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Correction to This Article
This article about housing costs in the Washington area incorrectly said that, according to an official with the Housing Opportunities Commission of Montgomery County, most of the families waiting for housing vouchers in the county have annual incomes of $40,000 to $50,000. The official, Tedi Osias, correctly said that, under the program's guidelines, a four-person household would have a maximum income of about $30,000. The commission says a typical household applying for a voucher is a three-member family with an income of about $21,000.

Washington housing costs stretching residents too thin

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By Carol Morelloand Dan Keating
Sunday, November 28, 2010

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.

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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 not only for lower-income residents, but also 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 threshold deemed prudent by advisers and lenders to pay for shelter, including utilities, real estate taxes, condo fees and other associated costs. By that standard, more than six 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 widely used rule of thumb for three decades, to be unrealistic, particularly in areas such as Washington, where the census reports that 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 skews 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 $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."


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