Homeless persons find shelter under a D.C. bridge. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** Homeless persons find shelter under a D.C. bridge. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

The homeless crisis engulfing the United States has been fed by: a red-hot housing market fueled by more buyers than available homes; punishingly high inflation that at its height reached almost 9% and has eaten into pockets; spiraling rents; and governmental policies that favor the rich, corporate entities and others. 

However, homelessness is a complex, multi-layered set of challenges with many moving parts. The causes of homelessness in the nation’s capital and elsewhere around the country include low wages, cities and regions with high costs of living and scarcity of affordable housing. Further, people who end up homeless are often victims of other environmental and health factors including: substance abuse, mental illness, are the products of dysfunctional families or are children and young people trying to escape sexual and physical abuse. 

Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower DC, said a significant number of District residents are struggling under the weight of rising rents with incomes that fall far short of being able to pay. In the Washington area, according to Apartment List, average rents jumped 9% in the last year. 

“The housing crisis preexisted the (COVID-19) pandemic. People are rent-burdened and if income changes you quickly are behind,” said Norouzi. “That’s one of the reasons Empower DC has focused on housing. Housing is a human right. It shouldn’t be based on what you can pay. It speaks to the need in society not to view housing as a commodity. We have to ensure that people are housed in safe and adequate ways.” 

Norouzi and other local housing experts said D.C. has a major issue with the condition of housing as well as a severe shortage of affordable housing. She explained one way to help potential renters is for the city or to offer vouchers to offset the price of rent. 

“Being unhoused is unhealthy. Providing housing is the best thing we can do. But the political will is not there in general,” she said. 

Housing experts nationally agree with Norouzi that safe, stable, and decent housing has always been central to ensuring health and stability. Today, with the United States focused on moving past the COVID-19 pandemic, the broader and longstanding issue of income and housing insecurity has quickly become paramount to the health of an entire nation. 

At 16.6 %, Washington, D.C. has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States. Homelessness in D.C. is twice the national average. According to a 2019 survey called a “Point-in-Time of Persons Experiencing Homelessness in the District of Columbia,” by The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, there were 6,521 homeless people on the streets the night of that report.  

The National Alliance to End Homelessness said in its “State of Homelessness: 2022 Edition” that it has been estimated the District of Columbia needs to build more than 30,000 units of deeply affordable housing (0-30% money flow index (MFI)I) to meet the current need.

 Mayor Muriel Bowser has set a goal of creating 36,000 new housing units by FY-2025. City officials estimate that 12,000 of these units will be affordable with about 4,000 units falling into the “deeply affordable” category. These units are essential, the National Alliance said, “but we need more.” 

National Alliance officials add that especially for residents in extremely low-income households, “we need housing everyone can afford.” 

According to the report, the District has a variety of policies and financing tools that can be used to incentivize the development of affordable housing, as well as nonprofits, faith-based institutions and private companies that work towards both affordable and supporting housing.

“But even with all of these resources and partners, creating an adequate supply of affordable housing for our lowest income neighbors is challenging,” the State of Homelessness: 2022 Edition reported. 

Patrick Gregoire, an organizer, community builder and former Right to Housing community organizer with One DC, said in an interview last year that more than 40,000 District residents were housing insecure or potentially facing evictions. He said a number of organizations, including One DC, Movement Matters and ROC DC, worked tirelessly to push elected officials to protect low-income and impoverished Washingtonians from COVID-19. The goal was to cancel rent for all residents affected by the pandemic but they couldn’t convince the District of Columbia Council to act in the people’s interest. 

Gregoire, Norouzi and other activists, acknowledged that many of the issues D.C. residents faced during COVID-19, were challenges well before the pandemic. 

“A lot of people don’t know this is going on. We’re looking at decades of divestment of Black residents, racist housing policies and other issues,” he said. “Wages have been stagnant but rents increase every year. They give tax breaks to developers and corporate landlords and this spikes up property values.” 

The community organizer further emphasized how citywide issues hurt Black Washingtonians the most.

“When something negatively impacts the whole city, Black folks bear the brunt of its impact, and when something affects the whole city positively, these same folks benefit the least. This is a question of racial and economic equity,” Gregoire said. “Anything nationwide affects the entire city, but Black people are most affected and benefit the least. COVID didn’t create any new housing problems, it just exacerbated existing ones.” 

Eliana Golding echoed what a number of housing advocates, experts and activists espouse: that something as basic as having a safe, affordable place to live is an inalienable human right.  

“The short of it is the question of economic policy. In our society, housing is a commodity and not treated as a basic human right,” said Golding, an affordable housing and workforce development policy analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “Rents are high and going up in Washington, D.C. There is higher demand for apartments at various income levels. It’s a sellers’ market. landlords can keep asking for higher rents because there’s always someone willing to pay. They will charge what the market can bear. People with more money have more buying power and people with less ability will have to make hard choices like directing money from food, utilities or other expenses to cover their rent.” 

Juan Pablo Garnham, Audience and Community Engagement editor at the Eviction Lab, said the rent crisis is affecting not just low-income individuals and families too, but also those with middle- and higher-incomes as well. 

“The United States has been going through an affordable housing crisis since the Great Recession, which is related to the low levels of supply, high levels of demand, and the difficulties to access loans for a big part of our society, especially among low-income residents and potential first-time homeowners,” Garnham said. “In many parts of the country, there’s also been regulations that limit access to renters and low-income people, which add pressure to the market, including zoning restrictions and limitations for building more units.” 

Garnham said the rent squeeze is also exacerbated by: “reports of more corporate groups and LLCs buying housing in larger numbers; increasing rent prices, making it more difficult for individual buyers to compete; and potentially provoking evictions and displacement.” 

Golding said even though housing activists and advocates regard access to housing a basic human right, too many politicians, corporations, policymakers, speculators and developers see the housing issue in starkly financial terms. And she adds that it’s impossible to look at the affordable housing crisis, evictions and related issues without acknowledging the role race has played in it. 

“No, it’s not possible to talk about this without talking about race. The present system is built on de jure racism, discrimination, segregation and inequity. Certain places received investments and others (Black) didn’t,” Golding explained. “As you’re investing in one place, that increases in value while causing displacement of people unable to afford homes and apartments spurring gentrification. 

In the 20th century, Golding said, geographical choices created structural racism, a social structure and categories where denial of wealth in the United States determined who would live where. The affordable housing crisis is rooted in the absence of racial equity and disinvestment in underserved communities, Golding said, with generations of racially discriminatory housing laws and policies creating barriers blocking African Americans from buying homes, accumulating wealth and experiencing opportunities enjoyed by other Americans. 

Garnham, Golding, advocates and activists said there are a wide range of solutions that can and must be implemented but that will require political will, considerable public pressure and money to build enough homes and provide deeply affordable housing for all the people who are housing insecure. These solutions include significantly expanding America’s housing stock; revamping and reimaging evictions laws; Congress and state legislators approving new funding to expand the nation’s housing stock and expanding rental assistance to low-income people.

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