Washington Area Housing Agencies Report Rise in Aid Requests From Renters

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The working poor who make up a substantial portion of the Washington region's renters are increasingly seeking help from government agencies to meet basic needs in the recession, leading to a sharp rise in recent months in requests for rental assistance and help paying utility bills.

Many are too far down the economic ladder to contemplate home ownership and have been less visible casualties of the economic downturn. But like families facing foreclosure, many renters are a step away from homelessness.

Despite the drop in housing values, renters still face a high-priced market in the Washington region, where rents for affordable units remain relatively stable and vacancies are limited.

"The foreclosure crisis had overshadowed the fact that there are still huge needs for affordable rentals," said Melissa Bondi, housing director at the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington. "It is not as if a $500,000 house in foreclosure is magically available to a family that is being paid by the hour."

Even in less expensive neighborhoods, one-bedroom apartments can rent for more than $1,000 a month, an amount that is difficult to muster for Mohamed Soumah, a security guard who said he is paid $10.40 an hour and was recently looking for a new place to rent in Montgomery County. He and his family fell behind on their rent of about $1,200 a month at a Gaithersburg complex.

Soumah, who said his income is supplemented with his wife's disability payments of about $200 a month, has been using his off hours to visit an array of county social services offices. Driving from Germantown to Gaithersburg to Rockville has netted him little more than a list of places that accept housing vouchers. He hopes to get a voucher by mid-March.

In Arlington County, officials have seen a recent 38 percent increase in applications for its rental supplement program, which provides a cash grant to help renters pay bills. The County Board recently boosted the amount available from $4.3 million to $4.6 million. "We don't want homelessness to increase, and we don't have additional shelter beds," said County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D).

In the District in January, the waiting list for affordable housing and housing vouchers had about 25,000 applications, up from about 22,000 at the same time last year. Because many applications are for families, that translates into about 70,000 individuals in need, said Dena Michaelson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Housing Authority.

Late last year, Montgomery's Housing Opportunities Commission reopened its waiting list for housing vouchers and county rentals, and the list quickly swelled to about 25,000 families, more than twice the number of vouchers and county-run apartments available. Montgomery's 900,000 residents live in one of the most expensive jurisdictions in the country. In 2007, the median price of a new home there topped $1 million.

Affordable housing is defined as costing no more than about 30 percent of income, but many people in the Washington region pay far more for housing. In Fairfax County, a one-bedroom unit rents for about $1,200, which requires an income of about $47,000 a year for the tenant to stay below 30 percent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In the District, a two-bedroom apartment can be found for about $1,300 a month, the coalition said. To not pay more than 30 percent of income, a household would have to earn about $53,000 a year.

Many renters of modest means are able to keep up with expenses until their fragile balancing act is upset by a bout of illness or unemployment or by utility bills that rise sharply because of cold weather or rate increases.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company