The Washington Post

Who is living in the Washington region’s low-income units? Sometimes, the middle-class.

A sobering report on the availability of affordable housing in the region was issued this month by The Community Foundation, prepared by the  Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Council of Governments. A few things stand out about this report:

  1. It looks at the issue of affordable housing from a regional level, whereas most reports look at the issue by jurisdiction.
  2. It provides very handy definitions of what low, moderate- and high-income are in the region.
  3. It provides one of the most under-reported facts about why it is so hard for the region’s poorest to find a place to live without breaking the bank.

That is: There’s a considerable lack of affordable housing for the region’s middle class, too, and these residents are occupying many of the units that would otherwise go to lower-income people.

One key number in the report: $106,100. That was 2011’s area median income for the area, from which  researchers figured out what jobs would lead to income bases that are “extremely low” (below 30 percent of the AMI), “very low” (under 50 percent), “low income” (at 80 percent), “middle-income” (at 120 percent) or “high-income” (above 120 percent).  Then, researchers calculated how much rent should be paid before  facing a “severe housing burden” — which the federal government defines as paying more than 50 percent of income.  Here’s a chart showing how different professions stack up:

Income and rent costs by RobertSamuels


More than half of the renters in the city face  housing burdens.  The likelihood that a resident would face a severe housing burden increases as his or her income decreases.  The issue is most acute in suburbs such as Arlington, Prince William, Fairfax and Prince George’s, where almost 90 percent of extremely-low income residents face severe housing burdens.

The reasons why go beyond the disappearing low-income housing stock. In fact, lower-income families are increasingly competing against more affluent families to get an apartment they could actually afford. Check out the two tables below:

Where we live by RobertSamuels

In the first table, the research shows,  more than 40 percent of people renting units priced for the poorest residents could pay more for rent, provided there were other places to go.

For “very-low income units,” 76 percent of people could afford to pay more. For “low-income,” about half could pay more. For “middle-income,” about 35 percent could pay more.

“There’s a huge competition for housing in the region,” said Leah Hendey, a research associate at the Urban Institute, who helped to write the report.  “If you were a landlord, you would most likely give an apartment to a person with a higher-income. But affordability is a problem for all groups.”

Why are people renting cheaper places?  Of course, some of this is to save money. But the second table provides more context. Observe the result of the housing pinch: About 94,200 units are needed in the region to match the demand for extremely low-income residents. Assuming two residents per unit, that would mean more residents in need of housing than there are in the entire cities of Annapolis, Greenbelt, Laurel, Takoma Park and Manassas — combined.

But the second table also shows the struggle for affordable housing extends beyond the region’s poorest. The region is also 78,300 short of units for the middle class — residents who are dental hygienists, firefighters or registered nurses. Given the lack of housing available at their incomes, they have little choice but to scoop up housing priced for people with lower incomes — or to pay even more.  All of this suggests a  struggle not only in the production of low-income housing, but also the distribution of housing units for many income levels.

“Everybody is feeling the squeeze,” Hendey said.

The rest of the report is here.

Robert Samuels is a national political reporter who focuses on the intersection of politics, policy and people. He previously covered social issues in the District of Columbia.



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