The Washington DC area needs more affordable rental housing
Last Tuesday saw the release of Housing Security in the Washington Region, a study I wrote with my colleagues at the Urban Institute with assistance from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
The study is unique for its breadth, spanning Washington, DC and 11 surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia. It’s also thematically expansive, examining the full continuum of housing needs, from emergency shelter to affordable homeownership, highlighting how supply, demand, funding streams, and policies impact homeowners, renters, and the unhoused at every income level.
In a study of this size, it’s easy to lose sight of what all these numbers mean for real people. Let’s unpack a small portion of the study.
Rental housing affordability is a big problem in the area. Nearly half of all renters (regardless of income level) in the Washington region were cost burdened in 2009-11. That means almost 315,000 households were paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent and utilities. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the problem, there were about 300,000 households total in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Of course, households at the bottom of the income scale were most likely to be cost burdened. In fact, 86 percent of extremely low income households—those earning less than $32,000 annually—were cost burdened in 2009-11. Keep in mind that many of the services that get you through your week are performed by workers who would fall into the “extremely low income” category—maids, drycleaning workers, pharmacy aides, fast food cooks, coffee shop cashiers, and nursing aides and orderlies, to name a few.
Take, for example, a nursing aide (who may just be caring for a loved one right now). On average, an aide in the DC metro area earns $28,700. Imagine that the nursing aide has two children and needs a two-bedroom apartment. If we think that she could afford to pay 30 percent of her income in rent, then she could afford a utilities-included apartment that rents for $720. (By the way, that only leaves her with $20,000 to pay for food for a family of three; clothing, including her scrubs for work; transportation to get to work; health insurance; emergencies; etc.)
As you can see in the chart above, it’s no surprise that our nursing aide might be cost burdened—there is not one jurisdiction in the area that she could afford to live in if she paid the DC metro area’s median rent of $1,320. At that level, our nursing aide would have to work the equivalent of 1.83 jobs to afford to rent such an apartment and not be cost burdened. In Virginia’s Arlington and Fairfax Counties, she would have to work more than two full-time jobs.
Our study concludes that every jurisdiction in the Washington region needs more units to meet the needs of renters like our nursing aide—94,200 units in total. Policymakers, local agency staff, and philanthropists can use this data on gaps in the housing supply to inform their work and make strategic investments to aid those struggling with high rents.
This study was commissioned by The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, with generous support from The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.