HUD Budget Bill Shortchanges Homeless and Affordable Housing Programs

May 29, 2014

The DC Housing Authority figures it will need $1.3 billion to preserve all the public housing units it operates. It’s not expecting anything like that any time soon, as Dena Levitz at The Atlantic reports.

In fact, its share of what Congress provides for public housing development and maintenance is currently about $11 million less than in 2000. And it’s short on funds for operating costs too.

At the same time, DCHA has an affordable housing waiting list so long that it decided to close it somewhat over a year ago.

This reflects an acute shortage of federal funds not only for public housing, but for vouchers, including the kind that extremely low-income people can use to help pay market rate rents.

These shortages help explain the very high number of homeless people in the District, though they’re certainly not the only factor. We must also look to soaring housing costs and inadequate local funding for affordable housing programs.

These aren’t problems for the District alone. New York City, for example, had more than 64,000 homeless people during last year’s one-night count. There too, low-income residents face skyrocketing rents, relatively stagnant incomes, a voucher shortage and public housing in disrepair.

A nationwide study conducted four years ago estimated a $26 billion backlog in public housing capital needs. And that was before the Budget Control Act tightened the screws on federal spending — in part through sequestration.

Well, the December 2013 budget deal provided some temporary relief from sequestration. Non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those that depend on annual appropriations, have $9.2 billion more for the upcoming fiscal year.

Yet key programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are in trouble. Homeless assistance grants and major affordable housing programs stand to lose $510 million, in inflation-adjusted dollars, under the bill the House Appropriations Committee approved last week.

The subcommittee for HUD and Transportation Department appropriations got $1.8 billion more than it had to work with last year. But this was more than offset by a projected $3 billion or so reduction in revenues from mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

The subcommittee chairman says, “Like appropriators do, we made choices.” They’ll force some very tough choices on state and local agencies — and setbacks for the homeless and other low-income people they serve.

Here are some of the specifics, summarized from a new Center on Budget and Policy Priorities brief.

Housing Choice vouchers. The 2013 across-the-board cuts forced agencies to reduce the number of households receiving rental assistance through these vouchers by an estimated 72,000 nationwide.

This year’s budget provided enough money to restore about half. But the House appropriations bill could more than undo the improvement, leaving 12,000 fewer low-income households with vouchers than before.

The problem here is partly that vouchers issued to veterans under a separate program no longer have their own funding stream and so would have to be renewed out of the overall Housing Choice budget.

That would leave agencies without sufficient funds to cover expected rent and utility cost increases for all vouchers now in use.

So they can again cut back on vouchers for non-veterans. Or they can shift the cost increases to voucher holders by freezing the value of the subsidies. One of those tough choices.

Note that we’re talking only about preserving the rental assistance Housing Choices has recently provided — not about addressing the needs of 11.3 million households that are probably paying more than half their income for rent, including at least 50,150 in the District alone.

Public housing capital investments. The House appropriations bill cuts the under-funded public housing capital fund by $100 million, leaving DCHA and other housing authorities with only half the funds they need to cover new development and renovation needs.

Public housing operations. Not enough funding for public housing operations either — about  86% of what HUD said was needed.

Agencies can cope with the shortfall in various ways, e.g., by cutting back on routine maintenance, passing on more of their utilities costs to residents, exercising their discretion to impose a $50 minimum rent on the very poorest families. More tough choices.

Homeless assistance grants. The House bill level-funds homeless assistance grants, rejecting the Obama administration’s request for additional funds to support 37,000 new units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people.

It’s not clear that the $2.1 billion in the House bill would even be enough to sustain all the PSH units supported by federal funds, since it would leave at least some grant recipients with less.

What is clear is that the House bill — in this area, as well as others — dumps responsibility for a major national problem on state and local governments and on nonprofits, whose resources are already stretched thin.

HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS) grants. A particular special needs population would lose out under another part of the House bill. Funds that help state and local agencies provide housing for people living with HIV/AIDS would be cut by more than 8%.

That would leave this relatively small, but vital program with less than it had after sequestration — and so less able than ever to meet the needs of more than 145,000 vulnerable people who reportedly need housing assistance.

This isn’t the whole story — and happily not the end. The Senate Appropriations Committee has just decided how to parcel out funds among its subcommittees. And Transportation-HUD has about $2.4 billion more than its House counterpart had to work with.

Now let’s see what it does.

 

 

 


DC General Family Shelter in Councilmember’s Bull’s-Eye

May 5, 2014

One of those interminable hearings on the proposed budget for the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. A list of 81 witnesses, not counting DHS Director David Berns, whose testimony was deferred.

Many issues teed up — most, though not all related to homeless services. No way to wrap them up in a blog post. One, however, raised a new red flag.

Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, insisted that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, be closed by year’s end.

He wants to force the District to “marshal the will … and the resources” by putting a mandate to this effect in the Budget Support Act, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports.

Graham returned to this notion over and over again — and attempted (unsuccessfully) to garner advocates’ support.

His lead-off witness put a plank in the platform with observations and some survey results — all confirming that DC General is an awful place. Hot water only some of the time, rats, roaches and, as one current resident testified, bedbugs that caused her daughter’s face to swell up with infection.

It’s “a dead building,” Graham said, quoting past testimony by Berns. No point then in putting any money into making it somewhat more habitable.

And even if it were, it would still be an out-sized facility — “a small city” of homeless families, each with only a single room to live in.

No one, so far as I know, believes that DC General is a perfectly okay place to shelter homeless families when they’d otherwise have no safe place to stay. Some doubts, in fact, as to whether it is safe — raised most recently by the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The issue is rather whether the District should close DC General before it can open enough more suitable shelter units to meet the need. Graham clearly believes this is the only way to ensure it will ever open them.

He cites the Mayor’s initiative to rapidly re-house 500 homeless families by mid-July. That, he says, would leave only about 100 families in DC General.

So there’d be vacant units — assuming, as he apparently does, that the initiative succeeds and accepting, as he does, the Mayor’s intent to keep them vacant for as long as he can. They’d still eventually be filled, Graham foresees, unless the shelter is shut down.

What to do then with the 100 or more families — and the who knows how many who will seek shelter as soon as the weather turns cold enough to trigger their legal right to protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions?”

Graham would temporarily shelter them in hotels, using money saved by not operating DC General.

This is wholly contrary to the approach DHS plans to take. Berns, recall, believes that homeless families left doubled-up situations once they knew they’d be put up in a hotel, instead of DC General.

It’s also quite different from the approach envisioned in the “roadmap” that 20 leading advocacy and service provider organizations released the day of the hearing.

This is the second time this year that advocates and service providers have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands because the Gray administration either won’t or can’t develop and carry out a plan to ensure that all homeless D.C. families have a safe, decent place to stay — and sufficient help to make their time there brief.

Or both. On the won’t side, we can look at the Mayor’s proposed budget, which would effectively cut homeless family services by $11 million — 20% of what DHS has this year.

The first coalition effort was a multi-part strategy to address the immediate family shelter crisis. The “roadmap” is a more evolved version — goals, sub-goals and new cost estimates to move the District toward a significantly improved homeless family system.

That, of course, will include something other than DC General — apartment-style units in smaller buildings, scattered in different parts of the city. The coalition expects the overhaul to take several years, however, and so focuses on improved casework and other services for families who’ll be at DC General.

Not so many there perhaps — or any for so long, if other goals are met. But there will be “safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it” — whatever the outdoor temperature.

Pressed to endorse immediate closure, Judith Sandalow, who heads the Children’s Law Project, demurred because “we haven’t seen a plan that will keep families safe.”

Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was understandably unwilling to rely on “all the big ifs.” She envisions a process in which units at DC General will be closed as they’re replaced.

A crisis-creating measure like what Graham wants could set off a repeat of the “draconian measures” DHS resorted to this winter, she warned. These measures would mean shelter for families only on freezing-cold days and no shelter during the next severe cold snap unless they went through the whole application process all over again.

One can understand Graham’s impatience. DC General was initially supposed to be an interim solution. There’s been talk about closing it for some time. Yet the Mayor only very recently directed Berns and the Deputy Mayor for Human Services to develop a closure plan.

We’ve no reason to believe that the District can establish alternative shelters for hundreds of homeless families by year’s end — or that it will pick up the costs of hotel rooms for them whenever they’ve no safe place to stay.

We do have reasons to believe that some of those families will be boomeranging back because they can’t pay rent when their rapid re-housing subsidies expire.

So I can’t help wondering if Graham, who’ll be leaving the Council shortly, wants to make a bit of history, knowing he won’t have to deal with the fallout — or perhaps just go out swinging.

UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute now has a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the reforms recommended in the roadmap. It’s a quick and easy way for those of you who live in the District to support sorely needed improvements in the homeless family system.

 

 


Mayor’s Budget Shortchanges Under-Educated DC Adults … and Their Kids

April 24, 2014

“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.

This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.

About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.

Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.

This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.

Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.

Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projections by experts at Georgetown University.

In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.

This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.

Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warned several years ago.

DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.

It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.

But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.

I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.

This much I’ve been able to parse.

The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would get more per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.

They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. The proposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.

The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budget for adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.

Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.

Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.

But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.

 


Doing Our Bit for Defense

April 14, 2014

Having exhausted all possibilities for procrastination, I finally prepared my tax returns. Then I got a receipt from the National Priorities Project. You can too — and as I did, also get a receipt for the typical taxpayer in your state.

Here are some things I learned.

First off, District of Columbia filers paid, on average, $5,560 more than the average for taxpayers nationwide. The District’s average is, in fact, higher than the averages for all but one state — Connecticut.

This, of course, speaks to how very well the better-off households in the District are doing. How the less well-off are doing is a different story. It’s doubtful that those in the bottom 20% earned enough to owe any federal income tax this year.

But however much or little we owe, we pay the same portions for each and every item in the federal budget.

So about 27 cents of every dollar we pay goes to defense.* For the average D.C. taxpayer, this translates into $4,681, plus nearly $873 for veterans benefits, which NPP tabulates separately.

Skimming down the receipt, I see that this same taxpayer will contribute about $1,744 to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but only piddling amounts to other programs for low-income people. For example, s/he’ll chip in:

  • $42.07 for WIC  — probably about 60% of the cost of one month’s worth of the healthful foods supplement for one low-income mother or child in the District.
  • $23.36 for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — just a few dollars more than the cost of restoring SNAP (food stamp) benefits for one of D.C. household that receives them.
  • $106.24 for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — about 25% of the current maximum cash benefit for a D.C. family of three.
  • $215.87 for Pell grants and other student financial aid.

Now, the receipt doesn’t account in detail for all income tax dollars that support programs for low-income people. SNAP and free and reduced-price schools meals, for example, are included in the Food and Agriculture category, but not broken out.

And I haven’t cited above two the receipt itemizes that benefit low-income people, as well as others, i.e., job training and employment programs and the Community Development Block Grant.

But even adding them in still leaves the average D.C. taxpayer — and me — spending nearly 10 times as much on defense. I’m sure as can be that the federal budget could “provide for the common defense” with less.

That would leave more to patch the frayed safety net and to help more people achieve economic security without it. There’d be more to meet other essential needs too, e.g., protecting public health and safety, refurbishing our neglected infrastructure, enforcing civil rights and labor laws.

Perhaps not enough more, however. I, for one, would be willing to pay higher taxes — painful as that would seem at this time of year — if a larger share went to these priorities.

Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues in the House would instead cut my taxes — or so it seems. The Center for American Progress, among others, says they’d actually rise.

Whichever, the just-passed House budget plan will clearly shift more of our tax dollars into defense  — and drastically reduce our relatively small contributions to major safety net and other non-defense programs.

Obviously not a budget reflecting my priorities — or those of most of my fellow taxpayers either, according to the polling data NPP cites.

We’ve got to do more than grumble at tax time to get a budget we like.

* The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports a considerably lower figure. This is mainly because it includes Social Security and Medicare. NPP excludes spending from dedicated revenue streams like payroll taxes.

 

 


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