Housing Complex

How Much Affordable Housing Do We Have, Anyway?

Public housing in Ward 8. (Lydia DePillis)

Last week, the Brookings Institute came out with an update on the city's progress on a landmark set of recommendations from back in 2006 on how to deal with the affordable housing shortage. The verdict was mixed: Some laws have been enacted and homes built, but the recession whacked most of the public subsidies for the creation and preservation of reasonably priced places to live. Considering that reality, the report's authors made a new set of recommendations for how the District ought to proceed with the meager funds available.

What jumped out at me, though, was the uncertainty around how much affordable housing we even have. "It is not yet clear how the supply of affordable housing units in the District has changed since 2006," the report reads. "Some housing advocates believe the city continues to lose affordable housing, while others believe the District is making progress."

What? How can you believe different things about what should, theoretically, be a concrete number? In this case, the authors define "affordable" as a home that requires a person making less than 80 percent of the area median income to spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage, whether or not public funds are involved. The problem is, there's no central clearinghouse for that kind of information—which makes determining whether we've made any progress pretty much impossible.

Here's what we do have: There's the American Community Survey, which gives some data about how much housing exists and how much people are paying for it. There's the Housing Authority's dchousingsearch.org, which landlords can voluntarily add their properties for rent or for sale. And there's a database maintained by the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development that's supposed to catalogue all the housing developed or preserved using District funds. But its accuracy and comprehensiveness depends on how successful DMPED staff are at harassing the various agencies who deal with housing to enter properties into the system.

"That should be the best database for us," says Brookings' Benjamin Orr, who authored the report with District research doyenne Alice Rivlin. "The problem is that it's not."

To address that problem, a couple dozen housing-related advocacy groups have started the D.C. Preservation Catalog, which is supposed to be a parallel system that also documents things like inspection scores and whether a property is at risk of losing its Section 8 contract. But ultimately, wrote advocates in their transition report for the incoming Gray administration, the District should maintain the inventory and make it publicly accessible.

That seems like as concrete and fundamental a short term goal as you can get.

  • http://www.nlihc.org Danilo

    You missed one important source of data at NeighborhoodInfo DC


  • Lydia DePillis


    I mentioned it at the end! But didn't have the link, so I'll add that. Thanks.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    I gotta say, I really hate how the phrase "affordable housing" has been hijacked. It used to mean "housing that poor people can afford," but now it means "housing that poor people can afford and will always be able to afford thanks to government intervention." The fact is, there exists "affordable housing" outside of gov't-mandated "affordable housing programs," and in fact it's where the majority of poor people live. By ignoring all of that and just focusing on the government programs, we're essentially perpetuating the idea that only units that are under some sort of government program can ever be affordable, and that those units are the only things we should care about. General rises in price then become irrelevant to politicians – after all, they don't affect the "affordable housing" units! – despite the fact that rising market rents are just as relevant to affordable housing as the number of units whose rents are controlled in some way by the government.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen Smith

    ...oh, I guess it looks like some group is working on a number that includes market rate housing as well. I just wish more would.

  • http://www.nlihc.org Danilo

    Jumped the gun. Thanks for including the link.

  • hillman

    There's lots of affordable housing in this region.

    It's in the less expensive suburbs and in high crime areas in DC.

    Once we admit the problem is safety, not affordability, then we view the problem more correctly.

    And like it or not some are going to have to live in the uncool suburbs. I know that goes against the mantra if the "affordable housing" industry, but suburban living is the obvious if uncool affordable housing option.

  • ess

    "the less expensive suburbs" aren't that cheap if you factor in transportation costs--needing a car for getting to work, day care, or the grocery store can be a couple hundred a month. And there go a lot of the savings on rent.

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  • ps

    @stephen smith "affordable housing" is for ANYONE who makes 80% or less of the ami which is $107,000 for DC so if someone makes less then $85,600 then they to can rent or buy a home under the "affordable housing" acts and if you looked at the link you would have noticed that the majority of the properties are in NW so to say that affordable housing are poor and bad areas is not true as well as for poor people cause i hardly call making $85,000, $64,000 or even $54,000 poor maybe if you are have trouble finding housing that you can afford because your income is too much look for ADU(affordable dwelling units)BUZZUTO properties has a lot of them in nice areas

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