By:  Katrina Forrest

Editor’s Note:  Katrina is a Legislative Assistant for Councilmember Grosso covering Transportation & the Environment, Health and Housing.  This three-part blog post will explore why the affordable housing stock has declined in the District, attitudes toward affordable housing and recommendations to bridge a path forward.

 

I stood on the corner of Minnesota Ave. and Benning Road in Northeast patiently waiting for my cab to arrive.  When it did, the driver and I shared an interesting exchange.  After explaining that I did not look like I lived in the neighborhood, he remarked that while D.C. has experienced great change, no amount of money could lure him to this particular Northeast community.

As we drove past Park 7, a new mixed-use housing development, I began to think critically about housing, attitudes toward housing affordability and who is most impacted.  Washington, D.C. is a unique city with a rich culture.  In 1990, the District was just one of five major cities with a majority Black (66%) population.  Today, that number has seen a sharp decline, due in large part to gentrification, which has displaced many low-income people of color, who are now heavily concentrated along the city’s eastern periphery.

As a southern Virginia transplant, I frequently find myself describing the District much like F. Scott Fitzgerald described New York’s Long Island in the Great Gatsby.  A true ‘tale of two cities,’ D.C. is divided into four quadrants (Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast) and separated by the Anacostia River.  West of the park is characterized by racially homogeneous affluence, while the communities east of the river have developed a reputation marred by high rates of unemployment, poverty and homelessness.  Like other urban cities across the country, the District is facing an affordable housing and homelessness crisis.  Nearly 20 percent of District residents live in poverty.  Our homelessness rate outpaces New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago and the overwhelming majority of these individuals are concentrated in Wards 7 and 8, where 95 percent of residents are Black.

Conversations about affordable housing and homelessness can be uncomfortable because they necessitate a broader discussion about race, wealth, class and affordability.  They also require self-reflection and a willingness to confront our own personal biases in order to improve the livelihood of all District residents. 

According to a 2013 Urban Institute study, White families on average earned about $6 for every $1 that Black and Hispanic families earned.  In dollar value, the average White family had about $632,000 in wealth as compared to $98,000 for Black families and $110,000 for Hispanic families.   Adding another layer of inequity, since 1954 the Black unemployment rate has consistently been twice that of Whites.

While these numbers account for the economic slight felt by middle-income individuals, they do not begin to capture the daily struggles faced by low-income families surrounded by poverty, low performing schools, limited transportation options, little or no employment opportunities and so much more.  For these reasons, this cannot be understated:  where affordable housing options are located matters. 

By concentrating the affordable housing stock in historically underserved sections of the city we are perpetuating the isolation of low-income residents and people of color—keeping them from accessing a plethora of opportunities.  Racial and residential segregation is intimately related to the concentration of poverty in urban core areas.  Sound policy encourages preserving the existing affordable units while also increasing the affordable housing stock—evenly distributing it across all wards of the District, but combating neighborhood opposition is an uphill battle.

We are all familiar with the pretext.  A new affordable housing development proposal is presented and residents report to community meetings in droves to claim, “You can’t build this here!  This will decrease my property value.”  We know what is meant.  The term “affordable” carries with it a negative connotation, plays on preconceived notions and is often met with fierce opposition, particularly from communities enjoying great economic prosperity—but what is affordable housing and to whom is it affordable? 

According to the U.S. Dept. of Housing & Urban Development, housing is “affordable,” if a family spends no more than 30 percent of their household income to live there.  This seems reasonable but 30 percent of $500,000 is far greater than 30 percent of $30,000.

The average one-bedroom rental in the District is $1,692/month.  Affording this rent would be challenging even for a single individual earning a mid-level salary as depicted below:

The reality is that across the region there is a serious lack of affordable housing and in some cases, middle-income individuals are living in the District’s low-income units.  Reframing the conversation is the first step to addressing the District’s housing challenges, because where you live greatly influences where you go to school, where you work, who your friends are, what you eat, your access to quality healthcare and so much more.

Still, while critical to effecting any positive change, confronting our biased attitudes about who is “low-income,” what is “affordable,” and where “affordable housing” is located does not address other realities.  Since 2000, the number of low-cost rental units in the city has fallen by half, and the number of lower-value homes fell by nearly three quarters.   This reality has made reinvesting in communities in a way that fosters inclusivity challenging due to the gaps in infrastructure and the disappearing housing stock—so how did this happen and where do we go from here?

Parts 2 and 3 to follow….stay tuned!

*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.

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