Thought Leadership Session II: Housing, Transportation & Employment

In January, Leadership Greater Washington and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) continued their discussion about housing affordability in the region at the second session of the 18-month Thought Leadership Series. LGW members were joined by the following panel of experts to explore connections between housing, transportation and employee recruitment/retention:

 

Melissa Bondi 

State and Local Policy Consultant 

Enterprise Community Partners 

 

Victor Hoskins (’16) 

Director of Economic Development 

Arlington County Virginia 

 

Stewart Schwartz 

Founder & Executive Director 

Coalition for Smarter Growth 

 

The panel jumped right into the dynamic of how housing affordability interacts with employee recruitment/retention and transportation in the region - from the inability of many respective shareholders  to see each of those issues as part of an interconnected whole, to the challenging reality of addressing the issue through a large number of local governments and community jurisdictions. As Victor Hoskins stated: "Affordable housing, transportation and economic development are intertwined but always looked at separately. There is massive internal and external conflict to combine the issues and look at them together.” 

The panel was in agreement that the Washington Metropolitan Region is competing with other regions of the country to bring not only the best and brightest to the region's sectors characterized by high incomes, but also to ensure that residents earning less in their professions are not inhibited by high transportation costs from affordable communities to the workplace. The region's hospitality industry, for example, is a critical foundation for a large part of the area economy, and with high transportation and prohibitive housing costs near economic centers, overall success becomes more strained. Promoting affordable worker housing projects around the region is critical to continued growth.  

 

"The cost of housing plus transportation should be no more than 45% of someone's income." - Stewart Schwartz 

 

One of the major issues preventing smart growth, according to Melissa Bondi and Stewart Schwartz, is the practice of expanding the highway system as a temporary fix to increase the region's capacity to deliver employees to its economic centers. In perhaps the most assertive moment of that discussion, Bondi said, "Expanding highways to reduce traffic is like loosening your belt to lose weight." Likewise, Schwartz detailed a number of policy mechanisms that could help alleviate the issue - land use reform, zoning improvements and alterations to parking policy.    

Other topics of discussion explored how to increase density in the suburban portions of the region, how to internalize millennials' preference toward walkable urban centers in the regional fabric, how to engage employers with huge workforces in the region, addressing the east/west divide in transit mobility, cultivating public awareness on the issue and how to develop the political will in Annapolis and Richmond to address the problem simultaneously with efforts in the District.  

While there are obvious tensions among stakeholders affected by this dynamic - homeowners, developers, businesses, low-income residents and others - there is progress being made. Schwartz noted that in 2005, business and community leaders came together to find common ground for a discussion about smart, regional growth; the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s (MWCOG) Region Forward initiative was a major result of the dialogue. Bondi also recalled a panel discussion in Prince George's County on the issue of housing strategies across all income levels that went hours over it's scheduled duration and ended with optimism and encouragement among its contributors. And as Hoskins noted at the start of the session, “We are all trying to do something good, and if we enter a room knowing we want to do something right, then we will make a difference.”