Drop the Hammer

And the nails, and the saw, and those two-by-fours. Pretty much hold everything. That’s the message that some folks building new homes or expanding existing homes in Chevy Chase, MD are getting from their neighbors.

I realize that I don’t blog much about local issues, but there are some issues in the metro-D.C. area that are difficult to ignore if you’re a homeowner or plan on being one. Before we moved, I was intensely aware of the whole issue of gentrification, because my family clearly fell into the gentrifyer category. In case you’re wondering what gentrification is, here’s a definition.

Gentrification refers to the physical, social, economic, and cultural phenomenon whereby working-class and/or inner-city neighborhoods are converted into more affluent middle or even upper-class communities by remodelling buildings and landscaping, resulting in increased property values and in the outflow of poorer residents, either through displacement or succession.

Yup. That’s pretty much us. We bought a house in a downtown D.C. neighborhood, that had been on a downturn since D.C.’s 1968 riots, and took a few decades to begin to bounce back. In fact, the cost of homes in the area dropped to the point that some middle class individuals and families began moving into the neighborhood — probably out of a desire enjoy certain aspects of living in the city — and began refurbishing homes.

We came on the tale end of that phase, just as the neighborhood was coming back. It didn’t hurt that neighborhood residents lobbied for and got Whole Foods to open it’s new store in the heart of the neighboorhood. Thereby anchoring it. It quickly became the chain’s highest grossing store. We moved in just two blocks away, just as the real estate market took off and condo buildings started going up. We stayed five years, upgraded several things in the house, watched the property value rise, and the sold and got out. Yup. Gentrifiers. That’s us.

There’s a lot to say about gentrification, but that’s not actually what this post is about. Apparently, even though we’ve left the city, we haven’t escaped issues about housing. In fact, the suburbs have their own version of gentrification, and some folks in the area where we’re building what to put a stop to it. A temporary one, anyway.

A group of Chevy Chase residents worried that the town’s bungalows will be demolished to make room for larger houses are seeking a one-year moratorium on such construction, creating an issue described by the mayor as a classic battle over property rights.

Last month, a group of residents presented town officials with a petition signed by more than 500 residents endorsing a moratorium. Supporters argue that the affluent town of nearly 3,000 is losing its character to a glut of new, larger homes, often referred to as McMansions.

…Moratorium proponents decry the spread of large homes built closer to lot boundaries, dwarfing neighboring houses and causing problems ranging from poor drainage and flooding to loss of privacy.

…Since July 2000, there have been 42 demolitions of small homes, 13 during fiscal year 2005, Town Manager Todd Hoffman said. The town, which has a median annual income of $160,000, has 1,032 homes, he said.

Some residents are vehemently opposed to a moratorium, which they say would hurt dozens of homeowners looking to modify their homes and would have a chilling effect on the high-value Chevy Chase real estate market.

 Today, there was an article in the Post, saying the moratorium is shortened to six months.

The Town of Chevy Chase, a wealthy enclave of 1,032 homes in Montgomery County, is preparing to adopt a six-month building moratorium that proponents say will give the town time to craft a response to "mansionization."

The incorporated town’s five-member council unanimously agreed last week that a freeze on demolitions, new construction and substantial renovations was necessary. Yesterday, town lawyers released a draft ordinance that might be voted on as early as Aug. 10. Opponents are pondering lawsuits and said the town is infringing on property rights.

Naturally the whole situation is fraught with issues of proptery rights, economics, and class as some residents fight to preserve the character of their neighborhoods and new residents seek a certain standard of living in a neighborhood that offers the best of the suburbs and the nearness of the city. Like I said, echos of gentriciation.

As near as I can tell, we’re not affected by the moratorium as the house that was standing on our lot has already been demolished and construction on our house has already begun. And, BTW, our house will hardly qualify as a "McMansion." It’ll be bigger than the one that was on the property, but nowhere near "mansion-sized."  And, from what I can tell, the neighbors we’ve met are happy to see us moving into the neighborhood, have come out to welcome us when we’ve stopped by to check construction progress, and don’t appear to have any objections to the house being built.

Still I can’t help but wonder what the effect of the moratorium will be on the community. When I consider the home that was standing on our lot, I’m puzzled as to why anyone would have wanted it to remain standing. It was one of many built in the 1950s, over a two week period from what some of the neighbors were telling us. It looked a lot like the home my parents owned in the 50s; most likely with an eat-in kitchen, a living room, and two bedroom with a bathroom between. There are a few in the neighborhood like it, but at least three or four similar homes have been demolished and replaced by larger homes.

Let’s face it. People live differently than they did 50 years ago, and they want more space to do it in than people were used to having or were able to have back then. Not a lot of space, mind you, but more than what’s left from that era. Families live differently than they did then. Maybe it’s beacuse we have more stuff. I don’t know, but times have changed, families have changed, and homes have changed to. What hasn’t changed is the amount of earth available for us to live on. So for some the solution has been to pack more onto the same amount of space. Our house will be bigger than teh one that was there, and will take up more of the lot. Not the entire lot; but more than the old house did.

Needless to say, the house that was on the lot wouldn’t have met our needs, and probably wouldn’t have been worth preserving and expanding either. Yet, we like the location of the land it was sitting on (and the builder had already bought the property and planned to build and sell the house he would build on it). We’re probably not the only ones in this spot. As families with children in D.C. start thinking about schools, and the prospect of improving the city’s schools (a discussion of which would take another post altogether), inevitably they start looking towards the nearby suburbs. The problem is that the exising homes in the suburbs don’t always suit, and there really isn’t a lot of extra space to build in the suburbs near the city. So, you either buy a "tear-down" and build on the lot that’s left, or you buy and existing house and invest in renovating and expanding it.

My guess is that a moratorium is going to bring the real estate market to a halt. Who’s going to buy if they’re not sure they’ll be able to build what they want when or if the moratorium is lifted? My guess is not many. They’ll sit tight, or start considering other options. So, fewer people will be moving to the area during this time, and that will probably have economic effects that ripple out beyond the real estate market. Of course, on the other hand, those who want the moratorium have legitimate concerns too.

I don’t have any answers. It just seems ironic to me that the same or similar issues around housing in the suburbs as in the city. I just hope it can be resolved, and we can all find a way to live together.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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6 Responses to Drop the Hammer

  1. trey says:

    Boy.. housing…

    In San Francisco, the word ‘gentrification’ is a dirty word. And yes, WE were part of that. The 120 yo Victorian we bought was falling apart, the front steps had drug dealers and prostitutes on it every night. We moved in (as did some other gentrifiers), an ugly overhead freeway a block away came down, a park was built and viola, the neighorhood is ‘up and coming.’ Fortunately, California property taxes do NOT go up with appraised values, so working class home owners aren’t priced out… but SF has a different version.. Renter vs. Owner.. and it’s toxic. Boy do I have stories. We’ve been called ‘gentrifiers’ and evil (in so many words) for displacing renters (nevermind that we sold one unit of the building to a long-term renter for amazingly good terms).

    anyway, you could get me going on this one for days… but i’ll stop here. That’s a hard one.

  2. John says:

    Be glad that you have some legal framework for debating the issue. Here in Houston, property rights tend to trump all, and my neighborhood of 1930s bungalows is starting to turn into newer “mcmansions.” The current houses are often architecturally significant, as is the overall neighborhood plan. It’s also a historically interesting bit of Houston; the first “suburb” of the city, originally a separate town, though it was absorbed into the city and is now considered an inner city neighborhood.

    But there’s little that can be done about it, even when the neighborhood is a designated historic district (as this one is). I miss some aspects of preservation in the northeast.

  3. Nio says:

    How many square feet was the house you tore down? What about the house you are building?

  4. Sydney says:

    I consider gentrification a very dirty word, and that’s mostly because when you kick out the working class and the flat out poor where the hell are they supposed to go? I wouldn’t be as opposed to it if there was a local mandated stating that there must be affordable housing built along with these McManisions and high-rise condominiums. But the government does not think affordable housing is an important issue. Rather, we see rulings about eminent domain which make it clear that the property tights of real estate developers will win out almost every time over the property rights of the poor. Sometimes I wonder if gentrification is a tool being wielded by the wealthy in order to place the poor/working class into ghettos and out of sight.

  5. Terrance says:

    I’m not sure how many square feet the old house on the lot had, but I’ve heard one estimate of about 800 square feet. The one we’re building is in the neighborhood of 3000 square feet, but that’s because it has a basement and a second floor, and has a larger footprint than the old house. I don’t think it’ll dwarf the other houses in the neighborhood, since it’s a mix of old and new, with one house that’s bigger than the one we’re building.

    The house we had in the city we bought from a man who’d lived in it for 20 years. He was an engineer who wanted to return to Puerto Rico to retire.

  6. Ryan says:

    You should live in a city where they try to sell you "high density housing" that looks like this:   http://www.warac.us/Growth/BigBoxCondosApts/default.htm
    Note the last blue-grey development…223 units sandwiched together with no open space. We have entire neighborhoods here where they just give the developers whatever they wanted for no cost: dense housing, no land donations, no parks, no libraries, no schools…because they get so little from the big developers.  Trying to work with our city council on growth is like trying to ask favors from the mafia. Maybe we could switch councils for awhile?

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