Who Is Cost-Burdened?

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The loss of market affordable housing stock in Northern Virginia over the past decade is well-documented. First captured by local housing agencies in 2000, this trend has been covered more recently by local journalists, building awareness of the issue of housing affordability as a significant regional challenge. The latest examples on the loss of these units are two articles in the Washington Business Journal that profiled the situation in Arlington, and the City of Alexandria. Other NoVA jurisdictions are not immune from this troubling trend either. Thousands of older, more affordable rental units have been lost in Fairfax County due to demolition or extensive renovations resulting in increased rents. Privately-owned housing stock located in the inner suburbs or near metro stations is extremely vulnerable, and local governments have few tools, short of outright purchase, to preserve them.

While data is good, maps are a dramatic visual way to convey the scope or magnitude of an issue. Housing Virginia, a statewide housing education coalition, has developed a new tool called MapBook that demonstrates the increase in rent-burdened households due to the loss of affordable housing. The map provides a statewide picture, but it also allows the user to get more granular, looking at affordability at the census tract level in a specific jurisdiction.

As we speak about housing affordability as a key determinant for family health and community stability, and the importance of housing choices to the economic well-being of the region, this tool is a powerful visual to share with local and statewide elected officials as they grapple with decisions on policies, programs and resources for services.

Front and center for statewide housing advocates should be the protection and expansion of the state housing trust fund. What the map shows us it that an increasing number of households are spending a larger percentage of their income on housing costs, leaving less money for food, child care, health costs and transportation. The result is a greater dependence on safety net services, and less discretionary income to support the local economy. Employment and retention, especially for small businesses, becomes difficult when affordable housing options don’t exist near job centers.

In the absence of robust federal policies that support a comprehensive growth agenda, states that focus on building inclusive communities through investments in housing, health care, education and transit will come out ahead of the game. Let’s work to make Virginia one of those states.