DC Fails Homelessness Test

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.

The local unemployment rate seems stuck at 9.8% — and that’s only residents who are actively looking for work. The latest rates for Wards 7 and 8 are 16.3% and 24.3%.

The average income of the poorest fifth of D.C. households was just $9,100 in 2010 — about $4,770 less than the annual rental cost of a modest efficiency unit then.

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.

Unemployment benefits are available for some, though far from all residents who lose their jobs. But they’ll be cut off sooner due to changes in federal law.

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.

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4 Responses to DC Fails Homelessness Test

  1. Michael Dahl says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. And, I am so glad you found my questions to be a good starting off point.

    Of course, in reading my questions, I realize that I should either clarify one issue or add another question. I am curious for your thoughts.

    Some people cannot work. Some people cannot work full-time. (e.g seniors, severely disabled, unaccompanied youth, someone taking care of others)

    While I haven’t decided for myself if housing is a right, it comes pretty darn close to being one. And those who cannot work or work full-time, should not go homeless or have their housing options so severely limited.

    I always think of this as a combo of two of my standards 1) enough affordable housing; and 2) do mainstream supports work for low-income folks. But I probably should just add this as a unique question to consider. It’s important enough unto itself.

    As a side note, I just hate that low-income workers are in almost every shelter. They compete for the few beds that are available. But their jobs, which currently don’t pay a living wage, won’t support their basic needs. In my community, when the economy was hot and terribly high number of our homeless were full-time workers, we even had a temporary shelter exclusive for people WORKING the night-shift.

    What a shame.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’m not certain that an additional question is needed, Michael.

    I understand affordable housing to include programs that make housing affordable for low-income people, including those who can’t work or can, but not full-time.

    Income supports, as I understand them, are cash and non-cash benefits like food stamps. Some of these aren’t available to people who can’t work. SSI is only for those who can’t, but benefits are very low. The same, of course, is true for most of the other major benefits.

    So we’ve got holes in the safety net. I’m just not clear we should put them in two different categories. What do you think would be gained by that?

    I’m quite certain we’ve got low-wage workers in D.C. shelters. I did a post recently about the unaffordability of rental housing here. Using the standard 30% of income for affordability, not even our local living wage makes an efficiency unit affordable!

    P.S. I too am ambivalent about claiming housing as a human right. As a practical matter, I don’t think it makes a bit of difference. I note that the District has adopted the UN Declaration on Human Rights. I see no evidence that the right to housing in the Declaration has affected any budget or other practical policy decision.

  3. Michael Dahl says:

    Kathryn:

    We agree. Adequate income should be able to afford decent housing. For those who cannot work, income supports should allow them to survive at a decent level and allow them to make choices they want.

    I want to thank you for this conversation and tell you that I hope to write more about it soon on my blog.

    However, a bug with my blog-provider keeps me from adding new content. I hope to add more soon.

    And when I do, I want to explain to those who don’t know much about how our safety net does not work, why living wages or income supports should enable people to make the housing choices they want. Just because someone requires income supports, doesn’t mean they should be severely restricted with their housing choices.

    Anyhow, I look forward to writing more about this when my technology cooperates.

    I look forward to reading more from you.

    Michael

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    I look forward to reading more from you also, Michael. Hope you get your blog provider debugged soon.

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