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Posts about Affordable Housing


Public housing, explained

Public housing has long been a tool for governments to create and preserve affordable shelter, but many public housing complexes today are under threat.

Barry Farm, a public housing complex in DC. Photo by Matailong Du/Street Sense on Flickr.

After decades of neglect, many public housing developments have fallen into disrepair. Others have been demolished and replaced with market-rate housing units, especially as surrounding communities experience gentrification.

Once the most important tool for housing low-income families, public housing now makes up a shrinking share of the affordable housing options in the DC region and nation. Today, about 7,300 families in the District live in 40 public housing developments managed by the DC Housing Authority (DCHA).

In this explainer, I examine the challenges facing the current stock of public housing in the District.

Public housing developments were the United States' earliest form of affordable housing

In 1937, Congress passed the National Housing Act, which authorized the construction of public housing. The program was viewed as a way to jumpstart a slow economy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Initially, many public housing developments housed moderate-income families. However, demographic shifts resulted in changes to the composition of public housing. As poorer families moved to the city, where much of public housing was, and middle-class ones fled to the suburbs, public housing developments came to house an increasingly poorer set of households.

By the 1970s, the federal government halted the construction of new public housing developments

At this point, many existing developments had fallen into disrepair because they were poorly maintained.

Critically, policymakers realized that public housing concentrated poverty in certain neighborhoods by creating dense buildings comprised exclusively of low-income families. It contributed to racial segregation and limited opportunities for households to move to better communities.

Over the next couple decades, many public housing developments would continue to provide affordable housing, despite their deteriorating conditions. Others would be torn down and replaced with mixed-income housing developments.

During this period, housing vouchers would replace public housing as the primary tool for housing low-income Americans.

About 1.2 million households live in public housing in the US. Here are the numbers for our region:

As noted above, only 7,300 families in the District live in public housing developments. There is a long wait-list of families waiting to get into public housing.

Some of these are low-rise complexes spread over multiples buildings, like the Barry Farm development in Ward 8. Others are single, high-rise buildings, like Claridge Tower in Ward 2.

While the DC Housing Authority manages the public housing stock in the District, much of the funding to maintain and repair these buildings comes from the federal government. In the region, housing authorities in Fairfax, Alexandria and Montgomery County also manage a substantial number of public housing units.

Public housing provides stability for many families that would face the highest risk of housing instability or eviction on the private market

Like households with housing vouchers, housing costs are kept affordable for public housing residents by limiting the rent to thirty percent of their income.

According to a recent report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the average income for a family of four living in public housing in the District is $16,050. (The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,850.)

Ninety percent of households in public housing have an income below $32,100 annually, which is 30 percent of the AMI.

Households living in public housing are disproportionately headed by the elderly and people with disabilities. In fact, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that fully one-third of households in public housing are headed by a senior citizen.

About twenty-two percent of households in public housing are headed by an adult with a disability.

Public housing developments across the country are struggling with maintenance and upkeep

In the District, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) estimates that there are more than $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance costs, including repairs to buildings.

These concerns are shared in other cities, as well. In New York City, the public housing authority estimates more than $16 billion in deferred maintenance costs.

Critics argue that this neglect of public housing has resulted in buildings being uninhabitable. They refer to this deterioration as demolition by neglect.

Plans to redevelop public housing developments have been controversial

In 1996, Congress authorized the HOPE VI program to redevelop severely distressed public housing developments. Through HOPE VI, private developers redeveloped public housing sites, usually creating a mix of affordable and market-rate units.

In the District, one of the public housing developments to go through HOPE VI was Arthur Capper Carrollsburg. The low-rise public housing development underwent a massive redevelopment, creating a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Critics contend that the project, which took nearly a decade to complete, resulted in widespread displacement of existing public housing residents.

Although the HOPE VI program has now ended, researchers are actively trying to understand the consequences of redeveloping public housing developments into mixed-income neighborhoods through the program.

In the District, the New Communities Initiative similarly aims to redevelop public housing developments. The program is slated to redevelop more than 1,000 public housing units in three large developments across the city—Barry Farm in Ward 8, Lincoln Heights in Ward 7 and Park Morton in Ward 1.

The program aims for one-to-one replacement of affordable housing units. This means that residents of public housing would have the opportunity to stay in their communities following the redevelopment.

However, the New Communities program has struggled amid concerns about the disruption of community ties and the displacement of existing residents during the redevelopment process.


Can we develop communities for the people who already live in them?

Income inequality, gentrification, and neighborhoods changing in a short period of time—put them all together and the question is "who is left behind?" How can change happen in a city without displacing people?

Photo by Tony Hisgett on Flickr.

On October 3rd, HBO aired Class Divide, a documentary that provided a look into gentrification's effects on one neighborhood in New York City. The film examines the massive changes in the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, spurred by the development of the High Line public park, looked at through the eyes of teens in West Chelsea. On one side of 10th Avenue, there are disadvantaged teens who live in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project, and on the other side, wealthy teens who attend the Avenues: The World School, a private school that costs more than $40,000 per year.

Last week, we attended a sneak peak that was followed by a panel discussion on how the larger issues in the film are also affecting the DC region. The participants were Class Divide director Marc Levin, 11th Street Bridge Park project director Scott Kratz, and Oramenta F. Newsome, the Vice President of the DC chapter of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Hyisheem Shabazz Calier, who participated in the documentary, also spoke about his experiences living in the Chelsea-Elliot housing project and experiences since leaving to attend college and pursue entrepreneurship. The panel was moderated by Urban Institute president Sarah Rosen Wartell.

After the first half hour of the documentary played, the panelists discussed gentrification, income and racial inequality, and the unintended consequences that come when planning large public projects like the Manhattan's High Line.

We (Joanne and Andrew) attended the event and later watched the full documentary. We discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Andrew Ausel (AA): I thought the documentary was a good segue into a discussion on DC. Particularly because what New York is experiencing is kind of like mega-gentrification. And while what DC is experiencing is challenging, it's nothing near the extent to which West Chelsea residents are experiencing it.

Joanne Pierce (JP): You make a good point, that New York City shows us this mega-gentrification but DC could easily be a mega-gentrifier in its own way if we're not watching out for it. Oramenta made a great point about that, which is that developers are "finding" neighborhoods and finding these beautiful pre-World War II buildings they want to turn into luxury condos. These neighborhoods have been here for such a long time, and yet developers come in and seem to just swallow them whole with their shiny new buildings or luxury things.

AA: Absolutely. Neighborhoods with rich cultural and architectural features are attractive to developers and the residents treat them almost like ornaments that add to their property values. Exhibit A… the High Line in Manhattan.

The High Line in Manhattan. Photo by David Berkowitz on Flickr.

AA: An equivalent DC example would be Capitol Hill, Union Station, or any of the numerous historical landmarks that have been flipped. Look at the NoMa area as an example: the neighborhood runs just adjacent to the Uline Arena, which is set to become the fifth flagship REI. But look just north of Florida Ave., opposite of the Red Line to NoMa, and development isn't really happening there, primarily because it is outside of the Business Improvement District. I think more work needs to be done to bridge that gap.

Uline Arena. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: One of the things I liked was how the High Line was used in this documentary. It was one of the three central structures, along with the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects and the Avenues school. Have you been to the High Line before?

AA: I have not, have you?

JP: I have, and I loved it. It's overwhelming in scale and sensory input.

The brick building in the middle of the frame is the Chelsea-Elliot housing projects and the building at the right of the frame is Avenues: The World School. Photo by Doug Kerr on Flickr.

JP: Scott brought up unintended consequences. I hadn't considered the High Line to be one of those, because it's so beautiful and it's brought so much joy to what was a desolate, unwanted piece of transit history. But we see in the documentary that it also created this real estate boom and I don't think I considered that the High Line had negative consequences because I had no idea there were housing projects nearby. So that brings up questions of privilege and how we can be really unaware of the circumstances that lead to social and income inequality, and how our desire for nice things and amenities has possibly made people complicit in gentrification, even when we don't live in the areas being gentrified.

AA: It really is a new development, and something that I think we have to start assuming will happen as we try and address urban blight. In generations prior, I don't think the desire for urban living was there, so we never asked "what happens when we fix this place up?" Now, as we fix it up, there is a demand and a market and its being filled by people who aren't from the community.

I think the real gap in understanding then comes from the "invading" ignorance to what was there before. The residents who purchase these $15 million condos don't necessarily appreciate all the different culture that was there before. Oramenta made a good point when she said that we do live in a free market, and those are the rules of the game.

JP: She said, "we have to remember that in our society, the [income] bar keeps moving."

AA: But what [Marc Levin] does such a good job of in his documentary is observing the issue from the perspective of the kids. Kids who don't necessarily want to be viewed as the rich white kids but want to be looked at as humans.

JP: What is wealth today may not be wealth ten years from now and what's striking about that idea is that people at the bottom won't necessarily get wealthier just because these areas like NoMa are becoming popular and revitalized. Looking through the eyes of the kids and without explicitly stating it, he showed that children aren't different from each other in their fears and uncertainties just because of their socioeconomic status.

AA: And he reflected on that during the panel when he said that this generation is truly unique in that they recognize the forces of free trade and the globalization of the economy and they are figuring out, where do they fit in? They are much more reflective and aware and you see this in the film.

JP: Even though the documentary doesn't really go into globalization, it's a huge concern.

AA: We have to answer anew, how exactly do we develop communities for the people in the community? Scott Kratz was particularly helpful in coming up with strategies for that.

JP: He was, and I appreciated how focused he was on the collaborative side of the 11th Street Bridge project. He was very clear that he wanted to understand, first of all, did residents even want something like that? It's a question that I don't think gets brought up enough.

The 11th Street Bridge. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

AA: Right. It was a much more communicative version of community organizing that represented bottom-up development instead of a planning commission or a developing company telling the people how the plan would look. It was truly encouraging and part of me honestly felt weird feeling optimistic when thinking about this issue. It was almost like I wanted them to dive more into the problem of gentrification so I could understand the issue, while what Scott really did was reject the challenges of community unity and figured out how to make it work. It really sounded like the community was the approval body for a lot of the design. And it made me realize something very important for any effort like this. It made me realize that communities have to have a unified vision and sort of be very homogenous.

JP: I looked up some information on the 11th Street Bridge project and the website says there are 76,000 residents within a two mile radius of the bridge. The kind of collaboration required to get as many of those voices heard seems stunning. I think the documentary brought up an interesting point about homogeneity by class, and not race: that the residents of the Chelsea-Elliot Housing Projects aren't excluded because of race, but because of class.

AA: It's definitely a good point and may make for a good lesson learned from the film, that communities are only as equipped to fight the forces of development as they are unified and empowered to fight it.

JP: What do you think about Ornamenta's point about race, that it's always present but in many cases what neighborhoods want to preserve is history and that is sometimes African-American history. Her example was Anacostia, which she says has only been an African-American community for two or three generations.

Anacostia. Photo by Axel Drainville on Flickr.

AA: I think that's true. To observe the inverse, Alexandria, which is a predominately white city, does a lot to preserve its history and highlight the positive aspects of their colonial culture. You don't see a whole lot of African-American festivals in Alexandria and that's for a reason. So much of human history is tied up in race, likely because so much of human identity is tied up in race. Which raises the question, is the only force that prevents equitable development economic?

JP: Alexandria has a lot of African-American history and there should be more opportunities to emphasize it. But we also have to talk about which Alexandria we are referring to. Old Town, the West suburbs (Seminary Hill), or Fairfax County and the immediate Route 1 corridor, which is probably more Hispanic and African-American.

AA: Very true. But that is arguably a more recent development. I think the important point here is that Americans in general feel a sense of community that is strongest with those who look most like them. That is true in DC, Alexandria, and NYC, among others. We need to be actively figuring out ways to compensate for this and foster communities of understanding and, really, pluralism.

JP: I read that immigrant communities aren't actually that mobile. They find an area they like and tend to stick to it. I think it can be trickier than that. Maybe on a more general scale, people do want to be homogeneous but there are some aspects of racial identity that may make that difficult. Anecdotally, I think younger Asian-Americans, for example, yo-yo between wanting to hang out with an Asian community and conversely don't think that's the most important or relevant. It does help if your "community" is all over the Northern Virginia and DC area, though. East Asian-Americans do have that.

AA: True. I think the documentary was revealing in the way the high-rise condo community treated the minorities who lived in their building. [One of the documentary participants] reflected that he often gets looks like he doesn't live there. But the interesting thing is that often times the white kids who lived on the top floors of these places didn't want to fall into that stigma. They wanted to understand. The challenge becomes how do we fight stigmas then.

JP: This is a pretty old question. We've had cultural and racial stigmas for a very long time. Gentrification seems to exacerbate that, in that you sometimes see the developers coming in and they're all well-educated, relatively wealthy people. They are proposing a dream that in some cases, means pushing other people out. As Scott said, it's "cultural displacement." The stigma behind that can be race or socioeconomic status, and what Scott and other community-focused organizers seem to focus on is bolstering the voices of people who would be marginalized or ignored by the planning community. Using their well-educated, relatively wealthy status for good and not evil, I suppose.

AA: It is a very old question, but the truth is that communities don't do the hard work to answer it and find ways to live together effectively in the face of the prospect of gentrification. There is a blind allegiance to the ideology that promotes quick development. But you are right in that the 11th Street Bridge Park team took the time to lead that discussion and really bolstered the voices of those that would have been washed out.

JP: I think Oramenta spoke about that as well. She said that there's a difference between diversity you see on The Mall and diversity in her neighborhood, whether it's due to income or race. She said there are people who can go home to a comfortable place, and she wants to create more opportunities to see others and be like, "I could live there." To me, that seems to also focus on preserving a neighborhood but also encouraging growth in a more organic way. Leading new people in by showing them what the neighborhood already has to offer, and how it's going to be progressive about its growth, but not doing it through only having shiny luxury goods and condos.

AA: I also thought that a big issue that was presented by the panel was the idea of renter empowerment. What were your thoughts on the strategies presented like community land trusts and homebuyers clubs?

JP: They mentioned TOPA, which is the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. It allows renters to have first opportunity to buy their rental properties before a landlord can sell the building. I think TOPA is great but it also requires extensive education and understanding of DC housing processes and that's one area where the homebuyers clubs can really step in. They can provide that education. A lot of times, what shuts people out of the process, whether it's democracy or planning their neighborhood, is that it's overwhelming.

AA: Sure, and the challenges can seem larger and influenced by so many more things than one community can prevent. I think dispelling that narrative and empowering low-income residents to protect their homes through effective policies is an important lesson I took from the panel. Luckily for D.C. it sounds like they have a lot of good laws in place to protect the tenant

JP: We've seen through examples like the Wah Luck House [in Chinatown] that sometimes these fights take many years. I hope in the future that it won't be so hard.

AA: I'm hopeful. The panel actually really helped with that!

JP: It presents a good blueprint for that kind of collaboration to take place. It'll be interesting to see how the 11th Street Bridge project moves forward.

AA: Indeed. I think it's in a very preliminary stage which may mean I should temper my excitement just a little. Regardless, it sounds like they're doing everything right.


Some Silver Spring residents want a park instead of affordable housing

Montgomery County wants to turn the former Silver Spring library into affordable housing. Now neighbors are circulating a petition to make it a park instead, even though there's already a park next door.

The former Silver Spring Library. Photo from Google Street View.

Even before the Silver Spring Library moved to a new building last summer, Montgomery County has been trying to figure out what to do with its 1950's-era building and parking lot on Colesville Road.

In the past, Parks Department officials said they want to make it a recreation center. But that may not be necessary if the county goes with a proposal to build a bigger recreation center and aquatic center in a new apartment building a few blocks away.

This summer, county officials floated the idea of replacing the old library with affordable apartments for seniors and a childcare center. But some neighbors insist that the library become a recreation center and park, and are circulating a petition claiming that downtown Silver Spring has "no open space," that Silver Spring has enough housing, and that a park is the "green" solution.

Aerial of the former library site. Image from Google Maps altered by the author.

This isn't the first time some residents have raised these arguments, particularly when there's a proposal to build new homes. But Montgomery County has the right idea in using the old library for affordable housing.

You'd be surprised how much open space Silver Spring has

Would you believe me if I told you downtown Silver Spring had 38 acres of open space, or more than seven Dupont Circles? That's what the Montgomery County Planning Department found in a 2008 study of downtown green space.

Current and proposed "public use spaces" in downtown Silver Spring. Map from the Planning Department.

That number includes public parks, like the 14-acre Jesup Blair Park. But it also includes the open spaces Montgomery County requires developers to include in their projects, which has resulted in dozens of pocket parks and plazas, and even playgrounds around downtown.

Some of them are great, while others poorly designed and underused. But even the bad parks represent an opportunity to reclaim open space in downtown.

As a result of that 2008 study, county planners have encouraged developers to provide bigger parks, and now Silver Spring is poised to get them. A new, one-acre park will soon open at the Blairs as a placeholder for an even bigger set of parks. The Studio Plaza redevelopment off of Georgia Avenue will have a 13,000 square foot park.

There are also several public parks right next to downtown that are getting renovated or expanded, including Ellsworth Park and Woodside Park, or Fenton Street Park. Meanwhile, major regional parks like Rock Creek Park and Sligo Creek Park are two miles of downtown, giving urban dwellers easy access to nature.

Silver Spring still needs more new housing

Thousands of new homes have been built around downtown Silver Spring in recent years, and thousands more will come soon. That includes some buildings dedicated to affordable housing, including The Bonifant, which just opened this year.

But housing prices are already out of reach for many people and continue to rise. New two-bedroom apartments in Silver Spring can rent for upwards of $3,000 per month, while in the surrounding neighborhoods, some homes have quadrupled in value over the past 20 years.

Silver Spring has become an increasingly desirable area over the past 20 years. Even as new homes get built, they don't meet the demand from people who want to live here, so prices continue to go up. As a recent study from George Washington University notes, Silver Spring has remained diverse in spite of revitalization. That's partly because we do build new housing here, preventing the area from becoming even more unaffordable.

Building in downtown is the "green" solution

Today, the old Silver Spring Library is surrounded by a driveway and parking lots. Building here, on an already paved-over site, makes much more sense than paving over farms or forests. And building new homes here, in the middle of downtown Silver Spring, means that more people will be able to walk to shops and jobs and transit instead of driving long distances. Turning this site exclusively into green space means that existing green space somewhere else gets paved over.

New townhomes in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Silver Spring prides itself on its progressive politics and embrace of diversity. But fighting all new development is not progressive and ultimately makes our community less diverse. As President Obama said last week, communities that fight new housing become more expensive, less equal, and lose tremendous amounts of economic productivity.

That's not to say that the old library should become housing with no open space. The site is shaped like an "L," meaning that county officials could decide that part of it becomes housing and the rest becomes an extension of Ellsworth Park. That could meet some neighbors' concerns about open space, while meeting the very real demand for affordable housing.

If you agree, we have a petition of our own that we'll send to the Montgomery County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett, asking them to support housing on the former library site.


The Obama administration says zoning is at the heart of some huge economic problems

The Obama administration wants to talk zoning. According to a paper it put out this morning, laws that restrict new development and require new buildings to come with new parking, along with slow permitting processes and arbitrary preservation regulations, create barriers to opportunity for working families.

Houses in DC. Photo by nevermindtheend.

The White House's Housing Development Tookit starts with the belief that strict land use regulations are hurting the United States economy:

"Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified… The accumulation of such barriers - including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes - has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers' access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP [editor's note: Pete Rodrigue wrote about this for us last week] growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions."
The report goes on to say that while preventing new housing development can be environmentally beneficial, it can also amount to "laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing."

It also draws a direct link between zoning laws and both inequality and inequity in the US:

"When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods."
Here's what we can do about the problem

The report urges places to modernize their zoning laws, and suggests ten tools to do so. They include:

1. Eliminating off-street parking requirements: All over the country, there are rules that require new buildings to come with a certain amount of parking. Building that parking means not building housing on the land, which developers would often prefer to do. It also means encouraging more people to drive.

Reducing parking minimum requirements can increase the housing supply as well as demand for frequent, reliable bus or rail service, which can make it easier for people to get to jobs.

Cutting parking requirements for developments located near a transit stop can increase the supply of housing units and lower costs. The availability of transit reduces the need for a vehicle and offers more space for development.

Luckily, a lot of cities are catching onto the logic here, including DC, and also New York City.

2. Allowing accessory dwelling units: New housing doesn't have to only be brand new buildings. A lot of people would rent out their basements, attics, or small cottages in their back yards into accessory dwelling units (ADUs) if their zoning simply allowed it. Often, the people renting these units have limited incomes, like someone starting their career or an older adult.

Thanks to its recent zoning code change, it's now easier to rent out ADUs in the District.

3. Using inclusionary zoning:Inclusionary zoning requires a specific amount of new housing units to be "affordable," where the rent or the selling price is lower than the market rate and the units are only available to people whose incomes fall below a certain level. In exchange, developers get something called a density bonus, which allows them to build more market rate units than they otherwise would be.

The White House's toolkit cites DC and Montgomery County as examples of places that have pushed for housing affordability via inclusionary zoning. It also cites inclusionary zoning as a reason for better educational outcomes for low-income children.

This matters in our region. A lot.

No single action will solve the housing affordability issues many cities face, but reducing barriers to development can increase opportunities for working families. As too often happens:

"The long commutes that result from workers seeking out affordable housing far from job centers place a drain on their families, their physical and mental well-being, and negatively impact the environment through increased gas emissions."
The White House's report relates to our region because we are one of the handful of regions in the nation where restrictive zoning has become a significant bottleneck. Detroit and Baltimore have the opposite problem; their vacant housing isn't getting used.

This problem is impacting metro areas to different extents. It's worst in the Bay Area, but New York, Seattle, Boston, and others all have similar problems… and so do we.


See all of DC's new affordable housing in one map

Over 2,000 new affordable housing units have gone up in DC since 2015, and another 8,000 are under construction or in the pipeline. Check out this map to explore the most up-to-date data on the last two years' worth of completed, under construction, and planned affordable housing in DC.

The data in the map is courtesy of the District's Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). New housing production and preserved units are both on the map, including units created through the Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) program.

You may notice that there are far fewer affordable housing units northwest of 16th Street, and that the projects with lots of units are often grouped in the same area.

Here is a layout of the units broken down by Area Median Income:

Most of the units, whether on the way or already completed, fall above the 50% AMI range, which does not target the people most in need. However, there is a big increase in the number of units that are in the pipeline is for income range below 50% AMI.

Affordable housing is funded in several different ways. For new and preserved units that aren't inclusionary housing, projects secure some private funding and the city's role is to provide money to close the financing gap via both federal funds and the city's Housing Protection Trust Fund. IZ units, on the other hand, are 100% privately funded.

The map's data does not parse out which units are funded by the federal government, DC, or private funding.

For more data visualizations, check out DMPED's Affordable Housing Tracker.

What does this data say to you?


The Area Median Income (AMI), explained

There are a number of programs used to create affordable housing in the region, including housing vouchers, inclusionary zoning, low-income housing tax credits and public housing.

Photo by Images Money on Flickr.

Each of these programs use a central statistic—the area median income, or AMI—to determine whether families are eligible for the program.

In this explainer, I focus on how the AMI is calculated and what it means for affordable housing in the region.

The area median income (AMI) is the household income for the median—or middle—household in a region.

As a quick refresher, if you were to line up each household in the area from the poorest to the wealthiest, the household in the middle would be the median household.

Each year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) calculates the median income for every metropolitan region in the country. HUD focuses on the region—rather than just the city—because families searching for housing are likely to look beyond the city itself to find a place to live.

A rendering of the Channing E. Phillips Homes, which will go up next to the Shaw Metro and will be affordable to families making 60% of the area median income. Image from AHC Inc.

In DC, the region includes more than twenty nearby cities and counties, including Prince George's County, the city of Alexandria, and Fairfax County. Families in these suburbs tend to be wealthier than those in the District, so the AMI is higher than it would be if HUD calculated the AMI for the city alone.

HUD uses the five-year estimates of the American Community Survey—a national survey similar to the Census—to measure household income. They begin with the median income for a family of four.

In the Washington region, the AMI is $109,200 for a family of four.

Because the metropolitan region includes some of the country's wealthiest suburbs, this is among the highest AMIs in the country.

The table below reports the median income for families of various sizes in our metropolitan region. Because family incomes differ by the number of people in the household, HUD uses a formula to adjust the AMI for families of different sizes.

These adjusted AMIs are used to calculate affordability throughout the region, including Prince George's County, Alexandria and the District itself.

Table 1: The AMI in the DC Metropolitan Region, by Household Size:

Household SizeMedian Household Income

To determine whether a family is eligible for various housing programs we compare a family's income to a percentage of the AMI.

We typically distinguish between three types of households. Households earning less than 80 percent of the AMI are considered low-income households by HUD. Very low-income households earn less than 50 percent of the AMI and extremely low-income households earn less than 30 percent of the AMI.

Other eligibility standards, including 60 percent AMI or 110 percent AMI, are occasionally used to determine affordability.

In Table 2, I report the income associated with each affordability threshold. In our region, a four-person households earning 80 percent of the AMI earns about $87,360 each year. A four-person household earning 30 percent of the AMI earns about $32,760 each year.

Table 2: Affordable Housing Standards in the Region:

Percent AMIHousehold Income

Every affordable housing program in the region uses these AMI calculations to determine eligibility

Housing vouchers are generally available for families earning 30 percent AMI. This means that families earning $32,760 or less are eligible for vouchers.

The mandatory inclusionary zoning program in the District requires builders include units available at mostly 80 percent AMI, but also some at 50 percent. Families of four earning up to $70,150 would be eligible for these units.

And affordable housing developments cap rents below market rate to ensure that families can live in these units without spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In the Channing Phillips Homes, a new affordable housing development in Shaw, apartments will be targeted at households earning up to 60 percent AMI. This means that a four-person household earning $65,520 or less would be eligible to live in the development. Rents would be capped to ensure that households can afford the rent without paying more than 30 percent of their income.

Critics of these affordability standards argue that poor families in the city are disadvantaged by the AMI calculation

By including the entire region in the AMI calculation, HUD includes many wealthy suburbs of the District. Since these suburbs have a higher median income than the city, the AMI for the region is higher than it would be for the city alone.

As a result, the poorest families in a region, who typically live in the city, earn substantially below 30% of the AMI in the region. There is virtually no housing assistance designed specifically for those families.

Correction: The original version of this post reported median income and housing income requirements that were different from the 2016 rules. The post has been updated to with accurate numbers.


The biggest beneficiaries of housing subsidies? The wealthy.

It's almost the first of the month, and that means rent's due. That rent or mortgage check is the single biggest expense in most Americans' budgets, so it's no wonder that Congress directs a ton of federal dollars to housing. But what should be surprising—and infuriating—is that a lot of this support goes to housing the wealthy, while very little goes to those who need help landing a stable home.

Photo by Peter on Flickr.

These policies aren't accidents—they're bad choices that we should simply stop making.

We're in the middle of an affordable housing crisis

The United States is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Nearly 1 in 3 households with a mortgage devotes more than 30 percent of their income to their home. The situation is even worse for renters—more than half of the United States' 38 million rental households are shouldering a cost burden.

Some of this crisis is fallout from the Great Recession, which brought homeownership rates to historic lows. African-American and Latino households were hit particularly hard, because of predatory lending practices that targeted racially segregated communities .

Congress spends a lot on housing, mostly through tax programs

Given these crises in housing affordability and homeownership, congressional strategies to support housing deserve special scrutiny.

Congress supports housing in two main ways: rental assistance programs and homeownership tax programs. In 2015, the price tag for federal rental assistance programs—which includes Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing, Homeless Assistance Grants, and other programs—was $51 billion. In contrast, two of the largest homeownership tax programs—the Mortgage Interest Deduction and the Property Tax Deduction—cost $90 billion in 2015. That's nearly double the amount spent on public benefit housing programs.

The biggest beneficiary of the billions spent on homeownership tax programs? The wealthy.

There's nothing wrong with providing support through the tax code—benefits are benefits, whether you get them from your local HUD office or on your tax return. The important question is: who benefits? Rental assistance programs are designed to help those who will benefit most—primarily individuals and families with less income and less stable housing. But this isn't how Congress designed homeownership tax programs. All told, households making over $100,000 a year received nearly 90 percent of the $90 billion spent on the two tax programs discussed above. Households making less than $50,000 got a little more than 1 percent of those benefits.

It gets uglier. There are nearly eight million low-income homeowners that struggle to pay for housing from month to month. On average, low-income households get about eight cents per month from these two homeownership tax programs. Eight cents. There are also about four million middle-income households paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The average monthly benefit from these tax programs for middle-income earners? Twelve bucks. Don't spend it all in one place.

In contrast, the top 0.1 percent of earners—folks with an average annual income of more than $9 million—get an average of $1,236 per month (nearly $15,000 per year) from just these two homeownership tax programs. That federal benefit is much more than the typical cost of rent in most American cities, and it's going to wealthy households who really don't need help keeping a roof over their heads.

Why these tax programs are so upside down

So why are these tax programs so out of whack? It's no accident—it's how the programs are designed. Most low-income families don't even qualify because they don't itemize deductions. Even among those that do qualify, every dollar they deduct is worth less than a dollar that a high-income earner deducts. As nonsensical as it sounds, the value of homeownership tax support goes up as your income goes up. In addition, higher-income households get bigger deductions when they buy bigger houses (or bigger yachts, which qualify for the same tax benefits).

If we ran the Food Stamp (SNAP) program the same way we run our housing tax programs, low-income parents buying a simple, nutritious meal for their kids would get somewhere around zero dollars in federal support. Millionaires charging their MasterCard with a $5,000 FleurBurger with seared foie gras, truffle sauce, and bottle of 1995 Château Petrus would get a few thousand dollars in federal benefits.

Clearly, this would be a crazy way to run a social program—but this really is how we structure billions in support for wealthy homeowners through the tax code. Even worse, study after study shows that the Mortgage Interest Deduction doesn't even succeed in boosting homeownership.

How we can get away from this upside-down system

It's not hard to think up a better way to spend $90 billion. We could redirect this spending to help lower-income Americans save for a down payment, or use some of these funds to create a first-time homebuyer credit, or create a simple refundable credit for all homeowners. Or all of the above. That's the focus of the Turn it Right-Side Up campaign, which zeroes in on reforming unfair tax programs like these homeownership credits.

A version of this post first ran at Talk Poverty.

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