Region Forward Blog

Examining the impact of the region's lack of affordable housing on homelessness

May 22, 2012


The annual count of the region’s homeless population found that a significant percentage of the 11830 homeless persons in metro Washington are employed.

Thirty-five percent of adults in homeless families are employed as are 17 percent of homeless single adults and 14 percent of homeless unaccompanied youth. Furthermore in six of the nine jurisdictions included in the survey more than half of adults in homeless families are employed.

The problem of homelessness among the working poor especially in a region like ours that has very high housing costs is often due to a lack of affordable housing. We alluded to the link between these two issues back in February and the recently-published figures from the count confirm this conclusion.

As the report notes the lower rates of employment for homeless single adults and unaccompanied youth when compared to adults in homeless families can be attributed to higher incidences of substance abuse mental illness chronic health problems age lack of training and levels of employability.

Affordable housing and its connection with homelessness and the working poor is a crucial issue. If jurisdictions throughout the region put the policies in place to vastly increase the amount of affordable housing we can reduce homelessness in metro Washington. On the other hand if housing costs are allowed to increase the rate of people who are working and are still unable to afford housing will correspondingly increase.

Danielle Burs a Policy Officer at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing & Economic Development (CNHED) knows the homelessness and the working poor issue well. She offered the following thoughts based on her work in this area:

The D.C. Council just restored $25 million to affordable housing programs in its Fiscal Year 2013 Budget. This will help more than 670 families move into more stable housing. While the Council is to be commended for its action the District and its sister jurisdictions are still woefully far behind the demand. The waiting list for vouchers and public housing in D.C. alone is 41125 households long.

It is important to remember those who cannot work but many people on the waiting list in the District have income and still cannot afford safe decent housing. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (of which CNHED is a member) publishes a “housing wage” for each state and the District on an annual basis. The housing wage is the hourly wage that a family would have to earn in order to afford a two bedroom apartment at fair market rent without any subsidy. HUD defines “affordable” rent as no more than 30% of household income.

D.C. Maryland and Virginia all make the list of top ten highest housing wages. More specifically the housing wage for DC is $28.96 per hour or $60240 per year. That’s 3.5 full-time jobs at minimum wage. Maryland and Virginia aren’t far behind with housing wages of $24.83 per hour and $20.26 per hour respectively. It’s clear that there’s a huge gap between what low-income workers make and what it costs to secure safe decent housing in the region.

It’s also clear that the demand for affordable housing is unlikely to decrease in the short term. Right now 45.8% of D.C. residents or more than 283000 people are below 80% of AMI. The D.C. Department of Employment Services predicts that five of the largest occupational categories to show increases in the short term will be the current mainstays of the D.C. economy: managers business and financial operations office/administrative support restaurant/food service and health care practitioners. In line with that prediction the majority of new workers (52%) will be in the fields where median incomes fall below 80% of AMI. For context D.C. teachers’ and police officers’ salaries average at approximately 70% AMI for a three-person household.

D.C. Maryland and Virginia like most states have various plans to alleviate the housing burden on low-income families and end homelessness. One example is D.C.’s Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force Report which laid out targets for increasing the supply of affordable housing to meet the huge demand assessed in 2006. Using the Brookings Institution’s update on that report as a measure we are tens of thousands of units behind in the District alone.

The lack of affordable housing to plug the gap between what people who are able to work can realistically earn and the cost of market rate rents in this region is a huge stress on the homeless system. More importantly it takes what might be a momentary crisis for a family or individual and turns it into a long-term crisis with lingering effects. With a renewed commitment to implementing plans to make housing more affordable we can look forward to our neighbors having safe decent places to call home.

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