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The District has by far the highest concentration of recipients of housing subsidy vouchers in the region, according to a new report from the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University—-and they’re clustered in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
Nearly half of the census tracts in the District have a high concentration of people receiving housing subsidies through the Housing Choice Voucher program, the federal program for subsidizing rents for low-income residents at privately owned buildings. (The program is separate from public housing, whose buildings are publicly owned, although both programs are administered by local housing authorities.) In suburban Virginia, by contrast, only 13 percent of census tracts have a high concentration of voucher holders; in Maryland, that figure is 26 percent, still much lower than D.C.’s 46 percent. A high concentration is defined as a ratio of vouchers to total rental housing of at least 8.25 percent, which is 50 percent higher than the regional average.
Within D.C., there are also tremendous geographical disparities. The four census tracts with the highest concentration of voucher recipients are all east of the Anacostia River, as are eight of the top 10, even though less than a quarter of the city’s population lives there. The tracts with the highest concentrations are in Washington Highlands (Ward 8), Fort Davis (Ward 7), Douglass (Ward 8), and Lincoln Heights (Ward 7).
The findings give fuel to the arguments of ward 7 and 8 leaders who have urged the city to stop putting new affordable housing east of the Anacostia, where they say there’s already a concentration. Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry has gone so far as to argue against any new rental housing in his ward, although he appeared to reverse his position this spring when he backed an all-affordable apartment building planned for Anacostia.
Of course, the Housing Choice Voucher program, which pays the difference between 30 percent of a household’s income and the unit’s rent (up to so-called fair market rent), doesn’t dictate where people live or force additional poverty on any neighborhoods. But it’s unlikely to subsidize units in wealthy neighborhoods, since the rents there exceed the program’s threshold. The map above highlights this phenomenon: No census tracts west of Rock Creek Park have a high concentration of voucher holders, while the majority east of Georgia Avenue NW do. (The tract with the lowest concentration of voucher holders is in Shepherd Park, a largely upper-middle-class neighborhood.)
Indeed, the study finds that voucher-holders are concentrated in neighborhoods with an average poverty rate of 11.1 percent, compared to the overall regional average of 7.7 percent. There’s also a racial disparity: In D.C., voucher-concentrated tracts are 84.7 percent black, while the city as a whole is about half black.
But not all affordable neighborhoods are full of voucher holders. As the chart below shows, the demographics of voucher-concentrated neighborhoods and neighborhoods with affordable housing markets but not many vouchers are very different.
The city has made efforts to deconcentrate poverty, with programs like inclusionary zoning, which requires new residential buildings to set aside a portion of their units for low-income residents, and the struggling New Communities Initiative, which aims to convert aging public housing complexes into mixed-income communities. But with so many voucher holders living in high-poverty neighborhoods, it’s clear that this attempt at diversification still has a long way to go.
Still, D.C. residents hoping to receive vouchers but wary of living in poor surroundings can take a perverse kind of solace: The city closed its 70,000-name waiting list for vouchers and public housing last year, so for now, no new voucher applicants are being accepted.
Images from the Center for Regional Analysis