D.C. Homelessness Fueled by Low Wages and High Housing Prices

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by Bryan Park

Sophia Sibert is the manager of the Valley Place Family Apartment, a building that is surrounded by cherry blossom trees, located in a quiet suburban neighborhood, with several three-bedroom options.

The apartment is also surrounded by many boarded houses, located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the District of Columbia, and its rooms are occupied by families who are well past the poverty line.

“We really try to not give the impression that our building is a shelter,” said Sibert. “It makes it easier for the families living here to feel at home.”

Sibert’s apartment is one of the 12 shelters under The Coalition for the Homeless, an organization that houses some of the 850 homeless families in the district. The coalition handles both transitional and permanent housing, with the goal of training its residents to become financially self-sufficient.

Though the coalition is one of the largest homeless shelter organizations in the district, it houses only a small portion of the 12,000 people currently living in the streets of D.C., according to a report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

It is estimated that there are currently 45,000-70,000 people on the waiting list for public housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. Shelters such as Sibert’s have been feeling the weight of managing more clients, and finding it harder to transition them into affordable housing.

“There is a need [for affordable housing] and that need isn’t going to disappear any time soon,” said Sibert.

Michael Ferrel, the executive director of coalition, said that while wages are not keeping up with increasing rent, housing that is being built is not being built for people with lower income.

In a decade, more than half of the District of Columbia’s low-income and affordable housing units have been lost, according to a 2015 report by the non-profit District of Columbia Fiscal Policy Institute. The disappearance of these cheap homes, combined with low wages and rising housing prices, has led to a high number of homeless families living in shelters.

Homes with rents of less than $800 per month fell from 58,000 units to 33,000 between 2002 and 2013, while homes with rents up to $1400 nearly tripled. The cheapest affordable units usually have tenants making 30 percent or less of area median income or $29,000 for a family of three, with the most expensive units having 80 percent of area income or making under $78,000 for a family of three, according to the DCFPI report.

2013 Rent Costs

2013 Rent Costs Information from DCFPI

2003 Rent Costs Information from DCFPI

2003 Rent Costs


Ferrel said that since there is such a scarcity of temporary housing for the growing number of homeless, more than 300 homeless families are currently living in motels at the city’s expense. An additional 300 families are in an emergency shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital complex in Southeast Washington, according to Ferrel.

“Almost half of these homeless families in the District are headed by a parent between the ages of 18 and 24, mostly by single mothers with one or two children,” Ferrel said.

While the number of homelessness is growing in the district, the general population of the city has actually grown. The chief factor of that is the lack of affordable housing options for poor families, said Ferrel.

“The core issue is that families are having a much harder time transitioning from shelters to affordable homes,” said Ferrel.

Ferrel said that while there has not been any significantly sharp rises in homelessness in the past decade, the gradual accumulation, especially in Ward 7 and 8 of the district, is highly alarming. He believes that of the 45,000-70,000 currently on the waitlist for public housing, a good portion of them are temporarily living with family in the city waiting to have their housing applications accepted. Ferrel claims that if the problem is not solved soon, almost every person waiting for housing will eventually end up homeless and the system of shelters would be completely overrun.

Schyla Pondexter-Moore, the housing organizer for the grass-root activist organization Empower DC, suggests a huge factor of both the decline of public housing and increase in homelessness is due to the redevelopment of lands with public housing communities.

“If you’re tearing down these public and affordable housing units… where is that leaving the demographic of people that need the housing,” said Pondexter-Moore.

Pondexter-Moore has advocated for the tenants of public housing communities in D.C. since 2007. The people living in these communities don’t have the political voice that they need, and need someone to speak on their behalf, according to Pondexter-Moore.

She is currently involved in speaking on the behalf of residents who have lost their homes, due to the reconstruction of public housing communities that occurs when these government-owned lands are sold to private developers, according to her.

Pondexter-Moore, herself a resident of a public housing community, describes how some of the people currently on the wait list for public housing are former residents who were promised to have their homes broken down and rebuilt, only to become lost in the complicated application process required for returning to their new homes, according to her.

The confusion of returning tenants most likely occurs due to the transferring of public units to private, a change that includes new rules and regulations, said Pondexter-Moore.

“Suddenly, here comes these private rules, qualifications, and credit checks,” said Pondexter-Moore. “And not a lot of these people are going to get past that.”

The rebuilding of these public housing communities is part of the local government’s plan to create a mixed-income neighborhood, said Pondexter-Moore.

Creating a mixed-income neighborhood involves breaking down an old public housing community, privatizing the land, and building a new community filled with tenants from a greater diversity of socio-economic backgrounds. The theory is to bring wealthier tenants into these neighborhoods, to alleviate the local poverty levels, according to Pondexter-Moore.

Former residents are temporarily relocated to other public housing units in D.C., and are forced to stay until reconstruction is complete. The rebuilding could take several years to complete, and some tenants must relocate several times due to the decreasing number of available housing units, according to Pondexter-Moore.

Ed Lazere, the executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said it is not uncommon for a city to think of its vacant land as an asset and to sell that land to bring development to that area. Lazere said that up until 2014, some lands with affordable housing was being sold to private developers and didn’t have any requirements by law to build any affordable housing on it upon redevelopment.

Since the Disposition of District Land for Affordable Housing Act of 2013 was passed last year, it has now become part of regulation that at least 20 percent of the privatized land must contain affordable housing units after redevelopment, according to Lazere.

That there is still much work to be done in redeveloping public housing communities in the district, said Lazere. The importance of maintaining low-cost housing in D.C. will involve solving the issue of displacement by redevelopment, and replacing these units one-to-one.

“It’s about how things start out sounding nice on paper, but in the end don’t provide what people want,” Lazere said.

Lazere did not have information on which developers were frequently buying land in the district, and he also did not know how much revenue the city was making by selling public land.

Jeff Lawhead, a former consultant to local developers in the district, said that the previous lack of initiative to address the decline affordable housing has led to the accumulated number of homelessness.

To tackle this issue, there needs to be more funds that are allocated towards affordable housing, especially towards the Housing Production Trust Fund, a fund administered by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), that gives financial assistance to a variety of affordable housing programs and opportunity in the district.

Additional funds under past-Mayor Vincent Gray were not properly given towards the housing production, but as clashes with developers and affordable housing tenants continue, Lawhead hopes that there will be greater dialogue to have a strong initiative in saving funds and setting regulations.

“There needs to be more of an organization piece,” said Lawhead.

Marshall Cusaac, the Housing Regulations Specialist for the DHCD, was not available for comment about future funding projects for affordable housing.

Wes Rivers, the Policy Analyst of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and author of the D.C. report on housing Going Going Gone Rent Burden, said that new initiative by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Mar. 31 that includes $1 million in her proposed FY16 Budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund were aimed at helping to build and preserve more low-income units in the city.

Rivers also referred in his report that the District should identify a more stable source of funding for the housing fund. Because housing developments take years to plan and build, predictable funding is needed for developers who are considering a new housing project, according to Rivers.

In her latest budget proposal, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also proposed increasing the sales tax rate from 5.8 percent to 6 percent.

Sibert says that these new initiatives are beneficial to shelters like her own, but she is cautious about going along fully with the plans and would rather wait to see what happens.

“Politicians and mayors always promise something but later they say ‘do we still need funding for this?’” said Sibert. “That’s why I’m going to wait to see if things really change for us.”


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