Speak for We blogger Michael Dahl recaps a bit of his experience as a long-time advocate for better homelessness and affordable housing policies in Minnesota.
Over the years, he says, homelessness advocates have given top priority to diverse strategies — prevention, supportive housing, rapid re-housing, etc.
He sees a consistent thread in three elements. They aren’t actually common elements in the strategies, however. They’re questions that policymakers and other stakeholders should ask when they decide what their community needs by way of a homelessness system.
They’re painfully apt here in the District of Columbia as the DC Council considers the Mayor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.
So here they are (with some minor edits):
- Do we have enough affordable housing?
- Do we have jobs in the community that pay for housing here?
- Do the supports that we rely on when we fall on hard times, e.g., a job loss, poor health, work for our lowest income residents?
These components, Dahl says, “provide stability and a pretty sturdy safety net.” If they’re all in place, the number of homeless people will be small, and the time they spend homeless will usually be short.
If they’re not in place, then “you need a homeless system to pick up the slack.”
Well, the District surely doesn’t have enough affordable housing.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute took a close look at the situation two years ago. It found that the market had lost 23,700 low-cost rental units between 2000 and 2007 — more than a third of the stock.
Two in every five households were spending more for housing than they could afford, based on the standard 30% of income. Nearly three in five of poor and near-poor households paid at least half their income for a roof over their heads.
We’ve good reasons to believe that the situation has gotten worse. Rental costs have risen. More affordable units have been converted to upscale rentals or condos. More may have fallen into such disrepair as to be uninhabitable — victims of a combination of forces, including the recession.
The Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main tool for supporting affordable housing development and preservation — suffered losses when property sales slowed and prices dropped.
Then the Fund was raided to shore up the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded voucher program. And now the Mayor proposes another raid, leaving the Fund with enough to support only 170 new units next year.
This second fund shift to LRSP would cover the projected costs of all existing vouchers, but no additional vouchers for people who are homeless — or may become homeless in months to come.
Whether the District will be able to renew all federally-funded vouchers is anybody’s guess.
The District does have jobs that pay for local housing, but not nearly all residents have them.
Even if the District prepares more residents for living wage jobs — and cracks down on enforcement of its living wage law — housing will remain unaffordable for a substantial number of workers.
At the current living wage rate, they’d have to pay more than half their income for rent on that efficiency, assuming they work full-time, year round.
Our safety net is far from sturdy for our lowest income residents.
They can get health care through Medicaid or the DC HealthCare Alliance, though those in the latter might lose essential services if the Council goes along with the Mayor’s savings plan.
For families with children, we have the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. But cash benefits are way too low to cover the cost of unsubsidized housing. The maximum cash benefit for a family of three — currently $428 a month — is less than 37% of what the efficiency unit costs.
This is true, however, only for a family that’s been in the program for less than 60 months. For a family that’s been in longer, the benefit is only $257 a month. And the Mayor’s proposed budget would reinstate further cuts that the Council wisely deferred last year.
So it would seem that we truly do need a robust homeless services program. Under the Mayor’s budget, it would have $7 million less than last year.
And it already lacks funds to provide homeless families with shelter or other housing now that the winter season is officially over.
In short, the District fails Dahl’s test on both counts. Not enough stability or safety net support. Not enough in homeless services to pick up the slack either.