Freedom of Information Act.

Related questions: Who in the federal government, if anyone, is responsible for looking over GHC’s shoulder to make sure it is maintaining basic standards — and why has Henrico been forced to step in?

Twilight of an Era in Alexandria

Eric Terran, a 39-year-old architect, is doing something that almost no one in the City of Alexandria is doing anymore: building a detached, single-family residence. Last year he purchased a lot zoned for single-family residential for $230,000, and now he’s erecting a 3,300-square-foot house on it, reports Michael Neibauer with the Washington Business Journal.

Construction of detached, single-family dwellings has almost come to an end in Alexandria, where the inventory of lots is fast disappearing. As Neibauer notes:

Alexandria ended fiscal  2016 with 9,131 single-family detached homes, the exact number it counted at the close of fiscal 2015. In fact, only 12 new homes — not including tear-downs, which do not add to the city’s inventory — have been built since 2010. Save for infill and tear downs, Alexandria is largely built out.

I have no doubt that Neibauer has done his reporting and knows what he’s talking about, but his numbers don’t quite jive with Alexandria’s building permit data, seen above, which I took from the Homefacts.com website. According to that data set, permits issued for single-family housing since 2010 numbered in the hundreds. Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of permits was for 5+ unit, multi-family dwellings, which is broadly consistent with what Neibauer is saying.

Rather than get hung up on explaining the statistical discrepancy, however, I want to focus on the larger truth, which is the transformation of development patterns in Alexandria. The overwhelming preponderance of new housing construction in the city consists of multi-family housing — apartments and condominiums. Indeed, 2013 and 2014 showed new housing construction running at a torrid pace — faster than at any time since 2001.

I’m not intimately familiar with Alexandria, but I did visit downtown several months ago and observed a lot of recent mixed-use development. My superficial impression is that Alexandria is allowing developers to build a lot of the right stuff. The new development is preserving the walkability that made Old Town Alexandria and environs such a special place.

In 2010, the city achieved an all-time population high of 140,000, and has added population since then. As the city continues to grow, new houses like Eric Terran’s will become an endangered species. Newcomers will be living in apartments and condos.

Update: Michael Neibauer contacted me to explain the discrepancy I alluded to. Eric Terran is building a detached single-family dwelling. Although there are many “single-family dwellings” being built in Alexandria, they are row houses — not detached single-family dwellings.

Reinventing another Failed Public Housing Project

Kippax Place represents another in a long line of initiatives to reimagine public housing.

Kippax Place — “reimagining public housing.” Image from the website of the Virginia Community Development Corporation.

Kippax Place, a seven-story building in downtown Hopewell, is a product of 1970s-era public policy housing. Like so many public housing projects, it became almost unlivable. In an effort to restore the facility to habitable standards, the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority has contracted with the Community Housing Corporation to give the home for more than 100 elderly and disabled residents a $13 million, top-to-bottom overhaul.

As described by the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, the apartment building had deteriorated to an atrocious state of disrepair: broken water pipes, mold, rodents, bed bugs, leaking ceilings and windows, intermittently operating elevators, an antiquated HVAC system, and a dysfunctional trash chute that had filled up to the top. When both elevators broke down, residents would get trapped in their rooms for days at a time.

How had the situation gotten so bad? One problem is that the business model was fundamentally unsound. In  2015 article the Hopewell News quoted Steven Benham with the Hopewell housing authority:

“Kippax … was losing about $90,000 a year when you look at the revenue that we get from that building and the overall expenses that it takes to run that building. We’re losing about $90,000 a year.”

To help stop the financial bleeding, Benham said HRHA has tried to reduce services at the building, closely monitor the utilities, and reduce staff. He said the cost has been brought down quite a bit but it has not been enough.

Notice the phrase, “Reduce services at the building.” That’s another way of saying, “Reduce maintenance.” Not that Benham had any choice. The housing authority has to live within an inadequate budget.

The situation is Hopewell is little different from the situation anywhere else in the country. The TD provides some perspective:

[Kippax residents] are on the receiving end of historic indifference toward maintaining the nation’s public housing stock — a problem so dire that experts say 10,000 units go offline annually because they have become uninhabitable.

There’s a documented $26 billion backlog of capital needs for such things as bad boilers and faulty pipes across the nation’s 1.2 million public housing units. … The actual need is likely twice as high.

Affordable housing advocates warn some complexes have deteriorated to the Depression-level conditions that first prompted the federal government to become involved in housing issues in the 1930s.

Bacon’s bottom line: The original justification for public housing was that there was a “market failure” in housing that justified government stepping in and creating a supply of “affordable” units.  Politically progressive reformers argued that government could provide decent housing at a lower cost than could the market.

Eighty years of experience have demonstrated with startling clarity that the “public failure” is just as bad, if not greater than, the “market failure.” Even when supplemented by federal subsidies, the pitiful income streams generated by low-income residents are inadequate to sustain the public housing projects. Invariably, the path of least resistance is to defer maintenance. Over time, the public facilities deteriorate to a level that would be intolerable if they were operated by private-sector slumlords. Not only does government build and maintain slum-style housing, public projects concentrate poverty, often making them projects cesspools of crime and violence. (As a home for the elderly and disabled, Kippax does not appear to have a significant crime problem.)

The housing-industrial complex — an ecosystem of federal and local agencies and authorities, financiers, contractors, and consultants — has been impossible to dislodge. Like any other special-interest group, it is politically powerful. Over the years, the industry has tried to reinvent itself based upon trendy new concepts and theories, all leading so far to disappointing results. The idea at Kippax is to convert the property to private ownership and management in partnership with Christiansburg-based Community Housing Corporation, with rental assistance to keep rents affordable.

The infusion of capital and major renovations will improve the quality of the housing stock in the short run. Residents will appreciate having someone repair their apartments, seal the building against the elements, fix the elevator and put the trash chute back into working order. Also, a modernized HVAC system should generate savings through lower electricity costs. The question in my mind is whether the facility is financially sustainable over the long run. If not, it matters not whether the landlord is the public housing authority or a non-profit enterprise. If not, Kippax will enter into another downward spiral of deferred maintenance and disrepair.

Suburbs Not So Simple

Virginia suburbs have diverse patterns of development.

Virginia suburbs broken down by percentage of population in each suburban type.

A difficulty in analyzing the economic dynamics of the “suburbs” is that land use and development is far from uniform. Recognizing that the term encompasses a wide range of human settlement patterns, the authors of “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb” broke down suburbs into five major types.

Established high-end. These have high home values and established development patterns. They tend to be built at higher densities and located closer to the metropolitan core. Residents resist new growth.

Stable middle-income. These neighborhoods tend to be older and located closer to the urban core. They exhibit a wide range of home values.

Economically challenged. These locations have lower home values and have seen little to no population growth in recent years. They may have aging infrastructure or under-performing services.

Greenfield lifestyle. These are newer, developed within the past ten to 15 years, and closer to the suburban fringe, where the bulk of new community development is occurring. They tend to have some land still available for new development.

Greenfield value. These, too, are located at or close to the suburban fringe, attracting value-oriented home buyers. Developing over the past ten to 15 years, they often reflect a “drive until you qualify” pattern.

The distribution of population between suburban types is similar in Richmond and Hampton Roads, as seen in the table above. But the sprawling, faster-growing Washington region is distinguished by a significantly higher “greenfield value” population. The drive-until-you-qualify phenomenon is in strong in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs, impelled by development restrictions and high housing prices in the core jurisdictions.

Bacon’s bottom line: I suppose this taxonomy is marginally interesting, but I don’t see how it guides either homeowners or county governance. The same study examines home buyer preferences (see previous post). How do these suburban types match against those preferences? The study doesn’t say. How does the trajectory of housing values match against those preferences? It doesn’t say. How should county officials alter their comprehensive plans to better align housing/community types with market demand? Again, not much to say.

What Home Buyers Are Looking For

Home buyers still favor housing attributes that favor the suburbs

Source: “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb.” Home buyers still show strongest preference for housing attributes associated with suburban living.

For all the talk of urban renaissance in cities across Virginia and the United States, first-time home buyers find that new or existing suburban homes offer the best match for their preferences and budget, reports the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in a new study, “Housing in the Evolving American Suburb.”

While American’s urban cores are experiencing investment and population growth after decades of disinvestment and flight, the action is still in the suburbs because that’s where most of the developed land is. And, while members of the Millennial generation may value walkability and access to public transit more than previous generations, they still put the highest value on square footage, larger lots, and access to good schools and public services.

Nevertheless, there is likely a deficit of walkable urbanism compared to the demand for it, and that scarcity creates a premium for houses in walkable neighborhoods, the study argues.

In the coming years, efforts will likely continue to make at least some suburban areas more urban, with walkability to restaurants, stores, and other conveniences, combined where possible with access to good transit. Some of that development will be close to existing urban areas, and some will be close to existing or newly built mixed-use modes that include restaurants and stores. Some of the suburban development will deliver a more urban experience for a wider range of households. … Many large master-planned communities are including urban town centers as a component of their development.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, the race is on in metropolitan regions like Richmond. Who can move faster to attract affluent households that pay the most in taxes and enjoy the greatest ability to live where they want — the City of Richmond or the suburban counties? The city has the walkable neighborhoods, proximity to cultural amenities, and access to mass transit. But the counties have larger lots and houses, lower taxes, and access to better public schools.

Both cities and counties in Virginia have the potential to offer the best of both worlds. The City of Richmond could gain an enormous competitive advantage if it could improve the quality of its public schools. Sadly, that seems to be an intractable task. Conversely, Henrico and Chesterfield Counties could gain a competitive advantage by zoning for walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Although the counties have allowed islands of walkable urbanism to take root, the pace of change is glacially slow.

Both urban and suburban jurisdictions face institutional rigidities that prevent them from achieving maximum potential in the early 21st century. What a shame.

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

What Virginia Millennials Are Looking For

indicators

Source: Wason Center for Public Policy. Click for legible image.

by James A. Bacon

Three out of four Virginia Millennials (belonging to the 18- to 36-year-old age cohort) are largely satisfied with the quality of life in their communities. But local quality-of-life indicators often fall short of what Millennials are looking for, and many are open to moving to other parts  of Virginia or even to other states. So finds a new survey of 2,000 young adults in “Virginia Millennials Come of Age” by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

The survey covered a wide range of topics, including political involvement, civic engagement, personal financial outlook and news sources. But of particular interest to this blog are the questions relating to quality of life. Given that creative and educated young adults contribute disproportionately to a region’s innovation and vibrancy, community leaders need to understand the factors that attract and drive them away.

Judging by the metrics selected, Millennials in Northern Virginia are most satisfied with the quality of life in their communities (despite the traffic!), followed by Hampton Roads. They are less satisfied in the Richmond region, and least satisfied in South/Southwest Virginia.

The metrics include: access to public transportation, walkability, proximity to work and/or school, proximity to parks and shopping, a mix of housing, good public schools, safe neighborhoods, proximity to family, a diverse population, and having enough people of their own age. (Those are all reasonable metrics, but I would argue that the list is incomplete and, therefore, gives an incomplete picture. How about the cost of living? Or the quality of the food scene? Or proximity to arts and culture? Or opportunities to engage in the community — a factor rated highly by Millennials, according to the survey?)

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The "gap" represents the difference between the two.

The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important these quality-of-life indicators are when thinking about moving somewhere new, and how well each one describes their present community. The “gap” represents the difference between the two. (Click for larger image.)

Wason didn’t analyze the data this way, but I find it interesting that proximity to amenities — work, schools, shopping, entertainment, parks and recreation — all ranked in the top half of the list. The desire for compact communities is reinforced by the identification of “walkable areas” as a priority. It stands to reason that neighborhoods in which amenities are “close” are also more walkable.

Virginia policy makers should pay close attention to this finding as they think about transportation and land use priorities.

The desire for proximity and walkability does not translate into a wholesale endorsement of the Smart Growth agenda, however. The desire for a “range of transportation options” — which presumably includes mass transit — was second lowest on the list. The perceived gap between the ideal and reality was negligible.

Likewise, the desire for a “mix of types and values of housing” was only middling. However, I’m not sure that most respondents had a clear idea of what the question meant. Did they think it referred to communities in which housing was integrated with offices, retail and other amenities — the Smart Growth desiderata? Or were respondents focusing on the importance of “affordable” housing? Two very different things A follow-up survey might delve deeper.

Also interesting is the fact that a “diversity of people in the area” ranked lowest on the list. That may not be a topic that preoccupies the average Millennial as much as it does the academic community.

The old-fashioned values of safe neighborhoods and good public schools also rank high. (It would be interesting to see how Millennials without children compared to Millennials with children in evaluating the importance of public schools. I would be willing to wager that parents consider school quality a lot more than singles do.)

All things considered, the survey results suggest that Virginia lawmakers and civic leaders have cause for concern if they want the state to remain an attractive location for young people. Virginia Millennials are highly mobile, with 65% saying they are thinking about moving within the next five years. Of those, 38% say they would consider moving to somewhere else in Virginia, and 27% somewhere outside of Virginia. Within Virginia, Northern Virginia is by far the most popular destination. Regions in the rest of the state have their work cut out for them.