For Whom Is DC’s Affordable Housing Affordable?

The New York Times leads off an article on the squeeze rental costs are putting on the poor with the story of a middle-aged woman who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in one of the District’s gentrifying neighborhoods.

She pays $828 a month for rent, which she’s able to do only by collecting $400 from an acquaintance who sleeps on the living room floor. Even her share is unaffordable, by the customary 30% of income standard.

And her landlord demands more. They want to drive her and fellow tenants out, she thinks. Not unlikely, since they could get double the rent once they renovated the grungy place.

The article duly notes Mayor Gray’s $100 million commitment to increasing affordable housing in the city.

The commitment is actually an $80 million increase, mostly for the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus a $20 million repayment of money taken out of the Fund to shore up the District’s locally-funded housing voucher program.

Added to other revenues that have flowed into the Fund, there’s now $187 million available to both preserve existing affordable housing and support construction of more. And the Gray administration is making a big deal of it.

The Mayor and two of his deputies recently held a press conference to celebrate the “nearly 3,200 units” the Fund would create or preserve.

Generous rounding up here, since the actual number is 3,137, according to a project-by-project list produced by the Department of Housing and Community Development. A lot of units nonetheless.

How many would benefit residents whom most of us think of as low-income? And how many of the 5,291 units the administration claims have been completed or will be fairly soon?

These might seem niggling questions to those who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of affordable housing terms. In fact, I think it’s a question we should always ask. Here’s why.

Like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the District and other communities use three tiers of affordability — all based on the median income for households in the area, i.e., the geographic area the federal government has defined for statistical purposes.

So we’ve got:

  • Extremely low-income households, whose earnings are no greater than 30% of AMI.
  • Very low-income households, whose earnings are between 31% and 50% of AMI.
  • Just plain low-income households, whose earnings are between 51% and 80% of AMI.

HUD sets the AMI, based on Census data. And for the District, it’s always inflated because the area includes very well-off nearby suburbs. This year, the District’s own median income is 23% lower than the AMI.

For the upcoming year, the AMI is $107,500.* Starting from that, we get the standard tiers for households. Then the maximum affordable housing cost for each is broken down by household size.

For public housing and Housing Choice (Section 8) vouchers, HUD makes a further adjustment for communities like the District where housing costs are unusually high relative to income. The District adopts HUD’s figures for its locally-funded vouchers. These, like Housing Choice vouchers, are only for extremely low-income households.

The District doesn’t make the adjustment for projects developed with Trust Fund support, however — or for the “affordable” units that developers are supposed to include in certain new and expanded residential housing projects, under the D.C. inclusionary zoning law.

So for IZ and the Fund, a unit for a low-income parent with two children would qualify if the rent were about $1,581 a month. That’s nearly $855 more than would be affordable if the family were in the bottom, extremely low-income tier.

Now, the District didn’t invent these standards or set the area for the median income calculations. And it’s got to use them when HUD funding is involved. But you can see why a mere announcement of some number of affordable units created and/or preserved doesn’t tell us what we need to know.

So I asked the Department and Housing and Community Development for some specifics — and got them. I’ll have something to share in the next week or so.

* This figure was provided by DCHCD. I’ve looked in vain for an online source to link to.


4 Responses to For Whom Is DC’s Affordable Housing Affordable?

  1. […] I recently wrote, I asked the DC Department of Housing and Community Development for some specifics about the […]

  2. […] does not mean that new units will be affordable to former residents. For an excellent summary see as well […]

  3. […] who know how dicey affordable housing requirements can be will be pleased to know that the bill sets quotas. These are […]

  4. […] know at least a few things about affordable housing. First, there isn’t enough of it. Second, not everyone who talks about affordable housing means the same thing. Nor do all affordable housing policies aim to help the same type(s) of […]

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