House photo from Shutterstock.

Renters and homeowners in the Washington region of all income levels have trouble finding housing they can afford. This is a serious challenge to the area’s economic competitiveness and quality of life.

Although our region has generally higher incomes and wages than most other places in the country, it has also long been among the country’s most expensive metropolitan areas. Incomes have not kept pace with the rising cost of housing.

As a result, too many families in DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland are struggling to stay afloat or find places to live which they can afford. Two recent reports commissioned by my organization, Enterprise Community Partners (Call the Question: Will the Greater Washington Region Collaborate and Invest to Solve Its Affordable Housing Shortage? and The Greater Washington Region’s Future Housing Needs: 2023), make clear that we’ll need to implement large-scale solutions to end the region’s housing crisis for good.

Almost one third of owner households in the region pay more than 30 percent of their monthly income in housing costs. And nearly half of all renter households have struggled with rising housing costs, including more than 150,000 families who pay more than half their income in housing costs each month.

This problem affects everyone, but low-income residents most of all. 75 percent of the 1.14 million owned or for sale homes in the area are not affordable to low-income buyers without assistance. The region will add more than 400,000 new households by 2023, and nearly 150,000 of those will make 80 percent or less of the area’s median income, the majority renters. That creates a significant new housing need on top of the quarter million lower-income households in the region that were already cost-burdened between 2009 and 2011.

There simply isn’t enough housing. Higher-income families are often moving into homes that in years past would have been occupied by lower-income families, putting added strain on supply. Substantial progress on regional affordable housing relies on the willingness of multiple sectors to acknowledge the growing need our communities face and mobilize accordingly to drive economic progress and create opportunity for residents. 

Most affordable housing development nationwide over the past 25 years has been financed with private-sector investments made possible by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, America’s main tool for creating and preserving affordable housing. However, in most high-cost urban regions, additional subsidies have been required to produce housing affordable to low- and moderate-income people—and they annually face cuts.

New strategies will need to make up for this gap in financing affordable housing, including new and creative uses of public land and private sector capital and land.

Regional governments also will have to plan for adequate new housing at all levels so that an undersupply of housing does not push prices up faster than public programs can keep up.

Bold policies at all levels of government and in the private sector must reinforce a regional and national commitment to make transformative progress. If we’re serious about putting an end to the affordable housing crisis in the region, we’ll need a comprehensive action plan focused on increasing the overall supply of housing and sources of capital while also reducing development costs. But success is ultimately a matter of political will.

Our economic competitiveness as a region will depend in no small part on us addressing this housing affordability challenge. Small thinking will not address a big challenge.  We need to stop having million dollar conversations about billion dollar problems. Housing people can afford is a critical infrastructure need and should be addressed as such.

There is no magic bullet solution to the housing challenge facing the DC region or to the growing national housing crisis. Ultimately, the challenge is recognizing that housing production and preservation isn’t a choice but rather a necessity to prepare the DC region for the future. It’s time to make housing issues one of our top priorities.

David Bowers is vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners. David earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and his Master of Divinity from Howard University. He is an ordained minister and the founder of the all-volunteer NO MURDERS DC movement, launched in 2000, and a founding member of the Greater Washington chapter of 100 Black Men.