July 30, 2009
I'm sympathetic to the view that if people don't want to deal with the noise and vibrancy of a hot neighborhood, they shouldn't have moved into buildings, in some cases, literally on top of the bars in question. On the other hand, I wonder if the way the neighborhood has developed in recent years has made the debate somewhat inevitable.
For instance, take this snippet from the article:
"The thing that I am sad to see is that my block is being dominated by restaurants and bars," said Fishman, who put down a deposit on his apartment in 2003 before plans for the space below his apartment had been finalized. He, like Kelner, often keeps his windows closed when the neighborhood's traffic picks up.It's possible to argue that he should have seen it coming, but it's more than that. Fishman owns a condo in the Langston Lofts building, which has sold out all of its new condo units, and Urban Turf reports that units are being resold for around $425,000. Union Row, the other building mentioned in the article, has units selling in the range from a few hundred thousand to a little over a million.
Now, if I were currently in Washington DC, would I be interested in living in this neighborhood? Absolutely. Would I be interested in living there when I'm 52 years old? I don't know, I'm not even sure I would be interested in living there when I'm 32 years old; but thirty years is probably the absolute earliest I would be able to pay off a mortgage on any of the neighborhood's condo units, if I could afford one at all. Any building that didn't offer rental units at the market-rate would be out of the question for me.
But many of the buildings springing up along the U Street corridor and in other gentrifying areas of Washington DC are condos, as opposed to market-rate apartments. Obnoxious commercials by the real-estate industry describe home ownership as an investment in the future. A lot of people see it that way, and when they buy, they plan to stay. I'll acknowledge that preferences change over time. The key, perhaps, is that renters are more willing to change neighborhoods to fit their lifestyles; home owners are more willing to change the neighborhood itself.
There are good theoretical arguments in favor of home ownership and its impact on communities. It provides a big incentive to protect property and the neighborhood to retain resale value. It gives an incentive to invest in the long-term success of the community; and it makes it more difficult for residents to flee if things start to change.
College towns are perhaps most infamous for having extremely transient populations. Housing turnover occurs at a high frequency and most students are around for no more than four years, none of them own homes, and most of them are far from wealthy. These neighborhoods aren't inherently bad places to live. They are good for the student population who moves in when they're a certain age and move out a few years later. The neighborhood is designed to cater to that type of lifestyle, and in most cases it works fairly well.
An imbalance of condos and market-rate apartments means that some young people, those best suited to live in a place like U Street, might get priced out early in their adult lives, as entry-level salaries and student debt obligations make coming up with a down payment and monthly mortgage payments difficult. It also means that as individual preferences change over time, there will be more resistance from residents. After all, it's much more difficult and time-consuming to go through the process of selling a condo unit than it is to wait out the remainder of a lease and then move on.
This is certainly a complicated affair, of course. Developers chase profits. If big money is to be made in condo buildings, that's what will get built. If condo prices plummet, perhaps market-rate apartments will have a better shot. I've lived in a big managed apartment complex. I thought it was great and I wouldn't have any qualms about renting a unit in one of them again. But buying a condo... thats another story entirely.