- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2007

Walk around the District’s quaint streetscape or drive through its leafy suburban neighborhoods, and you will notice an interesting fact: A lot of these federal-style town houses, charming Cape Cods and breezy bungalows are kind of on the small side.

True, the footprint of the typical American home has ballooned since those 1920s bungalows were constructed.

But there’s another reason for their relatively modest appearance. These houses weren’t built for the lawyers and lobbyists that occupy them now. Way back when, homes like these in Alexandria, the District, or some close-in suburbs housed teachers, firefighters and ordinary civil service workers.

Today, however, many city workers and federal employees have to head for the hills — literally — when it comes to finding affordable housing.

What makes a house affordable? According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a family should pay no more than 30 percent of its annual income on housing. Yet HUD estimates that 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing.

According to the Housing Affordability Index prepared by the National Association of Realtors, which looks at median home payment as a percentage of median income, homes are pretty affordable, generally speaking. Nationally, the median home price is $220,500.

In the Washington metropolitan area, the average sales price in March for a detached single-family home in Arlington County was $770,503. It was $675,736 in the District, $714,042 in Fairfax County, $478,086 In Prince William County, $594,899 in Montgomery County and $368,666 in Prince George’s County.

So the housing/income equation can be a particular challenge in the greater Washington area, where the median income is $94,500 and home prices are high, particularly for teachers, firefighters and other government employees.

Loudoun County residents have the nation’s highest median household income, $98,483, but the housing costs in that county are equally high. The average price of a detached single-family home there in March was $623,530.

A recent survey commissioned by a coalition of real estate groups headed by the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO), a housing and community development advocacy group, found that finding and maintaining affordable housing within communities is a key issue for most Americans.

The poll found that nine out of 10 Americans cited affordable housing as a high priority, and a majority — 69 percent — said that they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who has a detailed plan for making the nation’s housing affordable.

“Homeownership is one of the strongest tools we have as a nation to build wealth for families,” says Saul Ramirez, chief executive officer of NAHRO. “Owning a home really is the American dream.”

You don’t have to be a millionaire to get a nice place. And you don’t have to be so crushingly poor that you qualify for low-income assistance. All you need is a little know-how, a lot of patience, and some willingness to think outside the box.

That’s what Mike Mackey did when it came to finding his new home in Alexandria. A city employee, Mr. Mackey supposed that he would have to travel fairly far afield or limit himself to a small efficiency. Instead, he found the city of Alexandria Office of Housing.

“I didn’t know what I was eligible for,” says Mr. Mackey, who currently serves as Alexandria’s gang prevention and intervention coordinator.

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