As a third-grade teacher for D.C. Public Schools, Gary Hamilton wanted to be part of the community beyond his classroom.
Tired of long commutes to Wheatley Education Campus from his home in Beltsville, Md., Hamilton this week is moving into a one-bedroom apartment in the District’s NoMa neighborhood. But that change will come at a cost.
Hamilton, 35, said he will be paying $2,600 per month to rent a 690-square-foot apartment, about $1,000 more than his rent in the Maryland suburbs. Even as a seasoned teacher making a base salary of about $116,000, the prospect of becoming a homeowner in the nation’s capital is daunting — for him and for other employees of the school system.
“Some people have commuted from Delaware,” he said of his fellow teachers. “They come here every day just to work in the city. But they can’t afford to live in the city.”
Hamilton was part of a group of D.C. employees who met Thursday with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who as part of her proposed budget for the coming fiscal year is pitching a $20 million fund to create more affordable housing for middle-income workers.
The so-called workforce housing fund would be aimed at helping those making 60 to 120 percent of the area’s median income. That would apply to a family of four whose annual income is between $70,000 and $141,000, city officials say.
The District already invests substantial sums each year in the development of affordable housing for low-income residents. Bowser has proposed investing $130 million next year into a fund for construction of units for people with low incomes, up from $100 million in previous years.
But the mayor has argued that many middle-class workers — including such government employees as teachers, firefighters and social workers — are also being priced out of a city where the cost of living seems to climb inexorably.
“Often what we hear from our employees is, ‘Where’s the affordable housing for us? We don’t qualify for a whole lot of programs that the District offers because we have good-paying jobs,’ ” Bowser said Thursday. Despite their solid incomes, she added, such workers say they are “still struggling to make ends meet.”
The proposal has met opposition from some activists, who say it would divert precious funding from programs that should help the homeless and those on the bottom end of the income scale.
Spending on families making up to $140,000 annually is the “wrong priority” in a city where many residents struggle to stay off the streets, said Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
“There are people with college degrees and decent incomes who need affordable housing,” Lazere said. However, he added, that housing should not come “at the expense of workers who aren’t as privileged, who don’t have college degrees or people who are retired or disabled.”
Bowser found a more receptive audience Thursday with a group of about a dozen city workers that gathered over lunch at Busboys and Poets in the U Street Corridor.
D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Lt. David C. Hoagland, who last year bought a house in North Michigan Park through a program that helps D.C. employees purchase their first homes, said city employees face a range of obstacles when looking to buy in the District.
Beyond high housing costs, he said, they are often competing against other buyers willing to pay in cash.
“I have no idea where these people who are moving to the city are getting their money from,” said Hoagland, who is also vice president of the D.C. Firefighters Association.
Beyond spending on affordable housing, Hoagland said, the city should provide assistance to employees with ongoing costs such as mortgage payments or child care.
For the moment, the mayor remains focused on gaining approval for the $20 million workforce housing fund from the D.C. Council, which is reviewing her proposed budget.
After hearings that are underway, the council is expected to finalize a spending plan for the next fiscal year by June.