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The percentage of rental households at various income levels (extremely low, very low, low, middle, and high) paying more than 30 percent or 50 percent of income toward rent

The District’s expensive housing market is placing a major strain on the financial stability of the city’s residents, with more than half of rental households paying more than they can afford in rent, according to a study released today by the Urban Institute.

Slightly more than half, or 51 percent, of D.C. rental households pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, the widely accepted threshold for housing affordability. More than one in four, or 28 percent, face a severe housing burden, defined as paying more than half their income toward rent.

The fact that D.C. and national households are facing these housing burdens is nothing new; it’s been reported several times over the past few years. But the Urban Institute report goes further than past studies in breaking down the data across a number of metrics to demonstrate the threats to housing security in both the District and the broader D.C. region.

As the chart above shows, the cost burden in D.C. varies widely by income. Among extremely low-income households, defined as those making less than 30 percent of area median income, a full 84 percent suffer from a housing cost burden, and two-thirds have a severe burden. Those figures drop steadily with each rise in income category; only 4 percent of high earners, making more than 120 percent of area median income, have a cost burden, and none has a severe burden.

And a simple look at the income categories themselves show how wealth-polarized the District has become. Only 8 percent of D.C. households fall into the low-income category, defined as making between 50 and 80 percent of AMI. (Because AMI is so high given the high incomes in the D.C. suburbs, more than $100,000 for a family of four, the “low” category would be considered middle-income in much of the country.) By contrast, 13 percent are extremely low income, 11 percent are very low income (between 30 and 50 percent of AMI), 30 percent are middle income (between 80 and 120 percent of AMI, which would be considered wealthy across much of America), and 38 percent are high income.

D.C. is actually not the jurisdiction where poor households face the greatest housing burden, according to the report. In Arlington County, 91 percent of extremely low-income renters are cost-burdened, followed by 90 percent in Prince William County, and 88 percent in Fairfax County (plus Fairfax City and Falls Church) and in Prince George’s County.

Worsening the housing crunch for poor Washingtonians is the fact that some units they could afford are being occupied by higher-income residents. This is the case across income levels in the District, where 57 percent of units that would be affordable for extremely low-income renters and 33 percent of the units that middle-income renters could afford are being occupied by higher-income households.

The gap in available affordable units would imply two possible solutions. One would be to impose more income restrictions on low-cost housing, to ensure that the scarce units that are affordable to lower-income Washingtonians are available to them. The other would be simply to build more housing, and not just for low earners, but for the wealthier residents of the city as well, so that the competition for cheaper units eases. Of course, neither of these is easy or cheap, particularly when height and density limits, as well as neighborhood opposition, make it challenging to build an abundance of new housing, for poor or wealthy alike.

Chart created by Aaron Wiener with Chartbuilder; data from the Urban Institute report