DC’s Housing Crisis Leaves Low-Income Families Without a Foundation

The Numbers – January 2017

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The District’s affordable housing crisis is threatening the very foundation of thousands of DC families. More and more of the city’s lowest-income residents now spend half or more – even 80 percent – of their income to keep a roof overhead, with damaging ripple effects in their lives. When families are at risk of eviction, or cannot afford to fill the fridge or even bus fare because nearly everything goes to rent, the chances of getting ahead are slim.

The disappearance of affordable housing in DC is undercutting the dream of economic mobility. One of five children in our city lives in a family with limited resources and severe housing affordability problems. Children in stressful housing situations are more likely to fall behind in school and drop out.

Despite the District’s substantial investments in affordable housing local housing resources are not reaching the DC residents who need them most. While 26,000 DC households have extremely low incomes and very high housing cost burdens, only 2,100 extremely low-income households got help in recent years.

DC has the tools to address this crisis, but action is needed to increase investments in affordable housing – and importantly, to direct a greater share of investments to the families most at risk. When families have affordable housing as a strong foundation, their lives become more stable and they are better able to meet their basic needs.

Too Many Households Spend Nearly All for Rent
Rising rents have eliminated nearly all low-cost housing options in DC’s private market over the past decade, and thousands of subsidized apartments have been lost because their requirement to stay affordable expired. As a result, extremely low-income households (incomes below $32,000 for a family of four) must put an even larger share of the household budget toward rent.

Of 43,000 renter households with extremely low incomes, 62 percent now face severe housing hardship, up from 50 percent a decade ago. About one-third can afford rent of no more than $200, yet only nine percent have housing at that price. While few extremely low-income renters can afford to pay more than $800 a month in rent, most do.

DC’s extremely low-income families with housing challenges are working moms, people with disabilities relying on fixed incomes, and single adults in low-wage service-sector jobs. Seventy percent of low-income renters who are able to work are engaged in the labor market. Many low-income renters are seniors or have a disability and must rely on low fixed incomes. Social Security benefits average just $15,000 in DC, for example, enough to afford $400 a month in rent.

Nearly all of the District’s severely cost burdened, extremely low-income renters are African-American (and most of the rest are Latino). This reflects the city’s stark racial inequalities, which are getting worse as more college-educated residents – who are mostly white – make DC their home.

Serious Consequences for Families
Struggling to make rent each month often means cutting back on groceries, putting off medical care, living on the brink of eviction, and being under constant stress which makes it hard for children to learn in school and for adults to perform well at work. Families may find themselves moving from place to place, losing belongings, and ending up in a neighborhood with even more challenges than their prior locale.

Unaffordable housing has contributed to a rise in homelessness, especially among families with children. For the first time in 15 years there are now more homeless children and parents in DC than homeless single adults.

Living in unaffordable housing poses long-term risks to health and well-being. Families without affordable housing spend $150 per month less on food, on average, because “the rent eats first.” Very young children who move frequently do worse than their peers on measures of behavioral school readiness, such as attention and healthy social behavior. They are more likely than others to fall behind and drop out of school. Families who have trouble paying the rent or live doubled-up are more likely to delay medical care or filling needed prescriptions, and are more likely to report being depressed.

Having the security of affordable housing, by contrast, provides a strong foundation for families. It reduces instability, improves the ability to meet basic needs, and increases the ability to succeed. Children who grow up in affordable housing earn more as adults, and job programs work better when adults have a stable affordable home. The city’s investments in schools and workforce training will be more effective if they’re matched with investments in affordable housing.

Reaching Residents Most in Need
Local housing is not well targeted to the households in greatest need. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that 77 percent of the DC renters in need of affordable homes are extremely low income. Yet since 2010 just 39 percent of affordable housing financed by the city served extremely low-income renters. Only 2,100 extremely low-income households got housing aid over the past six years, while 26,000 need help. At the current pace it will take 75 years just to help the families who need help today.

DC has many tools to address housing needs. Mayor Bowser has committed a record sum to the fund to build or renovate housing. A new law requires city-owned land sold for housing purposes to include a substantial affordable set-aside, and the city has increased assistance to help low- and moderate-income residents buy their first home.

But action is needed to increase investments in affordable housing and to direct a greater share of those investments to the families most in need. Policymakers should direct more of the Housing Production Trust Fund – DC’s tool to produce affordable housing – to the lowest-income households. DC should expand rental assistance through the Local Rent Supplement Program to serve some of the 42,000 families on the DC Housing Authority waitlist. Finally, the city should do more to preserve disappearing low-cost subsidized housing, by implementing the recommendations of Mayor Bowser’s housing preservation strike force.

DC’s lowest-income families need the stable foundation of an affordable home, and our entire city benefits when we improve the ability of all residents to succeed.

Claire Zippel is a policy associate at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org). DCFPI promotes budget and policy solutions to reduce poverty and inequality in the District of Columbia, and to increase opportunities for residents to build a better future.