Homelessness in the District is rising at an alarming rate, and local resources for individuals and families are stretched thin. Faced with packed shelters and limited options, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) administration was forced to rent more than 400 hotel rooms some days this winter to comply with a law guaranteeing residents refuge on freezing nights. This is a serious issue, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
About 19 million families — 1 in 6 U.S. households — are “housing-insecure,” meaning they are either homeless or paying more than half of their monthly income on housing. Since 2000, the number of housing-insecure renters nationwide jumped an astounding 82 percent, from 6 million to nearly 11 million people. The majority of housing-insecure families are low-income renters, who have seen their wages stagnate in recent years as housing costs increased. Locally, more than 40,000 people are on waiting lists for the District’s housing programs, a wait that could last years. Something needs to change.
Bowser deserves credit for living up to one of her campaign promises by searching for ways to include a minimum of $100 million in local funds for the Housing Production Trust Fund in the baseline budget to provide housing for low-income residents. The Department of Housing and Community Development could put that money to good use now. This trust fund is currently tied to receipts from the deed and recordation tax, so it goes up and down with the housing market — unlike the number of families in need.
Another step is to establish a goal for the number of affordable apartments that will be created under the District’s housing plan. Former mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) goal was 10,000 new apartments by 2020. The Bowser administration should identify how much subsidy will be provided per affordable home and create a plan to provide it over a set amount of time. By tying the trust fund to a solid analysis of subsidies needed to meet specific goals, we can begin to close the gap of affordable and available apartments.
Adequate funding is a start, but a cash infusion won’t be enough to end our housing crisis for good. We also need to connect affordable housing to jobs, good schools, transit and health care. That will require a coalition of local leaders and housing providers, collaboration across the public and private sectors and protecting and strengthening existing tools, such as the low-income housing tax credit. The main tool for creating and preserving affordable housing, the credit has provided more than 12,000 affordable homes and supported nearly 14,000 jobs in the District alone. Along the way, it has generated $1.32 billion in income and $518 million in tax revenue to benefit the local economy.
The credit is what makes possible developments such as the Summit at St. Martins Apartments, which provides 178 affordable rental homes, including 50 for our lowest-income neighbors, in the Eckington neighborhood. The benefits of such affordable homes are hard to overstate.
Research repeatedly has demonstrated the importance of stable and affordable housing on people’s health, education and economic welfare — because a home is much more than a shelter. It’s the foundation of opportunity and a fair shot at success in life. Without one, it’s hard for kids to excel at school, for adults to find and keep jobs and for families to remain healthy.
To solve the homelessness problem, we must think not only of people who are already homeless but also of the thousands more families who live on the brink, just one paycheck away from losing their homes. We need to commit to serious large-scale solutions for our city’s serious large-scale challenges.
The writer, vice president and mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, chairs the District of Columbia Housing Production Trust Fund Advisory Board.