Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Harriet Tregoning, identifying ideas to expand opportunity in cities

May 8, 2014, 8:19 a.m., Posted by Carol Coletta

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Photo credit: Flickr user Will Vanlue.

Next week we’re convening leaders in several fields from across the United States to talk about ideas that can make our cities better.

This Civic Innovation in Action Studio will discuss ways we can program places to harness talent, advance opportunity and improve engagement. We hope to emerge with ideas we can put to the test in communities around the country. Harriet Tregoning knows more than a little about these issues. As the former planning director for the city of Washington, D.C., she helped lead that city’s transformation into a resurgent urban center. Now she’s working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as director of its Office of Economic Resilience. I asked her to share her thoughts on some questions we’ll be considering May 12-14 in Miami.

Research shows that residential communities that are segregated by income are particularly likely to have low rates of upward economic mobility, and income segregation is on the rise. How might we nudge behavior to change this trajectory and increase the income diversity of neighborhoods?

H.T.: In many neighborhoods now, there is a mismatch between the existing building stock and the current demand for housing. Despite the fact that one to two generations ago, households were 50 percent larger than they are now, local zoning can act to limit affordability and exclude even historic levels of population. Households are now much smaller than they were a generation or two ago. That means a potential opportunity to adapt that older housing stock to a new multifamily reality, if the zoning allows it. That might mean what is currently a single-family, four-story row house could become two two-story flats or four one-story flats. That would restore historic levels of density but also allow higher levels of affordability because the smaller units would not be as expensive as a large single-family house. 

Another way to increase income diversity is to allow “accessory dwelling units” otherwise known as granny flats, basement apartments or garage apartments. These granny flats help increase the affordability for the owner of the property by bringing in additional income, but also allow a much smaller, less expensive dwelling unit to exist in the same neighborhood. Without changing the character of neighborhoods, accessory units increase density and affordability.  

If you had to place a bet, what is the one thing you would invest in to make place an accelerator of economic opportunity in a one- to three-year time frame?

H.T.: Hmm, I think places need three things – no, three and a half things – and not all of them take only one to three years.

·      Transportation choices – lots of them. Obviously you can’t put in a subway system in just a few years (unless you are in China!)  if you don’t have any rail transit, but you can invest in premium bus service – rapid, reliable, technology-enabled – with substantial transit stops and even “stations” that form multimodal nodes. And if you are lucky enough to have some rail transit, then add bike-sharing, car-sharing, and make all your transit data open source to encourage lots of mapping, way-finding and transportation apps.

·      Housing choices – lots of them. You need housing stock that matches demand, and you need to make sure that housing affordability is a match for local income. And you need the zoning and land use regime that puts as many people near transit as possible with the opportunity for goods, services, even jobs, conveniently located near that housing and transit.

·      Encouragement of small businesses and small retailers in every commercial node that you can establish. Use pop-ups, temporary parks and plazas, food trucks and events to activate areas that need investment.

What are the two or three things that city leaders should be doing, or doing differently, if we care about this issue?

H.T.: Change outdated zoning, invest in transportation, encourage creative, even temporary uses of space in the city, and be ready to double down on your investment in affordable housing. If you even BEGIN to be successful, you may find housing prices escalating beyond your ability to get ahead of the changes in neighborhoods.

The District is gaining more than 1,000 new residents every month. What impact have these new residents had on disinvested neighborhoods in the city? What have you seen as the early signals that are sent out intentionally or by accident to encourage investment in a previously disinvested neighborhood?

H.T.: D.C. is not the only city now experiencing a rapid increase in population; many cities are seeing a real turnaround after decades of decline. New residents have broadly swelled the tax rolls, providing the city the funds to do things like invest more money in preserving and building new affordable housing (an increasingly urgent need), bringing streetcar service back to the city after 60 years, and pay for universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, which in turn has helped to bring rapid racial and economic integration to the public elementary schools. Some of the early signals being sent by cities were addressing many of the “push” factors  – crime and poor city services for instance –  while investing in some “pull” factors in neighborhoods – transportation choices like bikes and new premium bus services, and new or refurbished schools, parks, and libraries.

The problem many cities including D.C. now face is the growing demand in a broad swath of city neighborhoods, raising housing prices and concerns about affordability for both longtime residents and newcomers.

Related story: “Grandma Never Had It So Good,” The New York Times