The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

What are DC residents' main housing challenges?

What are DC residents’ main housing challenges?

Project Summary
As DC grows, many residents struggle with housing costs. To understand how housing affordability affects residents, we wanted to hear from them. DC surveyed households in the District, asking them about their experiences with housing and moving. Their responses told us that high housing costs and a desire for more space are the main reasons people move, and that large and low-income households face the most housing instability. These findings on why people move or stay where they are will inform District decisions to address specific housing challenges across all of DC’s eight wards.
Mayor Bowser greeting a resident outside their home.  (Credit: Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development)

Mayor Bowser greeting a resident outside their home.
(Credit: Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development)

Why is this issue important in DC?
The limited availability of affordable housing can make living in the District difficult for many families.1 Two-thirds of households with extremely low income in DC spend more than half their income on housing (see figure below).2 As we try to address this problem, we want to understand the specific housing challenges facing DC residents.

What did we do?
We worked with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and DC residents to write and get feedback on questions for the housing survey. To get viewpoints that were representative of each of DC’s eight wards, we identified a random sample of 20,000 households. We designed letters and postcards asking people to fill out an online survey and sent a follow-up with a paper survey to help increase responses from low-income households.

What have we learned?
Responses to the housing survey told us that, while DC residents’ reasons for moving across or out of DC vary by ward, the main drivers are high housing costs and a desire for more space. In a competitive market with a limited number of large units, households that are large, low-income, or live in wards 7 or 8 are most likely to be burdened by housing costs and say that they need to move as a result.

The good news is that the District has a lot of family-sized units, but we must work to make more of them available to working households across the city.
— Mayor Muriel Bowser

What comes next?
These unique, ward-level insights on the needs, desires, and residential mobility of different households will help DC strategically plan future housing investments to meet Mayor Bowser’s goal of creating 36,000 new housing units by 2025.

What happened behind the scenes? Because we sent the housing survey to a large number of residents, we took the opportunity to test how to get them to respond. Using a randomized control trial (RCT), we learned that residents who received a glossy postcard were as likely to complete the online survey as residents who received a more standard letter with the same text. Low-income residents were twice as likely to complete the survey if they were sent both a paper survey and a $5 gift card after the initial postcard, rather than the paper survey alone.