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Expert Interview: Lydia DePillis of City Paper’s Housing Complex

Posted on July 19th, 2010

Providing comprehensive coverage of the housing market in the form of blog posts two or three paragraphs long is not always easy. But Lydia DePillis, author of Washington City Paper’s “Housing Complex” blog, is up to the challenge.

From rental trends to neighborhood committee meetings, Lydia stays on top of DC real estate happenings every day. Delivered with subtle tongue in cheek commentary, her reporting has made “Housing Complex” DC’s source for a refreshing take on local real estate.

We had the chance to sit down with Lydia, who spoke to us about improving the city’s “livability,” why historic Anacostia is “DC’s Williamsburg” and more.

Thanks for joining us, Lydia. Prior to taking the reins at Housing Complex, you covered real estate for The New York Observer. Tell us about the big differences you see between the NY and DC rental markets.

I haven’t dealt much with the consumer side of the rental market in D.C., or been around long enough to have a great sense of the long-term dynamics.

A few thoughts though. Both cities some similar fundamentals, like strong rent control laws (though D.C. may have stronger tenant protections) and a large transient, upwardly mobile population that may rent for a few years in either city before moving on. New York, however, is much more a place of extremes: Absurdly high rents, fashionable addresses, competitive brokers, etc. New York also has cooler places to live further out; Bushwick can have as much cachet as Murray Hill in some circles, while living in Crystal City over Columbia Heights is probably a function of convenience in D.C. Finally, as far as housing options, the group row house is a much more common form of affordable rental in D.C.—we lack the high-rise towers, but are rich in communal residences that are often perfect for younger people with social lifestyles.

Your column covers a wide range of housing topics. In your opinion, what are the biggest issues currently affecting DC real estate?

The most dominant influence is certainly the influx of jobs created by the federal government: It’s kept prices high relative to sickly markets around the country, and pushed demand into areas that federal workers before would have overlooked. Thus, vast swaths of the city are rapidly gentrifying and the housing market is pretty tight, giving developers the confidence to start new residential projects in emerging neighborhoods.

The city government also has a powerful set of regulatory tools that shape the real estate landscape, from inclusionary zoning to zoning overlays, revenue bonds to tax incentives (and disincentives—a particularly powerful example is the vacant property tax, which is encouraging landowners to lease their spaces rather than pay the city while they sit empty). The city is a huge force in the development of most parts of the city.

And when thinking about real estate, it’s impossible to discount the importance of schools. Families with enough means to have some flexibility in their housing choices but not enough to send their children to private school will absolutely go out of their way to live in a good school district, even if that means moving out of the District. It’s probably the biggest thing for D.C. to work on both in order to increase opportunities for current residents and keep families here when they have children.

You recently wrote about DDOT’s Livability Program, whose goal is to make DC neighborhoods more livable through transit-specific improvements. In your opinion, what are some other changes that could be made in order to improve the quality of life for DC residents?

Well now, that’s a big question. I’ll take a stab at a few parts of it.

First of all, that post was written by one of our excellent interns, Alex Baca. She did a good job of capturing what priorities the people in the far Southeast have for their neighborhoods: Things like sidewalks and better public transit routes downtown. Transportation is perhaps the most central part of livability, because it shapes so much of how we’re able to operate and what we’re able to build. The availability of parking, for example, is a huge factor in every development and business decision, which I think is a shame—so many good projects are scaled down because they would have traffic impacts that are unacceptable to the neighborhood. In order to get around that, D.C. needs to have a robust network of “alternatives” (which have the added livability benefit of making D.C.’s oppressive air less likely to strangle you).

Other quality of life issues: Cleaning up the Anacostia River so people can enjoy its banks. Creating friendly, welcoming public spaces where people gather. Deterring crime so residents feel safe in their neighborhoods. Supporting affordable housing. Encouraging local businesses to occupy the many vacant storefronts that infect commercial corridors from H Street to Georgia Avenue. The list goes on forever!

Another one of your recent articles, “Homeownership! Huh! What Is It Good For?” examines the rent-buy dilemma. Describe the demographics and other characteristics of a good candidate for renting.

That post was more focused on the societal impact of homeownership, which some journalists and academics have started to reexamine in the wake of the housing crash. From a consumer standpoint, the takeaway is this: In the modern, more fluid economy, where young people may stay in jobs for only a few years before moving rather than sticking with one company for their entire lives, it makes more sense not to be as tied down by a house and a mortgage. I think, though, that it’s less about who should rent or who should buy than considering, if you do have the financial resources to buy, how to make a smart investment. Owning real estate is still one of the better ways to build assets, even if you don’t want to live in one house or condo for the rest of your life. If that’s the case, a buyer just needs to consider whether the house will hold its value in the short term as well.

In UrbanTurf’s “Neighborhoods of 2015” compilation, you wrote that Mt. Pleasant is the up-and-coming neighborhood to keep an eye on. Any others that have caught your attention?

Yes—the other neighborhood I pointed out for that UrbanTurf feature was historic Anacostia, where there’s so much room to grow. The coming wave of federal workers to the St. Elizabeth’s campus will fundamentally reshape neighborhoods from Congress Heights to Poplar Point, with Anacostia as the epicenter, if city leaders and local entrepreneurs can find a way to retain some of that wealth on the eastern side of the river. It already has a metro stop, a streetcar on the way, and plenty of spaces for new, creative businesses. I really do think it’s D.C.’s Williamsburg, whatever you may think about that as a model for development.

I also agree with some of the other projections in UrbanTurf’s feature—Brookland is clearly on its way up, and it seems like a new café wants to open up near Truxton Circle every week. I’m less bullish on the big, glassy areas like Capitol Riverfront, Navy Yards, and Rosslyn though. They may have residential capacity, but it’s going to take a while before they develop the kind of neighborhood character that attracts people who really want to put down roots.

Read last month’s interview with Mark Wellborn and Will Smith of DC real estate website UrbanTurf.