Affordable Housing in DC

August 11, 2015


Suppose you live in Washington, DC, and although you and your spouse work at several part-time jobs, your gross household income for a family of four is $32,250 or less. For many years, you had a choice among thousands of rental units that were affordable to people at your income, but since the year 2002, more than 35,000 of those units have disappeared from the market. Those units have been turned, for example, into luxury condominiums in a city that has become attractive to newcomers.

Now, the official Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment, which was $943 in 2002, is $1,458 a month, which is $17,496 a year. Every utility bill or unexpected expense endangers your ability to pay the next month’s rent. In nearby communities, housing is more expensive than it used to be, transportation to your jobs would be too expensive and would entail so many connections that you might lose your jobs, and affordable-housing options are few. People you know are doubling up with friends or family and hoping not to become homeless. They are living in deteriorating housing conditions. Their children are not doing well in school.

You, too, are skating on the edge. You have little to spend on food, healthcare, clothing, or transportation. You cannot save anything for retirement. The stress is affecting the entire family.

It is no surprise, then, that 41,000 households (representing approximately 1 out of every 6 persons in the city) are on waitlists for housing assistance through the DC Housing Authority. You’ve confirmed that you are still on the lists, but it could take decades to get the help you need.

Virtually the only source of inexpensive apartments now is subsidized housing, where you contribute 30% of your income toward the rent, and another entity makes up the difference. The housing might be public housing, but there are only about 300 openings a year. You might hope for a federal or local housing voucher to subsidize your rent on a private apartment, but again there are only a few hundred such vouchers a year.

If you are chronically homeless or are a homeless veteran, you might get help from the Department of Human Services to help you pay for a subsidized apartment with a private landlord somewhere in the city, although you might consider the neighborhood unsafe for your children. Or maybe you can get into a program such as one of SOME’s, where you pay 30% of your income and there is a local subsidy that covers the rest of the cost of maintaining your housing unit. And at no cost to you, SOME provides an extensive range of individualized services, and you gain education and skills to increase your income. But virtually every unit in SOME, too, is full.

The challenge of finding affordable housing, by the way, also applies to people who earn incomes up to $54,000 a year. Two out of three of those households are paying more than half their income toward rent. Also, rents at the highest end of the market rose from an average of $2,045 to $2,700 a month [and that’s just the average, as some are much higher], but average income for that group rose enough to cover that increase. The average listing cost for a house is $698,000.

To reduce homelessness and increase the number of affordable units, several things are needed simultaneously: add tenant-based vouchers to enable people to go into the marketplace to get subsidized apartments now; sustain the Housing Production Trust Fund “floor” at $100 million every year so that more sites can be purchased, renovated, preserved or developed for low-income, very low-income and extremely low-income residents and low-income Tenant Associations; and increase the Local Rent Supplement Program available for operating subsidies for housing for those populations.

Make such housing available to people at risk of homelessness as well as people who have been homeless for a while. Make such housing available for people at the very lowest income levels as well as other incomes. Make it available for families and for singles, for young and for old, for people with special needs (substance-recovery, disabilities, and domestic violence victimization) as well as others. Provide a range of services to each person. Allow customers choice in what kind of housing and service models work for them and their families, by making funding available for a variety of housing models. Last but not least, build the political will and community support to make Affordable Housing a priority throughout the Washington, DC, region.