DC TANF Families Far Below Poverty Line, Even With Uncut Benefits

November 20, 2014

Shortly before the election, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner observed that none of the mayoral candidates had even mentioned “a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress.”

She was referring to the District’s decision to phase out Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to families who’ve received them for a lifetime total of five years. The DC Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut — and for good reasons, as Weiner indicates.

But the cuts have gone forward again. They’re likely to leave more than 6,000 families with no cash assistance whatever come next September — unless the Council and soon-to-be Mayor Bowser agree to change the law.

But what about families whose benefits haven’t been cut? Not much of a safety net for them, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ recent state-by-state update on the benefits shows.

CBPP looks at the maximum cash benefit a single parent with two children can receive. That was $428 in the District when the Center did its analysis.

A provision in the latest Budget Control Act, i.e., the package of legislation that’s paired with the budget proper, provides for a cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year, based on the Consumer Price Index.

That, I’m told, will boost benefits by 1.5% — just making up for what our three-person family’s benefit lost in value due to inflation during the July 2013-14 period.

The family will still have an income at about 26% of the federal poverty line. And it will be considerably worse off than three-person families were when TANF began.

Adjusting for inflation, the maximum benefit for our D.C. family has lost about a third of its real-dollar value. Losses were smaller in more than half the states.

And, as we all know, the cost of living here is higher than in most places. CBPP provides just one measure — the gap between the maximum TANF benefit for three-person families and the fair market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The pre-COLA maximum benefit for our D.C. family is 29.1% of the FMR for the apartment. In other words, the family couldn’t come anywhere near to paying for it, even if it spent its entire benefit on rent.

This is true for families in every state, but the rent shortfall is greater than the District’s in only two — Mississippi and Tennessee. Not, I suppose, states the District would choose as benchmarks.

Rankings of this sort aren’t nearly as relevant as the measures of how woefully inadequate TANF benefits are — and how more woefully in adequate they’ve become over time.

So far as housing is concerned, the maximum for our D.C. family would have covered nearly 44% of the FMR in 2000 — still a very large shortfall, but smaller because the benefit was worth more and rents in our area hadn’t skyrocketed.

Now, it’s true that some TANF families in the District have more cash income than the maximum benefit indicates because our local program exempts a fair amount of earned income when setting benefit levels.

Also true, however, as indicated above, that many families are receiving far less than the maximum. The phase-out alone has left some three-person families with as little as $152 a month.

Most, if not all of the families, however, receive a separate cash-equivalent benefit from SNAP (the food stamp program). Yet the cash value of SNAP benefits still leaves TANF families far below the poverty line.

CBPP shows this by combining the average monthly SNAP benefit for TANF families with the maximum the three-person family can get from TANF. With the two benefits, so defined, our D.C. TANF family was at 54.4% of the FPL in July.

But, says CBPP, this is probably an overstatement for many families because the average SNAP benefit it calculated assumes housing, plus utility costs high enough to qualify families for the maximum.

No such costs for the families in the DC General shelter, most of whom depend on TANF benefits. And lower costs, if any that families can claim if they’re doubled-up with accommodating friends or relatives.

There could be fewer homeless families if the District substantially increased TANF benefits now, as originally proposed, and modified the phase-out to preserve benefits for families who’d otherwise become destitute, even though the parents had done everything they were told to.

These could include families with a parent who’s working, but not able to earn enough to support herself and her kids and those with a parent who isn’t working because jobs she could qualify for are just too scarce.

And then perhaps there are parents who didn’t do everything they were told to because they couldn’t, e.g., those with certain intellectual disabilities or PTSD that caseworkers had failed to identify.

But such exemptions would still leave some families subject to phased-out benefits that would sink them even deeper in poverty than they already are — and less likely to achieve the self-sufficiency that TANF is supposed to promote.

How can you focus on preparing for — or seeking — work when you’re trying to figure out where you and your kids will spend the night or how you’ll feed them now that you’ve run through your monthly SNAP benefit?

Problems even for parents who are still within the rigid time limit now.

 


DC General Closing Plan Won’t Shelter All Homeless Families at Risk of Harm

November 13, 2014

I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.

Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.

And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.

Should DC General Be Closed?

A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.

It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.

Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.

In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.

Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?

The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”

The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.

The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.

Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.

Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?

And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.

So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.

What Would a Unit Be?

Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.

The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.

How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?

The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”

It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.

What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.

The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”

Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.

Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.

Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.

I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.

 


We Don’t Know How Many DC Youth Are Homeless, But We Do Know Too Many

October 9, 2014

My last post focused on poverty among older teens and young adults, both in the District of Columbia and nationwide. Some, though far from all are homeless. Here’s what we know — and don’t — about the scope of the problem.

As you’ll see, we still don’t have a good fix on how many homeless young people are out in the world alone — those formally known as “unaccompanied.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that, on a single night sometime during January 2013, there were 40,727 homeless, unaccompanied youth in the U.S. These are all 18-24 year olds. Teenagers on the cusp of adulthood are lumped together with younger children. Far fewer were unaccompanied, according to the counts HUD tabulated.

Nearly half (48%) of the unaccompanied youth counted were unsheltered, i.e., spending the night in a car, public transit station or, in HUD-speak, elsewhere “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping place for human beings.”

The District reported only six homeless, unaccompanied minors and said that all were sheltered. As some of you may recall, I questioned this figure when the results of the Washington metro area counts were first reported.

To HUD itself, the District also reported 158 homeless 18-24 year olds “in households without children.” Eighteen, it said, were unsheltered.

An additional 446 in the same age bracket and counted were in households with at least one children — presumably, in most cases, their own. Somewhat over half were in an emergency shelter — and none unsheltered, the report says.

If accurate, this is probably because the count was made on a freezing-cold night, when the District is legally obliged to shelter anyone who would otherwise have no safe place to stay.

What we know for sure is that more parents at the now-notorious DC General shelter are still in their teens or not much older. Last winter, nearly half there were between 18 and 24, according to the coalition that developed the roadmap for a better homeless family system.

Yet we also know for sure that both the national and the District’s figures are undercounts. This is partly because homeless youth — the unaccompanied, at least — are singularly hard to count.

But even the best count wouldn’t give us an accurate read because the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use — and therefore, the definition its grantees must use for their counts — excludes many youth, as well as older people whom most of us, I think, would consider homeless.

HUD has only recently begun requiring breakouts for homeless youth. And the latest posted reports are more detailed than those for the previous year. So we can’t trace trends. But we do have some evidence that the number of homeless, unaccompanied children and youth is rising.

The Department of Education, whose definition of “homeless” is broader than HUD’s, reports that the public school systems to which it had awarded grants for support to homeless students had 62,890 who were enrolled during the 2012-13 school year and with no parent or guardian looking out for them. This represents a 14% increase over the 2010-11 school year.

We don’t get a breakout for the District, alas. But we do find total homeless student enrollment figures in prior Education Department reports.

So we learn that the D.C. public schools reported 2,499 homeless students during the 2009-10 school year and 2,947 during the 2011-12 school year. This represents an increase of nearly 18%.

Though the upward trends indicated are probably accurate, the hard numbers are again almost surely undercounts.

For one thing, the homeless, unaccompanied students are only those who received services from grant-funded staff or activities. For another, the totals, including the District’s, tell us only how many homeless students school authorities could identify.

Homeless students, we’re told, are often reluctant to seek aid and hard for school authorities to identify when they don’t. They’re fearful of peer reactions, being put into foster care, etc. We can assume this is especially the case for those who are on their own.

And, of course, the Education Department’s figures don’t include youth who’ve dropped out of school — or those who’ve graduated and been unable to find jobs that would give them the wherewithal for rent.

In sum we seem to have better data on homeless children and youth than we used to — the unaccompanied cohort in particular. But we know they’re imperfect.

Here in the District, we may have better numbers fairly soon. The budget for this fiscal year includes $1.3 million for the End Homeless Youth Act — an optimistically titled bill based on recommendations by another coalition.

The bill requires the Department of Human Services to conduct “an extended youth count,” which, I take it, means something considerably more comprehensive than the one-night counts that have yielded such dubious figures.

But the bill itself called for $10 million in annual funding, reflecting what the coalition estimated the first year of its plan would cost. A million was for evaluation, including, but not limited to the youth count.

So it’s not altogether clear what we’ll have and when. Meanwhile, however, even the figures we have are plenty good enough to tell us that we’ve got a larger, more complex problem than our public agencies and the nonprofits they help support have the resources or the inter-connections to cope with effectively — let alone solve.

The Winter Plan for the upcoming season identifies 117 shelter beds specifically for young adults and 10 beds (no, this is not a typo) for unaccompanied minors.

And, as I earlier wrote, there’s no genuine plan for homeless families — thus none for the large number headed by parents in their late teens and early twenties. Setting aside the urgent shelter capacity issue, solutions designed for older people, e.g., rapid re-housing, may not be suitable for them.

Many challenges for the new administration. One can only hope it will be more concerned with meeting the diverse needs of its homeless constituents — even if that means spending more, as it probably will.

 

 


And We Thought DC Had a Homeless Family Crisis Last Winter

September 4, 2014

Last year, I remarked that the draft Winter Plan was notably sketchy on how the District would fulfill its legal obligation to protect families from exposure to “severe weather conditions.”

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the annual plans for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, decided against specifics that would minimize the foreseeable challenges.

And challenges there surely were — even greater than most think could have been foreseen. The Department of Human Services was caught off guard. Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper recaps the results, as of mid-March.

Now we have another Winter Plan. And my heart sinks. Because it’s as clear as day — acknowledged, in fact — that we’ve got another crisis looming.

Like as not, a bigger crisis than last year’s and one that DHS is by no means prepared to cope with — at least, not in a way that would ensure homeless families a modicum of safety and stability. Here are the lowlights.

More homeless families expected. DHS will need to make an estimated 840 shelter and/or housing placements during the upcoming winter season. This represents a 16% increase over the number of placements made during the 2013-14 season.

Yet it’s 10% lower than the increase in the number of homeless families who sought help at the intake center between May and August. They couldn’t get into shelter then, but at least some will return as soon as the weather turns freezing-cold.

Not enough shelter units. The Operations and Logistics Committee again foresees that all — or nearly all — units at the DC General family shelter and those in smaller shelters around the city will be occupied when the winter season opens.

DHS will need “overflow capacity” by December, the plan says. This would probably be true in any case. But about 40 units at DC General may have to remain vacant because they fail to comply with the criteria the court established when it ordered DHS to stop warehousing families in recreation centers.

No plan for the overflow. The ICH has, for good and proper reasons, decided against any semblance of a shelter plan for families.

It instead recommends, among other things, that the Department of General Services prepare “an options analysis that considers different solutions,” e.g., use of District-owned buildings, short-term leases from private landlords, motels.

Not much time for General Services to do this — let alone for DHS to choose solutions and make the necessary arrangements, even if one of them isn’t re-purposing buildings.

Not enough money. The plan calls on the District government to acknowledge that “meeting the anticipated need for shelter will exceed currently available resources.”

The District should further acknowledge, it says, that additional resources will be needed to prevent adverse effects on other homeless services programs, especially those “designed to move families out of shelter.”

This was altogether foreseeable — and in fact, was foreseen by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Mayor Gray’s proposed budget included funds for only 150 units at DC General, rather than the 280 or so then available — and no funds at all for motel rooms. The DC Council went along.

Trust in performance improvements. “A major emphasis,” the plan says, “will be on enhancing system performance to both decrease the number of entries into the system … and accelerate exits out of shelter.”

As I (and others) have said before, DHS has had a hard time moving enough families out of shelter fast enough to free up anything close to the number of units needed. Various reasons for this — some of the agency’s own making, some not.

Resources committed to the Mayor’s 500 in 100 initiative may have speeded up the rate somewhat. But we’ve no assurance families will leave shelter even sooner this winter. “It is expected,” the plan says, “that placements from shelter will continue or exceed” the current monthly average.

Perhaps we should be at least as concerned about the other half of the emphasis — decreasing entries, i.e., keeping families out of the shelters.

The plan specifies two approaches. One is “strategic targeting of resources to prevent housing loss.” This presumably is a reference to the one-time funds some District residents may receive as emergency rental assistance. No problem here, except limited funds.

The other approach is casework and “housing stabilization support” for families who’ve been “diverted” from shelter. Translated into everyday English, the latter refers to resources that may enable families to stay where they are for awhile — mainly, if not exclusively in doubled-up arrangements.

The resources include cash or cash equivalents to give friends and relatives incentives for hosting homeless families, e.g., help with utility bills and/or food costs. DHS already provides such incentives and will have funds for more.

But the cost burdens of having extra people in the home are hardly the only reason doubled-up situations tend to be temporary. So diversion of this sort may, in many cases, merely delay “entries into the system.”

Looking beyond the the no-plan plan. The Homeless Services Reform Act charges the ICH to develop an annual plan “consistent with the right of clients to shelter in severe weather conditions, describing how member agencies will coordinate to provide hypothermia shelter and identifying the specific sites that will be used.”

The ICH has, in effect, said, “We can’t do that for homeless families. The money is not there.” This, to my mind, is altogether better than putting forth a plan that glosses over the acute problems the District’s homeless services programs will face.

“We face an enormous challenge,” said Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney and long-time ICH member Scott McNeilly. “If we don’t rise to the occasion, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

But ultimately “we” isn’t the ICH. It has no control over the budget or how available funds are used. It’s the Mayor and the DC Council who must “rise to the occasion.” And they’d better do it PDQ.

 


New Rule Shows Need to Rename DC’s Rapid Re-Housing Program

August 7, 2014

The District’s Department of Human Services has issued another emergency rule* for its rapid re-housing program — formally named the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program. The notice says that the agency intends to make this one permanent.

It’s got me wondering what DHS has in mind for its rapid re-housing program — and what we should have in mind. Here’s why.

DHS has, in the past, looked to rapid re-housing as its main tool for getting homeless families out of the DC General shelter quickly so as to free up space for more. That has never worked out as planned, but it’s still apparently reflected in the agency’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget assumes only 150 families at DC General and allocates no funds whatever for hotel rooms if this assumption proves egregiously over-optimistic.

So you’d think that DHS would give its all to make rapid re-housing an attractive option for homeless families — and to get all takers rapidly re-housed. You’d also think its recent experience with the Mayor’s 500 Families in 100 Days campaign would have made an imprint.

I’m thinking here about how the campaign managed to identify something pretty close to the targeted 500 acceptable units landlords would rent to families with only short-term housing subsidies.

Lots of outreach by nonprofits that had relationships with potentially willing landlords. Efforts to acquaint them with rapid re-housing — something hopeful parents couldn’t always do on their own. Reassurances that reportedly included promises of financial help if tenants defaulted.

Yet the FRSP rule instead requires homeless families to find suitable units, sign leases for them and actually move in within 30 days.

As a fallback, they can attempt to prove they’ve done their best to find a unit that a landlord will rent to them at a rate consistent with the applicable affordability standard — and one that can pass inspection.

Only then can the service provider they’ve been assigned to offer them a unit that’s already been identified as suitable and available, assuming such exists. The rule makes no provision for maintaining an inventory of units.

The burden on homeless families is consistent with what the emergency rule says FRSP will do — “provide District residents with financial assistance for purposes of helping them become rapidly re-housed” (emphasis added).

Staying re-housed is a whole other matter. DC Fiscal Policy Institute analyst Kate Coventry notes that families must initially pay 40% of their rental costs, rather than the 30% that’s used for public housing and indefinite-term housing vouchers — and more generally, as the maximum for housing affordability.

Families will then become responsible for increasing shares of their rent every four months, when their provider decides whether they’re still eligible for rapid re-housing. Or at the very least, their ability to pick up a bigger share will be a factor.

This is consistent with initial eligibility, as the rule defines it. Only families providing information leading to “a reasonable expectation” that they “will have the financial capacity to pay the full amount at the end of the FRSP assistance period” can qualify.

So in one respect, shifting the rent burden to them at four-month intervals might seem reasonable, especially because they’ll get no subsidy at the end of a year — unless their need for further assistance is “caused by extraordinary circumstances.” What those might be the rule doesn’t say.

We can assume, however, that merely lacking enough money to pay the rent won’t suffice. So a reality check seems in order.

Families who’ll get top priority for FRSP are those in a publicly-funded shelter or transitional housing and those who’ve been designated Priority One because they have no safe place to spend the night.

A large majority of those at DC General are enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This means they are dirt poor and relying, at least officially, on benefits that wouldn’t begin to cover rental costs in the District.

By way of reference, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three will probably be about $438 come October. A modest one-bedroom apartment costs, on average, roughly $1,240 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent calculations.

So a family that’s relying on TANF would have to rapidly bootstrap its way up the income scale to avoid becoming homeless again when its FRSP subsidy expired. And I do mean up. A full-time minimum wage job would leave the parent in our three-person family with about $305 for expenses after s/he paid the rent on the FMR apartment.

In short, FRSP, as now designed, may rapidly re-house homeless families. But it shouldn’t lay claim to stabilization. And though the name still does, the new rule doesn’t.

DCFPI’s comments on the new rule observe that the one it replaces defined the purpose of the program as “assisting … [families] to obtain and remain in a new rental unit.”

Now “and remain” is gone. And the rule is utterly silent on services that might help some rapidly re-housed families become stably housed, though one infers they will receive case management of some sort.

Arguably, even a year (or less) in a reasonably decent private apartment is better than enduring conditions at DC General. But respite from shelter isn’t what rapid re-housing is supposed to be about.

It’s undoubtedly all that some families need to get through a bad patch, e.g., an injury that sidelined the breadwinner for awhile, an over-long break between contracts.

And it’s altogether possible that some other families will overcome barriers that have made them unable to afford market-rate rents for a long time. But I doubt we’ll find all that many of them at DC General — or entitled to shelter, if it’s freezing cold, because they’re designated Priority One.

And I suspect DHS shares these doubts. How else to explain the retreat from the goal of stabilization?

* Unlike ordinary rules, emergency rules become effective immediately, rather than after the public has had an opportunity to comment. The District’s Administrative Procedures Act says they are for occasions when “the adoption of a rule is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, welfare, or morals.”

 


DC Bans the Box, Gives Returning Citizens a Better Shot at Jobs

July 21, 2014

An estimated 60,000 District of Columbia residents have criminal records. Roughly 8,000 return to the community each year after serving time behind bars.

And about half of them will be back behind bars within three years. One, though not the only reason is that they can’t get legal, paying work. And one reason they can’t is that their job applications get tossed before they’re read.

That’s going to change. And it ought to change their extraordinarily high unemployment rate — 46%, according to a 2011 survey. Here’s why.

Last week, the DC Council passed what’s commonly known as a “ban the box” bill. Like others of its kind, the new law prohibits generally employers from including queries about criminal records in their job applications.*

They thus can’t automatically screen out anyone and everyone who’s ever been arrested, charged and/or convicted of a crime. Nor, in the District’s bill, can they ask about any of these during interviews.

They may, however, ask about convictions — or conduct a background check — after they’ve made a conditional offer of employment, i.e., one contingent on what they learn about the candidate’s criminal offenses or other matters they’ve said they’d look into.

They may then withdraw the offer, but only for a “legitimate business reason.” For this, the law establishes criteria, e.g., the responsibilities the candidate would have, how long ago s/he committed the crime(s).

But they don’t have to explain an about-face, as they would have in the original version. Nor does the rejected candidate have a right to sue, though s/he can file a claim with the Office of Human Rights — a lot of hassle for minimal compensation, the DC Jobs Council said.

For these reasons, as well as others, the law isn’t as strong as it might be.

Employers with fewer than 11 workers get a free pass, for example. This, as the Employment Justice Center’s Deputy Director testified is a large loophole because even big projects in some industries, e.g., construction, often include small contractors.

But the bill is ever so much better than nothing. And it might have been nothing without the exemptions and other concessions to employer concerns.

In fact, it’s somewhat better than the revised version lead sponsor Councilmember Wells produced in an effort to accommodate the altogether predictable complaints from some business interests, e.g., the local restaurant association.

So count the about-to-be law as a piece of good news in the midst of so much truly terrible stuff.

The District will join the dozen states that have banned the box. And with a stronger law than most. Only four of the states cover private employers. And only one — Hawaii — unequivocally prohibits conviction history inquiries before an offer is made.

The law will surely open doors for some returning citizens — and citizens who returned some considerable time ago. It will also keep doors open for those who are working because the law extends similar protections to employees. Some, we know, have been fired when their criminal records came to light.

The law won’t be a cure-all, however. And no one, to my knowledge, thinks it will be.

The Center for Court Excellence survey cited above indicates some employment barriers beyond the scope of any “ban the box” law, e.g., lack of a pre-incarceration work history and/or in-demand skills and credentials.

There are others — extraordinary difficulties in getting housing, for example. Some Ban the Box Coalition members advocated an expansion of the law to remedy this. So there’s more work to do on the policy front.

But experience tells us that anti-discrimination laws can go only so far — even when they’re strongly enforced, which they generally aren’t. I rather doubt the District’s “ban the box” law will prove an exception, since it’s complaint-based.

Management consultant Wendy Powell argues that such laws “can provide false hope to candidates with a felony conviction” because their job histories will inevitably have a gap. And that, she says, is always a legitimate basis for inquiry.

Whether the criminal record emerges during an interview or, as she recommends, is preempted by voluntary disclosure, employers will have to give returning citizens a chance.

The same, I think, is true when they decide whether to exercise their “legitimate business interest” because they’ve got wiggle room if they’re predisposed to use it — not in all cases perhaps, but I can imagine many.

Ultimately, the success of the new law will depend on whether employers fully embrace the intent. The more that do, the more that will, I think.

* The bill exempts employers that provide programs, services and/or direct care to minors and “vulnerable adults.” This, I’m told, basically reaffirms a provision stating that the pre-offer provisions don’t apply when a federal or local laws and rules require consideration of an applicant’s criminal history.

 


Should DC Support More Affordable Housing … or Less?

July 7, 2014

The DC Council has two bills pending that force decisions on how — and to what extent — local taxpayer dollars should be used to create and preserve affordable housing in our increasingly unaffordable market.

One bill quite clearly would increase the stock of housing affordable to low and moderate-income residents. The other would, over time, have the opposite effect, though it’s doubtful that’s what the sponsors intend.

Leveraging Public Land

A bill introduced by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie would require private-sector developers that buy or lease District-owned land for multi-family housing to make a specific portion of units affordable for specific categories of low-income residents.

The requirements would apply to both rental housing and condos, but in both cases, only those with 10 or more units.

For housing near a Metro station, major bus route or streetcar line, at least 30% of the units would have to be affordable. A 20% minimum would apply to housing less convenient to public transit.

Those who know how dicey affordable housing requirements can be will be pleased to know that the bill sets quotas. These are all based on the customary 30% of household income and, as is also customary, the Washington-area median income, adjusted for family size.

The affordable unit requirements differ according to the type of housing, as well as where it’s located.

For rental housing, 25% of the set-aside units would have to be affordable for what the bill defines as very low-income households — those whose incomes are no greater than 30% of the AMI. (Those familiar with U.S. Department of Housing standards know them as extremely low-income households.)

The rest of the units would have to be affordable for households in the next tier — 31-50% of the AMI. For a four-person household, this would currently mean a maximum monthly cost of about $1,338 a month.

Half the set-aside for ownership units would have to be affordable for households in this tier. The remainder would have to be affordable for households with incomes between 51% and 80% of the AMI.

These restrictions would remain in place “for the life of the building,” which I assume means for as long as it’s used for housing. (Keep reading to see why this is so important.)

The District would subsidize the affordable units by selling or leasing the land at less than its appraised value. Developers could request waivers from the affordable unit requirements if that, plus other subsidies wasn’t enough.

Cutting Back of Affordability Requirements

A bill introduced by Councilmember Anita Bonds would change rules designed to ensure that condos and single-family dwellings developed with Housing Production Trust Fund subsidies remain affordable for a goodly number of years.

As things stand now, owners of subsidized units generally must sell them at a price that’s affordable to other people in the same income bracket until 15 years have passed — or longer if their purchase agreement says so.

Once the time limit expires, they can sell to anyone at any price. But they must reimburse the Trust Fund for the subsidy that made the home affordable for them. The time limit drops to 10 years if the home is in a high-poverty neighborhood. The repayment requirement remains the same.

The Bonds bill would cap the affordability limit at 15 years, making some types of homeowner affordability programs ineligible.

More importantly, it would reduce the affordability requirement to five years for homes in “distressed neighborhoods.” Owners could then sell at whatever price they could get.

They’d still have to repay the Trust Fund. So it might seem that the subsidy were merely being recycled — repaid by one owner, available for the next.

But in a housing market like the District’s, the second subsidy would often have to be larger. And the cost of subsidizing the creation of a new affordable unit would generally have to be larger yet.

So the repayment wouldn’t fund a replacement in either case — or at least not in the same neighborhood as the unit that got sold at market rate. At best, the Trust Fund would be re-creating affordable homeownership units, rather than expanding the shrunken stock.

Which brings us to the second big problem with the Bonds bill — the definition of “distressed neighborhoods.” It would reduce the definition used for the current 10-year time limit from a 30% to a 20 % poverty rate.

For technical reasons, the rate wouldn’t reflect the current poverty rate, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Jenny Reed has explained. So we’d have many “distressed neighborhoods” that haven’t been distressed for some time, e.g., Columbia Heights, Logan Circle, parts of Penn Quarter.

The five-year limit would also apply to neighborhoods that will soon be wholly redeveloped — and pricey. I see condos sprouting up near the Navy Yard every time I walk down that way.

The end result would be affordable housing losses in nearly 40% of the District’s Census tracts — the technical definition of “neighborhoods.”

And as housing advocate Angie Rodgers points out, it’s not only prospective homeowners who’d be affected. Any new Trust Fund money invested on their behalf would mean less to subsidize affordable rental housing, which we’re already so short on.

Preserving the current affordability requirements wouldn’t deny homeowners the opportunity to build wealth, as homeownership is said to do. It would merely ensure that future homeowners can benefit from subsidies we’ve paid for to preserve some modicum of diversity and opportunity in our community.

The current law probably isn’t the best way to do this, as Urban Institute housing and community policy expert Brett Theodos (and others) have explained.

But it’s a whole lot better than shrinking the time limits — and over-defining neighborhoods that prospective homeowners might shy away from if they couldn’t turn a maximum profit for 15 years.


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