Nobody who lives in the District of Columbia — or follows housing issues — needs to be told that rents are too damn high here. Nor that they consume an inordinate portion of low-income residents’ budgets.
A just-released study by the Urban Institute is nonetheless newsworthy because it provides many and diverse figures on our affordable housing situation, along with details on our homeless population and its needs — met and unmet.
The full study covers not only the District, but other jurisdictions in the Washington metro area. So we get comprehensive figures and interesting opportunities for comparisons.
As is always the case, however, the figures for the District understate affordability problems because they’re based on the median income for the entire area.
For the 2009-11 period covered by the housing portion of the study, that was $106,100 for a family of four. By way of rough comparison, the median income for four-person D.C. families was $84,400 last year.
But we’ve got to go with what we’ve got. So here are a few of the many things one can extract about what the study labels housing security in the District. As you’ll see, it might more appropriately be labeled housing insecurity for the lowest-income residents.
The Urban Institute, like most analysts, uses the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s affordability measures.
HUD sets 30% of household income as the affordability cut-off. A household that pays more is said to have a housing-cost burden. A household that pays more than half its income has a severe housing-cost burden.
Slightly more than half of all District households were, to some degree, cost-burdened — and 28% severely so. But housing-cost burdens were vastly more common for the District’s 63,700 or so extremely low-income households, i.e., those with incomes at or below 30% of the area median.
All but 16% of them paid more than 30% of their income for housing — generally rent, plus basic utilities, though 18% were classified as homeowners.
And nearly two-thirds (66%) had a severe housing-cost burden. This is nearly three times greater than the percent for very low-income households, i.e., those in the next income tier.
Rental Housing Availability
The rental housing market was — and still is — extremely tight. Of the total rent units the Urban Institute identified, only 8% were vacant during the 2009-11 period.
So the old law of supply and demand helps explain the housing-cost burdens for lower-income residents, as well as the cost burdens for some much better-off households.
Only 26% of the units rented for less than $800 a month — roughly what an extremely low-income family of four could afford.
But the story is more complicated. About a third of these units were occupied by higher-income households. And only 0.9% of them were vacant.
So the rental housing market was shy 22,100 units that extremely low-income families could have lived in without a cost burden.
More units affordable for very low-income households were occupied by those with higher incomes. But because the District has more such units — and because more were vacant — the Urban Institute finds no shortage.
In 2012, HUD subsidized roughly 33,900 housing units in the District. Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers accounted for 41% — some of them vouchers awarded to developers so they could charge affordable rents and some given directly to eligible households, which could then rent on the open market.
Public housing accounted for an additional 25% of the affordable units. Subsidies for the remaining 11,600 units came from a mix of programs. It’s not clear that all these units were affordable for the District’s lowest-income households.
What is clear is that there were far more extremely-low income households than HUD-subsidized units — and that the District’s own voucher program fell far short of closing the gap.
Looking only at renter households, the Urban Institute reports 43 subsidized units for every 100 extremely low-income households during the 2009-11 period. This, recall, is before HUD’s budget got hit by sequestration.
As informative — and depressing — as all these numbers are, they tell only part of the story. We need also to consider where the affordable units were.
As the Urban Institute says, “they may not be in neighborhoods of opportunity that were transit accessible, close to jobs, or had amenities like grocery stores.” For the District, this is probably more apt now as gentrification has spread.
We need also to consider whether the affordable units were livable. The recent Washington Post exposé of conditions at Park Southern tells us that some surely weren’t. Leaks, mold, rotting dead birds on the stairwell, etc.
Not a unique case, by any means, as a recent NPR story indicates.
It would be nice to end this long post with a policy solution. The best I can do isn’t good enough.
Clearly, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute says, we need to invest more in affordable housing. Like the Urban Institute, it also says we should increase the total number of housing units, since this could relieve the demand pressures that are driving up costs.
The”we” here ought to be the federal government, as well as our local government and private sources. But it almost surely won’t be any time soon — even if the House doesn’t altogether get its way on what the HUD budget should be.
We need also to help extremely and very low-income households join the higher income tiers. An obviously large and varied agenda here.