Last week, DC’s mayor Vincent Gray kicked off a new Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force, mandated by law to update the city’s 2006 housing strategy. Finding an affordable place to rent or buy in DC is clearly a big challenge—not just for poor people but for many working families earning modest incomes.
But in tough fiscal times, the city can’t do everything, so in his January State of the District speech, Mayor Gray set three priorities for the city:
- Creating a new economy for the District that is growing and diversified,
- Ensuring that District residents are prepared for the jobs of the new economy, and
- Improving the quality of life for all.
He also made an impassioned case for investing in kids’ earliest years as critical to their success in school and (ultimately) work:
Research shows that some of the most critical brain development occurs between birth and 3 years of age, and that investments in early childhood development pay huge dividends in closing and even preventing achievement gaps caused by environmental factors. That is why we are focusing significant resources on my “early success” initiative.
Where does affordable housing fit? I can make a strong case that decent, affordable housing in safe neighborhoods plays an essential role in the mayor’s aspirations for the success of DC kids. When rent consumes more than half a household’s income, families have to cut back somewhere. Evidence suggests that they often cut back on food, and kids who aren’t regularly eating healthy foods come to school at a huge disadvantage.
Poor families paying unaffordable rents also teeter on the brink of missing a rent payment and facing eviction and homelessness. We know that residential instability undermines kids’ emotional development, not only because it disrupts school attendance but also because the stresses of insecurity and instability inflict lasting harm to their emotional and physical health.
In a city with high and rising rents, low-income families too often settle for a more affordable house or apartment in a dangerous neighborhood. And exposure to violence loads more fear and insecurity on the lives of young children, further damaging their health and their ability to learn.
Finally, the neighborhoods in DC with the strongest schools tend also to have the highest rents and house prices. Creating more affordable housing in these neighborhoods—so more low- and moderate-income kids can attend these high-performing schools—is another way to improve educational outcomes.
City budgets everywhere are painfully tight these days, and it makes sense to focus public dollars where they matter most. So I hope the new Housing Task Force offers concrete recommendations for investments in affordable housing that will pay off in the lives of the city’s kids—reducing residential instability and exposure to violence and expanding access to high-performing schools.