Back when I first started working on the kinds of issues I blog about, I asked a local advocate what she meant by affordable housing. After all, I said, even the costliest housing is affordable for someone.
I recalled the exchange as I listened to speakers at the Housing for All rally organized by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development — the lead advocacy organization for affordable housing in the District of Columbia.
For CNHED, affordable housing means that all residents have “decent, quality housing at a price they can afford,” i.e., rent or mortgage payments that consume no more than 30% of their income.
I don’t suppose I need to say that we’ve got a long way to go.
About one in five of all District households — and nearly two-thirds of low-income renters — spent more than half their income on housing in 2010.
Everyone who spoke at the rally acknowledged the problems — some more forthrightly than others. And everyone seemed to agree that the District had to put some money into solving them.
I detected differences, however, between the advocates and the Mayor and other District officials who spoke — except perhaps Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who used to occasion to take a couple of pokes at the Mayor.
For CNHED — and the vast majority of us in the audience — the District has to ramp up investments in its main affordable housing programs.
For the Mayor, well, we’re really not sure. He alluded several times to the District’s improved fiscal situation — as well he might, given the very large amount it’s got in reserves.
“Now that we’re back at the point of fiscal stability,” he said, we’ll be able to act on the recommendations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.
No hint of what those will be. We should all turn out for his State of the District address on February 5, he said.
We can get a glimmer of his leanings, however, in some of the remarks delivered by Human Services Director David Berns.
“We need more people who can afford housing,” he said. This suggests to me that the big push won’t be on the housing side — more vouchers, more construction and preservation of rental units that truly low-income people*can afford, etc.
It will instead be on training, other services and perhaps education so that low-income — and no-income — people can earn enough to pay market-rate rents.
Hence my flashback to the question about what affordable housing means.
How the Task Force report itself will balance affordable housing investments and the investments that Berns implied will limit the need for them remains to be seen.
Likewise, what the Mayor will do with the recommendations — most immediately, in the proposed budget he’ll send to the DC Council in March.
And maybe other proposals if revenue projections for the current fiscal year indicate another hefty surplus.
I hope he’ll recognize that no amount of training — even if effectively shaped by a workforce intermediary — will enable the 67,000 or so households on the housing assistance waiting list to just go out into our local housing market and rent a place they can afford.
At this point, a worker would have to earn more than three times the local minimum wage to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. Even a worker earning the District’s living wage makes only about half the amount needed to afford it.
And, as the Mayor himself acknowledged, we’ve got residents who can’t be expected to work — seniors, whom he referred to, and people with severe disabilities.
On the other hand, I’m quite certain that adults who can work would prefer to be fully self-sufficient — free of the rules and monitoring that are the price of receiving public assistance.
And thousands will soon be freer of these things, whether they can afford housing or not, because they’ll be dropped from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if they’ve participated for a lifetime total of 60 months.
So training and other services to maximize their job prospects are obviously needed. Likewise investments that will enable poor residents who are working to qualify for jobs that pay a real living wage, as distinct from what the District defines as such.
But we’ll still be a city with affordable housing for only some if the Mayor and the Council decide to rely mainly on reducing demand when what’s also needed is a robust recommitment to increasing supply.
* In the affordable housing world, there are several tiers of “low-income” households — all based on percents of the median income for the geographic area, as the federal government defines it.
In the District, housing units designated as affordable include those that are affordable only for households with incomes at 80% of the AMI. That’s $78,221 — four times the federal poverty level — for a family of three.