Rent’s Still Too Damn High for Lower-Income DC Residents

About 41,000 District of Columbia households are currently on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list. Nearly half said they were homeless when they signed up for housing assistance.

Very disheartening, since there’s no way that all those households will get vouchers to cover what they can’t afford for rent or a chance to live in public housing. It’s even more disheartening when we consider how many additional households would be on the list if it weren’t still closed to new applicants.

The District’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will fund more vouchers, as well as more construction and/or preservation of housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Yet these investments will just make a dent in one of the District’s acute and growing problems — the shrinking supply of rental housing that’s affordable for those residents and for some with too much income to get on the DCHA waiting list, even if it were open.

The latest annual report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition gives us diverse perspectives on how “out of reach” rental housing is for low-income District residents, as well as some we wouldn’t ordinarily consider low-income.

Our point of reference here is the monthly cost of an available, modestly-priced two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities — technically, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent. Here in the District, the FMR for the apartment is $1,458.

To afford it, based on the usual 30% of income standard, a worker would have to earn at least $28.04 an hour — $58,320 for the year.

Renters in the District, however, earn, on average, an estimated $26.08 an hour. So the apartment is roughly $100 a month more than what they can afford. Doesn’t seem so bad until we consider that we’ve got some very high earners who bump up the average because they prefer, at least for the time being, to rent.

Income shortfalls are much larger as we drill down. For example, an extremely low-income household could afford to pay only $819 for rent, plus those utilities. Or so the NLIHC report tells us.

We need to recall that many households have incomes far below what NLIHC uses for its affordability figure — the maximum for the ELI category, i.e., 30% of the median for the area. That’s true everywhere, of course.

What’s not is the basis for the figure. As I’ve said before, the median income that HUD — and hence NLIHC — use for the District is inflated because the area includes some very well-off suburbs. So the apartment is almost surely further out of reach for even the highest-income ELIs.

One would need to do some fancy number-crunching to say how much further. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which did something of the sort two years ago, found that the District’s own median income was 23% lower than the area median.

No such caveats needed as we move down the income scale. We learn, for example, that a District resident with a full-time minimum wage job could afford to pay $494 a month for rent — roughly a third of the FMR for the two-bedroom apartment.

In other words, a household would have to have three full-time minimum wage workers to afford it. Looked at another way, as NLIHC always does, a minimum wage worker would have to work 118 hours.

Residents with severe disabilities who rely on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits are, as always, in the worst shape of the groups NLIHC reports on. Those who receive the maximum benefit could afford no more than $220 a month for rent.

Moving beyond the report itself, I’ll note that the maximum monthly benefit a parent with two children can receive from the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program falls short of the FMR for the apartment by more than $1,000.

Don’t need to add, I suppose, that the apartment is even more absurdly out of reach for the 6,300 or so families who’ve had their benefits cut repeatedly and will have to manage somehow on what remains during the one-year cut-off delay the DC Council just approved.

As the NLIHC report indicates, measly public benefits alone don’t account for the gaps between what low-income renters could afford and what they’d have to pay — or in many cases, are paying by scrimping on other needs, juggling bills and/or resorting to high-interest loans.

Nor does the fact that inexpensive apartments are “going, going, gone” from the local market, as DCFPI recently reported. As it also documented, incomes for renters in the bottom two-fifths of the income scale have actually lost purchasing power since 2002 — or at least had, as of 2013.

These all enter into the mix, however. We’ve got a shortage of low-cost rental housing, a commensurate shortage of vouchers that would make moderate-cost units affordable, public benefits that don’t cover basic living costs, a minimum wage that’s still far less than a genuine living wage and too many residents without the education, training and/or job opportunities they’d have if our laws and programs achieved what policymakers intended.

A web of problems underlying the seemingly straightforward “out of reach” update, but all within reach of solutions.

 

 

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