Friday, February 18, 2011

Priced out of Public Housing

When you take the 6th St SE exit off of the 295 freeway, you can see the new senior public housing building on the right-hand side of the street (photo on left). At the stop light there, if you look back to the right, you can see a large expanse of new townhouses (photo on right). This area south of the 295 to M St and between 2nd and 7th St SE was the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg public housing developments. These two developments housed 707 low-income and very-low-income families and seniors. A very interesting fact is that today HUD considers households making up to $82,000 in DC to be low-income because they are increasingly priced out of DC.

With HOPE VI funding, both developments were demolished and redeveloped as a public-private mixed-income project. HOPE VI funding requires the DC Housing Authority to replace each unit of public housing, all 707 units, and thus not eliminate public housing from the site. The new development has many new townhouses. When completed, there will be 323 units. Using the developer's site plan, we see many townhouses starting at $662,000 or more, workforce townhouses with subsidized mortgages for those making $82,800-119,025, and affordable apartments (I was told by the developer that these were for those making around $50,000-60,000).

From the very helpful DCHA, I found out that 339 "public housing" units have been recreated on the Capper-Carrollsburg site, leaving 368 to be constructed. So, who lives in the 339 units? Those allowed in the units have to make a certain percentage of Area Median Income (AMI), which is $103,500 in DC. HUD considers those with up to 80% AMI ($82,000) to be low-income (though DC has tended to stick closer to the 60% threshold).

  • 162 seniors, in the senior building, who can make 0-60% AMI.
  • 138 individuals/families with a working head of household, in 400 M St., who make 40-60% AMI ($41,400-62,100).
  • 39 individuals or families, in Capitol Quarter, who make 0-30% AMI.
  • Total: 339 units.

There are very few units for those who make less than $41,000. From the incredibly informative Housing Policy in the United States 2010 textbook, we know that the average nationwide income for those working as elementary school teachers ($49,781), LPN nurses ($38,941), security guards ($29,401), and cashiers ($19,757) would not allow them to buy a house here or elsewhere. Also, we know that the average hourly wage for those working as LPN nurses ($15.72), security guards ($14.13), janitors ($11.57), and cashiers ($9.50) would not allow them to rent an average 2-bedroom apartment here or elsewhere.

Realizing that even the middle class is becoming priced out of DC, the Federal and DC governments began to set aside "workforce" housing. Yet, those with less than $41,000 incomes are in truly dire straits. The ever expanding market of high-end rentals and houses drives the neglect of middle- and low-income housing demand. Nationwide, the number of public housing units has decreased by 250,000 (18%) from 1991 to 2007 and the number of privately owned federally subsidized units have decreased by over 150,000 since 1997 (Housing Policy, p. 39). According to a 2007 DCHA report, the DC waiting list for public housing has 29,756 individuals/families on it and the DC waiting list for vouchers to rent on the private market has 48,748 individuals/families on it. While there is more and more demand for affordable housing, subsidies are provided to others. Around 7 million low-income renters received federal housing subsidies in 2008. In 2008, 155 million homeowners took mortgage deductions on their federal income taxes. These deductions and other homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion, mostly going to those with incomes over $100,000 (Housing Policy, p. 7). Priced out of public housing in many ways...

The "low-income" category has been defined upward. It is true that the middle-class is being priced out of DC. At the same time, the poor, including the working poor, have been pushed out of such places as Capper-Carrollsburg. Rather than setting up a choice between helping either those making $50,000 or those making $20,000, we should think about how we as taxpayers are helping those who can afford $800,000 townhouses.


  1. From a local listserv:
    Johanna’s blog tells us that to date 339 public housing units have been recreated on the Capper-Carrollsburg site, which is south of the freeway in the vicinity of Sixth and Seventh Streets. In the future 368 additional units will be constructed.

    Collecting data from a variety of governmental source, the blog explains the 339 units now in use are occupied by 162 seniors, in the senior building; 138 individuals/families with a working head of household, in 400 M St.; and 39 individuals or families, in Capitol Quarter. Good for them. It’s a nice development.

    Moreover, I’ve never seen a single post here reporting somebody was robbed by a felon who escaped into the Capper-Carrollsburg complex. I’ve never seen a single post about somebody who was attacked and beaten for no apparent reason by somebody who ran off in the direction of the Capper-Carrollsburg complex. And I’ve never seen any reports of teenagers from the Capper-Carrollsburg complex hurling racial epithets at pedestrians in the neighborhood or throwing rocks at houses.

    Apparently HUD’s Hope VI program has invented a better mousetrap. Hey Tommy! How about we bulldoze Potomac Gardens and replace it with something like the Capper-Carrollsburg complex? That kind of urban renewal might actually benefit the neighborhood.

  2. Response on a local listserv:

    I think your synopsis misses the main point of Johanna's writeup, which is encapsulated by this quote: "There are very few units for those who make less than $41,000." My take on the article is that the public housing development, while certainly "nice", caters primarily to middle-class or lower-middle-class tenants, leaving those who need help most out in the cold. What percentage of the families living in Potomac Gardens make more than $41,000 per year? If Potomac Gardens was bulldozed to make way for a similar project, it seems to me
    that we would "clean up" the neighborhood by making a lot of good folks homeless.

  3. Another response on a local listserv:

    Here's a link to the JDLAND.COM site about Capitol Quarter, which includes tons of background info, pictures, etc:

  4. The response starting with "I think your synopsis misses the main point" correctly understands the issues highlighted in the posting. I am going to get some numbers on this, but it is highly likely that no one in Potomac Gardens makes $41,000. In addition, 144 of the units have seniors living in them. When public housing is razed, all the residents are moved out. They thus lose the community they have built there and increase their chances of homelessness especially because there are so few vacant apartments available in DC (especially those affordable to those on extremely limited incomes).

  5. But wasn't the original idea of public housing to be for mixed incomes, rather than a dumping ground for low income people?

  6. Potomac Gardens is located in a mixed-income neighborhood (see the NY Times income map).

  7. To see the NY Times income map, under Sociology Tools choose the NY Times Race Map, then click on View more Maps and choose Median Income or other option.

  8. Potomac Gardens is not mixed income. Just because it is in a normal city neighborhood does not make it mixed income. Cabrini Green was only steps from Chicago's Gold Coast, but that didn't make it any less of a horrid concentration of poverty.

    Roy is quite right. Public Housing in the US has largely failed because it failed to maintain housing for the middle class. Any housing (public or private) that only concentrates poverty in a single location is bound to fail. Extreme concentrations of poverty are bound to be problematic.

  9. If any of you live in the boundaries of ANC6D I hope you'll come to our Community Summit on Sat. March 5, 10am - 2pm.
    Register at

  10. If extreme concentrations of poverty makes poverty appear problematic then I'm in favor of extreme concentrations of poverty: poverty is problematic and nobody should be able to ignore it. Dispersing poverty makes it easier for people who aren't poor to ignore, but this should not be confused with the question of what is best for people who happen to be poor. That is a question that poor people themselves should be allowed to answer.

  11. This information has helped me a lot to know more about the prices for the housing and their qualities.

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  13. Thanks for this. I checked out the 'workforce' housing as it was being built, not realizing that I needed to make 80k to be "workforce" enough. I never felt so poor at a salary of 76k!

    I'd argue that there IS no middle class housing in most areas of DC.

  14. I forgot to mention that althoguht I wasn't eligible to pay "only" 550k, he would have been happy to sell me one of the full priced homes!

    So lower income = no price break?

  15. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. I find the video’s nostalgia for the de facto racial segregation of the old Capper Carrollsburg to be very troubling. Efforts to make the neighborhood economically and racially diverse have been laudable and successful. Living next door to people of different backgrounds, or being invited to getting-to-know-you receptions with them, might push us out of our comfort zones, but we’ll all be better neighbors and citizens for it.

  17. Thanks, 7/23 Anonymous, for you comments. I finally made a response:


Due to spammers, I am restricting comments.