The Housing Crisis In the Shadow Of the Capitol

Isaiah J. Poole

Washington looks like a city that has done remarkably well in the absence of a national urban agenda. The last decade has seen most of its once derelict neighborhoods undergo a striking revival, and the city is a fundamentally different place from what it was even 10 years ago.

But that revival has come at a devastating price for many of its working-class residents – and that is a consequence of the lack of an urban agenda that ensures everyone can share in the fruits of economic revitalization.

The evidence comes in a housing affordability report released today by the D.C. Fiscal Institute. The report’s bottom line: The people who make Washington function – the servers at the restaurants, the people maintaining the hotel rooms, the cashiers at the shops, the taxi and Uber and Lyft drivers competing for fares – increasingly can’t afford to live in the city they work in.

This is what income inequality has wrought: “[R]ents for residents with incomes of about $22,000 a year increased $250 a month over the decade, adjusting for inflation, while incomes remained flat. For these residents, average rents now equal half of average income,” the report said.

The general rule of thumb is that a household is living in “affordable” housing if they are spending no more than a third of their income in rent. The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers a family that is paying more than 50 percent of their income in housing and utility costs as bearing “a severe housing burden.” Sixty-four percent of District residents earning below $32,200 a year in the city, or about 30 percent of the area median income, are in that “severe” category. So are 31 percent of the households who make between $32,000 and $54,000 a year.

“Overall, one in four renters in D.C. now spends more than 50 percent of their income on rent and utilities,” the report said.

The report notes that the city “now has half as many low-cost units as in 2002,” with subsidized housing “now virtually the only source of inexpensive apartments.”

This isn’t just a Washington problem. The National Low-Income Housing Coalition this week released a report that showed that “the lowest income households in the U.S. are struggling to find affordable rental housing in every state across the country, as well as in the 50 most populous metropolitan areas.”

There are more than 10 million extremely low-income renter households in the country, the report said, but only 3.2 million available low-income units available that they can afford, the report said.

The NLIHC is calling for funding for the National Housing Trust Fund, an entity created by the federal government in 2008 to give aid to state housing programs but has yet to receive funding. After years of delay, the agency will begin sending aid to state housing agencies in 2016. But for many families, this aid will be too little, too late. There is much that has to be done by local politicians in Washington and around the country to ensure that working people can afford to have a roof over their heads, but they should never have had to struggle alone. This is a national crisis that needs a much more robust national commitment.

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