LAMBERT: Affordable Housing Gap In D.C. Not Something We Should Be Proud Of

George Lambert
George Lambert

We are faced with undeniable evidence that Washington, D.C., is rapidly becoming less of an affordable place for certain families along the socio-economic scale including longstanding residents. Disconcerting is that there’s seemingly no end in sight to the trend.

The reasons for this affordability gap are myriad. A big culprit — the ongoing process of “gentrification” – lacks the needed acknowledgement and attention to its human impact and cost. American University’s Derek Hyra looks into this phenomenon in his recent “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappucino City.” Hyra uses the beverage reference as a metaphor in capturing the dramatic reshaping of a city that was once overwhelmingly majority Black to one that is now just half-Black.

As Hyra points out, the city is becoming much more diverse but such diversity is not necessarily benefiting existing residents. Instead of collective problem solving, what we’re seeing is micro-level segregation. The diversity along race, class, sexual orientation you see overall is not visible in the neighborhoods’ segregated community gathering places — churches, recreation centers, coffee shops.

It’s not just micro-level segregation, but an unyielding displacement of vulnerable communities that’s made the District one of the most unaffordable places to live in the nation. That displacement is caused by increasingly expensive housing and a rising cost of living. Day by day it’s becoming that much harder to reside in the nations’ Capital for an increasingly larger number of residents including our veterans, senior citizens and young professionals.

Current rental prices tell us: affordable rental property, a quality-of-life necessity in any major city, is fast disintegrating for lower to middle income residents.  This effect is compounded by costly housing prices. Recent Zillow reports reveal that D.C. home values have risen 9.1 percent since 2015. The real estate tracker is predicting a 3.0 percent rise this year alone.

The median value of a home in the District: $550,200.

At the same time, the District is one of the fastest growing and prosperous cities in the nation.

Many struggling individuals and families find little comfort in that prosperity. In the culturally eclectic and gentrifying Adam’s Morgan neighborhood, a one bedroom apartment can run  as high as $2100 per month.  Nested.com’s recent 2017 index on affordability shows a family would need to earn over $100,000 in order to live in the city. That survey also placed the District as  the 4th most expensive city for renters; the 7th most expensive in the world.

As a consequence, the District’s homeless population is on the rise. A recent  survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors determined that the District has the largest concentration of homeless individuals for a city of its size. There are 124 homeless people for every 10,000 residents as compared to Witchita, Kansas, with 11 per 10,000.

The compounding downside – chronic homelessness festers into an unsustainable economic model for the District and surrounding jurisdictions.  That leads to a number of grave social and public safety consequences.

There’s a real need and purpose for reversing this trajectory.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased the number of shelters and in partnership members of City Council has been hard at work in taking action to increase the supply of affordable housing. Still, the ongoing crisis born from unaffordable living space, screams for everyone, from nonprofit and private sector to policymakers and residents to collectively act to address the state of housing in the District.

Lambert is president and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.

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