Dominique Toney had to head back inside to check on her sleeping 6-month-old — but first she wanted to hear the number again.
Toney, 32, stood outside the door to her apartment in Brookland Manor, a squat and sprawling Depression-era apartment complex in Northeast Washington that houses more than 1,000 mostly low-income tenants. Toney lives in a federally subsidized unit with her two children. She had just finished taking out the trash.
“Nine hundred dollars?” Toney repeated, reaching for the door frame. It would mean “everything” for her children, Toney said. She would have to slash expenses. The first one: “eating.”
The figure represents the average annual increase in rent that the District’s poorest residents would pay under Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s proposal this spring to raise rents in federally subsidized housing across the United States.
Carson’s proposal, if approved by Congress, would at least triple the minimum rent that extremely low-income Americans such as Toney pay for housing. The plan raises the monthly minimum rent charged by public housing agencies from $50 to $150. It also increases the rent paid by tenants in subsidized housing from 30 percent of adjusted income to 35 percent of gross income.
A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) showed the nation’s capital would see a larger increase in rent than any of the 50 states would experience.
The proposal has drawn widespread condemnation from housing advocates.
Carson has argued that rent increases will push people receiving federal housing assistance to find work. “It’s our attempt to give poor people a way out of poverty,” Carson said in an interview with Fox News.
He later said the plan was no longer considered “urgent,” but because it not been scrapped or altered, advocates said they would continue to speak out against it. A HUD spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday that the proposal had not changed since its public release this spring.
Local housing experts say the rent increase would hit D.C. residents particularly hard, given the high cost of living in the District amid rapid gentrification. And in a city where falling behind on rent by as little as $25 can lead to eviction, Carson’s proposal probably would force many tenants into homelessness, experts said. Roughly 10,000 D.C. households could be affected.
Will Fischer, a senior policy analyst at CBPP, said the rent hike would be higher in D.C. because the area has larger across-the-board incomes compared with the rest of the nation.
“That increase in the share of income that they pay hits working families,” Fischer said, referring to Carson’s suggested 5 percent increase in low-income tenants’ share of rent. “The more they earn, the greater the rent increase. So in metropolitan areas like D.C. that are relatively high-income, that would have especially big effects.”
Beth Harrison, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said the rent increase could prove counterproductive to achieving Carson’s stated goal of encouraging employment among low-income tenants.
“It’s incredibly difficult for a family that has low cash income and then has to pay more towards rent to have money for transportation to do things like go out and look for a job,” Harrison said. “The less cash you have at home during the month, the less you’re going to be able to do things like that to change your situation.”
The proposal could mean some low-income tenants lose their jobs. Toney works as a home health aide and commutes to her clients. She relies on public transportation to get to work, sometimes traveling up to an hour and a half both ways. Toney said she is not sure how she will fund these trips if her rent rises.
Toney and other tenants of Brookland Manor described the personal toll the plan would take.
Brookland Manor resident and single mother Lakeitha A. Jefferson, 30, said $900 translates to three months’ worth of food for her and her child.
John Hill — who also lives in a federally subsidized apartment in Brookland Manor — said he, like Toney, would restrict what he spends on food. Hill, 56, mimed tightening an imaginary belt.
“When you have very little cash income, even a rent increase of $900 a year can have quite an impact,” Harrison said. “Things like food, transportation, other things that are necessities somehow have to be cut back. . . . What you see is that families skip meals, children skip meals.”
Harrison said she expects that the negative effects of the proposal will be more “severe” in the District because residents of the city pay more on average for basic necessities than most other Americans. A 2015 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the District is the most expensive place to raise a family in the United States.
Gentrification is compounding the problem in the District. In the past decade, business owners and developers have reshaped D.C. neighborhoods with prettier and pricier homes, apartments and restaurants. The rapid-fire changes spurred a federal lawsuit in May alleging that D.C. policies that facilitate gentrification discriminate against poor African American families that have lived here for decades.
Brookland Manor is also facing gentrification: Developers are in renovating the complex to include smaller, more expensive apartments.
A $900 increase in rent would make the situation more “difficult” for many Brookland Manor tenants, said Khalid Claggett, 34, who has lived in Brookland Manor almost his entire life. “D.C.’s already one of the hardest places to live,” he said.
The typical American working family receiving federal rental assistance earns roughly $18,200 per year, according to CBPP. An equivalent income number for the District is unavailable, but CBPP’s analysis of HUD data showed that, to be eligible for rental assistance in the District, families of three must earn less than $53,400 — or 80 percent of the local median income.
“I think that it’s hard for people to realize the extremely low incomes that we’re talking about when you think of people who are on rental assistance,” said Ellen Lurie Hoffman, federal policy director at the National Housing Trust.
Low-income tenants unable to make rent under Carson’s new guidelines could easily face eviction, meaning they could lose their federal subsidies and spiral into long-term homelessness, Harrison said.
The proposal is in draft form, and to take the “next step,” HUD must ask a member of Congress to formally introduce the plan as a bill, Fischer said. During remarks he delivered at the Bipartisan Policy Center on June 8, Carson appeared to back away from the plan, calling the proposal no longer “urgent” because the threat to the department’s budget has been reduced.
The National Housing Trust is among the groups that plan to continue working against the rent increases, Hoffman said.
“There could be members of Congress who think these things are a good idea regardless of what Secretary Carson says at an event one day,” she said.