Homelessness has a wide range of causes – ranging from health problems such as mental illness and substance abuse, to unemployment, re-entry after imprisonment and domestic violence. But national advocates and groups convened to end homelessness all point to one major cause of homelessness: lack of affordable housing.
A robust housing stock at an affordable price can initially prevent households from falling into homelessness. Families who do not pay more than they can afford are less likely to be evicted, and abundant affordable housing means that if they lose their current home, they can easily find another one.
Affordable housing and homelessness have a direct connection. Nan Roman, executive director of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, told CityLab in 2020 that although mental illness and substance abuse existed before, the major societal change that coincided with widespread modern homelessness was an increase in housing costs.
Research shows this link. A 2018 Zillow survey showed that areas where people spend more than a third of their income on rent are experiencing faster increases in homelessness.
One of the increasingly affordable regions is our own. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) finds that DC falls more than 20,000 units below the housing it needs for low-income tenants. This means that especially low-income people are struggling — more than half of DC’s lowest-income tenants are costly and spend more than 30% of their income on rent, the NLIHC says.
Why are homes so expensive?
The simplified answer to why house prices are rising is a matter of supply and demand. The population of the Washington region is growing; housing construction is not included.
A study from the Urban Institute from 2019 showed that artificially restricted housing – in other words zoning and other rules – has pushed up rents and housing prices throughout the region. This study showed that by 2030, the region will need to add more than 300,000 units to keep up with population growth.
The district set its own goal in 2019 to build 36,000 units by 2025. So far, it has hit about 45% of the total amount. The district’s most recent major plan change was another measure aimed at solving the problem by allowing for more dense construction.
Homelessness actually fell during the Greater Washington pandemic, probably in part due to eviction moratoriums and other tenant assistance measures.
But the pandemic also increased economic precarity. And while some housing expenses took a dip during the pandemic, that dip did not last long. DC is currently following a national trend of rising rents – likely a side effect of some of the pandemic disruption, CityLab reports. The average one-bedroom apartment in DC now costs as much as $ 2,210 a month, an increase of more than 11% over a year ago, according to a report from Zumper.
At the end of August, more than 100,000 households in the whole region were behind rents – about 14% of tenants. The success of relief efforts has varied, and with moratoriums on settlement settlements, the future is uncertain. However, it is clear that if the goal is to prevent families from experiencing homelessness, our region’s housing prices are still moving in the wrong direction.