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Washington, DC Affordable Housing Options

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Washington, DC Affordable Housing Options | How To Find Cheap Apartments In DC


Finding affordable housing in DC can be a challenge. Trying to make sense of all the different ‘affordable’ programs will make your head spin! With all the talk about the shortage of affordable housing stock, Apartminty thought it was time to investigate what types of affordable housing are available in Washington, DC today and the best ways for renters to find them.

What is Affordable Housing?

This is a subjective term and has very different meanings depending on who is using the phrase. We are going to explore any housing that is ‘below market rent.’  {Don’t worry, there’s a glossary at the end}

The average rents in DC are currently:

Studio: $1591
1BR: $1995
2BR: $2585
3+BR: $2646

The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t spend more than 30% of your income on housing.  This number references the 1969 Brooke Amendment {revised in 1981} and is somewhat arbitrary. Some landlords will allow for the purpose of their approval process for the rent to be as much as 40% of your income.   For the purpose of this article, we’ll use the 30% guideline and/or programs where the annual rent increase will not outpace your cost of living raise, and we’re going to include rental housing programs regulated by the city or federal government and available in Washington, DC.

Rent Control Apartments

What is Rent Control?

Rent control applies to rental housing in DC built prior to 1975. (Technically it applies to all rental housing, but apartments built prior to 1975 are subject to controls, while those built after that year are exempt.)

How do I qualify for a rent control apartment?

Rent controlled apartments are available to anyone regardless of income. There are no extra steps for you to take during the application process to qualify. At the time of lease signing, there are a couple of extra documents/disclosures.

How does DC rent control work?

The defining characteristic is that annual increases in your rent may not exceed an allowable increase set by the city government. The annual adjustment is based on the Consumer Price Index {CPI} plus somewhere between 2%-10% of your rent. The combination of CPI + the  % increase can never exceed 10% total.  The law also sets that the landlord may only increase your rent once in any 12-month period. Additional protections regarding rent increases are provided for the elderly or disabled, capping the total maximum annual increase at 5%.

So, if in 2016 your rent was $1000 upon your anniversary/lease renewal, your rent could have a maximum increase of $25. Because the CPI was .5% and the city allowed and additional 2% increase.

Considering market rents in the district can increase between 10%-20% depending on demand, having this cap is a pretty sweet deal. Most people tend to stay in rent control apartments for a long time. {see: Monica and Rachel’s apartment on Friends}

The compromise to living in these units is that they were built before 1975. That usually means the buildings are not going to have a ton of the amenity-heavy common spaces you find in new market-rate, luxury buildings. Your apartments are typically going to be ‘feature light’ as well. {Think window air conditioner units and no garbage disposals or dishwashers.} If budget is a concern and you are able to find a rent control apartment with a long-term prior tenant, you could find a one bedroom for less than $1000. Really under market rents like this come available further and fewer between, but they are still available.

Where do I find rent control apartments?

What’s the best place to find a rent control deal? Honestly, it’s good old-fashioned shoe leather. Get out and walk the streets of neighborhoods that interest you. Adams Morgan, Cleveland Park, Van Ness and Glover Park all have a solid inventory of rent control units.

For more information about rent control regulation click here.

Affordable Dwelling Units

What is an Affordable Dwelling Unit {ADU}?

Affordable dwelling units are available for both rent and purchase. ADU apartment rents are based on your household income. You most frequently see rental units for 30%, 60% or 80% of the Area Median Income {AMI}. So here’s where it get’s a little tricky; AMI can be based on a number of different geographic regions. But to give you a basis the household AMI in DC metropolitan area in 2016 was $108,600.
So 30%=$32,580
80%= $86,880

Where do I find ADU apartments?

ADU units are available all over the city and many new construction buildings have a few units set aside as ADU units. Whether or not they have ADU or IZ units depends on when construction started, where the building is located and what the developers have negotiated with the city. You can start your search for ADU housing at . Most ADU units are required to be listed there.

Savvy renters are aware of these discounted rents, so it’s important to get on the list for an ADU apartment while the buildings are still under construction. Look on the building’s website. Their contact form will usually have a check box indicating that you are interested in the ADU program.

When you call a leasing office to inquire about the availability of an ADU apartment, make sure you ask what income level their ADU units are; 30, 60, or 80? Then you can immediately self-qualify if you need to pursue the conversation any further.

How do I qualify for an ADU apartment?

A household applying for an ADU unit must include all incomes earned by all adults/leaseholders living in the unit. You do not have to be related.

The number of persons living in a household will determine the size unit you qualify for {studio, 1BR, 2BR, etc.} The number of people you have in your household also slightly affects the maximum allowable income.

The landlords will most likely run credit, criminal and rental verifications. Assuming that you qualify, know that you are on a list with hundreds and sometimes thousands of other potential renters that have inquired about these apartments. ADU units are first-come, first-serve. If you get a call or email to view one, it’s on you to show up with everything you would need to apply…including application fees and security deposit.

Why can’t I Airbnb/VRBO my apartment?

Apartments labeled ADU, must be the leaseholder’s primary residence and cannot be sublet. The whole purpose of any affordable program is to provide housing to those that need it most. Airbnb or other subletting programs are an abuse of this. And quite frankly the income from the Airbnb rental would probably disqualify you from actually qualifying for the income threshold of your ADU unit. Also, the business license for apartments is actually “apartment houses-no short term rental.” That pretty much precludes Airbnb.

Inclusionary Zoning {IZ} units

What is Inclusionary Zoning?

Inclusionary Zoning is a function for allowing apartment developers to add more units {density} to their building than is actually allowed in the area they are building. This is called bonus density. In exchange for being allowed these extra units, the developer is required to build a certain number of affordable IZ units. These apartments have a set rent and are tied to the IZ program by covenant.

How does Inclusionary Zoning work?

Inclusionary Zoning units are different from ADU units by the way that they are administratively managed and the level of DCHD’s involvement. Like ADU, the IZ units can fall into different levels of affordability; those that make 50% or 80% of the area median income {AMI} or less. The maximum allowable rents are also based on these categories.

Income requirements for IZ units

Household income is the combined gross incomes of all household members. It includes every form of income, e.g., salaries and wages, retirement income, gifts, income from assets, etc. Your Household’s Annual Income must be at or below the maximum annual income, based on your household size (number of persons living in your home) to be eligible for the program.

See the chart below from DHCD:


How do I qualify for an IZ unit?

In order to qualify for an IZ unit, you will have to register with DHCD and get on a waitlist. Before getting on the waitlist and becoming eligible for the lottery process, households interested in leasing an IZ home must take two steps: (1) take the Inclusionary Zoning Orientation class with one of the partner community-based organizations; and (2) register for the program by completing this online registration form.

When you get that first email from DHCD to ask if you are interested in a specific property, you have to respond and say, “yes.” Your name is then entered into a lottery for that unit. Lottery entrants who both live and work in the district are given priority.

If your name is chosen, you can apply for that unit. The landlord can require credit, criminal, and rental references. And will verify/certify household income.

You will also have to recertify your household income on an annual basis.

Where do I find Inclusionary zoning apartments?

You can see the list of apartments on However, you cannot apply to an apartment community unless you have been notified via the steps above.



Tax Credit

What is tax credit?

A tax credit property is an apartment building owned by a landlord who participates in the federal low-income housing tax credit program. These landlords get to claim income tax credits for eligible buildings in return for renting some or all of the apartments to low-income tenants at a restricted rent. Also referred to as LITCH {Low-income tax credit housing}

How does tax credit work?

Tax credit apartment homes, sometimes referred to as ‘workforce housing’, are available for rent by anyone who falls into the income guidelines. Like some of the other programs discussed, tax credit maximum rents are calculated based on AMI limits. These guidelines and rent limits are set by HUD.  Each year, you will have to recertify your household’s income. This is actually an IRS program administered by the HFA of the jurisdiction. However, as a renter, you would deal directly with the landlord or leasing office.


How do I qualify for a tax credit apartment?

Tax credit applications are long and detailed. Be prepared to provide:

  • 6 current pay stubs
  • Most recent bank statement for each account you have open
  • If unemployed-Proof of unemployment compensation or worker compensation
  • If retired-Current proof of pension, retirement compensation, SS, or SSI benefit statement.
  • If disabled-Current proof of social security, SSI, and/or other disability pay {if applicable}.
  • If you receive income from public assistance-Current print out of your cash assistance benefits
  • If you receive child support, kinship care payments, and/or adoption assistance payments-Proof of such income

As you can see, a number of documents are required in order to determine your income category and it’s up to you to collect and have all the information submitted in a timely fashion.



Where do I find tax credit housing?

Tax credit apartments are marketed in much the same manner as market rate apartments. Some of the major apartment listing sites will have a section set aside to display tax credit apartments. Another way is to just search for apartments with the max price point of the tax credit rent. You can also find the listings on the DHCD website.


Section 8

What is Section 8 Housing?

With section 8 housing, you typically need to make less than 30% of the area median income. The government pays a portion of your rent for you. This is the biggest difference between Section 8 and the other programs outlined above. However, participants in the Section 8 program can qualify to live in an IZ unit or market rent housing. For instance, if your housing voucher was for $1100 and you found a rent control apartment for $1000, you could apply to live in that unit. Vouchers do have restrictions based on location, size, etc. For instance, if your voucher was issued in Maryland, you can’t use that voucher in DC.

Project-based housing

This is the other version of the Section 8 program. Project-based housing is an apartment community run by the local housing authority and or a private entity certified by the local housing authority. Typically the housing will open waitlists once or twice a year. As apartments come available, the office works their way through the waitlist to fill the vacancies.


As you can see, there are several affordable housing programs in play in the district.  Critics would argue they aren’t nearly enough to assist the rising number of DC residents that find market rent apartments unaffordable.  Developers are getting more creative in their approach.  Take for example the ‘shared living’  approach that WE Live promotes.  You sacrifice some privacy for an overall less expensive living situation.  It’s not that much unlike renting a room in a group home…that is, if your group home had pool tables, hot tubs, and high-bandwidth wifi.  What other options have you seen?


Amazon and the Amazon logo are trademarks of, Inc, or its affiliates. Rental providers will not refuse to rent a rental unit to a person because the person will provide the rental payment, in whole or in part, through a voucher for rental housing assistance provided by the District or federal government.

Also published on Medium.

About The Author


Not one to settle for status quo, Holli has spent her 20 year career shaking up the multifamily industry. From creating unheard of building amenities to designing lounge-like leasing centers, to major Pinterest fails in the kitchen, she is ever experimenting. It’s no surprise that she created a new way to match apartment renters with their perfect home. Holli is a featured speaker and session facilitator at regional and national industry conferences. When she’s not brainstorming the next marketing campaign, you can find Holli testing the limits of bottomless brunch or climbing the Peloton Leaderboard!

1 Comment

  1. Terri Wade

    Holli, just read the above. Thanks for this information and making it so clear and simple. Someday, perhaps, the govt. stats will be recalculated to present day (2019).


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