By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 28, 2010; 12:47 AM
One in five renters and one in seven homeowners in the Washington area spend more than half their income on housing, according to census figures, a proportion that housing experts consider a severe burden.
A Washington Post analysis of housing and income statistics included in the recent American Community Survey for 2009 underscores how affordable housing is particularly scarce for not only lower-income residents, but for many in the middle class.
In Fairfax County, for example, more than half the renters with household incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 spent more than 30 percent of their income last year to keep a roof over their heads - exceeding the historical threshold deemed prudent to pay for shelter including utilities, real estate taxes, condo fees and other associated costs. By that standard, more than six out of 10 homeowners in that income bracket in Prince George's and Prince William counties also spent too much. In the District, more than half did.
In almost every jurisdiction in the Washington area, the share that lower- and middle-income residents dedicated to housing far exceeded the national average.
Some housing experts consider the 30 percent threshold, which has been the standard for three decades, to be unrealistic, particularly in areas such as Washington where the census reports the median house value is $388,000 and the median household income is $85,000.
So they often differentiate between what they call a moderate burden of payments over 30 percent of income, and the severe burden of exceeding 50 percent.
Washington has hundreds of thousands of residents who fall into both categories. But the region's unusually high number of high-income earners skew the statistics, bringing the median near the national norm despite the struggles of so many housing-burdened residents.
"The cost of housing in Fairfax County is outrageous," said Lia Spriggs, 49, a kitchen manager at a Springfield elementary school.
With an income of $29,000, the divorced mother of two was on the verge of being evicted from a $1,400-a-month apartment when a vacancy arose in a county-owned townhouse in Centreville. Her rent is keyed to her income, so she pays just $776 for a three-bedroom townhouse she has furnished with donations from friends. Her take-home pay still is stretched to the limit.
"I have to be incredibly smart shopping," she said, "or we wouldn't have enough to eat."
The shortage of affordable housing has grown more acute during the economic downturn, particularly for a rising number of renters paying over the threshold.
"It's the impact foreclosures have had on the rental market," said Mary Schwartz, a Census Bureau demographer who specializes in analyzing housing statistics. "They're going from being homeowners to renters, and that can put pressure on rents."
Census figures show two out of three residents in the region are homeowners, the vast majority of them with mortgages. A third are renters who pay a median rent of $1300 monthly.
Rick Nelson, head of the Department of Housing and Community Affairs in Montgomery County, said he has noticed a rise in families doubling and even tripling up in rental housing over the last two years because they can't afford their own places.
"The problem extends all the way up to those who are working families, the average Joes," he said. "In Montgomery County, our median income is $103,000. You've got families who are at 60 or 70 percent of the median, and they can't afford the rents. Sure, $60,000 [in household income] is a lot in Dubuque. But not here."
Six of the 10 highest-income counties in the nation are in suburban Washington, and the region's wealth has kept its overall housing picture from becoming worse.
The widespread affluence also has kept Washington looking flush in comparison to other urban communities, many of which have a greater share of residents stretching to pay their housing bills. The percentage of Washington-area homeowners who are severely burdened is the lowest of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the nation. Looking at renters, the region is in the middle, ranking 25th.
But housing experts are not overly worried about well-off people such as the 52,000 Washington area homeowners with six-figure incomes who face a moderate burden on houses laden with amenities.
"For them, the 30 percent ratio is not an indicator of a true housing affordability problem, but rather a lifestyle choice," Schwartz wrote about the house-poor high earners in a research paper on the phenomenon three years ago.
Despite the fall in housing prices, the median percent of income that owners spend on housing remained fairly constant between 2007 and 2009, both nationally and regionally. But it has inched up for renters.
In the Washington area, a staggering number of lower-income renters are burdened by housing costs. In virtually every county, close to 90 percent of renters earning $25,000 to $35,000 are at least moderately burdened - well above the national level of 63 percent.
Even among households with incomes ranging from $35,000 to $50,000, two-thirds of homeowners in many places, including Prince William, Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, are burdened by housing costs - almost double the national rate.
As their incomes rise, renters pay a much smaller share of their income on housing. Above the $75,000 income level, only 4 percent of renters nationwide are burdened - but it's twice that rate in Montgomery and Fairfax counties and in the District.
Rochelle King, a regulatory affairs associate for a biotech firm, pays over 35 percent of her salary to rent a townhouse in Germantown owned by the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County. In addition to her $1,168 rent, she shells out another $500 a month for utilities, including gas and water. She knows many others who share her plight.
"People are having to take two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads. And try to keep food in the house. And pay the utilities," said King, 45, who depleted her savings in the year after she was laid off before she found a new job. "It's hard. It is really hard."
During the housing boom, many rental units in the District were converted to condominiums, said Jenny Reed, an analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. As a result, she said, the stock of low-cost rental apartments has shrunk by more than a third over the last decade, placing the District among the top five cities that experienced the fastest rising rents.
Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray said recently that creating more affordable housing is crucial to the District's growth.
Hundreds of renters on the verge of eviction make their way every year to Housing Counseling Services, one of four nonprofits that administer the city's emergency rental assistance program. Renters who can provide proof that their landlords are about to toss them out can get up to $4,250 to pay back rent. The alternative, said deputy director Theresa Hill, is more homelessness.
"There's always more demand than there is money to hand out," she said. "It seems like it's doubled in the last couple of years."
Every organization offering help with affordable housing in the region is swamped.
In Fairfax County, where two out of three renters are housing burdened, the waiting list for public housing has been closed since mid-2009. The county estimates it could use almost 80,000 more apartments and houses to meet the demand for affordable housing.
At the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, 15,000 people are on a waiting list for about 500 housing vouchers that become available in a given year. The list has been closed for almost two years. Most of the applicants have household incomes of $40,000 to $50,000, said Tedi Osias, an official with the commission.
More middle-class residents are seeking help for the first time than ever before.
"Sometimes they show up with nothing more than their cars," she said. "They've lost their jobs, and the dominoes begin to fall, then they lose their homes. The Washington area, and Maryland in particular, have fared pretty well in the recession, but there's still a great deal of need."