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Is the District affordable? Yes, relatively speaking, new research says

Low-income families struggle in every major city in the country, but the District might be the most livable of them all. So goes a jaw-dropping new analysis released this week by the New York City-based Citizens Budget Commission.

The non-profit budget watchdog group has been tackling the issue of affordability, primarily testing the truth of the catchphrase, “The rent is too damn high.”  Rent might be high, but the commission’s most recent report theorizes that housing costs alone might not be the best way to judge affordability. Instead, they analyzed a different federal standard that uses both rent and transportation costs.

“We think [this standard] makes sense, particularly because part of the value of housing is based on how it relates to transportation costs,” said Charles Brecher, the group’s consulting research director. “So it makes the most sense to look at the two things combined in a package.”

The results surprised researchers. Of 22 major cities in the United States, the District – which is in the throes  of an affordable housing debate – ranked only behind San Francisco in terms of being most affordable for the prototypical low-income family. On average, a low-income family here spends about 43 percent of their money on rent and transportation costs.

Check out the full ranking:

Low-income family affordability

City Percent of Income Rank Amount Percent of Income
San Francisco 1 $20,328 42%
Washington, D.C. 2 $20,038 43%
Philadelphia 3 $16,216 46%
Seattle 4 $18,119 47%
New York City 5 $16,756 47%
Chicago 6 $16,224 48%
Boston 7 $19,848 48%
San Jose 8 $24,232 52%
Los Angeles 9 $20,142 54%
Columbus 10 $16,995 55%
Dallas 11 $16,913 55%
Indianapolis 12 $17,332 56%
Atlanta 13 $18,116 56%
Austin 14 $18,620 56%
Houston 15 $16,701 57%
Miami 16 $18,041 57%
Detroit 17 $18,241 58%
Phoenix 18 $18,300 61%
San Diego 19 $21,918 62%
Jacksonville 20 $18,977 64%
Riverside 21 $20,768 71%
San Antonio 22 $17,565 71%

Source: Citizens Budget Commission.

Brecher, the consulting research director, explained the  numbers are based on data sets from the 2010 census. The “low-income family” calculation is based on a three-person household with one person commuting, making 50 percent of the area median income. In the District, HUD data shows, that number would be about $46,600 (The 2014 number is closer to $48,000). Then, the calculation factored in the average cost of rent for a family in that income bracket, as well as the average cost of commuting to and from work.

By this standard, high-density cities with good public transportation systems will do best.  Sprawling cities, and those without far-reaching public transportation, will be near the bottom.

What’s striking about this study is that there are large debates in urban cities, such as the District, about how astronomical rents costs are leaving behind everyone but the affluent. In a sense, it’s true. These cities are a lot more affordable for “single professionals” – defined in the study as making about 200 percent of the area’s per capita income. In the District, that number would be about $65,000. Whereas 43 percent of  a poor family’s income must be put toward rent and transportation, the prototypical single professional only dedicates 29 percent of their income to such things. By this standard, the District is the most affordable city for single-professionals.

Check it out:

Single professional affordability

City Percent of Income Rank Amount Percent of Income
Washington, D.C. 1 $18,820 29%
Philadelphia 2 $15,355 33%
San Francisco 3 $19,071 33%
Seattle 4 $17,618 33%
Houston 5 $15,004 33%
New York City 6 $16,156 34%
Boston 7 $19,035 34%
Chicago 8 $15,256 34%
Columbus 9 $15,661 37%
Dallas 10 $15,163 37%
Indianapolis 11 $15,466 37%
San Jose 12 $22,249 37%
Atlanta 13 $16,259 38%
Austin 14 $17,089 38%
Detroit 15 $16,250 40%
Jacksonville 16 $16,858 41%
San Antonio 17 $14,571 41%
Phoenix 18 $16,800 41%
San Diego 19 $20,182 44%
Miami 20 $16,158 44%
Los Angeles 21 $18,145 45%
Riverside 22 $18,118 51%

Source: Citizens Budget Commission.

Don’t celebrate yet, though. None of this study suggests it’s easy to be poor in any of these cities. The federal standards dictate that a “cost-burdened” household spends more than 45 percent of their income on rent and transportation. Even the most affordable cities on this list aren’t actually that affordable; all, at the very least, come close to cost-burdening their poor residents.

Also, the study has some limitations. Of course, not every family is a cookie-cutter example used in the analysis. And it doesn’t examine the affordability question for the very poor – residents who are food handlers, nurses aides, and receptionists, etc, – who make less than 30 percent of the area median income. Previous studies have shown those cost burdens increase as incomes decrease. In the Washington region, those families are the ones struggling the most to find and maintain housing.

You can check out HUD’s affordability index tool here.