The crises of area homelessness, including the overcrowding and pest-infestations that saw the closure of the D.C. Village homeless shelter several years ago and recently razed a homeless encampment of hundreds in Baltimore (see story on page A3) have caused more than a few advocates to re-evaluate how and why so many families are being impacted. With the largest yearly increase in the number of homeless persons in families occurring regionally among the District (a 29 percent increase) and Montgomery County (a 34 percent increase) residents, evidence points to a manufactured epidemic brought about through an unregulated housing market and greed among developers.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ 2015 Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington report found that a rising trend of family homelessness in the area had direct correlations with high-cost housing markets, with jurisdictions like Montgomery County and the District facing a diminished number of affordable housing units (both subsidized and market rate). The report cited the lack of affordable housing as “a major contributor to the growth in family homelessness recorded during this period.” Coupled with a reduction in available Housing Choice Vouchers from local public housing authorities due to federal budget cuts (sequestration) and a rise in young adult heads of household (age 18‐24) with limited education and work experience, residents like Shondra Patrick, have found themselves “residentially vulnerable.”

Patrick and her husband both work fulltime – she, as a nursing assistant in a hospice, and he in construction – but find having to pay upwards of $2800 a month in rent, plus utilities a burden on their family of five.

“Owners of our apartment complex went month-to-month on leases and then began to take the cost of the rent up slowly over the course of the last six years from $850 to almost $3000. When my construction work slowed down two years ago, we were forced out and moved in with relatives,” Patrick’s husband said. “We have been moving from one relatives’ house to another’s ever since.”

The Patricks are the new face of homelessness and definitely not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, roughly 30 percent of the region’s households pay more than a third of their incomes to satisfy exorbitant monthly housing costs; more than 150,000 families are burdened with paying more than 50 percent of monthly income towards housing costs. Further exacerbating the issue, according to a 2014 study by the Urban Institute, was that 40 percent of units in the region that were affordable to extremely low‐income renters were being occupied by higher‐income households, who may have been more attractive as leasers to building owners.

Michael L. Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless said that in the current market, even families earning middle-class salaries may face homelessness by being priced-out of affordable housing.

“People who work every day who earn minimum wage ($8.25 in the District – $17,160 annualized) to $60,000 annually for a family of four, face challenges in finding housing within their respective income levels. New rental housing in the District in over $2,000 per month,” Ferrell said.

And with the area’s increased housing demand driving up rental rates beyond comfortable ranges for most households, Ferrell said that local governments will have to make affordable housing a priority through subsidies or other programs to ward off additional homelessness.

“Local governments will have to look at things like inclusionary zoning, requiring developers to set aside a percent of their units in new developments for low income households, as an important tool,” Ferrell said. “This has worked fairly well in Montgomery County. The District has had a weak showing in this area so there is a lot of room for improvement.”