Photo by Dougtone on Flickr.

The diminishing quantity of housing for middle and low-income workers in Alexandria is reaching epic levels. According to a recent study by the Center for Housing Policy our region is seeing a dramatic increase in the number of families spending over 50% of their monthly income on rent. Unchecked, this trend will substantially hamper the economic and cultural diversity that defines Alexandria.

A recent report from the Center for Housing Policy shows that, nationally, “[n]early one in four working households spends more than half of its income on housing costs.” In recent years, for some, rents have gone up even as incomes have declined.

And, although Alexandria has already gone further than most to protect its affordable housing, the fact remains that rents are rising faster than incomes throughout the region, thanks to a housing shortage that shows no signs of slowing.

Lower income families feel the effects of this economic shift most, as families making less than 50% of the area median income, about $60,000 in Alexandria, have seen the largest increase in the percentage of their income that they spend on housing. They now pay over 40% of their income on housing. Those earning approximately 30% of the area median, about $40,000 in Alexandria, pay closer to 80% of their income on housing.

While most of the apartment rents in the city, even the affordable ones, are most financially accessible to people earning over $60,000 a year, there are thousands of people paying for these units even though their incomes are much lower. The result is they have little, if any, disposable income to live on.

And, these so-called affordable units are becoming ever more scarce. When property owners repair and fix up their buildings they are able to double rents, driving moderate income workers out of our city and further away, forcing longer commutes on them and more congestion on our region.

Last year, the average value of apartment buildings went up about 15% because a shortage of housing choices and the cost of construction continue to drive up costs. Alexandria gives substantial bonuses to create affordable housing projects. The city waives parking requirements. It allows for extra density. It helps non-profits to get subsidized financing.

But, it is evident that these measures are not enough. The lack of supply and increasing cost of managing or building units render it impossible for non-profits, and for profit organizations, alike, to create an apartment that is reasonably affordable to a person earning under $40,000 a year.

In short, our region isn’t keeping up with the demand for rental housing. People want to live near jobs and fewer want long commutes from the far-out suburbs, especially with gas prices at over $4.00 per gallon.

The fact is that these trends are likely to continue. Every regional forecast expects significant growth of millions of residents over the next twenty years. This is economics 101. A good economy and jobs insulate us from some of the worse parts of the national economy. However, all of these factors also put huge pressure on rental prices.

Despite the awards Alexandria has won and the millions of dollars we have spent over the last ten years to preserve a range of affordable housing options, there is no city policy that can stop these rental price trends.

Typically, the most affordable housing in any area are the older apartment buildings. As those are replaced and upgraded, we lose affordable options. Building more rental housing now is the best long-term solution, because it increases supply, and because today’s new unit will most likely become more affordable over time.

However, if we are to truly impact the supply and demand problems facing our region, it’s going to take more than just Alexandria’s participation.  We will need the whole of our region to recognize and begin to address the problem.

In the conversation about how to keep rents affordable, some have suggested that the city not fix up public housing, or that it not advance public safety improvements, or that it not allow investment in our parks and other city infrastructure, in order to suppress the value of property.

Although purposely running real estate into the ground and encouraging crime would certainly keep some rents affordable, this is a narrow and dangerous approach that ignores the larger national economic trends behind this.

Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the city’s identity, as a place where people from many backgrounds and incomes can live safely and enjoy a good quality of life. Smart urban planning and common sense would say there should be a range of housing options throughout the city, not segregated pockets of low income workers in crime ridden, rundown housing.

While some have complained about the fact that the city is demolishing significant blocks of pubic housing right now, the truth is that every unit of public housing that Alexandria is taking down will be replaced with a newer, higher quality unit of public housing that will provide for a better and safer environment for residents to enjoy.

Alexandria’s median income is close to $110,000. And, it’s going up as more high skilled, high wage people move into our region. But for recent college grads, blue collar workers, teachers, police, construction workers, cleaners and more, it also means living multiple people to a unit or driving hours each day to work here.

If residents, planners and officials want to preserve, and even improve upon, the diverse, vibrant and accommodating character of Alexandria, they will have to go further and exercise open-mindedness, creativity and flexibility in the coming years.  And, Alexandria will need the partnership of the greater Washington region to make a true impact on rent-to-income ratios as the city and metro area continue to expand and evolve.