Fewer D.C. affordable housing options left as city rents rise

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rents have increased more in the District than they have in most major cities, and renters are spending a larger portion of their paychecks to keep a roof over their heads, according to an analysis released Friday by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute that examines the city's rental housing market.

In its report, the institute offers a sobering look at the housing market in the District between 2000 and 2007, raising concerns about the availability of affordable housing and the effect the economic boom of the past decade had on prices.

"Every D.C. resident can point to numerous neighborhoods that look vastly different than they did 10 years ago, and while those improvements have brought many good things -- more retail and better housing stock -- it also means that the availability of low-cost housing had to go down," said Ed Lazere, executive director of the institute. "It's not just in isolated neighborhoods. It's across the city."

And, proving that the affordable housing crisis is not limited to the District, the Montgomery County Tenants Work Group is releasing its first renters' survey next week, which found that more than 40 percent did not think they could afford to continue living in their units five years from now.

The report provides recommendations to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) about how to address soaring rents and tenants' quality of life.

"The fact is, for too long, renters in the county have relied on the kindness of landlords to keep rents fair and predictable and quality of life in buildings at a reasonable level," said Matt Losak, a renter and chairman of the Tenants Work Group.

Losak said the survey in Montgomery shows that many tenants are subject to rent increases that go well beyond the county guidelines, which are voluntary. Almost 20 percent of respondents said their rents had increased an average of 8 percent or more in the past five years.

"We need rental housing laws that ensure tenants more long-term security and more balance in the tenant-landlord relationship," he said.

Although the District has strong rent-control laws, the number of less-expensive rentals has decreased significantly.

There were 23,700 fewer apartments that cost $750 or less a month in 2007 than in 2000, a decrease of more than 33 percent. During that period, the number of units that cost in excess of $1,500 more than doubled, from 12,200 to 27,400.

"Rising rents mean that many apartments that had once been affordable to lower-income households no longer are," according to the report. "The supply of low-cost rental housing has gotten much smaller in D.C. as the rental stock shifted to higher-cost units."

As a result, two in five households in the District spend more than 30 percent of their income, the federal housing affordability standard, on rent.

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