Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The District could be doing more to alleviate the burdens of housing costs for its lowest-income residents, according to a new report that examines households earning under 30 percent of the area median income.

In a study released today called “A Broken Foundation,” The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute finds that Washington has about 43,000 “extremely low-income” households, and 62 percent of them (or 26,000 households) spend more than half their annual income on rent. That share of households—considered “severely rent burdened“—has grown 50 percent as compared with a decade ago. An “extremely low-income” family of four makes no more than $32,000 a year.

Perhaps most surprising, nearly one third of extremely low-income renters can’t afford more than $200 a month on rent, but only 9 percent of them have housing at that price through subsidies and other means. The majority of these families pay more than $800 a month in rent, even though almost none can afford to do so. And 42 percent shell out more than 80 percent of their income on rent, up from one third of such households in 2004. This puts them at risk of getting behind on payments, being evicted, or becoming homeless, per the report.

Credit: DCFPI

“What was most shocking about the research I did is understanding how important having an affordable apartment is to the lowest-income families, and how dire the consequences could be,” says Claire Zippel, an analyst at DCFPI who authored the report. “There can be damaging ripple effects throughout people’s lives, like cutting back on groceries, quality medical care, and other needs … It’s time to take a look at where the District’s affordable housing resources, while stepped up in recent years, can have the greatest impact on these families.”

Zippel’s research also deconstructs the myth that extremely low-income residents are unemployed, finding that 70 percent of non-disabled working-age adults in these households are “attached to the labor force,” whether working full time or actively looking for opportunities. “Many work in the service sector, retail, food service, or other occupations marked by low wages and only part-time options,” the report explains. Most of the rest are in school or caring for others.

Credit: DCFPI

What do these families look like? Almost one in five D.C. children live in extremely low-income households that are severely rent burdened, DCPFI says. And the “typical” renter for this study is “a working mother raising two children, a person with a disability relying on fixed income, or a childless adult in a low-wage job.” The report is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the District’s affordable housing portfolio, and secondary sources.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has made much of her administration’s “historic” investments in affordable housing: $100 million a year to the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund, which is more than any other D.C. mayor has committed and an effort that advocates, including Zippel, praise. But the study concludes that the District could better target these resources to the most needy. “While 77 percent of the D.C. renters in need of affordable home are extremely low-income, only 39 percent of affordable apartments the city has supported with public dollars since 2010 are within reach of this population,” the report explains. “The rest are targeted to higher-income groups.”

“Consequently, while 26,000 extremely low-income households face severe challenges affording housing, only 2,100 received help in the past six years.” That’s illustrated by the chart below, tracking data from 2010 to 2016. The District financed just over 10,000 affordable rental units, only 3,900 of which went to extremely low-income families.

Credit: DCFPI

In its report, DCFPI advocates for preserving existing subsidized housing for extremely low-income renters by implementing “a comprehensive housing preservation strategy” and protecting them from development-related displacement; pursuing the findings of a Bowser-appointed “strike force”; and finding ways to extend affordability covenants that expire after so many years on a permanent basis.

You can read the full report here.