Real estate in America has largely followed predictable funding patterns over time. This, however, appears to be shifting. In one recent example in Washington D.C., a pair of young developers are looking to empower a community with the opportunity to invest in developing a property in their own neighborhood. Some believe that this kind of deal could change the way real estate deals are brokered in the future. More from CityLab:
Real estate developments are typically financed by wealthy investors who live in the suburbs, or by Wall Street funds even farther away. In a neighborhood like Washington’s H Street Northeast corridor, this means that local projects often can’t find backing, or that far-flung investors put up safe, formulaic products in their place: say, “the glass shiny office/condo building that’s horrible,” Dan Miller says, grimacing.
This model – with its broken connection between a neighborhood’s desires and its investors’ bottom line – seemed to the brothers illogical. Why couldn’t people in the community invest in real estate right next door? Why couldn’t the Millers raise money to purchase a property on H Street from the very people who live there? The neighborhood is a quirky mix of barbershops and hip beer gardens. It’s not the kind of place that investors from wealthy Chevy Chase, Maryland, quite get.
Greenbelt, Maryland is a small town north of the Nation’s capital which carries a legacy larger than its hamlet appearance. As one of the nations four Green Towns built between 1935 and 1937, Greenbelt stands as a National Historic District and lasting testament to the FDR administration in its commitment to providing social programs, in particular, public housing through the New Deal.
The Garden City Movement in the United Kingdom, which valued open space, nature and balanced planning principles, and a pressing housing shortage during the Great Depression inspired FDR to action. Planners of Greenbelt and its sister towns Greenhills, Ohio and Greendale, Wisconsin, sought to create a new model of development: the suburb. Led by the newly established Resettlement Administration, the body focused on creating housing for federal workers.
These projects, in the words of Greenbelt Museum Education Coordinator Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, embodied the “coming together of urban and rural,” providing opportunities to experiment with housing, land use, and transportation policies simultaneously. In a recent tour of the site, led by Maffay-Tuthill and Megan Young, the Director of the Greenbelt Museum, staff of the National Public Housing Museum was able to see first hand the implementation of these policies.
Informed by its counterparts in Europe, the FDR Administration moved to make direct investments in public housing, a public good previously provided in large part by benevolent social organizations albeit never meeting demand. Due to its proximity to Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing, public policy experts consider Greenbelt as the most fully realized of American Green Towns with its project budget largely shielded from cuts throughout its development.
But even with this support, the Resettlement Administration did not realize the scale and vision of Greenbelt. Today, the town prides itself on its rural feel with low densities of cinder block Bauhaus-inspired row housing, modest apartment buildings, a school and community center, a shopping center with a Co-op grocery store, a bank, and a movie theater. A pathway network apart from the street network creates a peaceful walking environment completely separate from automobile traffic among plentiful trees and brooks.
While some decried the town as the epitome of federal largesse, a common criticism of many New Deal-era policies, the federal government thought methodically about shaping each Green Town. In the case of Greenbelt, all residents needed to fit within strict income and desired family demographic parameters. Planners conducted research in Greendale, Wisconsin about how wide to make pathways to encourage conversation and interaction, a fact ever apparent in the cozy sidewalk widths of Greenbelt. Public art adorns the school and community center building.
While the shovel hit the dirt for these central pieces of the Green Town vision, the plows did not hit the soil of farms outside of Greenbelt’s greenbelt of trees. As originally planned, larger farms, in addition to smaller allotment plot gardens for families would provide food for Greenbelters. Here the Green Town model would provide the amenities of a city within a decidedly rural context – a community spirit that arguably survives, if not in built-out plans, in Greenbelt’s legacy of co-op businesses, complete with a volunteer-run newspaper.
As Maffay-Tuthill reminds us, the first residents of Greenbelt, “were chosen for being idealistic people – they bought into what was being done here … they wanted this to succeed.” With such an engineered social and physical fabric, it is not surprising the various Green Towns met with varying levels of success. The monumental cost of the Green Town model and changing views on housing contributed to Greenbelt’s sale in 1952, much of it to the residents of Greenbelt.
Upon its sale and later private development of single-family homes starting in 1954, a new group of residents, less committed to the idealism of Greenbelt’s original inhabitants, reshaped the Utopian undertones. A policy shift away from the Green Towns model, coupled with the changing perception of these places presents preservationists with the question of how best to preserve the legacy and intent of these original towns.
With much of the nation’s public housing stock currently approaching the 50-year old threshold for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places, it is imperative current planners understand the importance of these places in telling the broader public housing and American story.
Like the telling of any national narrative, there are many questions on how to best tell the story and which examples provide the best understanding of the subject. In Greenbelt, the excitement with which our tour guides present the knowledge of their community and its spirit reminds us of the promise of public housing and its ability, when planned and fully implemented, to foster a greater sense of community and affect personal change in the lives of its residents. Undoubtedly there are many more stories to be told – and, like Greenbelt, more than anything these stories require champions.
Daniel Ronan works as the Site Development & Engagement Coordinator for the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, and is the creator of ResilientHeritage.org. His interests include, historic preservation, transportation, and resilience. In his quest to study this issue in greater detail, Ronan will be visiting Cincinnati the weekend after Thanksgiving. Those interested in joining him for a tour of Greenhills can do so by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to data from the Federal Transit Authority (FTA), the State of Ohio provides some of the least amount of funding for its regional transit authorities of any state in America.
Texas, Georgia and Missouri also provide next to nothing to their various regional transit agencies, but in no other state are transit agencies as reliant on fares and local taxes as they are in the Buckeye State.
When broadening the search to examine transit agencies in the biggest cities across America, it also becomes clear that states like Pennsylvania, Utah and Maryland, Minnesota and Massachusetts invest large amounts of state dollars in transit. Some transit agencies with little state support, however, receive larger sums of money from regional transit taxes and federal aid.
Ohio’s three largest metropolitan regions – all with more than two million people – are different in this regard and have the least diverse range of financial support of transit agencies nationwide. For both Columbus and Cleveland, it means that well over 90% of their total revenues come from fares and local tax dollars, while in Cincinnati it is slightly better at 84% thanks to a bit more federal aid.
“In the recession we saw transit service cut while gas prices drove transit demand to record levels,” stated Akshai Singh, an Ohio Sierra Club representative with the advocacy organization Ohio for Transportation Choice. “Roughly all of the state’s public transportation funding now goes to operating rural transit services.”
Honolulu is the only other region in the United States that has 90% or more of its funds coming from just fares and local tax dollars. Cities in other states providing next to nothing also approach this threshold, but do not exceed it as is the case in Ohio.
It recently reported that the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) is one of the best stewards of limited financial resources, when compared to 11 peer agencies across the country. One of the key findings from Agenda 360 report was how little state financial support SORTA receives.
Part of the problem in Ohio is due to state cuts that have reduced funding for public transportation by 83% since 2000. Those cuts have forced transit agencies in the nation’s seventh most populous state to reduce service and increase fares over the past decade.
According to All Aboard Ohio, the state only provides approximately 1% of its transportation budget to transit, while more than 9% of the state’s population lives without a car.
In addition to regional transit, Ohio continues to be one of the most hostile states in terms of inter-city passenger rail. The state remains almost untouched by Amtrak’s national network and boasts the nation’s most densely populated corridor – Cincinnati to Cleveland – without any inter-city passenger rail service.
“When Governor Kasich came to office, the first thing he did was send back $400 million in federal dollars, for the 3C Corridor, on the basis that operations and maintenance would have been too onerous on the state,” Singh concluded. “Today, ODOT is allocating $240 million to build a $331 million, 3.5-mile highway extension through a 40% carless neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side, a staggering $100 million per mile new capacity road, while openly acknowledging they are reducing access for local residents.”