Photo of tents in Washington, DC
A photo of encampments in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Mike Licht/ Flickr

It’s hard to pay attention to local issues in the Washington region for long without bumping into the term “affordable housing.”

You may have heard it discussed in relation to the region’s housing shortage, or in soaring housing costs that limit options for all but the wealthiest families. You may have heard affordable housing used as a pseudonym for public housing, or publicly subsidized housing, or housing set aside for those with low incomes.

But most of the time, when you hear about affordable housing, there isn’t a definition attached, and different people mean different things. So what is affordable housing — and who is it for?

The 30% rule


There isn’t one definition of affordable housing, but in the US, most policymakers (and household budget advice columns) start from HUD’s definition: housing that costs less than 30% of a household’s income.

Families who spend more than 30% of their income on housing are designated as cost-burdened — the amount they spend on housing threatens their ability to afford other necessities like food, medicine, clothing, and transportation. Cost-burdened households are also more likely to face eviction.

The 30% rule, which was born out of early 20th-century public housing policy, is subject to a lot of debate. Different families have different needs and expenses — an apartment affordable to a healthy person without debt might be out of reach for someone with student loans and medical expenses, for instance.

Having 70% of your income left over is also very different for someone taking home $20,000 and someone taking home $200,000 per year. The former will have just over $1,100 per month to spend on other necessities, while the latter will have $11,000. Even if the higher-income person shops exclusively at Whole Foods, they’re probably not spending an extra $10,000 per month on groceries (if they are, I hope they invite me over for a nice mid-week lobster and caviar dinner).

Despite the clumsiness of the 30% rule, policymakers and researchers use it as a way to assess the overall housing market — for instance, by determining whether a modest apartment is affordable to someone making the median income — as well as a way to determine how much housing assistance to provide people.

Affordability is a widespread problem


Nearly 60% of D.C. residents are renters, according to a Brookings Institution report, and nearly half of those renters are considered cost-burdened.

Low-income families are the most likely to be cost-burdened, and many low-income renters are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half their income on rent. Black and Latino families are disproportionately affected — according to Brookings, about half of Black renters are cost-burdened in D.C., and more than 20,000 Black households spend more than half their income on rent.

But housing cost burdens affect a wide swath of the region. According to a 2019 Urban Institute report, the lowest income Washington households had the highest share of cost burden in 2015, but even among low-middle income households — those making $54,300 to $70,150 per year — half were paying more than 30% of their income for housing.

The District’s dedicated affordable housing programs — those with subsidies or income restrictions — serve households who earn less than 80% of the Median Family Income, which is higher in the Washington region than in much of the country. In 2020, a single person is eligible for some D.C. housing programs if they make less than $70,550 per year; a family of four can make up to $100,800 and still be eligible.

According to a 2019 housing report from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, affordability in D.C. is a particular challenge for large lower-income households of four or more people, particularly as new development in recent years has targeted smaller households.

Where is affordable housing?


Affordable housing isn’t just a question of overall numbers — it’s a question of where those units are located.

In D.C. and the region more broadly affordable units are distributed unequally, tracking closely with the fault lines of decades of discrimination and segregation. The result is that low-income families can’t afford to live in many of the wealthiest neighborhoods of D.C., allowing those patterns of segregation and inequality to stay firmly in place. As a result, policymakers are paying attention to where affordable housing is being built, making an effort to encourage it in areas that have historically shut it out.

Libby Solomon is a writer and editor for GGWash.