In tonight’s state of the District address, Mayor Gray continued to downplay the increasing need for affordable housing in Washington, DC. He is surprisingly quiet on an issue that impacts tens of thousands of District families and workers. After mentioning in his opening remarks that many residents struggle to afford their rent, he did not offer solutions to this widespread problem.
Lack of affordable housing is a growing problem in the District. Mayor Gray spoke of DC’s rapid growth, but as DC has grown in the last decade, it has also lost thousands of affordable homes. Over 24,000 low-cost rental units have been lost since 2000 through conversion to condos, high-cost rental housing, or other uses. Homeownership in DC remains well below the national average. Mayor Gray’s leadership is needed to address the growing need for affordable housing.
Mayor Gray focused much of his speech, like his administration, on jobs. But jobs and housing are not easily separated. Even with job growth, tens of thousands of District residents are still likely to face unaffordably high housing costs in the open market. The District is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. And wages in many sectors do not keep up with the cost of housing. One of the first economic development successes Mayor Gray highlighted was the two Wal-Marts expected in Ward 7. The new employees at that store are likely to make an hourly wage near DC’s minimum wage of $8.25. A person making that much would have to work 153 hours a week to afford to rent a two bedroom apartment in the open market.
Mayor Gray also highlighted the role of transit in creating jobs and lowering DC’s environmental impact – committing his administration to improved Metro and streetcar lines. Good transit of course also helps DC workers get to and from their jobs. At the same time, housing costs have increased steeply in neighborhoods connected to major transit lines and service-oriented jobs such as Columbia Heights and the Navy Yard. Preserving affordable housing in these neighborhoods decreases transportation time and cost for workers and ensures that long-time residents benefit from DC’s new neighborhoods of opportunity.
DC has the tools to preserve and develop housing that is available to residents at all income levels. Unfortunately, Mayor Gray has led the city to cut the District’s affordable housing programs. Last year, Gray’s budget cut $18 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund, the city’s biggest local funding source for affordable housing creation and preservation. This cut will continue every year until it is reversed. Other programs that make rent affordable, like the Local Rent Supplement Program have not seen increases that would allow them to serve new residents. The Local Rent Supplement Program can help to keep low-wage workers in the District and provide rent support for people with special needs like seniors hoping to age in place or people with disabilities.
If the Gray Administration does not change its course on housing policy, it will continue to be difficult for DC residents to have stable housing and jobs, and we will continue to see a loss of long term and retired residents.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In prior years, DC’s Mayor has often led the charge to address the rapidly increasing cost of housing. Previously, Vince Gray himself has supported important programs to ensure DC’s housing programs meet residents’ needs. As Council Chair, Gray presided over the Council when they created the Housing First Program to move residents from the streets and shelters into permanent housing and passed a bill strengthening the Housing Production Trust Fund by requiring that the Fund receive at least $70 million a year (since that law was passed, the Trust Fund has never been funded to that level).
Mayor Gray spoke of his dream for One City. His aspirational vision of a city that attracts and retains residents of all ages and economic backgrounds is only made possible through programs that enable all District residents to live and work in DC.